Appears in
Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets

By Darra Goldstein

Published 2015

  • About

cupcakes are small, round, individual, iced snack cakes. Like muffins, they are sold with the fluted paper liners in which they are baked. The name “cupcake” was likely suggested by the cake called “cup cake,” which emerged in the early nineteenth century as a quick and frugal alternative to pound cake, the best-loved company cake of the day. See pound cake. In its original form, cup cake was a clever novelty in two different senses, both having to do with “cup.” First, so it would be quick and easy to make, its ingredients were measured by the cup rather than weighed—then the usual practice when making cake—and, in most recipes, the measures followed some easily remembered formula, such as the favorite: 1 cup butter, 2 cups sugar, 3 cups flour, and 4 eggs. Second, to permit the cake to be made cheaply, with a minimum of butter and eggs, it was baked in individual molds, most often teacups or coffee cups, in which this rather dense, floury cake rose higher and lighter than if baked in a single large pan. The only alternative to cup baking would have been to leaven the cake with soda, but in the thinking of the day, soda was unacceptable in “nice” cakes meant for company, even quick, frugal cakes like cup cake. By the end of the nineteenth century, that thinking had changed, and cup cake, at least commonly, had acquired both soda and milk and had come to be baked in large pans, becoming the cake Americans still know today as the 1-2-3-4 yellow cake. See cake.