- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 10, 2006

NEW YORK — The cupcake is a classic, let’s face it. An unsung favorite for eons, in recent years it has hit the culinary pop charts, even the art scene. The sugary little darlings have become big business, but they still retain their cozy place in our hearts.

These days, not only do bakeries across the country sell cupcakes, you can go out to eat at a cupcake cafe and choose a ritzy cupcake from the dessert menu of an upscale restaurant.

You can order cupcakes online from cupcake boutiques, there are plenty of cookbooks focusing only on cupcakes, and you can get married with cupcakes starring at the wedding feast.

Celebrity has spotlighted cupcakes from the Magnolia Bakery in New York City, munched in endless reruns of television’s “Sex and the City,” and cupcakes from Sprinkles in Beverly Hills, sent by Barbra Streisand as a gift to Oprah Winfrey.

Dede Wilson’s newly published “A Baker’s Field Guide to Cupcakes” (Harvard Common Press) is as smart and handy as a cupcake itself: a colorful ring-bound collection of some 60 recipes for every occasion, each with photograph and “field notes” besides loads of other tips.

Children have always felt a close link to these diminutive confections, Miss Wilson pointed out recently, speaking from her home in Massachusetts. After all, each cupcake is yours alone: “All of that cake and frosting is just for you.”

Also, she said, “I think for a lot of us as children, cupcakes seemed to be tied in with school functions — you often didn’t see them outside that mother-child home-baking connection.”

That was then. “Now we see how versatile they are, how fun. They’ll go from a homey bake sale to an individual dessert for a shower, to a campy, kitschy item for adult holidays.”

Just now, food and women’s magazines are filled with ideas for turning cupcakes into spiders, mummies and all things Halloween.

Indeed, cupcakes have now totally grown up. The demure white or yellow coexist with more soigne versions: Sophisticates including hazelnut praline, orange savarin, raspberry Sacher torte and tiramisu with espresso have been seen on stylish menus.

What’s the charm that wows everyone? Chicago food stylist and recipe developer Lisa Bishop thinks people love cupcakes because they’re a dessert that doesn’t carry too much guilt. “Cupcakes can be rich, homemade, trendy — but they are not as overwhelming as a cake,” she said.

And they don’t intimidate home cooks. “I think everyone’s looking for some kind of fun twist to show off their skills.”

Terri Leckas, owner-operator of Queen of Cakes, Edina, Minn., sees things from the professional cake-maker’s point of view, and it can be a surprisingly practical one.

“I believe one of the reasons people choose them for weddings is so they can get around the serving fee caterers charge for cutting large wedding cakes,” she said.

Her business makes wedding and other cakes to order, and also operates a small retail store with a daily selection of cupcakes.

Cupcakes are often ordered for weddings now, Miss Leckas said — the largest number they’ve made for a wedding was 300, she recalled. Cupcakes are more casual than a formal wedding cake, she said, but on a stand they can be made into quite a fancy presentation.

Special-order cupcake flavors change with the season, just as wedding cakes do. “In spring or summer they could be strawberry mousse or liqueur-based. Just now we’re doing lots of apple and spice, and pumpkin with cream cheese.”

For a child’s birthday party, she said, “another thing we do is make a ‘cupcake cake’ — we group cupcakes closely together on a board and hold them together with frosting, so the children can pull them out one at a time.”

Kara’s Cupcakes in San Francisco adds a wholesome West Coast note to the delectable aura: They say they “make every possible effort” to obtain and use local, organic ingredients for their well-reviewed cupcakes.

Kara Lind started her catering business, focusing on special events and delivery, about a year ago, and says she’s busy baking away while she’s preparing to open a store. She sent me her explanation of the cupcake magic: “Small is the new big, and people love the personalization of a cupcake.”

The vanilla girl may have a boyfriend who loves chocolate, she points out, and with cupcakes each can indulge an individual taste for dessert.

As for customers’ favorite flavors, she said, “Really, people are pretty much in love with good old-fashioned chocolate or vanilla.” But, Miss Lind said, these days they’re taking more risks in flavor tasting; they’re evidently going wild for Kara’s passion-fruit-filled cupcakes, for one.

Looking back, food historians believe the name cupcake was used at least as early as the 19th century. The Food Timeline Web site says that historians have not quite determined the origin of the name and that there’s evidence to support two theories: one, that the name comes from measuring out ingredients by the cup, and the other, that these little cakes were originally baked in cups.

In “The Oxford Companion to Food” (Oxford) author Alan Davidson refers to both theories, defining the word cupcake as the name given “from some time in the 19th century … to a small cake baked in a cup-shaped mould or in a paper baking cup.” In the United States, he says, “the term may have originally have been related to the American measuring system, based upon the cup.”

Cupcakes even come with their own accessories. In addition to the many holiday-themed paper baking shells a home cook can buy, you can also buy a petite cupcake carrier for a single cupcake, to protect and stabilize the delicacy when you take it out (perhaps rock-climbing or surfing?). For larger quantities, collapsible wire stands are available in two sizes, to display either a baker’s dozen or 23 cupcakes at a time, for a showpiece to dazzle the crowd.

Miss Wilson’s book brings the high-flying cupcake back comfortably into the home kitchen with basic advice. Aim for the best, she says, “Bake your own and make them good.”

Even if they’re only basic chocolate or yellow cupcakes, they can still pack quality, and that’s something the home cook can control. “Make them from scratch with real vanilla, real butter and not icing out of a can. The kids appreciate that.”

From a practical standpoint, she says, children like to bake, and cupcakes are very approachable, so recruit them to help — they know they’re going to be able to do it. (Recipes in her book that are suitable for child helpers carry a little smiley face symbol.)

Miss Wilson’s ultimate compliment for cupcakes: “One thing they have over other baked goods — they just bring a smile to people’s faces.”

www.wilton.com/store

shop.bakerscatalogue.com

www.queen-of-cakes.com

www.hotchocolatechicago.com

www.karascupcakes.com

www.foodtimeline.org/foodcakes.html

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