crazy for cupcakes

“Life is uncertain. Eat dessert first.” ~ Buttercup Bake Shop

If you think you’ve been seeing cupcakes everywhere, you’re definitely not imagining things. Ever since Carrie and Miranda ate those famous Magnolia Bakery cupcakes on “Sex and the City” back in 2000, everyone has gone cupcake crazy.

photo by yummyinthetummyblog.

Actually, Magnolia Bakery cupcakes had been oh-so-cool as far back as 1996, when co-owners Jennifer Appel and Allysa Torey began to specialize in cupcakes after they made a batch from leftover cake batter and noticed how quickly they were snatched up. “Sex and the City” then turned the Greenwich Village bakery into a tourist shrine, and cupcake specialty shops have been sprouting up across the country ever since.

Magnolia Bakery delectables (yummyinthetummy).

Today’s gourmet cupcake is a far crumb from the ones we ate in childhood. They’ve gone deliciously upscale, made of the finest, freshest ingredients, like Valrhona chocolate, Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla, and European sweet cream. Flavors like lava fudge, ginger lemon, passion fruit poppy seed, and chai latte beg for your attention alongside the traditional vanilla and chocolate. Some are filled with luscious, flavored creams, others adorned with coconut or colorful sprinkles. What do you say to a chocolate liquer cupcake filled with raspberry Chambord cream, topped with white chocolate meringue frosting?

Oo-lah-lah. I’d love to peel off your paper.

Molly’s Cupcakes in Chicago offers Cookies ‘n Cream, Boston Cream Pie,
and Chocolate Decadence (photo by FriendlyJoe).

So, why are seemingly sensible, professional, sophisticated adults willing to stand in long lines at any time of the day for a cupcake fix? It’s mostly about nostalgia. We want a reminder of safer, happier, simpler days — school birthday parties, picnics, church bake sales, cupcakes specially decorated for Halloween, Easter, or St. Patrick’s Day. One of my happiest grade school memories is when my mom was Room Mother, and she ordered cupcakes for our class. No matter that they came from a bakery and that she never baked cupcakes herself — those cupcakes symbolized everything that was right in my world.

photo of Georgetown Cupcake in Washington,D.C., by M.V.Jantzen

And who can resist them? They’re small, cute, perfect, and portable. You get one all to yourself. There are no quibbles about somebody else getting a bigger piece of cake, and there’s far less guilt over eating just one little cupcake. They can be decorated in an infinite number of ways to suit any occasion, all celebrations. Bakers, amateur or professional, can go wild experimenting with new flavor combinations. Even in these tough economic times, people are willing to shell out $2 to $4 for a little taste of heaven.

Kara’s Cupcakes, Ghirardelli Square, San Francisco
(photo by Steve Rhodes).

Have you ever wondered how cupcakes got their name?

Two theories, both supported by historic evidence, have emerged. First, that in the early 19th century, there was a shift from measuring ingredients by weight to measuring by cups to save time in the kitchen. Cupcakes were sometimes called “number” cakes in those early days, because numbered ingredients made the recipe easy to remember: one cup of butter, two cups of sugar, three cups of flour, etc.

“Cupcake Makes a Cake!” by cakespy.

The second theory harkens back to small cakes actually baked in earthenware teacups or small clay baking pans, so they would bake faster in hearth ovens. Individual cakes date back to the 18th century; a good example is the Queen’s Cake from England, a rich, creamy blend containing currants, lemon zest, and chopped almonds.

Magnolia Bakery interior (photo by yummyinthetummy).

Cupcake mania shows no signs of slowing down, either. While other businesses have been struggling, cupcake shops seem to bustle with business, providing a happy, charming, homey atmosphere, where eager customers walk in smiling, in anticipation of that first bite. And the internet has become that much sweeter with the proliferation of blogs devoted solely to everything cupcake. They feature recipes, taste tests, news about store openings, cookbooks and related merchandise, and offer a forum for cupcake aficionados all over the world to gather and simply talk cupcake.

According to Publisher’s Weekly, cupcake mania has translated into ever-emerging batches of cookbooks that seem to fly off the shelves before they’ve had time to cool. Sellers do not feel the market is yet saturated; in some cases, the mere image of cupcakes on a cover has attracted buyers, even though the book’s focus is not on cupcakes.

Like apple pie and hotdogs, cupcakes are classic Americana, a beloved comfort food. And we all know you shouldn’t mess with that. Back in December 2006, a federally-mandated healthy foods plan was enacted in school cafeterias across the country in an attempt to curb childhood obesity. But when the principal at George Mason Elementary here in Virginia tried to ban cupcakes for classroom birthday parties, parents (moreso than kids) were outraged. Cupcakes symbolized the very essence of childhood innocence, and were a traditional and economic way to celebrate. Needless to say, the ban was half-baked and cupcakes gained even greater respect.

 photo by Brian Wible (Stacie Joy for CTTC’s photostream).

These days, Jennifer Appel, who claims to have ignited the current cupcake craze, is no longer affiliated with Magnolia Bakery. In 1999, she split from her partner and opened the Buttercup Bake Shop in midtown Manhattan. Her old fashioned American desserts have been such a hit, that she opened a second shop in the Upper West Side, and is now selling franchises across the country. Cupcakes may be small, but somehow they have a magical way of multiplying.

Exterior of Buttercup Bake Shop by M.V.Jantzen

Some of Buttercup’s gourmet offerings (photo by robobby).

I can see that a “research” trip to Georgetown Cupcake is in order. Their Chocolate Ganache recently won the Washington Post Cupcake Wars, and has been rapturously described in magazines and on TV. I’ll let you know, so stay tuned.

Meanwhile, I’m curious. What’s your favorite cupcake? And how do you eat them — lick off frosting first, just bite in, nibble around the edges?

from Georgetown Cupcake (photo by BrassPotato).


For a list of great cupcake blogs, including Cupcakes Take the Cake, Cakespy, and 52 Cupcakes, click here.

For National Geographic’s list of “25 Cupcakeries We Love,” click here. (Have any of you been to any one of these?)

Visit for recipes and videos of Cupcake Week.

Don’t miss Sweet Cuppin Cakes Bakery and Cupcakery Supplies. Love their designer baking cups.

Adorable cupcake apron at Carolyn’s Kitchen!

“Cupcake Walks Pets” by cakespy.

*Cupcakes at the beginning of this post by gemini angel art.

“Pure bliss baked daily. Happiness in the palm of your hand. Joy never tasted so good.” ~ Georgetown Cupcake

21 thoughts on “crazy for cupcakes

  1. My daughter just called for an interview at Sprinkles in LA, which I see did not make National Geo’s list! Oh well. I’ll send her here, and maybe pre-interview she can benefit from the tremendous research you’ve done. All that’s missing is that tour to Georgetown. Can’t wait for those pics!


  2. I’ve heard of Sprinkles! and I think there’s one called Swirls in Beverly Hills, which I don’t see on the list either — supposedly good, too.

    Now that you’ve told me your daughter wants to work in a cupcake shop, I love her even more 🙂

    Georgetown Cupcake sounds positively dangerous, but I’m willing to risk it in the name of first hand research.


  3. I cut off the bottom half and eat it first. Then I savor the top half (loaded with frosting) in each and every sinful bite.

    Now–must have cupcakes!


  4. Our closest cupcake shop is 1 1/2 hours away and everytime we go to the “big city” I have wanted to make a stop there and tour the shop via my tummy. However, I haven’t done it yet (for fear and obvious reasons). I think I”d want to test everything. =D I LOVE the idea of cupcakes.

    Maybe I need to go to this little cupcake shop just to say that I have….hmm….

    – Carrie, RtK


  5. Wow,I’ve never heard of anyone doing that! Usually, people (me included), can’t wait for a lick of that frosting. Yours sounds like a mathematical approach, doubling the pleasure at the end! 🙂


  6. Ooh Carrie, you HAVE to go! Think of it as research (like me). Since it’s a drive to get there, it won’t pose any real danger. God help me if a cupcake shop was right around the corner!


  7. I followed those Cupcake Wars in the Post. My daughter and I tried the Best Buns ones. Yum! But Georgetown Cupcake is still on our TBT (to be tasted) list. Maybe for our birthdays—they are one day apart.


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