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Cupcake Hero

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Cupcakes have become so popular that it's inevitable that creating new flavors and varieties would get competitive. But at Laurie Woodward's blog Cupcake Hero (slush.wordpress.com/cupcake-hero), the battle to produce a winning small frosted cake is strictly friendly.

Woodward, 30, of Pleasant Hills, mostly keeps busy raising three boys under 5. But she recently discovered food blogs, and last summer started Cupcake Hero on a whim. She borrowed the name from Guitar Hero, and the concept from a favorite TV show, Iron Chef.

Once a month, she posts an ingredient -- clove, lime, coffee -- and challenges bakers to incorporate it into a cupcake. Contestants submit recipes and photos via e-mail.

Woodward picks about one-fifth of the recipes as finalists, focusing on those, she says, whose creators may have "really thought it out and used the ingredient to create something new." Then, she and a Cupcake Hero co-tester bake the cupcakes.

I envision a test-kitchen littered with cupcake pans, and am surprised when Woodward says she owns only three pans. "I try not to make more than one batch a day," she adds.

Wide access to the Internet means it's no hardship for cupcake-cooks across the globe to submit entries; recipes come from Australia, Southeast Asia and Europe.

Having the Cupcake Hero HQ in Pennsylvania, however, poses its own challenges. The eventual winning recipe for November's cranberry challenge -- Guinness Gingerbread Cranberry Cupcakes -- put Woodward's test kitchen through some uniquely local hurdles. "I didn't want to buy a case of Guinness!" she laughs. "I finally found a bar that sold me one can for $4."

February's liquor challenge, which netted a record 44 entries, also required Woodward's retail creativity before any oven was pre-heated. "I've been buying those airline-size bottles for the recipes," she explains. "I need Chambord, Frangelico, blue Curaçao, triple sec, Caribbean rum. And another Guinness."

Picking a winner is often a family affair. "My kids are pretty good judges," Woodward says, adding that "if they won't eat the cupcake, something's wrong." Woodward posts all the finalists' recipes and photos -- along with judges' comments -- to the blog; the winner gets bragging rights and a T-shirt.

Visit Cupcake Hero to see which boozy, sugary creation won the February challenge, or try your hand at the upcoming contest. The ingredient for March is marshmallow, inspired in part by Easter Peeps -- but open, of course, to your creative interpretation.

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