They ooohed. They aaahed. The cable car conductor exclaimed (I never use the word ‘exclaimed’ but there is no other way to describe it) that he was sure there were enough for everyone, didn’t I think so? When I presented the tray to my friends, they shrieked with delight. What could evoke such spontaneous glee? A Baked Alaska? A two story high soufflé? A serving of flaming crepes Suzette? No, dear reader. Just a tray of cupcakes. White cupcakes in heart patterned paper cups topped with pale pink frosting and sparkles to be exact. Nothing that I thought was particularly brilliant culinary-wise but apparently, I was wrong. Witnessing this response immediately reminded me of the days when our boxer dogs were puppies. Take a puppy anywhere and you will not be alone for long. You could be dressed as the Grim Reaper and people will drop to their knees in front of you to play with a puppy. People will do almost the same thing when presented with a cupcake.
My earliest cupcake memory goes back to nursery school. Yes, I can remember back that far. This nursery school was a co-op, which now seems very progressive for what I would describe as my very conservative suburban hometown across the bay from more progressive San Francisco. It was a wonderful school run by a woman named ‘Miss Lorna’. Birthdays were celebrated with a cake (which your mother was expected to provide) as well as cupcakes. This was before the days of concern over children’s sugar intake, obviously. (I can honestly say that I don’t remember one overweight child in my class). Anyway … you received a slice of cake to eat at once and a wrapped cupcake to take home with you. Two cupcakes if you had a sibling. These were carefully wrapped in wax paper, and packed away in your lunch box for the trip home.
So where did the cupcake come from? It may be that the name comes from the measurement of ingredients needed to produce a cupcake. Just as the pound cake is a result of a pound of butter and pound of flour, the cupcake required a cup of flour, a cup of butter and so on. You get the idea. Also, these small cakes were originally baked in earthenware cups. Therefore the small cup shape and size and the name. Cupcakes were mostly confined to children’s parties, the Hostess Cupcake and Saturday School Bake Sales and mediocre bakeries until 1996. That was the year that the Magnolia Bakery opened in New York. They created a cupcake buzz (lines out the door). And then all the buzz needed was a nudge from an appearance on Sex in the City and it became a cupcake craze. Former employees left and opened more cupcake bakeries. Then Sprinkles opened in Beverly Hills. More lines out the door. So what is the big deal, anyway? Why have people become so possessed by a sweet treat that they are willing to wait in a line that winds down the street?
I have been aware of this cupcake phenomena for a few years now and am surprised that it has lasted as long as it has. I have tried a couple of the most au courant versions, organic no less, from very good bakeries and found them dry and flavorless.
So what is it exactly that people are reacting to if not the flavor and texture? I think it must be a fond childhood memory of Room Mothers (remember those?) baking a batch to be distributed during the Valentine’s Day party. But the appeal here goes beyond the concept of comforting food. People do not giggle when a plate of macaroni and cheese is placed in front of them.
A cupcake is about the compact cuteness of something that fits into the palm of your hand that does not require a fork and knife and will sometimes even be dyed pale pink or blue and often leaves a speck of frosting on the tip of your nose. Bigger than a cookie but not quit as big as a slice of cake. And you can eat it with your hands. Can’t do that so easily with a slice of cake, which requires a plate and a fork. Not culinary brilliance but maybe folks don’t need food brilliance in their lives. What people seem to be craving is whimsy and silliness and a chance to shriek with delight over a simple pink cupcake. It may also have something to do with portion control.
So what do I do when I need a cupcake fix? I bake up a batch of cupcakes using a Duncan Hines Yellow Cake mix but I add a teaspoon of almond extract to the batter. For frosting, I recommend the recipe that appears on the side of the C & H Sugar Powdered Sugar box. Use sweet butter and add a generous pinch of salt (finely grained sea salt is best, also known as ‘fleur de sel’. Delicious!