February 2, 2015

Let Them Eat Cupcakes

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Connor Archard / Senior Photography Editor

If you stroll down a grocery store aisle or pop into your token hippy coffee shop, you’re likely to stumble across desserts that just don’t seem … right. Brownies are no longer brownies, but concoctions of hemp and chia and every seed under the sun that a bird is bound to call dinner. Franken-cakes that incorporate high-fiber, low enjoyment flours are now the norm. And every shred of gluten, dairy or anything that might construe a cookie as enjoyable is threatened by the likes of soccer moms and sorority girls ’round the world.  But more often than not, when a person craves something sweet, they are not subconsciously yearning for that sugar-free, whole-wheat bran cupcake with a dairy-free blue“cheese” frosting. And thankfully, the folks at Felicia’s Atomic Lounge and Cupcakery get that.

A few years ago, a friend of Felicia’s owners, Amelia Sauter ’92 and Leah Houghtaling, recommended that they start selling cupcakes — a seemingly peculiar addition to an average bar. But when Sauter’s first batch of cupcakes was offered back in 2013, patrons immediately took notice of the sweet new additions and bought out all the cupcakes within hours. After baking a second batch and watching customers scramble to buy them yet again, the owners were officially in the business of baking. Two years later, Sauter makes cupcakes in-house daily, with sales averaging about 200 cupcakes each week.

So now that I’ve spent the better part of an introduction mocking new age, ancient grain diet fads, I have to get something out in the open: Felicia’s cupcakes are — for the most part — vegan. Sauter, who cannot eat dairy, started making Felicia’s cupcakes that way simply because dairy-free ingredients were what she knew to work with… and what she could taste test. After realizing the high satisfaction : crumb ratio left behind once customers finished her cupcakes, she saw no reason to mess with what worked.

“We don’t use weird substitutes in our cupcakes like bananas or flax seeds,” Sauter said. “Made right, vegan cupcakes are as rich and sinful as regular cupcakes.” And even I, the white flour advocate and “forget the granola” crusader, can attest to that after scarfing them down.

Even though some chefs glorify foods that endeavor to be edgy, the owners of Felicia’s do not. They believe that when it comes to food, nothing rivals unpretentious and simple ingredients. Felicia’s bakers avoid food dyes and aim to use local ingredients whenever possible — with mint from their backyard garden, Ithaca Beer Company beer, local ginger and Gimme! coffee being some of their frequent menu visitors.

While visiting Felicia’s before their Saturday night bar rush, I had the opportunity to talk with Sauter and Houghtaling about their journey to the second home they’ve found on West State Street, as well as taste a ridiculous number of their desserts. Felicia’s offers a rotating schedule of over 20 flavors, incorporating everything from chai snickerdoodle to margarita, lavender lemon to French toast maple bacon (which thankfully is not vegan). Since three to five flavors rotate in and out of that glorious bar-side cupcake case, I was able to try their Mimosa, German chocolate pecan, maple bourbon brown sugar and goat cheese carrot cake cupcakes — each of which blew me away more than the one before. I also gobbled down the second-place winner of Chili Fest’s “Best Chili Item” category: their ancho chile chocolate cupcake with fresh raspberries and Mexican chocolate buttercream. Aside from fan-girling the complex flavors and moistness of every cupcake, I realized I wouldn’t have been able to call them out for being vegan if my crumb-laden life depended on it.

In addition to an around-the-clock cupcake operation, their day jobs serving up Sunday brunch and their night jobs running a bar, Felicia’s owners have progressed to their next phase of selling wedding cakes and opening a second restaurant in Trumansburg. Additionally, Felicia’s bakers take special orders for parties and even offer themed cupcake orders for holidays like Valentine’s Day (Read: Strawberry red wine cupcakes are currently to be had).

Each time I tried probing Sauter and Houghtaling on their successes or insights, Houghtaling replied with one simple answer: “We just make things that we want to eat.” So, despite my initial skepticism on cakes baked without eggs and frostings beat without butter, Felicia’s has found a new groupie for what they like to call their “selfish-cakes” — but my mistrust of Vegenaise still stands.

Cupcake Hours at Felicia’s Atomic Lounge & Cupcakery, 508 West State Street run from 12 noon – 12 midnight  Tuesday, Wednesday, & Thursday, 12 noon – 1 am  Friday & Saturday and 11am-11pm Sunday.