NEW YORK CITY
THE SPOT: The cupcake craze can be traced back to New York City's famed Magnolia Bakery. Think of Sugar Sweet Sunshine (126 Rivington St., 212-995-1960) as its funkier little sister, opened by two former Magnolia employees, Peggy Williams and Debbie Weiner. This café has fewer lines and more comfort: Get your sugar fix while lounging on mix-and-match furniture.
THE SPECS: Peg and Deb won't spill the recipe for their supermoist pumpkin cupcake ($1.50), but you'll taste clove in the spice cake and cream cheese in the thick icing.
THE SPOT: MagPies Bakery (846 N. Central St., 865-673-0471) is known for beautifully decorated (and delicious) wedding cakes and cupcakes. No rubbery fondant here, only quality ingredients like European-style high-fat, high-flavor butter, and local fruit whenever possible.
THE SPECS: The vanilla-on-vanilla cupcakes ($3.50 for 2) are among the bakery's biggest sellers with good reason: Both the batter and the frosting are made with pure Madagascar vanilla extract.
SANTA BARBARA, CALIFORNIA
THE SPOT: Crushcakes Cupcakery (1315 Anacapa St., 805-963-9353) specializes in cakes inspired by classic desserts like bananas foster, as well as quirkier sweets. Sample a few in the brand-new café next door.
THE SPECS: The fresh lime-margarita cupcake ($3) tastes like the love child of a stiff drink and an airy meringue. There's lime juice and zest in both the batter and the buttery frosting -- plus a dash of tequila, just for fun.
THE SPOT: Brown Betty Dessert Boutique (1030 N. 2nd St., 215-629-0999) is named after 85-year-old Elizabeth "Betty" Hinton, whose daughter and granddaughter run the bakery. The ladies do a mean birthday business.
THE SPECS: You'll find 10 customizable fillings and frostings, such as the sweet strawberry cream cheese frosting. That one is made for Brown Betty's classic vanilla pound cake ($3), which has a hint of nutmeg.
THE SPOT: Allyson and Bill Fiander, owners of Daddy Cakes (4102 S.W. Gage Center Drive, 785-228-2300), found their niche by accident. At an auction, Bill bought cupcake tins that were actually Texas-size muffin pans. Thus, the "daddy cake" was born.
THE SPECS: The Retro ($2.50 for the daddy size), is a tribute to the Hostess Cupcake. The rich treat is made with top-quality cocoa and buttermilk, dipped in a bittersweet chocolate ganache and filled with fresh-made vanilla buttercream.
* Prices and other details were accurate when we published this article in February 2009.