Why is the world so besotted with cupcakes these days? Is it because a generation raised on junky treats has found a classier incarnation to satisfy its sweet tooth? Because we watched rail-thin actress and fashion icon Sarah Jessica Parker eat them on TV’s Sex and the City without her putting on a single ounce? Maybe we’ve just realized that cupcakes make life a whole lot sweeter.
In a short scene from the third season of Sex and the City, protagonists Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) sit on a bench outside Magnolia Bakery in New York’s Greenwich Village and enjoy a pink-frosted cupcake. For years afterward, Sex and the City bus tours, showing off locales from the popular HBO series, pulled up out front, bringing some 600 sightseers a day to taste the famous confections. Hordes of New Yorkers likewise stand in line at Magnolia branches for up to an hour to satisfy their sugar cravings.
If Carrie and Miranda jones for them, cupcakes must be glamorous and sexy. More to the point, if these two svelte gals can eat cupcakes and maintain their figure, the rest of us can too, right? Sadly, no. One cupcake often contains almost 600 calories and more than half the recommended daily allowance of saturated fat. Carrie and Miranda’s indulgence is just one more flight of television fancy, a forbidden pleasure to be watched but not frequently mimicked. But for fans who do want to cheat on their diet, Magnolia offers the Carrie Cupcake, a vanilla base topped with pink vanilla buttercream frosting and a sugar daisy.
Spam Polynesian bake, pineapple-olive aspic salad, hot tuna casserole: Many midcentury American recipes are classics, all right. Classic ways to ensure no one accepts a dinner invitation from you ever again. But New York’s Magnolia Bakery has proved the recipe for success is to mix nostalgia with lots of sugar, concocting desserts our moms and grandmas used to make, such as banana cream pie and chocolate icebox cake. As Magnolia has described itself, “With its vintage American desserts and decor, customers often remark that walking into the bakery is like taking a step back in time.”
Magnolia’s most popular morsel of memorabilia is the cupcake. The shop sells classic chocolate and vanilla varieties with chocolate or vanilla buttercream frosting, as well as various specialty cupcakes. While many baby boomers associate cupcakes with childhood, the miniature sweets are perfectly suited to the present day. They’re easy to eat on the go and compact enough to manage with one hand (leaving the other free for texting, for instance). The cupcake is an individually proportioned treat that allows a me-me-me-oriented generation to indulge without feeling guilty about not sharing the pleasure. That could be called having your cupcake and eating it, too.
Hostess Brands, the company that brought us CupCakes, Twinkies, Ding Dongs, Sno Balls and Ho Hos, is probably the world’s best-known purveyor of retro junk food. Even Wonder Bread, the company’s foray into a legitimate food group, is of dubious nutritional value despite the claim that it “helps build strong bodies in 12 ways.”
Scolds have reminded us for years just how unhealthy Hostess treats are, though that hasn’t diminished our taste for them. Even The New York Times gushed about deep-fried Twinkies: “Something magical occurs when the pastry hits the hot oil.” Some creative bakers have devised healthier Twinkie makeovers, replacing artificial ingredients with organic ones and cutting out much of the fat. And we once thought we’d all be making our own Twinkies: In November 2012 Hostess announced the company would liquidate. The impending dearth evoked the 2009 film Zombieland, in which a gun-toting maverick (Woody Harrelson) searches for the last Twinkie on earth. Yet there was some consolation for farsighted junk-food addicts who had stocked up on Hostess sweets before the supply cutoff; Twinkies are jokingly rumored to have a shelf life of 47 years. Fortunately the brand’s iconic treats returned to supermarket shelves in July 2013.
Whoopie pies originated in Pennsylvania Amish country, where it’s said that farm wives made the sandwich-like, cream-filled chocolate cakes from leftover batter and icing to tuck into their husbands’ and children’s lunch pails. The recipients allegedly yelled “Whoopie!” when they found them. The readily portable goodies found their way to Maine, where they were later named the official state treat (as opposed to the official state dessert, blueberry pie), and to other parts of the country. Whoopie pies have also surfaced in sophisticated food circles, undergoing the same sort of gentrification bestowed upon the formerly mundane cupcake. They now appear at Magnolia Bakery, the Manhattan shop that made cupcakes a national craze, and they have been sold in the upmarket Williams-Sonoma catalog—for $49.95 a dozen. The annual Whoopie Pie Festival in Strasburg, Pennsylvania, salutes the treat with a whoopie pie eating contest, a whoopie pie checkers game and the coronation of the Whoopie Pie Queen. The prize for the largest whoopie pie goes to the citizens of South Portland, Maine, who proved we could indeed have too much of a good thing in 2011 when they concocted a whoopie pie weighing 1,062 pounds and containing 2 million calories.
In 1919, just as America was about to go dry under Prohibition, the company that would become Hostess introduced its now legendary CupCake. The package containing two chocolate-iced chocolate cupcakes was an instant hit (though clearly no replacement for liquor). Around the end of World War II, perhaps because so many American fighting men had been introduced to elaborate European pastries, Hostess fancied up its CupCakes, adding cream filling and a squiggly, looping line of white frosting across the top.
Baby boomers grew up with Hostess snacks, but they have become discerning gourmands in recent years. They wonder if CupCakes are too sugary and preservative-laden. Isn’t it a little weird the way they can sit around on 7-Eleven shelves for weeks without going stale? Why eat a packaged cupcake when fresh-baked ones are available on almost every corner these days? Yet even in this age of cupcake gentrification, Hostess sold more than 600 million CupCakes in 2011. That may be enough to encircle the earth, but it wasn’t enough to keep the company out of bankruptcy. In November 2012 Hostess announced it would turn off its ovens for good, but the brand was resurrected under new ownership in 2013.
Ground zero for the cupcake craze may be Magnolia Bakery, a small shop that opened at the corner of Bleecker and 11th Streets in New York City in 1996, but cupcakes originated two centuries before. The “cake to be baked in small cups” first appeared in an American cookbook in 1796. Magnolia, though, gets credit for renewing interest in what had become a symbol of midcentury suburban domesticity. Cupcake specialty shops like Magnolia are now fixtures on the American landscape, and Magnolia has opened branches around the world. Martha Stewart, not one to miss out on a domestic trend, published the best-selling cookbook Martha Stewart’s Cupcakes (2009). The Food Network airs Cupcake Wars, a series in which contestants compete to create the tastiest, best-looking cupcakes. Towers of cupcakes are replacing traditional tiered wedding cakes, and cupcake blogs proliferate on the internet, where cupcake is among the most searched terms. Not only have cupcakes been gentrified, surfacing in yuppie flavors like Earl Grey tea, but some demographers also claim they contribute to gentrification themselves. A cupcake shop’s opening is a sure sign that a neighborhood is on the upswing. In other words, bake it and tony sweet tooths will come.
In French novelist Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, the taste of a small, buttery madeleine cake releases a flood of the narrator’s childhood memories: “No sooner had…the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure invaded my senses.” Many Americans feel likewise when biting into a whoopie pie, an omnipresent treat at roadside stops in some Eastern states. Unlike Proust’s dainty crumb nibbling, however, a bold bite delivering a mouthful of dense cake and gooey frosting is the best way to tackle a whoopie pie (fittingly called a “gob” in some parts of Pennsylvania).
These are traditionally filled with vanilla cream (made with heaping quantities of shortening and confectioners’ sugar, plus vanilla extract). Mainers sometimes frost theirs with Marshmallow Fluff, a jarred confection invented in 1917 in nearby Massachusetts. Some Pennsylvanians may find Fluff a desecration, but they’re in no position to hurl frosting at anyone. The state’s annual Whoopie Pie Festival in Strasburg showcases a challenging flavor assortment—coconut, banana, peanut butter, more than 100 in all—any one of which may imprint a memory or two.
Comedian and author Amy Sedaris dispenses unorthodox hostess tips, such as filling your medicine chest with loose marbles to embarrass nosy guests, and her “epicurean” tastes generally run to cheese balls and frozen chicken wings. You’d think she would be a prime customer for canned frosting, but her vanilla cupcakes with vanilla buttercream icing are a semiserious matter. She has even sold them now and again at Joe, a popular New York City coffeehouse, and her frosting recipe is featured on Epicurious.com, the gourmet cooking website. Admittedly, some disgruntled bakers have posted uncomplimentary remarks. “It had the consistency of Play-Doh,” grumbled one. “Tastes horrible,” another naysayer succinctly stated.
Magnolia Bakery, however, earns raves for its thick, rich buttercream frosting. Even Martha Stewart has given the creamy concoction her seal of approval. Part of the secret of making frosting that tastes good, Magnolia bakers reveal, is to make sure it looks good, too. They forgo a pastry bag and use a spatula when icing cupcakes, creating inch-high seductive swirls of sugary bliss that, among other hues, are tinted orange in autumn and lavender in spring, a lovely and delicious way to mark the passage of time.