Food March 2009

Not So Guilty Pleasure

If only somebody could get the cupcake right
Iwan Bagus
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Video: "The Frosting on the Cupcake"

Corby Kummer explains the cupcake craze and demonstrates how to do a proper taste test.

Cloyingly cute cupcake shops may seem passé in New York, but they continue to thrive there, and new ones seem to open across the land by the month. Silly and disappointing as most of these shops are, the craze is worth keeping—if only, like the audiences at La Scala, to keep applauding till the performers do better.

A good cupcake has all the frosting you really want at a birthday party but can’t ask for. It’s celebratory but restrained, a suitably small indulgence for tough times. And, surprisingly, a cupcake can be a smaller indulgence than a wholesome-seeming muffin: under the icing, as any baker knows, there’s practically no difference.

Far be it from me to advocate eating Hostess cupcakes: they symbolize the industrial depredation of anything homemade, the triumph of Big Baking Brother (perhaps in his death throes: Interstate Bakeries, the company that makes them, Twinkies, and Wonder Bread, has been in bankruptcy since 2004). And yet a Hostess cupcake has 180 calories. A blueberry muffin at a typical Starbucks has 360—the same amount as a lavishly iced Starbucks chocolate cupcake. The un-iced chocolate cream-cheese muffin has 440. Might as well have a breakfast you’ll enjoy!

Cupcakes may be largely icing-delivery vehicles, but the cake shouldn’t be cardboard and the icing shouldn’t be grease—twin concepts few artisan bakers (artisan being the new word for homemade) seem to get. Cooked French buttercream, which many of them choose (it shows off Technique), is not a suitable cupcake icing. It’s oily. It smears. A simple glaze—think Hostess, but with good chocolate—is. And best is the simple icing that for many people evokes childhood: butter beaten with confectioner’s sugar and milk and vanilla, light-textured and creamy but with a satisfying snap when you bite into it. Because this icing, when made with shortening, says “cheap supermarket cake” to artisan bakers, they shun it.

New York’s Magnolia Bakery, which used this icing to launch the craze, gets it right—but its cake has almost no flavor, as a blindfolded tasting with my 14-year-old niece proved. Neither of us could tell the difference between vanilla, chocolate, and red-velvet cake, which to be fair never tastes like anything—it has a bit of cocoa and a lot of food coloring, and seems to be popular for its usual cream-cheese icing. And all the samples, though fresh, were dry. (When people say that homemade cupcakes are always better, they generally mean fresher. Most homemade cupcakes start with a mix.) Buttercup, started by a disaffected Magnolia founder, had much better cake but less-interesting icing, and better than both was another Magnolia offshoot in the city, Sugar Sweet Sunshine.

You have to get over the names. Then you have to get over the novelties, like the rum-soaked Mojito with lime icing and the corn-dog-style mock Twinkie at Kickass Cupcakes, a typically whimsical and cheery shop in Somerville, near Boston. The only just-right cupcake I’ve found so far was at Baked and Wired, a hip Georgetown café. The plain white icing on its “birthday” cupcake (pictured here) had exactly the right crackle when I bit into it, and the chocolate cake was moist, airy, and not too rich.

The main difference between a cupcake and a muffin is a light, open crumb, Flo Braker, expert baker and author of the new and long-awaited Baking for All Occasions, told me. She has reformulated a recipe in her book for Atlantic readers, for maximal lightness; you can find it at theatlantic.com/cupcakes.

The real culprit keeping cupcakes from fitting my definition of “health food” is less the icing than the plague of plenty that has invaded the entire food industry: portion size. Joanne Chang, a Boston pastry chef and restaurateur, told me that when she opened her Flour Bakery she used home-sized, two-ounce muffin tins for her muffins and cupcakes. Customers balked at paying premium prices for what they regarded as miniatures. Chang bought the four-ounce tins that virtually every bakery uses, and customers “stopped complaining”—but she didn’t stop feeling guilty that she was giving customers “enough to feed a family of four.” “We’re competing against what people see on TV,” she said with a sigh. People should look at their own muffin tins to remember what a single serving looks like.

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Corby Kummer is an Atlantic senior editor. More

Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." Julia Child once said, "I think he's a very good food writer. He really does his homework. As a reporter and a writer he takes his work very seriously." Kummer's 1990 Atlantic series about coffee was heralded by foodies and the general public alike. The response to his recommendations about coffees and coffee-makers was typical--suppliers scrambled to meet the demand. As Giorgio Deluca, co-founder of New York's epicurean grocery Dean & Deluca, says: "I can tell when Corby's pieces hit; the phone doesn't stop ringing." His book, The Joy of Coffee, based on his Atlantic series, was heralded by The New York Times as "the most definitive and engagingly written book on the subject to date." In nominating his work for a National Magazine Award (for which he became a finalist), the editors wrote: "Kummer treats food as if its preparation were something of a life sport: an activity to be pursued regularly and healthfully by knowledgeable people who demand quality." Kummer's book The Pleasures of Slow Food celebrates local artisans who raise and prepare the foods of their regions with the love and expertise that come only with generations of practice. Kummer was restaurant critic of New York Magazine in 1995 and 1996 and since 1997 has served as restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. He is also a frequent food commentator on television and radio. He was educated at Yale, immediately after which he came to The Atlantic. He is the recipient of five James Beard Journalism Awards, including the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.

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