Wednesday, February 11, 2009

More than you ever wanted to know about Cupcakes

I never thought I'd have to think about end notes or citing references ever again. I'm a designer, I don't need to know that silly grammer-paper-writing crap. Try again. Here's the first paper I've written since the 80s, I hope you enjoy the story of the cupcake as much as I did.

Cupcakes - a brief history of the all-American dessert

All I wanted for my 8th birthday was black joe cupcakes with seven-minute frosting. A classic from Pennsylvania, this was my all-time favorite dessert. It’s not just the moist, ultra-chocolaty cake I loved, it was the fact it was a cupcake. An individual portion that was all mine; no sharing with sisters required. A perfect portion wrapped in an accordion paper shell. The cupcake is the quintessential all-American dessert born from ingenuity and the drive to take things to the next level. It wasn’t cake we invented, just the way in which it was baked, presented and eaten. Simple, individual, no apologies—the cupcake.

The American way—do it faster, make it bigger and produce more all at the same time—was the drive that helped create the cupcake. During the 19th century the tradition of weighing ingredients on a balance scale was replaced with a much faster, easier method, measuring with cups. From this new system came the name “cup cake” or number cake, an easy name that explained exactly what you were making. Around the same time the baking process also evolved. Large cakes baked on a hearth would take a very long time and often result in uneven and burned products. Baking the cake in small cups sped up the process and yielded a more consistent baked good. Both adaptations contributed to the evolution that was first named “cupcake” in E. E. Leslie's Receipts, written in 1828. A star was born.

It was just a matter of time before someone decided to automate this little dessert. The first commercial cupcakes made their way into the marketplace in the early 1900s. An enterprising Philadelphia bakery started making individual desserts packaged to sell at local groceries, a convenience that is truly American. The Tasty Baking Company started making cupcakes around 1919 and by 1930 was baking $6 million worth of snack cakes a year, with the cupcake being their number two item. In 1950 a now famous classic came on the scene when D.R. “Doc” Rice added crème filling and seven white squiggles to a chocolate cupcake named Hostess. Between Hostess and Tasty Kakes there was an affordable and convenient way to put a cupcake in every child’s lunch when mom didn’t have time to make them herself.

By the 1950s the cupcake was a staple in the American kitchen. If they weren’t purchased pre-packaged in the grocery store then Betty Crocker (through General Mills) was there to help any homemaker bake a batch at home. Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook, published in 1950, had step-by-step instructions and ideas for any flavor of cupcakes. If mom was running short on time, the introduction of cake box mixes in 1947—where you just add water, stir and bake—became the easiest way for her to create “from scratch” treats. Cupcakes didn’t change much in the 60s, 70s and 80s. What could you do to improve on such a classic? Nobody could have predicted the stardom that came with the next evolution in the mid 90s.

Magnolia Bakery was founded in 1996 and started making cupcakes with leftover cake batter. The popularity was mostly localized in New York City until 40 seconds on Sex in the City in 2000 turned their humble little cupcake into a nationwide phenomenon worthy of praise from Oprah. This was the beginning of a new breed of cupcake. The ultra-luxury-fancy-pants-three-fifty-a-pop cupcakes served in the finest bakeries. These special treats were seen being eaten by the coolest, most trend-setting stars from coast to coast.

Hollywood and the power of marketing ingrained cupcakes into our pop culture. Every female in middle America wanted to eat the same dessert Carrie Bradshaw did when confessing she had a new crush. Lines began forming around the block at Magnolia Bakery. Even Saturday Night Live paid homage to Magnolia’s cupcakes in their famous digital short “Lazy Sunday.” This craze and successive demand for luxury cupcakes has spawned independent bakeries across the country including Sprinkles Cupcakes, a Los Angeles storefront that makes high-end treats as well as doggy cupcakes, t-shirts and mixes for Williams-Sonoma. They turned a high-quality product with simple, classic style into a well-branded empire.

The cupcake craze isn’t dying, it’s actually spreading to all forms of merchandise. Search “cupcake” on and you’ll find 23 items ranging in price from $105 for professional sized pans to $10.95 for three individual storage containers. You name it and someone makes it in a cupcake shape: jewelry, bandages, t-shirts, mints, full-sized cake pan, even dental floss. It’s more than just a dessert. Its become a cultural phenomenon—so American.

Why do we love these sweet treats so much? What is the power they hold over us? Is it the nostalgia from our childhood or the convenience of buying a single-serving treat? In a society where healthy eating is more and more important do cupcakes seem less guilty, not as big of a sin? Is it the Hollywood stamp of coolness? Is it the luxury we can afford to give ourselves in today’s economy or just the desire to have something fresh baked from scratch with quality ingredients? I think it’s a little of everything that makes this classic dessert an important part our culture today. That’s why I searched out Sprinkles; to see if any of their cupcakes could hold a candle to my Aunt Arlene’s black joe cupcakes—they don’t. Hers are still the best and still my favorite.

I say all hail the American dream; I’m proud that we developed this classic dessert. It’s the classic rags-to-riches story; a simple dessert with humble beginnings being marketed to luxury status by the machine that is free enterprise. The cupcake is truly worthy of its place in American history and pop culture—what other country could (or would) make a star out of a childhood treat.

1 comment:

  1. What's wrong with sharing with your sister?!

    Thanks for the well-written, informative, entertaining & nostalgic article. I enjoyed reading it and will look forward to more.