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Cupcakes have been around since the late 18th century and, insist food historians, they have always been popular, so what’s going on now is not a new craze.

That would be hard to prove, given the current obsession with cupcakes:

ź The Food Network’s Cupcake Challenge occupies Saturday night prime time.

ź The opening of new cupcake stores is sometimes announced on television.

ź The Washington Post reported recently that at least 30 new cupcake boutiques have opened in the greater D.C. area since it held a local cupcake competition four years ago

ź Martha Stewart’s cupcake book is only one of more than 1,000 listed on Amazon.

ź Home bakers who don’t want to start from scratch now have choices of gourmet mixes from Stonewall Kitchen and The Barefoot Contessa, joining standbys Duncan Hines and Pillsbury.

Even markets have joined the cupcake bandwagon, led by Wegmans with its Internet Cupcake Crusade to find the best cupcake in the country.

And it goes beyond that. Many food blogs have pushed the cupcake movement, describing the creativity, the artisanal workmanship and the challenge of creating new and delicious cupcakes.

The Post even reported recently on the psychology of cupcakes, reporting that some 669.4 million were sold from October 2010 to October 2011 (not counting, of course, the untold millions home-baked from scratch or from the countless mixes on market shelves) and tried to figure out what accounted for the surge in popularity, suggesting, among other things, that cupcakes are an inexpensive splurge in a down economy.

Fairfax County is not immune, for cupcakes abound, running the full gamut from sinfully sweet, heavily frosted filled cakes to moist, fluffy, delicate cakes with only a smear of not-too-sweet topping. Some are found in cupcake boutiques, some in bakeries and patisseries, some in local markets.

Here are a few places to find outstanding cupcakes, all tested and tasted (at least one flavor) and all delicious but different. This is by no means a definitive list, only a start, and they are in alphabetical order (so don't overlook Wegmans at the bottom of the list).

Absolute Thai and Patisserie, 1381 Beverly Road, McLean, 703-847-1111. Not every Thai restaurant has its own French patisserie. But this one does. If you are a fan of coconut cake, the coconut cupcake is a delightful small version, though the chocolate lover and the devil’s food with peanut butter frosting have their fans.

CakeLove, 1961 Chain Bridge Road, Tysons Corner 1 (lower level), 703-442-4880. One of several CakeLove shops in the DC area, this local favorite has a repertoire of some 25 flavors (not all always available). Among the favorites are red velvet, an incredibly sweet coffee crunch, and new German chocolate. The gluten-free chocolate and white cupcakes are a tasty alternative for those who shun wheat.

Cupcakes!, 527 Maple Ave., Vienna, 703-938-3034. Though they will bring your order down if you call in, these are definitely worth the walk upstairs. The light and delicate Red Velvet is a best-seller, but when they have it, the Dulce de Leche is spectacular, light, delicate and not-too sweet. Flavors vary, with a daily choice of between eight and 12.

Cupcakes Actually, 11944 Grand Commons Ave., Fairfax, 703-522-6315. Death by Chocolate is aptly named — a decadent chocolate cupcake filled with chocolate ganache, topped with chocolate butter cream, drizzles of chocolate ganache and white chocolate curls. The sinfully rich, dense, moist flourless chocolate with vanilla bean icing must be a close rival. Flavors vary weekly.

Danielle’s Desserts, 1770 International Drive, McLean (Tysons Galleria, second level next to Saks), 703-442-9098. If you can bypass the cakes, pies, and cookies, try the cupcakes. Again, red velvet is a favorite, but the simple vanilla and chocolate cupcakes more than hold their own. Other flavors sometimes available include strawberry and cream, lemon, and carrot.

Edibles Incredible, 11917 Freedom Drive, Reston, 703-709-8200. Even with cute names — fudgelicious and Some Mores are self-explanatory — these cupcakes are seriously good. Among the favorites are Chocolate Madness, a rich dark chocolate cupcake filled with chocolate mousse and topped with chocolate butter cream; and Butterscotch Baby, a butterscotch cupcake with butterscotch filling and butterscotch frosting.

Fluffy Thoughts, 1320 Old Chain Bridge Road, McLean, 703-442-5538. A veteran of the Food Network’s Cupcake Challenge, Fluffy Thoughts has cupcakes for everyone, lollipops for the kids, miniature cupcakes for the calorie conscious, jumbo size for big appetites, and 20 different flavors — some classic chocolate and vanilla, some richly filled, all amazingly good. Red velvet is a favorite, but so are cookies ’n’ cream, raspberry, Key lime pie, and lemon. Gluten-free cupcakes, available Wednesdays and Fridays, rival the regular varieties, especially the carrot cake, when it is available.

Natasha’s Elegant Creations, 230 West Broad St., Falls Church, 703-241-8040. The fact that Natasha’s serves breakfast and lunch is a plus, but if you can manage to avoid all the other temptations in the case, the cupcakes are exceptional — and elegant. Chocolate, vanilla and red velvet are available, sometimes joined by other flavors, including hazelnut with lemon butter cream and peanut butter. The basic chocolate cupcake is wonderful, dense and flavorful.

Pastry Xpo, 819 Strawberry Lane, Falls Church, 571-282-4970. The cupcakes will snare you before you see the other confections. These are moist and rich, and some are incredibly, almost overwhelmingly, sweet, especially the filled cupcakes, among them the amazing dulce de leche, a bourbon vanilla cupcake filled with dulce de leche and topped with caramel frosting and bits of chocolate toffee. Other “signature cupcakes” include salted caramel and gluten-free chocolate and vanilla.

Wegmans, 11620 Monument Drive, Fairfax, 703-653-1600. Since Wegmans launched its crusade to find the country’s best cupcakes with a reminder that “grocery store cupcakes need love, too,” Wegmans cupcakes need to be included. And with good reason, for the specialty cupcakes are not only beautifully and cleverly decorated, they are also “awesome, really, really, really good,” to quote a young taster. The pre-packaged cupcakes also hold their own against most of the competition. They’re too good to be overlooked.