Ever watch one of those competition cooking shows on television and wished you could taste for yourself the culinary creation the judges were raving about? The ninth annual Gardiner Cupcake Festival last Saturday, May 20, offered the opportunity to satisfy that yen. One of the “baker’s dozen” of cupcake-makers vending their tasty treats at the festival was Janice Hardgrove of Woodstock’s “Peace, Love & Cupcakes.” Her “classic chocolate cake with serious chocolate frosting,” otherwise known as “The Winner,” was the very same recipe that won Hardgrove the $25,000 grand prize on the Food Network’s “Ultimate Recipe Showdown” in 2009. (She has since won another dessert competition on a different Food Network show.)
“The Winner” was one of hundreds of varieties of cupcakes available to purchase at the Gardiner Cupcake Festival. Tried-and-true favorites like Red Velvet and lemon buttercream cakes joined unique and original offerings, like the maple cupcake topped with buttercream frosting and bacon (think pancakes and bacon) from Ms. Vee’s Sweet Treats. She also introduced a new flavor at the festival called “Devilish Delight,” a chocolate cake topped off with cherry buttercream icing made with a hint of cayenne; the taste was sweet going down with a little kick at the end.
Deising’s Bakery from Kingston had a team of staff members kept busy boxing up cupcakes inspired by tiramisu, Jolly Rancher candies, Orange Julius and piña coladas. Asked what flavor customers were most enthusiastic about, team member Nicole said it would probably be the cannoli cupcake or “Peanut Butter Madness.”
Wright’s Farm, on whose 453-acre property the festival is held, had plenty of their own cupcake offerings available, including an enticing-looking salted caramel pretzel option. But according to Jordan Upright behind the tables, it was a raspberry chocolate ganache cupcake that was garnering the most attention from festival-goers. (Unless we’re talking kids, and then it was the chocolate Oreo cupcakes topped with a mini cookie.)
An estimated 10,000 visitors came to Wright’s Farm Saturday afternoon to sample cupcakes. In addition, they enjoyed a number of options for lunch, including barbecue from Handsome Devil, wood-fired Pizza a Legna and Jamaican food from Reggae Boy. Live music was performed by the Saratoga-based Black Mountain Symphony and local performers Kayla Barone and Stack & the Pack, whose bassist is touring with Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen this summer. And speaking of packed, the spirits and wine tent was overflowing with fair-goers sampling the products of local cideries, wineries and breweries, including Tuthilltown Spirits, Bad Seed Cider and Whitecliff Vineyard.
Children’s activities included pony rides from Aly’s Ponies & Traveling Barnyard along with free glitter tattoos and the requisite festival face painting and bouncy houses. For the nominal cost of $4, kids could visit Wright’s Farm’s “decorate-your-own-cupcake” stand staffed by two friendly young women, Kyla Lastowski and Daisy Preze, who assisted youngsters in choosing pastel-colored frosting for their cupcake and showed them how to utilize all the topping options, from sprinkles to cookie bits to cheerios.
The Gardiner Cupcake Festival began in 2009 as a low-key block party in the hamlet organized around an amateur cupcake baking contest. That contest is still an integral part of the festival, with the categories for judging changing each year.
And this time around, the winners won more than bragging rights: a $100 cash prize came with the distinction of winning top honors for Best Tasting Spicy Cupcake, Best Tasting Fruit Cupcake, Best Food-Inspired Cupcake and Most Striking Cupcake. Judging began with tasting, followed by an assessment of the visuals.
Four judges did the honors, which may at first sound like an ideal situation until one considers how many cakes they sampled; the fruit cupcake category alone drew 11 entries. Still, someone had to do it, and the someones in this case were returning judges (from previous Cupcake Festivals) Kathleen Conner, Shirley Santagada, “Just Eat Life” YouTube food blogger Jen Phanomrat and radio personality Mark Bolger of Mix 97.7 FM.
Entries for the “food-inspired” category included clever renditions of sushi, Chinese food, a food truck, a banana split and apples in a basket, but the winner of top honors was Jennifer DeGraaf, who created a “did-you-see-that” moment in her recreation of a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken accompanied by cupcake “mashed potatoes” with absolutely real-looking gravy (caramel, perhaps?).
The other visual category, Most Striking, was won by Lybi Cucurullo, whose “Sunset Sails Fantasy” was a freeform abstract made from white chocolate, cotton candy and meringue, she said.
The two categories based on how the cakes tasted rather than looked both featured mango in the winning recipes. Amanda Stenger won first prize for her “Spicy Mango Habanero” cupcake in the spice category and Lana Williams beat out ten other competitors with her “Mango Coconut.”
The 5K Cupcake Classic opened the festival again this year, with more than 100 participants showing up before the gates opened to run through the apple orchard. The trail highlighting the Shawangunk Ridge is run primarily on gravel farm roads and orchard grasslands. The scenic course includes peach trees, a hop yard and several ponds.
The annual Gardiner Cupcake Festival also offers a range of craft and gift vendors and special happenings like this year’s State Police K9 unit dog demo (dogs in general are very much in attendance at the festival; someone seems to have sent the memo to dog owners to bring theirs, friendly and on a leash).
Stay tuned for next year’s event marking a decade of the Gardiner Cupcake Festival. The date is already set: May 19, 2018.