Let Them Eat Cupcakes: Why Cupcakes Are Such Trendy Snacks
Walk through the winding streets of the West Village on a weekend and you'll inevitably come upon a crowd across the street from Biography Bookshop, a crowd that stretches out the door of Magnolia Bakery and around the corner. Magnolia always had a reputation for fine baked goods and banana pudding, but the cult of Magnolia grew when Carrie and Miranda sat outside the shop, stuffing themselves and gushing.
While their uptown location is much calmer, one thing remains the same: people always exit Magnolia Bakery with white boxes and a smile, and there are usually a few cupcakes in those boxes.
The Cupcake Fad
The cupcake fad has been around for a few years now, with bakeshops in New York City and Los Angeles dishing out chic snacks and sugar comas. Of the latter, the chain Crumbs (based in New York and Los Angeles) offers "The Artie Lange," created by the Howard Stern Show personality. The cupcake features the same frosting found on black and white cookies, and could only be improved if they used the same sweet drop cake of a black and white cookie rather than regular cupcake batter.
Cupcake shops are spreading like a buttercream wildfire, with specialty stores sprouting in Baltimore and San Francisco and Denver and St. Louis. The chain Sprinkles (which currently has locations in Southern California, the Bay Area, Dallas, Houston, and Scottsdale) has locations opening soon in 16 cities, including San Diego, Atlanta, Miami, London, and Tokyo.
Why is there a cupcake craze?
You can trace part of the cupcake craze to Carrie and the girls of Sex and the City, a show that I have still never watched and whose name I can never get right (it's apparently "and the" not "in the"). Magnolia Bakery was featured on the show and is now a stop on the Sex and the City bus tour.
You can also attribute some of the craze to "Lazy Sunday," the Saturday Night Live short from a few years ago which gave a shout out to Magnolia Bakery en route to watching The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. In retrospect, I wish my roommate and I had grabbed some cupcakes, Mr. Pibb, and Red Vines (crazy delicious!) when we went to see Prince Caspian earlier this year--we even watched it on a Sunday.
But pop culture can't account for the whole appeal of cupcakes. Cupcakes are one of the great comfort foods out there, bound to remind you of grade school birthdays, trips through the supermarket bakery, and sprinkles piled thick and tall and toppling. If there's one thing you can never discount, it's that nostalgia has as much effect on our palate as presentation and preparation.
Cupcakes and Portion Control
I used to be really into Fig Newtons until I looked at the nutritional information: 110 calories for just two cookies. Just two? Like Brian Regan said in one of his stand-up routines, I eat those things by the sleeve. But that's the rub with lots of snack foods. They bet you can't eat just one (or two), and it's sometimes hard to keep track of just how much you've had and just how many calories you've packed away.
One of the great things about cupcakes is that they come in relatively small portions (unless you're picking up one of the behemoths from Crumbs, which are like cupcakes on human growth hormone). They are a good snack for getting your sugar fix while assisting with portion control. With your average cupcake clocking in between 200 to 300 calories, you can limit yourself to just a single cupcake or half a cupcake when you get a sugar craving.
In sampling shops throughout the city, I was initially unaware of the calorie count and went on a cupcake binge, essentially replacing my blood with buttercream and my bone marrow with moist cake and sprinkles. At least now, more than 5,000 calories later (90+ Fig Newtons), I know to keep those portions in control.
With the trendiness of cupcakes, these snacks have ascended the social ladder. Now those grade school treats have chic cousins: cousins that, if they could, would eat mesclun regularly and sushi off of nude models, shop exclusively at boutiques, have their organic groceries delivered, hang out in oxygen bars, and speak in an accent that could only be described as "underbited."
At Leda's Bake Shop in Sherman Oaks, you can order coconut lime cupcakes as well as passionfruit cupcakes and dulce de leche cupcakes. Baked in Red Hook, Brooklyn (and soon Charleston, South Carolina) offers cupcakes that are miniature versions of their full-sized cakes, which include the Citrus Coconut ("orange, lemon, and lime zest-infused white cake with a coconut vanilla buttercream"), the Sweet & Salty ("dark chocolate cake infused with a salty caramel, caramel chocolate ganache, and topped with fleur de sel"), and the Hummingbird ("banana, coconut, and pineapple [cake] layered with cream cheese frosting and topped with vanilla buttercream and dried pineapple florets"). Yummy Cupcakes in Burbank has mojito cupcakes, Bananas Foster cupcakes, pomegranate orange cupcakes, blood orange cupcakes, and pina colada cupcakes. And though they are lacking in variety, the cupcakes at Cupcake Cafe in Manhattan are works of art, with colorfully arranged bouquets of buttercream flowers crowning each treat.
The visual appeal and ability to sample different flavors has created a growing demand for cupcakes as wedding cakes. A good batch of wedding cupcakes costs less than a traditional wedding cake, which has also enhanced their appeal. You can arrange these cupcakes in cascading layers like a full-sized wedding cake or however you wish (e.g., a yellow-cupcake Pac-Man chased across a long table by an orange-cupcake ghost and blue-cupcake ghost). Couples often top their wedding cupcake displays with a small cake for themselves, one which is usually coordinated in some way with the cupcakes for their wedding guests.
Just doing a Google image search for "wedding cupcakes" will give you an idea of just how good these displays can be. And if anything, your wedding cupcakes will at least be more respectable than the playlists for a vast majority of wedding DJs (please, no more "Old Time Rock and Roll," "I Will Survive," "We Are Family," "YMCA," or "Celebration," and no one wants to do The Macarena or The Electric Slide).
Vegan, Gluten-free Cupcakes
Even vegans, people with food allergies, and the health conscious can get their cupcake fix thanks to specialty stores, such as Babycakes in Manhattan (and soon in West Hollywood), a bakery that is free of refined sugar, gluten, and even soy.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the vegan, gluten-free cupcakes I had was that they tasted like actual food. I was expecting them to taste like spackle and cardboard and silica gel; you know, the stuff you find in new shoes in a package labeled "Do not eat." While the cake seemed a little muffin-like (e.g., the carrot cupcake seemed more like carrot cake than cupcake), the agave-sweetened frosting was subtly sweet, dare I say sophisticated. In fact, the vegan frosting was just as good as some buttercream frostings at the other cupcake shops I checked out.
I Have Become Comfort Food Numb
In my research (i.e., eating a lot of cupcakes), one of the things that struck me were the combinations of comfort foods that came in the form of cupcakes. Browsing menus and actual bakeries, I'd run into s'mores cupcakes, Twinkie cupcakes, French toast cupcakes, Elvis cupcakes (peanut butter cupcake with chocolate-banana buttercream), and more. The Treats Truck, a roving bakery that traverses New York City, has conecakes, a cupcake baked into an ice cream cone.
There's something doubly comforting about all that, like a second sugar coma after the first cupcake goes down; something that leaves you at ease, calmer than before, more childlike maybe, but, ultimately and most importantly, satisfied.
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