Drunken Hines: Crunkcakes Hit H Street
On a Sunday afternoon in August, Faith Alice Sleeper’s father stops by her table at the neighborhood bake sale. “I have an upset stomach,” he says. “What should I eat?”
Sleeper has just the thing. “Booze and cupcakes?” she proposes.
“Oh, yeah,” her papa replies, his voice brimming with sarcasm. “That’s exactly what I need.”
Sleeper is obviously no Girl Scout. And this is no typical bake sale, either. Her table is set up not in a church basement but in the back of the Pug, a dive bar along densely liquor-licensed H Street NE. Three other bakers occupy adjacent tables, selling everything from croissants to homemade Pop-Tarts. But Sleeper and her comrade in cupcakery, Raychel Sabath, are selling the most apropos products of the bunch. They’re called Crunkcakes, and they’re loaded with liquor.
Cupcakes have been done ad nauseam in the District, from the Oprah Winfrey–endorsed treats at CakeLove to the fussy, tourist-magnet confections at Georgetown Cupcake to the hipster-friendly vegan varieties at Sticky Fingers. But no one had the bright idea to infuse the things with booze and sell them in bars until the Crunkcake gals came along. Finally, a cupcake even hip-hop hooch hero Lil Jon can endorse!
The pair also make an even racier dessert, the slippery “cuntcake,” festooned with genital-evoking garlands and reminiscent of a Georgia O’Keeffe painting. But that’s mainly for special events, such as local stagings of The Vagina Monologues. “We don’t actually get a lot of requests for that one,” says Sleeper.
The adult desserts are developing a following among D.C.’s bargoing set. “You’re all dressed up, Mitch!” notes Sabath, recognizing a regular who shows up in his Sunday best to pick up four of the boozy cupcakes.
Over the past year and a half, Sleeper and Sabath have hawked their wares primarily at nightspots up and down the H Street corridor. But lately they’ve been branching out into other party-centric parts of town, as well. Where they’ll end up next is generally announced on Facebook or Twitter.
Trafficking in inebriant-infused indulgence seems to fall into a gray area as far as D.C. alcohol regulations are concerned. For instance, walking out of a bar with a to-go cup full of beer is strictly forbidden under D.C. code. But the rules say nothing about to-go cakes. Sabath and Sleeper confess that they aren’t sure how the law applies to them. “That’s a good question!” says Sabath. “We don’t know.”
Luckily, city regulators aren’t such sticklers when it comes to alcoholic sweets. “For instance, we allow chocolates with liquors inside,” says Cynthia Simms, a spokesperson for the District’s Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration.
Sabath and Sleeper came up with the idea during a party in 2005. That much they recall. The rest of the details are a little hazy. “Do we remember that party? Not really,” says Sabath, 22, who serves as the marketing half of the team. A part-time booking agent, she parlayed her connections in the local music scene into securing the pair their first perch inside H Street’s Rock & Roll Hotel. Sleeper, 28, who works at nearby Dangerously Delicious Pies, handles most of the baking.
They put their heads together on naming the cakes. Some serve as sweet shrines to celebrity saucers, including the Jimmy Buffet, a Key-lime cake flavored with tequila and the Dude, a pound cake imbued with Kahlúa and vodka in homage to Jeff Bridges’ Caucasian-sipping character in The Big Lebowski.
Others are simply salacious, such as the Jägermeister-cranberry combo called the Redheaded Slut and the tres leches flavor with rum dubbed Dirty Pillows.
“We like to be a little bit naughty [with the names],” says Sabath. “It makes people laugh. It makes us laugh.”
Every sauced-up cupcake is made from scratch. “The only time I used a box mix was for this protest called Make Cupcakes Not War,” Sleeper points out, “and that was a hippie thing where we were going for bulk.” But she isn’t an overbearing artisan when it comes to ingredients. “I like Valrhona’s as fine chocolate, but Hershey’s cocoa has its place, too,” she says.
There’s no compromising on the all-important booze, though: “We use high-quality liquor,” says Sabath, name-dropping Frangelico and Van Gogh espresso vodka, among others.
How the alcohol makes its way into the cupcakes is also critical—and a method the pair prefer to keep secret. All that they’ll divulge is that it’s added only once the cakes come out of the oven. “It’s an after-baking process,” says Sabath, “and we can’t say much more than that.”
Each cupcake contains about an ounce of liquor, they confess, meaning that consuming one tiny cake is roughly equivalent to tossing back one shot. “One woman told me she had three and she was buzzed,” says Sleeper.
That’s not hard to believe. Earlier in August, the treat dealers were fielding Crunkcake orders at an event at Asylum in Adams Morgan, where this reporter and her dining companion got our first taste of the nightcapped noshes, priced at $3.50 a pop.
After just one bite of his Cowboy Coffee cupcake, my friend seemed to be heading down the highway to hammered. “Ew, it’s like taking a shot,” he groaned. The confection was almost goopy with booze, which overpowered the advertised chocolate notes.
On the other hand, my Buttery Nipple tasted decidedly cupcakelike: light, sweet, and seemingly virginal by comparison. I could barely detect the buzzy elements of the butterscotch schnapps and Bailey’s-spiked buttercream. Balancing adult appeal and childhood nostalgia, it seems, is the inherent challenge in boozy baking.
Round two proved both pleasingly potent and palatable. The Irish Car Bomb, a Guinness-doused chocolate cake flavored with Jameson and iced with Bailey’s buttercream, burst with spice, but the whiskey didn’t inflict undue damage. The Fat Elvis, a rum-soaked banana cake capped with Frangelico-peanut-butter icing, tasted similarly understated but didn’t overdose on the alcohol.
Later, I tried the tres leches variety, which genuinely reflected the creamy Spanish cake for which it is named—and genuinely made me media borracha.
With more than a dozen flavors in their arsenal, Sabath and Sleeper have enough variety to fill an entire menu. But don’t expect a stand-alone Crunkcakery anytime soon.
“Right now we’d love to have Crunkcakes be full-time,” says Sabath, “but it’s more practical to be in bars.”
Photos by Darrow Montgomery
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