This Sunday, I made my way to the East Side Club to do one of my favorite foodie things: I wisely decided to forgo lunch and munch on mini cupcakes at Iron Cupcake Madison Challenge #7 instead.

I was thrilled to be going. Iron Cupcake Madison is a cupcake bakeoff featuring a special ingredient (? la Iron Chef) where the proceeds to go area non-profits. Local bakers whip up hundreds of mini cupcakes the attendees sample and vote on. The baker with the most votes wins pride, glory and a gift basket.

While I knew the background, I had never attended an Iron Cupcake Challenge, so I was ill-prepared for the dazzling sight that awaited me. Nine bakers had entered the bakeoff, each with their own take on the challenge’s special ingredients. On each of their tables lay 200 caramel and butterscotch-infused mini cupcakes, strategically arranged to woo voters.

For my $10 ticket, I was given the chance to eat and judge each cupcake. Making my way around the room, I quickly stuffed the egg carton a former Iron Cupcake goer had so helpfully recommended I bring. When the carton was full of skillfully decorated mini bundles of sugary joy (have I mentioned I like cupcakes?), my judging began.

I admit when I first learned of the challenge, I balked at the ticket price – $1 for a mini cupcake? I’ve paid as much as $5 for cupcakes in New York, but mini cupcakes have just never looked like they could satisfy my huge sweet tooth. I came around to the ticket price when I learned that all of the proceeds would go to Second Harvest, but after my first bite it was clear that even had that not been the case the cupcakes would have been worth every penny.

The cupcakes were not your run-of-the-mill bake sale offerings. While recipes were not judged and cake mix was allowed, there was only one cupcake that may have come from a box; the rest you would be hard-pressed to find a Pillsbury version of (but delighted if you did). One cupcake had banana batter with a caramel filling, another was a chocolate cake with stout. Coconut, oatmeal, pumpkin, apple and espresso were other flavors the bakers paired up with caramel.

And then there was the frosting. Far from the store-bought versions most slather on their cupcakes, these largely homemade frostings were meticulously applied with a frosting bag, looking good enough for any bakery window. The chocolate, caramel, cream cheese and vanilla frostings were adorned with sea salt, Girl Scout cookies, homemade twix bars, fondant flowers, hard caramel and in one cupcake, edible glitter. It was, in a word, overwhelming – for my pancreas at least.

But the cupcakes were judged not just on taste, but on presentation as well. While the look of the cupcake itself (frosting, caramel syrup, decoration, etc.) could be voted on, bakers were encouraged to decorate their tables as well. Amanda Hampton, the winner in this category, displayed her honeycrisp apple “Salted Caramel Dream” cupcakes on a homemade tree-shaped stand. Other bakers used fall-themed decorations or ingredients and candies to adorn their tables.

Few attendees stuck around to hear the winners announced (Salted Caramel Dream won for both taste and display, with Gluten-Free Twix coming in second for taste and Chocolate Stout with Salted Caramel Frosting in second for display), but those that did made off with more cupcakes – after perfecting their recipes and baking 200 cupcakes, the bakers were more than happy to give away their extras. I managed to eat 11 mini cupcakes before deciding I had probably reached my cupcake quota for the week.

Although this was Iron Cupcake Madison’s last event of the year, founder Nancy Sorensen plans to come back in full force in 2012. She announced that this weekend’s challenge had pushed them to the $4,000 mark for donations to local non-profits. Past events went to charities like the Literacy Network and Underground Kitchen, but there are many more charities on Iron Cupcake’s horizon.

Although I still feel a little cupcaked out – something I never thought I would say – I’m already looking forward to the next Iron Cupcake. So ready your egg cartons: Chocolate is the next special ingredient.

Allegra Dimperio ([email protected]) is a junior majoring in journalism.