From Cups to Sprinkles

It was a warm summer day in downtown Portland and I needed a treat. I wanted something chocolate and sweet, but nothing I could get at a grocery store. I considered getting ice cream at a Ben and Jerry’s nearby, but as I walked up to it a small shop caught my eye. It was Cupcake Jones, a cupcake bakery right next to Ben and Jerry’s. I was intrigued and at the last minute I stepped into Cupcake Jones. It was very small; there was only enough room to order at the counter. Inside the counter was dozens of fresh, “jumbo” and “mini” cupcakes. There were several types of appetizing cupcakes, with flavors that ranged from cookie dough to red velvet and lemon. I had no idea which cupcake to try and with a line out the door behind me I felt the pressure. Finally, I chose Peter’s Chocolate Mint. It was a good choice.

The moment the cupcake was handed to me, I fell in love. The Peter’s Chocolate Mint cupcake was a dark, devil’s food cake with plenty of fudge frosting and chocolate mint sauce. To top it off, there was an Andes mint nestled in the frosting. It was a gorgeous treat and it tasted just a good as it looked. The cake was moist and rich, and the frosting light and fluffy. It tasted like it smelled; the chocolate was prominent with just a hint of mint. When I thought I couldn’t have found a more perfect cupcake, the cupcake became even better. In the center of the cupcake was a little surprise: chocolate mint ganache.  At that moment I knew Cupcake Jones knew what they were doing.

My first encounter with Cupcake Jones was merely the tip of the iceberg. After visiting that bakery, I began to notice cupcake bakeries popping up all over Portland. And the shops were doing well. More and more people were buying bakery cupcakes over store bought/boxed mixes. The cupcake trend had taken over. But when did this begin, and why? Why, all of a sudden, were cupcakes so popular?

The idea of an individualized sized cake is nothing new. Portion sized baked goods have been popular for a long time, starting around the 19th century, and the cupcake made its first debut in 19th century American households. It began as a way to save time in the kitchen because the small treats baked faster than whole cakes. The name “cupcake” even came from the baking technique used to make the small cakes. Before the 20th century there weren’t any muffin pans like the ones we use today, so the cakes were baked in cups. But that isn’t the only reason why these delicious cakes were named “cupcakes”. The original recipes called for cups of ingredients, like flour and milk. One of the first recipes for cupcakes, found in the cookbook Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats written by a Lady of Philadelphia in 1828 (p 61),  shows how they got their namesake from both ideas.

“Cup cake. 
5 eggs.
Two large tea-cups full of molasses.
The same of brown sugar, rolled fine.
The same of fresh butter.
One cup of rich milk.
Five cups of flour, sifted.
Half a cup of powdered allspice and cloves.
Half a cup of ginger.

Cut up the butter in the milk, and warm them slightly. Warm also the molasses, and stir it into the milk and butter: then stir in, gradually, the sugar, and set it away to get cool. Beat the eggs very light, and stir them into the mixture alternately with the flour. Add the ginger and other spice, and stir the whole very hard. Butter small tins, nearly fill them with the mixture, and bake the cakes in a moderate oven.”

Which ever way the treat got it’s name, it stuck and began to grow in popularity.

Fast forward to the 20th century when the cupcake began to evolve. Shortly after World War One, the muffin tin was being used along with the new invention of the paper cupcake baking cups/liners we use today. Also, packaged cupcakes were becoming commercialized by Hostess. Cupcakes could now be bought in stores, which was the big thing until boxed cupcake mixes emerged.

Boxed mix cupcakes I made in February, 2013.

Boxed mix cupcakes I made in February, 2013. Photo credit: Katie Neubert

Boxed, or dry, mixes have always been my go-to when I want to make cupcakes. Making them by scratch is a messy project and requires a lot of time. But when I grab a boxed mix all I have to do is add eggs, water and oil and voila! I have a delicious batch of cupcakes within 30 minutes. This resourceful way of baking  has been around since the late 19th century, but there had been issues with boxed cakes until Betty Crocker made a successful batch of  boxed Ginger Cake in 1947. From there, General Mills and Betty Crocker began selling more flavors and soon boxed mixes became a staple in the world of cupcakes.

All throughout my childhood, the cupcake had been a special thing. It was saved for special occasions, like birthday parties or weddings. When I was in elementary school, any time someone had a birthday in my class, it was an unspoken rule that his/her mother had to bring cupcakes in for the class. They would be store bought cupcakes and came in two different flavors: chocolate and vanilla. Each kid would get one cupcake, except for the birthday kid who got to take home the extras. This happened for six years straight without fail. Those days, when I got to eat a sugar filled cupcake, were the best. Birthdays were my favorite days in school.

But then something changed in the cupcake world. Cupcakes became fancy, with all sorts of different flavors and designs ranging from red velvet to marbled. When people wanted cupcakes, they bought individual cupcakes, not whole boxes. And all of this sparked from a little television show called Sex and the City.

Sex and the City began in 1994 as a show about four women living in New York City. It is an iconic show that every American knows of, whether or not they have watched a single episode. The show has influenced American culture in many ways, including fashion, alcohol and women’s sexuality. To top it all off, the show took place in New York City and the characters visited many New York shops.

One shop that was introduced in Sex and the City was Magnolia Bakery. It’s a small bakery that has a wide variety of cakes and cookies, but the main focus is cupcakes thanks to Sex and the City. The episode “No Ifs, Ands, or Butts” in the third season showed a scene of Carrie and Miranda sitting outside Magnolia Bakery eating pink frosted cupcakes, which have now been named “Carrie Cupcakes” by the bakery with a description of “Where it all began.”

That scene in Sex and the City is literally what brought Magnolia Bakery, and cupcakes, to fame. New Yorkers and tourists began flocking to the bakery, sometimes waiting in lines that wrapped around the block. Everyone wanted a taste of the delicious Carrie Cupcake, and from the initial visit people realized that Magnolia’s cupcakes were something they had to have. And so began the cupcake trend.

Since trying my first bakery cupcake at Cupcake Jones, I’ve been obsessed with eating small bakery cupcakes. They are multiple bakeries in Portland, but when I moved down to Orange, CA I had no idea where I could find cupcakes. Coincidentally, I ended up living in an area close to where the face of the cupcake trend began.

My first visit to Sprinkles Cupcakes location in Newport Beach, CA.

My first visit to Sprinkles Cupcakes location in Newport Beach, CA. Photo credit: Katie Neubert

Sprinkles is chain gourmet cupcake company with many locations. It first opened in 2005 in Beverly Hills, claiming to be the “world’s first cupcake-only bakery.” Even if it wasn’t the world’s first cupcake-only bakery, it sparked something in the cupcake trend. Many cupcakeries have been inspired by Sprinkles, and the word “Sprinkles” is on the tip of every cupcake connoisseur’s tongue. It has become the face of the cupcake trend.  Now in 2013, the company has opened thirteen locations across the U.S., four of which are located in Southern California. Luckily, they have a location in Newport Beach. I decided to make a trip out there to see what the Sprinkles craze was all about.

When I visited Sprinkles, I got exactly what I expected: a small shop with a minimalist approach. The busy shop bustled with customers like bees making honeycomb.. Though there was no line, people were bustling in and out of the small shop. I waited at the counter for my turn to order a cupcake, and soon I was greeted by a cheery employee, Lexi. When she had a moment, I asked her a couple questions about Sprinkles’ involvement in the cupcake trend.

“Why do you think Sprinkles has become ‘the face’ of the cupcake trend?” I asked. She wasn’t entirely sure, and for a minute looked at the other employees for an answer. Finally, she said that it was probably because Sprinkles was the first cupcake shop established. Everyone heard of Sprinkles before other small bakeries specialized in cupcakes. Also the owner, Candace Nelson, stars on the Food Network’s Cupcake Wars as a judge. The advertisement of  Sprinkles has shot through the roof, and now they have expanded locations and to ice cream topped with cupcakes.

After I asked Lexi my questions about the cupcakes I ordered a cupcake for myself. It was hard to choose because of the variety of flavors. When most cupcakeries have maybe five flavors, Sprinkles had at least seven or eight. But those were only the ones made on Fridays, the entire menu consists of twenty-nine flavors including vegan, gluten free and dog treats. Eventually I decided on the Smores cupcake, a cupcake with whipped toasted marshmallow frosting with dark chocolate cake. On the bottom of the cake was a thin layer of graham cracker crumbs. The inside was filled with a chocolate ganache that, as I was told by the cashier, will melt when microwaved. When I took a bite, I was taken back to memories of sitting around a campfire trying to create the perfect smore. Who knew I could find that perfection at a cupcake bakery?

But what makes a gourmet cupcake different from store bought? Why are people making the switch from boxed mixes to bakery cupcakes? The most obvious reason is that the cupcakes are fresh. Store bought cupcakes  sit in containers while bakeries are continually baking fresh cupcakes throughout the day. But there has to be some other reason. Is it the decor, the frosting, or just the fact that it’s trendy to buy cupcakes? Lexi, the Sprinkles employee, helped me answer these questions.

My first Sprinkles cupcake: Smores cupcake with marshmallow frosting.

My first Sprinkles cupcake: Smores cupcake with marshmallow frosting. Photo credit: Katie Neubert

Let’s talk about frosting. As an avid cupcake eater, I have never cared about the cake unless there was something wrong with it. I do enjoy a moist cake, but I never care that it’s dense or airy. Aside from flavors, I can’t tell the difference between cakes. What I focus on is the frosting. Even though the frosting is there to compliment the cake, it’s the main event. The frosting is the most decorative piece and is where creativity is seen. Lexi agreed with me, saying “the cake takes a long time to bake but the frosting is more tedious.” That being said, there is a wide variety of cupcake frosting. Cream cheese, fudge, butter cream and vanilla are seen most at cupcake bakeries though each shop creates new flavors. At Cupcake Jones the coco cabana cupcake is frosted with coconut cream cheese with toasted coconut on top and Sprinkles’ Smores cupcake has whipped, toasted marshmallow frosting. Each cupcake shop has it’s own special frosting that cannot be bought in stores. Perhaps that is the reason why people are making the switch. They are becoming tired of plain vanilla and chocolate frosting. Besides, why buy plain, store bought cupcakes with plain frosting when bakeries are creating new and exotic (for a cupcake, at least) frosting flavors?

When I asked Lexi about why people are willing to pay for expensive gourmet cupcakes, she brought up a valid point. “I’ve heard people say that store bought cupcakes are more dry. And that the frosting doesn’t taste like it should. Like cream cheese frosting doesn’t taste like cream cheese. It’s just better quality. People are willing to pay $3.50 for one cupcake instead of $3.50 for an entire box of store bought because our cupcakes are better. I think it comes down to quality over quantity.”

Customers agree. I took a survey of 50 Chapman students asking which type of cupcake they preferred (gourmet or store bought) and why. An overwhelming result of about 91% of students preferred gourmet cupcakes, and all of them said it was because the quality of the cupcakes was better. It was amusing to find that one student even commented at the end of his/her response (he/she preferred gourmet) with “might be biased from Sprinkles, though.”

After seeing that small bakery cupcakes are more fun, better quality and homemade it makes me wonder how people could buy anything other than these bakery cupcakes. One student in my survey argued that store bought cupcakes are more readily available. Which might have been true a couple years ago, but because the cupcake trend has grown so much it isn’t much of an argument anymore. In just Orange County there are at least ten good cupcakeries, all of which are within 30 minutes driving time from where I live. The closest is just a five minute walk. In Portland there are eleven top rated cupcakeries, but there is also an abundance of bakeries and coffee shops that sell cupcakes. Finding a cupcakery near you isn’t much of an issue anymore.

But bakeries aren’t open all the time. Grocery stores are usually open until midnight, and bakeries open late and close early. So how can people get their small bakery cupcake fix late at night? Sprinkles has created a solution to that: the cupcake ATM.

cupcake ATM is exactly what it seems like. Like a bank ATM, it stands by itself and is open 24/7. That’s right. You can get cupcakes at all times of the day. You don’t even have to go to a shop. So far, there is only one location in Beverly Hills. But I’m sure as time goes on more cupcake ATMs will begin to pop up.

From small beginnings on Sex and the City to cupcake ATMs, the cupcake trend has always been a trend people obsess over. The small bakeries just produce better quality, exciting and delicious cupcakes that make us drool. Even though these cupcakes are slightly more expensive than store bought, they are worth it. And on that note, I think I will treat myself with a cupcake.

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