The simple miniature cake has morphed not only in trendiness, but in size, like its sibling, the muffin.
Today's cupcakes come in proportions that mimic Starbucks' redefinition of small, medium and large (now tall, grande and venti). At $1.50 to $2.95, the price of a cupcake now rivals a cup of coffee.
Magnolia Cafe and a few other New York bakeries launched the trend a few years ago, when they started selling nothing but the beautifully frosted creations.
Soon, tiers of elaborately decorated cupcakes began replacing wedding cakes.
Publishing houses responded this spring with cookbooks full of recipes: cupcakes made with chantilly cream; hot fudge; spumoni ice cream; even green tea.
Why the surge of popularity for the once-humble treat?
Cupcakes are fun, inviting, casual. They are portion-controlled - creating equity for siblings and encouraging restraint on the part of dieters.
They're versatile, offering tons of decorative styles, and are easier to bake and ice than traditional layer cakes. And easier to eat. (No knife, no fork, no plate!)
Anne Byrn, author of Cupcakes! From the Cake Mix Doctor (Workman Publishing), thinks it's more than just the size and styling that explains their success. Cupcakes, she says, feed our nostalgia.
"They're a taste of your past," Byrn says. People in big cities especially, she says, "crave a taste of home."
Sara Neumeier, author of Cupcakes Year-Round: 50 Recipes for Every Season and Celebration (Stewart, Tabori & Chang), says they offer emotional satisfaction.
"It's like getting an individual dessert, just for you," says Neumeier, who likens peeling back the paper to unwrapping a gift.
"It could be that secretly, like little kids, we are delighted not to have to share," she says.
Her book is packed with variations including lemon curd, meringue, buttercream, caramel, coconut, butterscotch and chocolate mocha.
Are we salivating yet?
Amy Edelman, who owns the Night Kitchen bakery in Chestnut Hill, stocks three basic cupcakes in mocha chocolate, yellow and carrot cake, and makes others on request. In the last six months, she says, cupcake sales have soared.
"They really sell well," she says, somewhat amazed and amused. For birthday parties, Edelman has created tiered cupcake "cakes" topped with tiny farm animals and in sea themes with lobsters and starfish.
And she has also made several elegant cupcake tiers as table centerpieces, instead of flowers, at wedding receptions.
Like pigtails and polka dots, cupcakes cry out for attention. Case in point: In April 2004, a 69-cent cupcake sold on eBay for $52.51. It was yellow, decorated to look like a baby chick, and it had been sitting in someone's freezer for 10 years.
About three years ago, Jon Weinrott, who owns Peachtree & Ward catering, started getting requests for tiers of wedding cupcakes, and since then, he says, the idea has caught on for bar and bat mitzvah parties.
"They're extremely popular," says Kathleen Murray, weddings editor at The Knot, a Web site and magazine for brides. "They're fun and inviting, and since we're in a Bridezilla backlash era, casual elegance is on the rise. Cupcakes are perfect for expressing creativity and personalization."
What about the traditional cake-cutting (and in-your-face-smashing) ceremony? Murray says the couple can just as easily cut a cupcake and feed it to each other for the cameras.
Pastry chef Robert Bennett, who formerly owned Miel Patisserie on South 17th Street and in Cherry Hill, makes spectacular wedding cupcakes by eliminating the paper wrappings and icing the sides. The cupcakes are displayed on a multitiered tray with more cakes spilling over into a semicircle at the base.
The labor involved in decorating individual cupcakes, however, increases the cost to about double the price of a traditional wedding cake. But a simple cupcake tier, Murray says, is a reasonable do-it-yourself alternative - better than making your own wedding cake.
Contact staff writer Dianna Marder at 215-854-4211 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/diannamarder or join her Q&A forum at http://go.philly.com/askmarder.
Triple Butterscotch Cupcakes
Makes 24 (2 1/2-inch) cupcakes
1 pkg. (18.25-ounce) plain butterscotch cake mix or vanilla cake mix if butterscotch not available.
1 package (3.4-ounce) butterscotch instant pudding mix
1 cup water
1/2 cup vegetable oil
4 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup chopped pecans, for garnish
Butterscotch Maple Frosting (See note)
1. Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line cupcake pans with 24 paper liners.
2. Prepare the batter: Place the cake mix, pudding mix, water, oil, eggs and vanilla in a large mixing bowl.
3. Blend with an electric mixer on low speed for 30 seconds. Stop machine and scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Increase the mixer speed to medium and beat 2 minutes more, scraping down the sides again if needed.
4. Spoon 1/3 cup batter into each lined cup, filling it three-quarters of the way. (You will get between 22 and 24 cupcakes; remove the empty liners, if any.) Place the pans in the oven.
5. Bake the cupcakes 18 to 20 minutes. Remove from oven and place on wire racks to cool for 5 minutes. (Leave oven on for roasting pecans.) Run a dinner knife around edges of cupcake liners, lift the cupcakes out using the end of the knife, and then place on wire rack to cool for 15 more minutes before frosting.
6. Place the pecans in a small baking pan and toast in the oven until aromatic, 3 to 5 minutes.
7. Frost the cupcakes. Sprinkle with toasted pecans if desired.
-From Cupcakes From the Cake Doctor (Workman Publishing 2005)
Note: To prepare Butterscotch Maple Frosting: Blend 1 package (8 ounces) reduced-fat cream cheese and 4 tablespoons ( 1/2 stick) butter (both at room temperature) in large mixing bowl with electric mixer at low speed until combined, 30 seconds. Gradually add 2 cups confectioners' sugar, sifted, mixing on low speed until sugar is well incorporated, 1 minute. Add 1/2 teaspoon maple flavoring and 1/2 cup melted butterscotch chips. Increase mixer speed to medium and blend the frosting until fluffy, 1 minute longer. If needed, add up to 1/2 cup more confectioners' sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, to make a spreadable consistency.
Per cupcake: 264 calories, 3 grams protein, 37 grams carbohydrates, 23 grams sugar, 12 grams fat, 46 milligrams cholesterol, 281 milligrams sodium, no fiber.
Makes 12 cupcakes
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup flaked coconut, loosely packed, divided
1/2 cup unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder, sifted
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup buttermilk
3/4 semisweet chocolate chips
1/4 cup heavy (whipping) cream
1. Heat oven to 350 degrees; fit paper liners in cupcake pan.
2. In a small bowl, mix the flour, 1/2 cup of the coconut, the cocoa powder, baking soda and salt.
3. In a large bowl, whisk together the sugar, oil and egg until smooth. Add the vanilla, mixing well. Alternately, beat in the flour mixture and buttermilk, making three additions of flour mixture and two of buttermilk, beating until smooth.
4. Scoop the batter into prepared pan. Bake until the tops of the cupcakes spring back when lightly pressed, 22 to 27 minutes. Let cool in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes. Remove from pan and let cool completely on rack.
5. Meanwhile, combine the chocolate chips and cream in a microwave-safe bowl and microwave on high until the cream is hot and the chocolate soft, almost melted, 30 to 40 seconds. Stir until smooth. Let stand for 5 minutes to cool slightly.
6. Place the remaining 1/2 cup of coconut in a nonstick skillet on medium heat. Toast, stirring steadily, until lightly browned,
3 to 5 minutes. Do not let it burn. Transfer to a plate to cool.
7. Spread the chocolate topping on the cupcakes and sprinkle toasted coconut on top. Put the cupcakes on a baking sheet and refrigerate until chocolate is firm.
- From 125 Best Cupcake Recipes by Julie Hasson (Robert Rose Inc.)
Per cupcake: 285 calories, 4 grams protein, 37 grams carbohydrates, 25 grams sugar, 14 grams fat, 26 milligrams cholesterol, 195 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.