I became a cupcake connoisseur when I was little. My mother was a school secretary, she was popular, and she brought me every class birthday-party cupcake she received; usually a few a week. I could distinguish scratch baking from mixes at an early age, and developed standards.
In Boston, our cupcake options are limited. Everyday, hopeful people wander into the Johnny Cupcakes store on Newbury, which sells T-shirts, not baked goods, and walk out disappointed. Here's a partial run-down of local cupcake bakers; additional research (Flour, for instance) is obviously necessary:
Lyndell's Bakery in Somerville makes large, flat "moon cakes" shaped more like tall pancakes. (They make the regular shape, too, but the flat ones are fabulous.) I had one tonight, frosted in vanilla and chocolate like a black-and-white cookie. The flat shape gives the perfect cake-to-frosting ratio in every bite, although it helps to eat them with a fork. Their chocolate frosting is exceptional: rich without being too sweet. Nirvana.
The bottom of the barrel: overpriced and microscopic Kickass Cupcakes in Somerville: a crumby, tough, biscuit-like texture and bland frosting. (These were not even their scarier, vegan versions.) In this case, "too small" was a good thing. Hard to believe they won "Best of Boston." They also make cupcakes for dogs; perhaps all of their recipes are best suited to dogs.
In Back Bay, we have Sweet. I wanted to love them, because they are nearby, and their shop looks charming. But their $3.25 cupcakes were disappointing: very small, flat, dense, and mealy-textured. They need a more buttery, less lardy taste, and a touch of salt. Their frostings were fluffy but lackluster. They offer a great cardboard carry-out box, however, with a clever insert that protects each cupcake like a jewel. A friend's wife helpfully pointed out that we should have eaten the box first, so the cupcakes tasted better.
Lulu's in the North End was also a retro-chic let-down. Their cupcakes looked great (reproduction Hostess cream-filleds!) but their taste was uninspiring. Not enough salt to enhance the sweetness? The wrong kind of shortening? I can't tell. But a cupcake should be more than a vehicle for frosting. (And I love frosting.)
The South End Buttery has the best cupcakes I've tried in the city. Moist cake, rich frosting, a good range of flavors, including carrot cake and lemon. They bake superb scones, too, and it's a friendly place to hang out.
I've tried to love Party Favors, in Brookline. They offer a riot of colorful, creative designs; their display case is a spectacular sight. But their products are often stale despite their good looks. Frozen, not fresh.
Modern Pastry, in the North End, makes a delicious, classic cupcake. A mound of creamy frosting and moist cake in basic flavors, with sprinkles or little plastic decorations to delight your inner child. I've only had them once; need many more.
In Manhattan, all the Carrie Bradshaws head to Magnolia and Sweet Sugar Sunshine for old-fashioned, super-sweet cupcakes. They're cute, fresh, and fluffy, and you can't argue with buttery, pastel-blue frosting.
The best cupcake I had in NYC was a red velvet number at the Blue Dog Café on West 25th, with a mountain of gorgeous chocolate ganache swirled on top. Overkill, but there's no such thing as too much frosting. In cupcakes, as in life, it's the thought that counts.