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There is no such thing as a great cupcake

My wife - a lovely woman and an ideal personification of the cupcake target market - recently tasked herself to try every cupcake in town. Of course, I was along for the ride.

I'm not mentioning any names - though I have my favorites - because I've come to the conclusion that there is no such thing as a great cupcake. And there can't be. By its nature, the cupcake is little more than a glorifed muffin stump.

I reached enlightenment fairly simply. All it took was a slice of full-sized cake eaten after binging on nothing but cupcakes. OK, a huge hunk of cake, indeed a massive flank of moist-est, tenderest chocolate. Nothing special of itself, and yet containing all that the cupcakes failed to deliver.

Unlike crusty breads, I find the drier, tougher outer layer of cake flesh simply less appealing than the moisty innards. Cupcakes, by their nature, have the worst tough/tender ratio of any cake. At best, a tiny oyster of pure perfection encased in a somewhat leathery layer of outer flesh. At worst, the thick, dry heel of the cake world, slathered in an insipidly sweet baum. By any measure, a lesser creation than its moister, tenderer, larger cousins that are served by the slice.

Of course, there's the undeniable nostalgia factor, the joys of grammar school when another boring day was broken up by the delivery of a box of birthday cupcakes. And maybe also those little paper tubs of ice cream with the wooden spoon affixed. Sentimental signifiers of youth for each of us of a certain age, there is a certain undeniable joy in their remembrance. But what appealed to my 10 year old palette doesn't quite hold up over the decades. In fact, who doubts that a special delievery of those youthful joys to our adult selves would fail utterly to match our memories?

So, I say forget these overpriced paeons to lost youth. Resist demographication, you post-boomer nostalgics. If you must brand yourself, then buy the t-shirt. But eat the sliced cake.

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  1. I'm with you there because I don't like frosting very much. It seems like most cupcakes have a much higher frosting to cake ratio than cakes do. Otherwise, I have nothing particularly philosophical to say about the cupcake. I actually prefer muffins with cake flavors since there is no frosting whatsoever. I shopped in a Japanese grocery that made amazing vanilla muffins with almonds on top and chocolate muffins with chocolate pieces on top. They were also < $1 each instead of the $3-6 you typically pay for a cupcake.

    1. My apologies. I had no intention of starting an entire thread about the non-greatness of cupcakes. I intended only to add my thoughts to a very long thread on the Boston Board... and somehow ended up here.

      1. Ricardo, this is actually a pretty good discussion topic, perhaps visited before, but nonetheless, I think you'll get some takers. My first thought was that you've been eating some bad cupcakes! My experience has been that a lot of the cupcake shops, and by that I mean places that only make cupcakes, don't really do it all that well. I don't know your age, but for me, growing up in the seventies, all those cupcakes eaten in schools were invariably from bakeries or from a home cook's kitchen. Different product, IMO, from what the cupcake shops are putting out. For one thing, cupcakes I ate as a kid were almost always baked in paper cups. It was probably just easier clean up that informed that choice. No leathery crust to be had there. So, childhood cupcakes were a study in soft and tender textures, by and large. When I bake at home now, I tend to bake muffins and cupcakes directly in the pan, because I enjoy the contrast of crust and soft interior. Anything you make at home is going to far exceed a store bought cupcake. The shop made ones I've had never quite get every element right. I've simply not had a perfect cupcake, except at home, and perfect is no longer what I ate as a kid, anyway.

        Never underestimate the power of "cute" when it comes to marketing to women. It's not just nostalgia for many of us, but the draw of a complex psychology involving body image issues, youth, femininity, portion control, etc. Cupcakes are probably on their way out as a trend, but will likely continue their following among women.

        1 Reply
        1. re: amyzan

          This is one woman who's with Rick. I don't get the cupcake craze. Last time I was in Manhattan, I was fascinated by the concept of a cupcake store right in Midtown, in the heart of the priciest real estate almost anywhere. But I didn't even like them as a kid.

        2. I tend to agree with you because I have never understood the cupcake fascination.

          You obviously have a gift for the written word, and for that talent I'll look for your posts in the future.

          1. I'm with you, every time I try a cup cake, even the over priced $3 ones, I'm always left wondering what the big deal is. Usually the icing is great, but time and time again the cake itself is way too dry.

            1. Perhaps there's an exciting cupcake out there, but I have yet to taste it.

              Cupcakes, in my estimation, are merely a vehicle for icing these days...

              1. I've tasted a couple of the (overpriced) cupcake offerings at markets and little shops, and they haven't lived up to the perception I have of them, and were often really dry and reminiscent of cake mixes, as pretty as they often were. But I have to say (and not only because I made them myself), the little cakes from epicurious made for a wedding were lovely and moist.

                1. I never even thought that cupcakes were great when I was a kid, so there is no nostalgia value in them for me.

                  I have never been a big frosting guy, which is no doubt why I was unimpressed with cupcakes even back then. I'm not big on dry cake either.

                  1. Add me to the list of those not understanding cupcake fascination and I am female. Cake, now that I get! But please post here more often--like Kelli2006, I really enjoyed your writing.

                    1. I don't know, my friend Allison makes some killer carrot cake and red velvet cupcakes. I haven't had many commercial cupcakes that I love,but I think it can be done. That's why I keep trying cupcakes at bakeries - I keep hoping.......

                      1. I love cake. I love frosting. And I love cupcakes. But given the choice, I'd rather have a slice of cake, because I want to have the perfect ratio of cake to frosting in each bite, which is nearly impossible to do with a cupcake unless you put it on a plate and eat it with a fork, which kind of defeats the purpose of a handheld, single serving treat. Otherwise it's inevitable - the first few bites are almost all frosting, and then at the end there's nothing but cake (often dry and tough, as noted). Layer cakes, otoh - no such issues.

                        4 Replies
                        1. re: cookie monster

                          no no no COOKIE Monster - you have to eat your cupcake as you would a cookie. Slowly, carefully, and lovingly, peel down part of the paper and take a complete bite, from top to bottom. New bite, more unpeeling. You wouldn't nibble at the top of your cookie, would you Cookie Monster? Thus defiling the integrity of said cookie?

                          This may take years of practice so I suggest you get on it right away! You've got me on the layer cake though . . .

                          1. re: cinnamon girl

                            But see therein lies the problem - one can't slowly savor a cupcake while still getting cake and frosting in each [small] bite. The technique you described results in large mouthfuls (and probably some frosting on one's nose). Cookies of course can be nibbled without being compromised.

                            1. re: cookie monster

                              The perfect way to eat a cupcake (as I discovered when I was about 5 years old) is to remove the wrapper, break off the bottom half and put it on top of the icing. No icing up the nose, no cake without icing. Even better is to skip the cupcake altogether and have a whoopie pie instead.

                              1. re: sarahjay

                                that's funny, I eat mine the same way - we call it 'frosting in the middle'.....

                        2. And I thought I was the only one in the civilized world who did not get it, cupcakes,that is. But if we are so smart, what does that say about everyone else?

                          1. I agree to a point ... because my Mother makes the most amazing pistachio pudding cupcakes every St. Patty's day with mini choc. chips and delicious homemade cream cheese frosting. That said, I am always contemplating turning this delicious morsel into an entire cake ... so I think you are onto something. =)

                            I also think they are great for kids b-day parties. I'll never forget when my Mom made cupcake hotair balloons for my 6th b-day. I am considering doing this for my own children eventually.

                            I did have a great cupcake a couple years ago at a wedding once too ... very moist and tender. This certainly doesn't happen often though.

                            5 Replies
                            1. re: DishDelish

                              Could you persuade your mom to share the recipe? They sound terriffic.

                              1. re: buttertart

                                I know that they have pistachio pudding and mini chocolate chips and almond extract, (there may even be a cake mix ...?) ... but I will get the recipe for you. =)

                                1. re: DishDelish

                                  Excellent, thanks! This sounds like something my extended family in Iowa would like.

                                  1. re: buttertart

                                    lol ok, sorry still haven't gotten it yet ... but next time I am at my Mom's I will.

                            2. I had no idea there were so many cupcake haters out there. I haven't had a storebought cupcake maybe ever, and I guess it slid right by me that there was a big retail cupcake boom going on, but I like cupcakes and cake both. Plain, fancy, it's all good. In fact, I never had any cupcakes from one of those "muffin top" pans, probably because they don't make those little paper cups for them, but I think THAT would be the bomb. May take some extra moisturizing, though. Brandy or Grand Marnier? Oh yeah...

                              My favorite decoration for cupcakes in my youth was those silver balls. That's another good thing aout cupcakes, nobody really expects a work of art on top of them. Plain or sprinkled, again, all good.

                              1. I agree when it comes to commercial cupcakes - every store-bought, gourmet or otherwise baked-for-the-masses cupcake that I've tried has failed me.
                                However, homemade cupcakes are a different story. My grandmere makes a deep chocolate cupcake with white frosting in the middle (the top segment cut out with a sharp knife and then reinserted on top of the filled cake). They are heaven in a small package - moist, not too sweet, full of chocolately flavor. I'd take one of those over a slice of cake any day! (Or maybe with a slice of cake...for comparison purposes, of course...)

                                1. Thank goodness for cupcakes! If it weren't for cupcakes, I'd have to buy a whole damn cake every time I needed a cake fix.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: jackattack

                                    My sentiments exactly, jackattack! 400 calories vs. 3,000 calories when I have an urge for cake? NO brainer.

                                    However, I finally did meet a cupcake that I liked: Kara's chocolate caramel fleur de sel: moist cake, rich ganache (not that icky sweet junk that usually passes for icing), a little caramel and fleur de sel - yum! If I ever ate that as a whole cake, I'd be in the emergency room with an overdose.

                                  2. Just had some moist, tender and flavorful pumpkin cupcakes from a local bakery called the sugarspoon last night. Yum!

                                    1. #1 - My wife makes fantastic full sized cakes - so good, that when I took one to the office to share, I ended up with four orders for birthdays, anniversaries, etc. But she takes the same recipe, and puts it into cupcake form. She rarely frosts them, usually just using a small glaze. Taste wise, you can't tell the difference.

                                      #2 - It's all about portion control. As a diabetic, I can tell you that, however much I might be tempted by a huge slice of cake, I can't eat it, and I won't even start because I know I'll probably finish. A cupcake, OTOH, gives me the same satisfaction, and doesn't send my blood sugar through the roof. Long live the cupcake!

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: FrankD

                                        This sounds great! =) It is like any food. It can be all wrong or it can be right. When it is done right, even though the general population has not tasted it done right, the few that have tasted the perfect cupcake know it is oh so right! =)

                                      2. Thank you for the thread. Cupcakes are the abomination of what make me embarrassed of America. Don't get me wrong there is nothing wrong with cupcakes, they have there place, but that is at home making them with kids. To pretend they are a pastry or some high art form is ludicrous.

                                        1. You should have been at my friend's birthday party last night when I brought out the platter of dark chocolate ganache frosted chocolate cupcakes. They were fabulous, if I do say so myself. I think cupcake papers are a key point. No dry crusty cake, just the tender, inner crumb.

                                          1. For me, the most annoying factor with cupcakes (aside from the textural difference) is that no one I have ever known or heard of serves them peeled, on a cake plate and with a fork. In my circle(s) they are always served in those damned paper cups, the sole purpose of which is to decorate the front of you with crumbs, and then your fingers and face get slimed with frosting as you try to eat. I think cupcakes at a wedding are the ultimate form of passive-aggresive hostility!

                                            1. I generally am no fan of cupcakes. In many cases, I think they're the insipidly-oversweetened epitome of a lot of suburban desserts, and more often than not there's was too much frosting (which I abhor in full-size cake and cupcake).

                                              But then I tried the mini-cupcakes at the dearly-departed Leda's Bakeshop in Sherman Oaks, and it was a total revelation. Great taste and texture, interesting flavors, in addition to thoughtful packaging... really phenomenal.

                                              Which is perhaps the point of this thread because apparently the owner was unable to keep up a feasible profit-margin making these high-quality baked goods. The cost of ingredients and labor-intensity required to make these tiny gems just really couldn't be justified for what she could charge for them and she closed down the shop. (I still weep.)

                                              I haven't eaten cupcakes since, because again, not a fan of cupcakes. But I can't say there's no such thing as great one either, because I've had them.

                                              And yes, you do need paper cups to maintain a moist and tender crumb. No paper cup=dried out cupcake.

                                              1. I am with you Ricardo, I never saw the allure of a cupcake except at a picnic. To me, a cupcake is just another food fad that the food sheep follow, kind of like foam, truffle oil and sun-dried tomatoes.

                                                Cupcakes are just another item that has been adopted, pumped way above it's station in life by the media and will shortly fade into the annals of history soon to be followed by The Next Big Thing.