It’s a Small World: Canning the Cupcake

13 Feb

For some reason, in this supersize nation, we prefer our burgers, fries and drinks big, and our desserts small. We are particularly smitten with one miniature dessert: the cupcake. The cupcake was once humble stuff, let’s face it. It was something a kid couldn’t mess up, and that was perfectly fine if made from a box, frosted any old way, with rainbow sprinkles in either foil or pink, yellow, or blue paper cups. But sometime in the late 1990s in the heart of the West Village, or so legend goes, the cupcake got a makeover.

I am not going to lie, I was crazy for cupcakes. In the beginning.

Living in the Village between 2001 and 2004, I found myself taking the walk and standing in the long lines at Magnolia Bakery with friends on several occasions. I think maybe once during all those visits, I ordered a dessert other than a cupcake. There was something infectious about Magnolia. As one friend told me, it reminded her of her grandmother’s kitchen. There weren’t a lot of cupcake flavors at the time, from what I remember (vanilla, chocolate, red velvet, and maybe one other–primitive times for the cupcake, I know), but the bakery evoked nostalgia, and home, and the cupcakes were always so perfectly coiffed with their pastel domes of mile high icing. I was partial to the lavender ones with chocolate cake. I usually ended up scraping off half the icing though before consuming–otherwise, I’d go into sugar shock.

And now, in 2011, D.C. alone has countless cupcake bakeries. More than I can count on two hands. And even the  generalist bakeries have entered the game. The market is definitely oversaturated at this point, but still, they come. Georgetown Cupcake is the front runner, but just to scratch the surface, there is also Red Velvet, Crumbs, Hello Cupcake,  Cupcakes Actually, Lavender Moon Cupcakery, Frosting Cupcakery, Curbside Cupcakes, Sprinkles, and the list goes on and on…The Washington Post even staged a “Cupcake Wars,” complete with brackets. And now cupcakes aren’t just for women and Sex and the City fans…even some men have jumped on board, i.e., the “manly” beer and whiskey-infused cupcakes of Butch Bakery (brought to you by a fellow NYU alum and attorney).

Admittedly, the cupcake has come a long way, and some of the bakeries are really turning out quite gourmet and “adult” flavor combinations. I don’t want to sound sour grapes and begrudge anyone their success, but I now find myself groaning at the mention of the petite treats. They are simple to make, expensive for what they are, and they are…EVERYWHERE. I write this on behalf of all the similarly tiny treats that are too easily dismissed or ignored. I echo the rally cry of D.C. pastry chef Tiffany MacIsaac, who, searching for alternatives, has bravely declared 2011 the year of the brownie.

So what are some other small treats that we can turn to in a world overpopulated by cupcakes?

1. Pies: I love pies, and have hoped for a pie renaissance for some time. There is so much you can do with pie (savory and sweet, humble to gourmet) and there is something quintessentially American about the dessert. D.C. proper has one pie shop, and hopefully this is just the beginning. And mini pies can be just as adorable as cupcakes.

Mini Pumpkin Pies

2. Tartlets: equally cute, with limitless fillings and garnishes, some are so tiny that they can be eaten in a couple of bites. If you don’t like pastry cream, try them with ganache, or a fruit curd, or frangipane, just to scratch the surface of options.

Fruit Tartlet Filled with Pastry Cream

Chocolate Ganache Tartlet with Candied Orange Zest

3. Petits fours glaces: these small layered and glazed cakes (petit four means “little oven” in French) are labor intensive, but delicate and bite-sized, and worth all the hard work at the end of the day. Definitely not an every day sort of treat like the pies, tartlets, or cupcakes, but a beautiful alternative for individual-sized wedding desserts.

4. Cookies: Sometimes they get lost in the shuffle. And when Americans think of cookies, I daresay we are more apt to imagine large, pedestrian Mrs. Field-sized chocolate chips. But cookies can be elegant and miniature and charming, e.g., harlequins (with raspberry filling),

Harlequin Cookies

arrachides (with peanut butter filling and half dipped in chocolate),

Arrachide Cookies

or checkerboard ice box cookies.

Checkerboard Icebox Cookies

On the other hand, sometimes, when all is said and done, nothing is as uplifting as a well-made chocolate chip or oatmeal cookie.Big  or small. Not even a cupcake.

 Postscript: Check out my feature article entitled “Dessert Wars: Unseating the (Cup)Cake Boss in October 2011’s issue of Northern Virginia Magazine. It currently appears only in the print edition, but by November, the article will be available in the online archive. Meanwhile, you can read the online continuation here.

One Response to “It’s a Small World: Canning the Cupcake”


  1. Minis, Memoirs, King Cake and Kinship: What I’m Reading « tortefeaster - March 7, 2011

    […] as a post-script to my last post on cupcake alternatives, I brought a book on vacation with me that may not be your typical beach reading, called Sweet […]

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