Enough with the Cupcakes!

cupcake 2

photo courtesy of flickr user QuintanaRoo, used under a Creative Commons license

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:

Hershey’s Perfectly Chocolate Cupcakes:

  • 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.

20 responses to “Enough with the Cupcakes!

  1. Thank you! You could have written this about the schmancy cupcake place down the street from my office. These are the exact same complaints I have. It’s like they’re cupcake podpeople!

  2. I agree! Except for the Red Velvet thing. When it’s made properly, it’s pretty good. It’s just difficult and very time-consuming to do it properly!

    But otherwise….AMEN!

  3. “something about pots and kettles”

  4. Hear hear! Those cupcake shop cupcakes are terrible, or at least they are at the shop nearest to me. I’d much rather make my own.

    I maintain, however, that red velvet can be delicious.

  5. I was looking for a good chocolate cupcake recipe. My 10 year-old chocolate loving niece will be visiting us soon. Thanks!

    Also, check out this guy’s blog header photo. Worthy of one of your “Daily Food Porn” posts:

    http://bicsplace.blogspot.com/2009/11/ms-bics-mejillones-la-vinagreta.html

  6. moderndomestic

    Okay, so I like the cupcake trend. I like baking, I like cake, and I like that the cupcake trend has actually gotten people interested in things that have always interested me – like what is the perfect ratio of frosting to cake, if a classic all-butter buttercream ever actually tastes good (I say no), and if cake texture is improved with the addition of oil, buttermilk, or another non-butter fat.

    Which cupcake places have you been to? I agree that not all of them are good (I’ve had some really awful cupcakes in DC), but the cupcakes I’ve had at Georgetown Cupcake have been consistently good. No, not all of them are perfect, but I always find their cake to be moist and fresh, their frosting is smooth and creamy, and their flavor combinations are well chosen and strong. I’m a really avid home baker, but what they make at the store is better than what I can make at home.

    I also don’t have a problem with cupcake shops’ cute decor. I mean, do you also have a problem with a wine bar with a chic, modern decor that implies that the clientele is upscale and sophisticated? Using interior design to create “atmosphere” and enhance the buying/eating experience is a normal part of the food business – it conveys to the customer that they’re spending their money on a special experience. I don’t think it’s fair to just single out cupcake shops, when so many restaurants, bakeries, and coffee shops do the same thing.

    And as for the price tag – well, good cupcakes use expensive ingredients, a lot of those shops have high rents, and a $3 price tag is still affordable to a lot of people. I mean, considering that I’ll shell out $7 for a glass of wine at a restaurant, when I could buy the same bottle of wine at Giant for $11, spending $3 on a cupcake is pretty reasonable. I actually like that cupcakes are an affordable luxury – and that lots of people can participate in this food “trend.” Not everyone can afford to do all their shopping at the Farmer’s Market, and not everyone can afford to go out to a hot new restaurant opening, but just about everyone can afford a cupcake.

  7. Any cupcakes I’ve had at a cupcake boutique were totally underwhelming. I think the hype is mostly from people who are only exposed to preservative-packed, gummy, sugary grocery store cupcakes, and have actually never tried one that was baked from scratch. I’ve never had one any better than one I could make at home.

  8. Whew, I thought it was just me. I was flipping through a Southern Living magazine recently and found some spread on “local things we love” including some cupcake bakery where 8 “oversized” cupcakes cost $52! That’s $6.50 each – and for how much fat and calories? It amazes me in a recession as bad as this one that there are that many people who find expensive cupcakes to be a good value for the money. I’d rather bake them myself.

  9. Completely agree. If you really need to splurge on something luxurious, try visiting your local chocolatier. If you’re in DC, go to Biagio. Wow, just wow.

  10. Cupcakes I can take or leave, but the red velvet cake thing: dude, you’re insulting my heritage. And ajw93 is right: it does indeed taste good when done well! Perhaps you should visit my mom’s house, and she can give you a crash course (as I fail every time when she’s not around).

  11. This post has a bit of a “Jumping the shark jumped the shark. . . ” quality to it. The only thing more woof than cupcakes is cupcake bashing.

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  13. I totally used to agree with you BUT…when I lived in Seattle, a little cupcake joint opened. I have never tasted such good cupcakes (or good cake for that matter) as I did there. I am now a cupcake convert. Maybe you haven’t been to the right place?

  14. Thank you! I tried our local cupcake shop a few times; the cupcake was always dry. I mentioned that to the person who rang me up once, and she explained that I was just accustomed to box mixes. ????? No dearie, I’m accustomed to good cupcakes.

  15. The cupcake craze in NYC has breathed new life into the old phrase, “you are what you eat.”

  16. I mostly agree with you, but I was at a wedding recently where there was a general reception attended by everyone, and family and out-of-town guests went to a dinner afterwards.

    They served cupcakes at this reception from a place in Somerville, MA called kick-ass cupcakes. For a very large grooup it was a lot more convenient than cutting a cake would have been, and there were a lot more options, some with delicious frosting. I particularly enjoyed the mojito cupcake.

  17. I feel the same way about all those fancy schmancy tart frozen yogurt places. “Wannabe trendsetters unite!”

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  19. This post has it exactly right! Cupcakes are an obnoxious affectation.

    One additional thing to mention: No cupcake is as good as a slice of real cake (which costs about the same.)

  20. I would like anyone to share with me how you make 100,000 rice krispy bars?

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