Update: Kevin VanDeraa of Cupcake won Food Network's "Cupcake Champions" and its $50,000 prize on Sunday night. At a viewing party in downtown Minneapolis, he said he will invest the winnings into his business, including plans to open new stores on Grand Avenue in St. Paul and at the Mall of America in Bloomington. He will be selling his cupcakes in the megamall's Rotunda on Saturday to celebrate his victory.
By Sunday evening, the world will know if Cupcake (3338 University Av. SE., Mpls., 612-378-4818, www.cup-cake.com) owner Kevin VanDeraa is the nation's cupcake champion.
Literally. VanDeraa and fellow Cupcake-er Shane Penoyer are representing their Prospect Park bakery/cafe in the final round of the Food Network's "Cupcake Champions," an all-stars version of the popular reality series "Cupcake Wars."
VanDeraa isn't a stranger to the series; Sunday's finale marks his fourth appearance. The championship version tapped 16 previous winners, pitting four teams against each other in four rounds. The winner from each round advanced to the final, and its $50,000 prize.
Episodes are filmed over the course of a single, madcap day. They contain several time-crunch challenges, each based upon a theme or a specific ingredient. Quick thinking and technical prowess are essential ingredients. Stamina, too; the final contest requires baking a thousand cupcakes.
"It's crazy stressful, although it's easier once you've gone through it more than once," said VanDeraa. "It takes about three or four days to unwind and get back to normal."
Dame Fortune was certainly looking down on Team Cupcake, because for their qualifying episode, the four teams had to wrestle with a "Glee" theme.
"As a gay man, I know the show backwards and forwards," said VanDeraa with a laugh. "And as it turned out, the other contestants weren't 'Glee' fans, so we had the advantage. We used so many 'Glee' references that the guest judge ['Glee' co-creater Brad Falchuk] had to explain to the regular judges what they meant."
Talk about playing to the audience. A cafeteria food theme inspired a taco cupcake, with spicy chocolate cake, strawberry salsa, a whipped crème fraîche topping and a tortilla chip coated with cinnamon and sugar. Peanut butter and jelly flavors were inserted into another cupcake because Penoyer remembered that "Glee" characters Will and Emma shared a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on their first date.
"Brad lit up over that," said VanDeraa. "He said, 'Yeah, I wrote that episode.'"
The topper? A Slushie cupcake (hurling psychedelic- colored frozen drinks into unsuspecting high school faces is a routine "Glee" occurrence) utilizing red velvet cake, cola-flavored ganache, glitter and a chocolate straw. They were a big hit at the "Glee" cast wrap party (watch the reaction at www.startribune.com/a1350), and VanDeraa is now featuring his "Glee" cupcake line at the restaurant.
How do you train for a cupcake marathon? Practice runs, of course, but VanDeraa also watched as many previous episodes as possible, to glean useful information regarding the judges' preferences.
"I know how to make cupcakes, but you have to do more than that," he said. "Candace [Nelson] talked about how much she likes spicy chocolate, so I remembered that and used it. So yes, I was manipulating her, I was stalking her. That's how you compete."
Cupcake is hosting a viewing party on Sunday at 6 p.m. at the New Century Theatre (615 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.). Contact Cupcake for a free ticket.
The show airs Sunday at 7 p.m. on the Food Network.