As I’m sure most of you, I grew up with the occasional packaged cupcake treat in my lunchbox. Whether it was Little Debbie’s or Hostess, that chocolaty cupcake with its white squiggle and creamy surprise inside was a lunchtime treat. Or if you were lucky enough to have a Mom who enjoyed baking, you probably had one of Mom’s yummy, little cakes for your lunchtime dessert. Cupcakes were child-sized, sweet desserts, which, for the most part, were served only at birthday parties and sold at school bake sales.
Somewhere along the line though that all changed. I believe it was in 2007 when Oprah waved her magic wand and swooned over the single-serving, glamorous little cakes being sold by Williams Sonoma, adding them to her much sought-after “O” list of ‘favorite things’. The homey cupcake quickly became one of the trendy foods. The trendy food title was then permanently cemented when Carrie Bradshaw and her girlfriends indulged in these miniature, buttercream topped cakes on an episode of the cultural phenomenon Sex in the City. Boom! All of a sudden a new industry was born. What were once lunchbox treats were now sought-after designer desserts. Specialized cupcake bakeries sprang up all over the country. The Food Network even created an entire baking competition series around them, “Cupcake Wars”.
If you are interested in the history of everyday things, as I am, you may have read about cupcakes being invented here in the U.S. in the late 1800s. Well, sorry to disappoint, but cupcakes have been around a lot longer than that. There are actually two schools of thought. One is that these small, single serving cakes, were derived from the very popular, single-serving mince pies so popular in England in the 18th century. The mince pies were baked in miniature, sculpted tin molds and were served displayed on a platter in an artfully-shaped pattern.
Queen’s cakes, spiced pound cakes with currants, were also quite popular. As the aristocracy tired of miniature mince pies, they turned to cakes. Chefs began using the tin molds, or “patty pans”, from baking mince pies to baking Queen’s cakes. Whether baked in these individual pans or cut out using them, these miniature, iced cakes would also be presented on a platter, forming a variety of elaborate patterns.
Having been made by a craftsman or tinsmith, a set of these miniature mince pie or cake molds would have been very expensive … something the middle and lower classes would never have been able to afford.
A very romantic, but probably unlikely theory, suggests that the baker or head chef would occasionally hold out a little batter from the large lavish cake he was preparing for the Lord of the Manor’s evening dinner, to give a bit of a treat to the staff. Certainly, not enough for an entire cake, but enough perhaps for a few single servings. After the aristocracy enjoyed their lavishly decorated dessert cake, the staff downstairs could look forward to enjoying the leftover cake batter, baked in earthenware tea ‘cups’.
The very popular, early 19th century British cookbook author, Maria Rundell, actually suggested baking cakes in ‘little tins, tea-cups or saucers’. In her book, A New System of Domestic Cookery: Formed Upon Principles of Economy and Adapted to the Use of Private Families. By a Lady, Mrs. Rundell suggests two ways for baking these miniature cakes “… butter little tins, tea-cups, or saucers, and bake the batter in, filling only half. Sift a little fine sugar over just as you put into the oven.” or “… butter small patty pans, half fill, and bake twenty minutes in a quick oven.” [A New System of Domestic Cookery. Maria Rundell, 1808]. It seems to me using “buttered tea cups” would certainly make something called a ‘cup cake’.
The second school of thought for the origin of “cup cakes” is that name for the individual cakes came from the measurement of ingredients required to bake a cake. Prior to this, measurements were by weight … now they were by volume or “cup”. These cakes became known as number cakes, or 1-2-3-4 cakes because the easy-to-remember recipe called for: one cup of butter, two cups of sugar, three cups of flour, and four eggs. I’m not sure how this simple recipe became associated with individual servings of cakes baked in cups. For that reason, and because in Great Britain baking is still measured by weight, I’m going along with the first belief.
Wall Street and the Huffington Post report that the “cupcake craze” is over. But, I’m not convinced. You can’t go into a shopping district or market place without seeing one, perhaps two, specialized cupcake bakeries. Even the bakery departments in supermarkets have upgraded their grocery store bakes, selling delectable little treats, individually or prepackaged, in tiny ‘one bites’ up to massive ‘two-handers’. Every season and holiday now has a festive cupcake specifically decorated for that event.
What once was a simple, little lunchbox treat has grown into a cottage industry. Customers patiently line up at cupcake food trucks anxious to try some of the creative, and occasionally unusual, flavors which seem to be a very popular trend. No longer are we satisfied with vanilla. Now it has to be peanut butter fudge, lemon blueberry ripple, salted caramel apple, banana toffee crunch …. and more.
Maybe Wall Street is right and the frosting has fallen off some of the top cupcake chains, but I don’t know anyone who doesn’t become a child again at the irresistible offering of a cupcake. For me though, there will never be anything better than that little chocolaty treat with the white squiggle on top and the surprise inside!