Why Cupcakes Can Never Be Forgotten (or Left Uneaten)
Cupcakes. You’ve had one. I’ve had one. We’ve all had one.
I’m a cupcake fan. Not so much to eat, but to bake. I love the smell that lingers in the house after they come out of the oven. I love folding in the ingredients to give the batter its fluffy texture. And most of all, I love carefully fashioning them into characters or themes to become bite-sized souvenirs. I’ve done Cookie Monsters, Minnie Mouses, zombies, hidden carrots – there’s no limit to what you can do with a simple cupcake.
And to think that just in the 19th century a cupcake was just that: a cake in a cup. Yes, you read correctly: the cupcake is 187 years old. But that depends on who you ask as its origin is still cause for debate.
Some say cupcakes originated in 1796 when Amelia Simmons referred to “a light Cake to bake in small cups” in the first-ever American cookbook, American Cookery. Hence the name “cup + cake.” Others argue that the true origin of the cupcake lies in a recipe for “Cup Cakes,” found in another early American work, Seventy-Five Recipes for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats by Eliza Leslie, which dates back to 1828. The recipe resembled that of a cake but was cooked in small tins instead of a cake mold.
Another theory about the origin of the cupcake refers to the portions used when baking it, back in 1833. The American Frugal Housewife cookbook also included a “Cup Cake” recipe, which was similar to that of a pound cake, but with different measurements: one cup butter, two cups sugar, three cups flour and four eggs, well mixed and baked in pans or cups. This recipe is also known as the “1-2-3-4 Cake.”
Regardless of when it came to be or how it got its name, the original cupcake wasn’t the bite-sized treat we know today. The first cupcakes were actually heavier and resembled a pound cake in texture; most importantly, they didn’t have icing on them. Instead, they were lathered in a “gravy-like” substance or lard.
Frosting on cupcakes didn’t come until later. It’s rumoured that Winston Churchill himself may have suggested that icing be added on his cupcake. I haven’t been able to verify this information, but if it’s indeed true, the world would have been a very different place had it not been for “Winnie.”
Cupcakes have come a long way since then. Their commercialization began in 1919, by Hostess Cupcakes, who then continued to transform the concept and recipe to eventually produce the cupcake of today.
The year 2000 didn’t only bring the Y2K craze; it was also the beginning of the craze that turned cupcakes into a gourmet product. Following a Sex and the City episode in which Carrie and Miranda enjoyed a Magnolia Bakery cupcake, people in New York – along with the over 50 million tourists in the city – started flocking to the bakery in search of the tasty treat. Soon afterward, bakeries such as Sprinkles and Crumbs started expanding their business by opening stores across the United States. Bakers with more modest capital investments also jumped on the cupcake bandwagon, creating yet another bubble in the market.
For some time, it was cupcakes galore. Everyone was eating them, ordering them for special occasions and making them – from fancy cupcakeries to the home baker, such as myself. Then along came cake pops and macarons and the 2007 recession, turning cupcakes into the middle child.
Some business analysts claim the cupcake bubble has burst, based mainly on the crumbling of the Crumbs bakery empire and the closing of many prominent cupcakeries. It’s hard to believe however, that such a time-honored treat would slowly disappear from our lives and slip into oblivion. Perhaps it’s true that people have grown over-accustomed to cupcakes and, as with other classics, have decided to splurge on a new gourmet fad. But if anything, the bubble raised cupcakes above their lackluster predecessors, enhancing and beautifying them. It would be difficult to imagine that would fade away into a distant memory!
From Cookie Monsters, to zombies, and Minnie Mouses or flower gardens, cupcakes in all their shapes and forms are here to stay.