(CBS Seattle) — Finding a cupcake in Seattle isn’t hard. And you might think that doing something ‘new’ with the ubiquitous dessert would be nearly impossible. But that’s where the Yellow Leaf Cupcake Co. enters the mix. Really, they just started with cupcakes, and are now planning something of a confectionery revolution in Seattle.
Wander in to the small, cozy Belltown shop one day and you’ll probably find Chef Tony Portugal buzzing back and forth from the tiny kitchen in back while his partner and co-owner Mike chats up customers while brewing coffee. Lively accordion music plays overhead giving the place a French cafe vibe while sounds of busy electric mixers and clanking bowls waft out into the shop. An entire wall is covered with brighly colored, stylized images of city skylines from all over America, giving the place a distinctly Seattle feel: a casual, comforting atmosphere.
Tony and Mike moved to Seattle from Los Angeles with the goal of changing the cupcake paradigm and part of that meant getting rid of something we probably all assume is a bakery must: tons of sugar. As if to subtly let customers know this, a sign hangs right behind the counter under a shelf filled with jars of tea, reading, ‘Sugar is not a flavor.’ It’s more than just a cute sign; it’s pretty much the baking philosophy at Yellow Leaf.
Tony and his bakers Brooke Stevens and Catie Rizzo make everything in house, from scratch daily. They pride themselves on using the very best ingredients: Belgian chocolate, Mexican vanilla and organic, local ingredients when they’re in season. The lovely domes of frosting adorning the top of the cupcakes are Italian buttercream, a much lighter frosting than you’d expect on a cupcake and quite a refreshing change when you bite into one.
“We’re known in Seattle for pushing the envelope with cupcake flavors, everything from our Pancakes ‘n’ Bacon to Spumoni,” said Mike. The Yellow Leaf menu ranges from classics like Red Velvet and vanilla and chocolate to the extravagant like Tomato Soup, Chocolate Champagne, Beer & Pretzels and Watermelon Lemonade.
After establishing their reputation in Seattle, Tony introduced a new delicacy to the shop: macarons. The goal was to make them more fun and colorful, explained Mike. They also wanted to translate their eclectic flavors to the classically French pastry and make it more modern. Their efforts have paid off and the macaron business at Yellow Leaf is booming. Mike said they first started selling them in late December, and the delicate cookies are now their most popular item. (For the uninitiated, it’s pronounced ‘mack-uh-RHONE.’ A macaroon is made with coconut, I learned.)
“This is the dessert trend right now,” explained Mike.
The macaron is notoriously difficult to perfect, so I was curious to see expert bakers in action. The day I arrived (at 6 a.m.!), Brooke and Cathie were already hard at work pouring batter into cupcake pans and pulling the first batches of cupcakes from the oven. After several dozen cupcakes were meticulously frosted and placed on shelves, the work of baking macarons began.
I watched as the head baker, Brooke, started very precisely measuring and weighing all the dry ingredients into bowls; in each bowl would be a different flavor: lemon, cookies and cream and birthday cake. All the macarons are hand-piped, which the bakers take great pride in. It takes a little longer that way, Tony explained, but it’s part of their made-from-scratch philosophy. While the dry ingredients were being measured, an electric mixer furiously whipped the egg mixture into the perfect slightly-stiff consistency. Once these two components were carefully folded into each other, Brooke began skillfully squeezing the batter out of a piping bag forming perfect circles on the parchment paper. One of the critical elements of creating the perfect macaron, I learned, is to let the batter sit before it goes into the oven. This helps that delicately crisp layer form on the top, Brooke explained. Next, the trays go in the oven and only after they are properly cooled can the finishing touches be applied.
The pastries are filled with the same airy, just slightly sweet Italian buttercream used to top the cupcakes. Tony explained to me, he doesn’t like the overly sweet, gritty sugar flavor that is typical of a lot of frostings. The Italian buttercream they whip up at Yellow Leaf is not heavy and filling. Inside the macaron, it’s the perfect compliment to the delicate, brittle shell. The whole thing pretty much melts in your mouth. There are certainly plenty of places to get macarons in Seattle, but after tasting the Yellow Leaf’s treats, it’ll be hard to enjoy anything else as much.
Colorful and dainty macarons stacked in perfect rows, more than a dozen varieties were ready for the shop’s first customers. The bakers have the freedom to create their own flavors, so don’t be afraid to try something new when you stop by. Ask for a recommendation, too. You might be surprised what you fall in love with. The micro-bakery also offers cookies, cakes and be sure to ask about the bacon brittle.
At this point Mike and Tony don’t have any plans to open additional locations, so just plan on saving the Belltown address. That said, the variety of pastries on the shelves is expanding; expect to see the likes of croissants, morning buns and more soon.
“We’re not going to lose sight of what we became good at, but we’d like to offer more,” said Mike.
-Rachel Ayres, CBS Seattle
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The signature cupcake is the Pancakes ‘n’ Bacon cupcake. It was inspired by Mike’s obsession with drizzling bacon with maple syrup. For all the bacon lovers out there, yes, it’s really bacon sprinkled on top. The maple cake has bacon in it too, and it’s topped with maple Italian butter cream frosting. Tony says it’s their number one selling cupcake- even beating red velvet! Check out the bonus video of Tony frosting the signature dessert: