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Why cupcakes can’t be beaten

According to David Sax’s new book, they’re the tiny giants of the food world

Lucy Farmer | July 31st 2014

For staff birthdays we often celebrate with a cake in the office and an off-key rendition of “Happy Birthday”. Recently, we presented a colleague with a pile of gourmet marshmallows instead. He seemed pleased, and we felt fashionable for a few moments, but between chews there were murmurs that we should have stuck with cake—or even better, a cupcake each.

Cupcakes are cake in its preeminent form, and they have been the tiny giants of the bakery world for more than a decade. According to the Canadian journalist David Sax in “The Tastemakers”, his new book about contemporary food trends, it's mainly thanks to a 20-second clip in an episode of “Sex and the City” that aired in 2000. When Carrie sat on a bench outside Magnolia Bakery in New York’s West Village and took a bite from a hand-held frosted-sponge delight, a trend was born. The cupcake was instantly lifted from a kids' treat to an adult indulgence, with all the attendant sex appeal.

Several years, a thousand start-up “cupcakeries” and countless cupcake blogs later, the same food writers that raved about its rise are now heralding the fall of the cupcake. In business, there are signs that the bubble is bursting. Earlier this month, Crumbs, the American bakery chain that put most of its eggs in the cupcake basket, was forced to close its 50 stores. Magnolia Bakery is thriving because they sell other baked goods too. But the cupcake is their calling card, and there is no sweet treat in the baker’s arsenal that looks likely to overthrow it.

We’ve seen some valiant efforts. Marshmallows come in many flavours, from strawberries and cream to lemon meringue or ginger wasabi, but, let’s face it, they are just squidgy squares. Macaroons are the sophisticated choice, but they don't offer the pure childlike pleasure of sponge and frosting. Doughnuts always seem delectable, but in reality they are messy rings of grease and will never lose their Homer Simpson connotations. I’ve never seen a good-looking Whoopie Pie, and a dessert with an identity crisis (is it a cake, or a cookie?) will never lead the way. Cake pops and cake push pops are wannabe cupcakes. And the less said about cronuts (an invented croissant-doughnut pastry that is not greater than the sum of its parts) the better.

As Sax says, the cupcake has the ingredients to make it a winner: they are an instant passport to childhood that can be enjoyed by adults; they are easy to make; they are cute with undertones of sexy (thanks to Carrie); and they are endlessly versatile in flavour and appearance (flowers, owls or an Angry Bird anyone?). They can also be a solo indulgence or multiplied for a celebration. Oh, and they are a single-serve sugar hit that just tastes darn good.

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