Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Speculating about Causes: Cupcake Craze

While some seem to think that the cupcake craze is over and are lobbying hard for the resurgence in pie as the new (old) dessert trend, I'm still standing firm in cupcakes' staying power.  I ought to because in the past two days I made 125 cupcakes in 5 different flavors.

I went through:
4 1/2 lbs. powdered sugar
1 lb.margarine
1 lb. vegetable shortening
1/2 lb. cream cheese

And that was just for the frosting alone.

No doubt this trend is reflected in popular media--Cupcake Wars on Food Network is my favorite nod to the cupcake, but if I had to speculate the causes for the cupcake trend, here's what I'd come up with:

1. Cupcakes appeal to our desire for individuality.   With multiple flavor/ icing combinations, it's possible to pick the cupcake that most perfectly expresses yourself.

2.  Cupcakes are fun, whimsical, and appeal to our inner child.  As a culture, we seem to be fearful of growing old or admitting we are grown older, so cupcakes help us maintain the illusion that we are still young.

3. Cupcakes, unlike a layer cake or a cheesecake, do not require sharing, and thus feel extra indulgent.

4. Cupcakes allow for variety and creativity in ways not possible with larger desserts.  I see this mostly from the pastry chef's perspective.  Cupcakes are a lower risk than a 7 layer cake, and since cupcakes are cheaper, patrons are much more willing to go risky with their cupcake flavors.  Bacon Buttercream anyone?

5. Cupcakes seem like a less guilt-ridden choice because they're small and cute.  Again, this relates to our self-delusions.  It's such a tiny little cupcake, it can't have that many calories, can it?

6. Cupcakes are adaptable to special diets.  Due to their small size, cupcakes are easier to adapt to gluten free and vegan recipes without compromising texture than other larger cakes.  Plus, add this to the individuality thing, and you can easily accommodate the vegans, celiacs, and omnivores all with their own cupcake.

When my friend Andrew and I discussed having a joint 30th Birthday party (our birthdays are only 3 days, 2 hours, and 17 minutes apart.)  I was pretty neutral in the planning.  I was only adamant on one thing.  There must be cupcakes, lots of fun, frivolous, and fabulous cupcakes.  For a cocktail party, cupcakes also make sense because they can be eaten nearly as easily as a canape.  As I tend to do, I may have went a little overboard.  On the cupcake menu:

Chocolate with chocolate buttercream and chocolate sprinkles
Red Velvet with cream cheese frosting and rainbow sprinkles
Butter Pecan with cinnamon spice cream cheese frosting
White Wedding Cake with raspberry buttercream
Lemon with Lavender scented buttercream

As you may know, I don't like making cake from scratch. All of these were from box mixes.  Which was fine because cake from mixes does stay moist longer--essential for the do-ahead magnitude of making hundreds of cupcakes for one event--and they were all of good quality, save for the butter pecan.  There was definately a synthetic, nearly bitter aftertaste from the laboratory-created artificial flavoring, which I was able to cleverly disguise with spicy cream cheese frosting.  Another benefit to making mix cakes was that I had more time and effort to put into the homemade frosting.  And let's just admit it, frosting is where it's at.

My favorite combination was the lemon with lavender buttercream.  The dusky, floral kiss of the lavender was perfectly contrasted with the sharp, but sweet tang of the lemon.

Lavender Scented Buttercream Frosting

This recipe calls for margarine, and this is about the only time I EVER use margarine in my kitchen.  Here's why, the margarine gives the frosting more stability.  So the name of this recipe may be misleading, but most people can't tell the difference between a frosting made with butter and one made with margarine.  That said, I have in the past used butter in place of the frosting.  It does lend a richer, fuller flavor than margarine, but the frosting will be weepy and may melt.
If you're in the Bowling Green area, you can get culinary lavender at Calico, Sage, and Thyme. 
 If you want to duplicate the purple color of the frosting, you must use Wilson paste colors as they won't thin the consistency of the frosting.  I used christmas red and indigo blue in equal colors to get purple.
 I piped the frosting on the cupcakes using a pastry bag with a star tip to get the rippled swirl pattern.
Rarely do I measure the amount of powdered sugar that I add to the frosting.  So really, trust your instincts here.  If you add too much powdered sugar, you can always add just a tad more milk.

1/2 cup non-hydrogenated vegetable shortening
1/2 cup Imperial margarine
approximately 3 1/2 cups powdered sugar
approximately 1 Tablespoon milk, soy milk, or rice milk
1 teaspoon dried culinary lavender flowers, ground finely in a mortar and pestle
Wilton paste coloring (optional)

In stand mixer, blend shortening and margarine.  Slowly add powdered sugar, half a cup at a time.  Then, add milk.  Keep adding powdered sugar until desired consistency is reached.  Add lavender and mix well.  Color with paste coloring if desired.

Makes enough frosting for about 15 cupcakes


Cindy Salo said...

I'm enchanted. With sharing a birthday with a friend, with your support of cupcakes, and especially with lavender-scented frosting.

Karen Babine said...

Yum! I'm contemplating cupcakes right now, not just for their wonderfulness, but because my niece turns a year old on Saturday and we're making her a Very Hungry Caterpillar cupcake cake. I'm ridiculously excited about it. Your timing is stupendous!

Karen said...

In visiting Molly's Cupcakes in Chicago, I came to the conclusion that a cupcake bakery is the optimal destination for a first or blind date. It's public and safe; it's whimsical; you don't look piggy eating a dainty cake; the little wrapper gives you something to do with your hands; cupcakes are innocent (thus defusing one source of first-date tension); cupcakes can also be sexy, with their frosting on your fingers (thus amping up that same tension if you want to go there). And who wouldn't be impressed with someone who suggested a destination that's pure fun? So yeah, I'm big into cupcakes. It was fun to discover your blog, too!

By the way, cake from scratch? I don't blame you for skipping all that sifting. Cake mixes are pretty good.

Karen Craigo

Sarah Lenz said...

I want to see pictures of the Hungry Catapiller cake. It sounds amazing.

I hadn't thought about cupcake bakeries being date worthy. What an excellent point you make.

Anonymous said...

Sarah, I had no idea that you don't like making cake from scratch! It is far superior than any cake mix!! The Red Velvet Cupcake recipe I gave you is soooooo good. The taste is so good and intense it floats from your taste buds into your sinus cavities and is just overwhelming!! It is the buttermilk in them. Great looking cupcakes by the way.