Register Monday | September 26 | 2022

For the Love of Frosting

The meteoric rise of the cupcake

It’s a sunny July afternoon in 1999. Carrie and Miranda are sitting on a bench outside New York’s Magnolia Bakery eating pink-frosted cupcakes. They’re talking with their mouths full, licking stray sprinkles and icing from the corners of their lips.

The scene lasts barely a minute, but this endorsement from Sex and the City was all it took for cupcakes to go the way of Manolo Blahnik stilettos and Rabbit vibrators. Previously part of a minor food trend, cupcakes became a mainstream phenomenon the moment they were wolfed down on HBO. Lineups to Magnolia Bakery stretched around the corner and various Greenwich Village trash cans overflowed with coloured wrappers. The show went off the air in 2004, but the bakery still sells upwards of 3,000 cupcakes a day.

At least a dozen New York bakeries now traffic exclusively in cupcakes, and there are four specialty cupcake shops in Canada: Cupcakes (Vancouver), Crave Cookies and Cupcakes (Calgary), Cupcakes (Hamilton) and the Cupcake Shoppe (Toronto). The cupcakes that these bakeries peddle may have a retro feel, but they’re nothing like the Betty Crocker variety that came out of Mom’s oven. Today’s boutique-bred versions are dense, corrupting and capped with sculptures of pure sugar and butter. They come in every conceivable flavour, from peanut butter to pumpkin. And they have quirky names. The Cupcake Shoppe in Toronto sells a vanilla cupcake called Yonge ’n’ Eligible; at Vancouver’s Cupcakes, you can buy a Blue Hawaii.

This humble comestible is the ultimate comfort food. With a cupcake in hand, everybody is five years old. It reminds us of bake sales and preschool birthday parties. Plus there’s something about pastel-coloured nourishment that is attractive to women, especially if it boasts a high icing-to-cake ratio. It’s a selfish treat; a cupcake is a cake you don’t have to share. And let’s not forget that in today’s diet-conscious world, its diminutive size makes it seem like a healthier choice than a slab of rich chocolate cake. One cupcake will never make you feel queasy.

More than that, though, cupcakes just make sense in our on-the-go world. You don’t need to eat it with a fork on fine china. As Carrie and Miranda demonstrated, daintiness is overrated—no one will think you uncouth for slowly peeling off the wrapper and grasping the spongy insides with enthusiastic fingers. You can nibble it standing on the bus or sitting on a bench in the park, no accessories required.

One thing should be made clear: a cupcake is not just a hoity-toity muffin. A cupcake is a treat and a celebration; a muffin is something to go with your morning coffee. Muffins are typically made with oil, which is why store-bought muffins are so slimy. Cupcakes are butter-based and typically contain more sugar. They also carry less leavening agents and thus don’t rise enough to recreate the muffin’s trademark crusty shell. Psychologically, we tend to view muffins as the healthier of the two choices; this is a myth. The average blueberry muffin at Dunkin’ Donuts contains a whopping 470 calories; the pumpkin muffin is a monster at 610. (Keep in mind that a Big Mac weighs in at 530 calories in Canada and 560 in the US.) According to Calorie King, an online database that supplies the nutritional information for common American foods, the average cupcake with frosting is a sleek 183 calories.

Of course, talking calories around cupcakes is a little counterintuitive. None of the cupcake shops in Canada bother to test their merchandise—for good reason. The last thing anyone wants to know when eating a cupcake is its nutritional specs. Obviously a cupcake contains an obscene amount of sugar. It’s badfor you; that’s why it’s so delectable. During the Atkins craze, Lori Kliman—who, with Heather White, runs Cupcakes in Vancouver—told me that customers would often ask for special low-carb cupcakes. Kliman never budged from the white flour. Even at the height of Atkins’s reign, she and her partner sold about 1,000 cupcakes a day—just as many as they do today.

Moreover, thanks to Martha Stewart, cupcakes are now one of the most popular alternatives to traditional wedding cakes. Since a cupcake appearance on the cover of the Winter 2003 issue of Martha Stewart Weddings magazine, nuptials have become a big part of Kliman and White’s business. According to Reema Singh, an independent Montreal baker who is sometimes called upon to make wedding desserts, this trend makes complete sense. Cupcakes, she argues, come in their own little wrapper, so there’s no need to hire someone to cut the cake, evading the fee that caterers actually charge for that service. They are also neater and more aesthetically pleasing. As Singh explains, “People are more apt to eat a cupcake instead of a hacked-up slice of a big cake.”

Ladies on the lookout for cupcakes in other Canadian towns will have to special order them from bakers like Singh or make do with margarine-infused, crumbly supermarket messes (yes, the sort frazzled moms buy for last-minute parties). Montreal’s state of cupcakelessness is not, however, the result of a lack of a collective sweet tooth. After all, every variety of European pastry imaginable is served up in Montreal’s ethnic bakeries. Yet the cupcake is a distinctly North American invention that dates back to circa 1796 when it was described in American Cookery as a “light cake to bake in small cups.” The word “cupcake” was not coined until 1828, in a Philadelphia cookbook.

That was then, this is now. Those of us not living in the cupcake capitals are just going to have to satisfy our cupcake lust the old-fashioned way. We’ll have to bake them ourselves.