by Sara Mead
The neighborhood my office is in has a new street vending truck–Curbside Cupcakes. I learned this yesterday when I went to the ATM. Not because the Curbside Cupcakes truck was parked outside the bank, mind you–I’m not that observant. N0, the Curbside Cupcakes truck had caused a long line at the ATM, as people walked past the truck on the street; just had to have a cupcake; learned the truck took only cash, not credit; still really, really had to have a cupcake; and popped into the bank to grab some cash. My first thought: Strategic location selection on Curbside Cupcakes’ part. My second thought: Maybe this whole cupcake thing has gone just a wee bit too far.
Now, to be clear, I’m not knocking cupcakes in general. They’re miniature! They’re whimsical! They’re vaguely childlike! They’re sugary and very much not good for me! In other words, pretty much the kind of thing I, by definition, have to love. But it’s time to stand up to the hegemony of schmancy pants boutique cupcake stores. They’ve already taken over the tonier and gentrifying quarters of New York City, and now every time I turn around, it seems like there’s a new cupcake joint popping up in D.C.–in Chinatown, in DuPont, now on the street outside my office (Georgetown is not worth mentioning). I say: Enough is enough!
What’s my beef with schmancy cupcakes?
Let’s start with the basics: They’re damned expensive. I mean, $3(+!) for a grade-schooler’s treat that fits in the palm of my hand and is history in a few short bites? For something I can make dozens of myself for far less money? Really? Okay, I know, I know, I’m a cheapskate. But–really?
Of course, the high price of the cupcakes is tied up with something else about them that annoys me even more–the trendiness and snobbery. Most of the schmancy cupcake places I’ve seen are peddling not just tasty treats, but a sort of high-end vision of cupcake-based luxury–the shiny glass cases, the little pastry stands, the beautifully shaped frosting, the precious little box they put your single cupcake in for you (as if you’re not going to snarf that thing the second you step out of the store) and the even more noxiously adorable sticker they put on it. It resembles nothing so much as a jewelry store and practically screams–THIS, MY FRIENDS, IS NO CORNER BAKERY COOKIE! I AM A WOMAN OF REFINED TASTES! Even the long lines are about the notion that this is something SO special and magical it’s worth wasting half an hour of your time to get that box and show you’ve been at the trendy place.
But then we get to the fundamental sin of the schmancy cupcakes. They’re just not that good. Seriously. Every time I’ve eaten one, I’ve been disappointed. For starters, they just don’t taste as good as they look–a fundamental food sin in my book. But let’s get down to details. The cake part is always a bit harder and drier than I consider optimal in a cupcake. At first I thought it was because I’d gotten unlucky and gotten stale cupcakes. But I’m now pretty certain that this more styrofoamish consistency is a requirement to enable normally very delicate cupcakes to stand up to the rigors of mass production and marketing. But the cupcake itself is a delight compared to the frosting. Okay, those towering curlicues of frosting look cool, but they don’t actually make for good eating. They’re often too high, making it awkward if not impossible to get a proper frosting+cake bite of your cupcake. Holding that shape requires frosting harder than optimal. And the frosting itself is often overly cloying. I don’t care for it.
Also–Red Velvet cake is actually not a very good flavor. I find it fascinating that a slightly off-putting chemical reaction of buttermilk and cocoa, which doesn’t even really happen anymore without assistance from food coloring, has had this kind of sway on the cake-preferences of both generations of Southerners and today’s urbanite yuppies.
I believe it’s time to reclaim the cupcake. To uproot it from yuppiedom and restore it to its origins as a humble children’s lunchbox treat. It’s a move well-suited both to the increasing interest in home cookery and to the new austerity of our tight economic times. And what better way to start this process, than with some simple, traditional home-baked cupcakes? (Like I said, my problem isn’t with the cupcake itself, but with it’s increasingly obnoxious schmancification). Here’s my preferred cupcake recipe, which is both super-easy and which I’d happily put up against any of the schmancy cupcake offerings out there. I like it with a smooth and relatively thin layer of plain white frosting on top and, ideally, a little bit of colored sugar sprinkled over that before the frosting sets up fully:
- 2 cups sugar
- 1-3/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 3/4 cup HERSHEY’S Cocoa
- 2 teaspoons baking soda
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup buttermilk
- 2 eggs
- 1 cup boiling water
- 1/2 cup vegetable oil
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1. Heat oven to 350°F. Line muffin cups (2-1/2 inches in diameter) with
paper bake cups.
2. Combine dry ingredients in large bowl. Add buttermilk, eggs, water, oil and vanilla; beat on medium speed of mixer 2 minutes (batter will be thin). Fill cups 2/3 full with batter.
3. Bake 15 minutes or until wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Remove cupcakes from pan. Cool completely. Frost.