Cupcakes Go Couture

Photo by Scott HolsteinCupcakes Go CoutureAs Miniature Delights Top Dessert Menus Across the Country, Learn How to Make ‘Em, Bake ‘Em and Enjoy ‘Em at Home

By Christy Kearney

Any way you cut the cake, cupcakes are captivatingly cute and currently one of the hottest trends in sweet eats. From birthday parties and picnics to baby showers and weddings, cupcakes are stealing the spotlight and making their mark at local bakeries, restaurants, catering companies and even stand-alone cupcake shops.

So where did the sweetheart of the baking world get its start? Well, it depends on who you ask. There are two notions, both dating back to the late 1700s and early 1800s. The first recipes for “cupcakes” originated from the way cakes were composed. People began measuring their ingredients by cupfuls instead of weighing the ingredients. For example, an early cupcake recipe may have called for three cupfuls of flour, two cupfuls of sugar and one cupful of butter.

The second theory behind cupcakes is based on the way cakes were baked at that time. People baked their cake batter in small cups such as teacups and clay dishes.

Since their sensible start more than 200 years ago, these perfectly portioned cakes have evolved and secured their spot as a staple in American society. The arrival of the Hostess cupcake in 1919 followed by the introduction of the iconic cupcake’s vanilla-crème filling and signature white squiggles in 1950 helped seal the deal for the cupcake’s success in American food culture.

The New Face of Cupcakes
In recent years, cupcakes have shed their kid-friendly personas and become the go-to goodies for parties and special events. They have made a name for themselves in a big way, being even so bold as to take center stage in the big dance of baked goods – weddings. While they are a slightly more casual option for weddings, don’t underestimate the sophisticated charm of these tasty little confections. Cupcakes now grace the covers of national culinary publications such as Gourmet and are featured as creative and cost-effective options in many wedding magazines.

In fact, the spring 2008 Florida issue of The Knot featured wedding cupcakes created by Kim Weideman, owner of Southern Style Desserts in Destin. Weideman has seen a steady increase in requests for cupcakes as an alternative to a traditional wedding cake.

“They like cupcakes because they are cute,” she says. “Some brides think they can come in and just pick a cake and don’t realize how many decisions they have to make about the cake. Cupcakes make it easy.”

Cupcakes also are ideal if the bride is having a smaller wedding but wants something grandiose.

“Cupcakes let you stack higher, they are much easier to transport, and they are a little cheaper than a wedding cake too,” Weideman says.

Yascha Becker, pastry chef at Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort, also has seen increased demand for cupcakes. He designs wedding cakes at the resort and does specialty cakes and desserts for birthdays, reunions, special events and the resort’s restaurants.

“Cupcakes are fun,” Becker says with a grin. “I think they conjure up childhood memories for a lot of us.”

Creative freedom is the best part of baking cupcakes for Becker, who studied visual arts before turning his skills to culinary and pastry arts.

“There’s no limit to them,” he says. “You can do really any flavor. There’s the cream-filled surprise on the inside or a topping on the outside. You can decorate them from just your casual birthday cupcake to your super-elegant wedding cupcakes with flowers on them.”

The Dessert in Demand
Cupcakes have become so popular that pastry chefs are opening cupcake boutiques across the country. Local chef Andi Bell was charmed by the cupcake business and operated Cupcake Beach at Destin Commons during the 2007 summer season. While the local kiosk is no longer open, Bell still sells his delicious products online at He ships fresh-baked orders nationally and ships or delivers to local customers.

“I’ve mailed them out as far west as Arizona,” Bell says. “I have to overnight them. I don’t dress them, and I send the butter cream frosting in a disposable pastry bag. They are ready to go. Anybody who’s done any kind of basic kitchen work can do it.”

A self-described surfer and music lover, Bell has named his more than 20 flavors of cupcakes after surf spots and songs, such as Love Shack (red velvet with cream cheese icing) and Endless Summer (lemon with lemon cream cheese icing). One of his most popular flavors – Key Lime Dreams – features a key lime cupcake filled with key lime pastry cream and topped with key lime butter cream icing. Bell’s vanilla cupcake was even recently named the No. 2 vanilla cupcake in the United States by The Village Voice in New York City.

Bake Your Own Cupcake
Cupcake-specific cookbooks are crowding the shelves at local bookstores, providing wannabe bakers a generous selection of tasty recipes and unique decorating ideas for their own pint-sized creations. The first step is getting the right tools – basic ingredients, cupcake pans or silicon trays, cupcake papers and an assortment of frostings and decorations.

Decorating cupcakes is a great way to get the whole family involved in the kitchen. Vicki McCain, owner of Kitchenique & Cooking School in The Market Shops at Sandestin, offers a cupcake decorating class each spring and includes hands-on cupcake decorating as part of her personalized children’s birthday parties.

To get the most out of your at-home cupcake experience, McCain recommends going in with a plan, especially if you are doing it as a project with your kids.

“Keep it simple,” she encourages. “The fun part to them is the decorating. If there is a good boxed mix out there, use it. Kids really enjoy seeing the (design) develop in front of their eyes.”

The options for decorations and toppings are endless. McCain used jellied fruit slices to form butterfly wings and large marshmallows to form bunnies during one of her spring classes.

Candies such as jellybeans, Red Hots, Gummi Bears, Gummi Worms, peanut butter cups and M&Ms always add color and texture to cupcakes, not to mention colored frostings, cookies, fruits, nuts, shredded coconut and the standards – colored sugar, sprinkles and candy confetti. For more formal affairs, make flowers out of frosting or buy small fresh flowers to top your treats. You are only limited by your imagination, so put on your baking cap and enjoy the creative experience.

Pastry chef Yascha Becker shares his favorite cupcake recipe, the Ding Dong with a perfectly paired butter cream icing easy enough to make at home.

The Ding Dong Cupcake
3¼    teaspoons baking soda
5½    tablespoons cocoa powder (dark)
1½    cups granulated sugar
1¾    cups cake flour
2    cups mayonnaise
1    tablespoon vanilla
1¼    cups fresh brewed coffee
4    whole eggs

Mix together first four ingredients. Slowly add in the wet ingredients, scrape and mix until well combined. Bake at 275 degrees for around 15 minutes until the top of muffin “bounces back” when touched.

Let cool, unmold from the muffin pan and fill with butter cream icing or your favorite flavored instant pudding. Cupcakes can then be iced or decorated as desired.

Italian Butter Cream
1⁄3    cup water
1    cup granulated sugar
3    egg whites
¼    cup granulated sugar, vanilla extract, to taste, lemon, almond, espresso or your favorite flavoring, to taste
5    sticks butter, softened

Cook the water and 1 cup of sugar to 248 degrees. (Measure using a candy thermometer.) Whip the egg whites on medium speed until foamy and slowly add ¼ cup of sugar. Add the cooked syrup and continue whipping, creating a meringue. Slowly add the butter in small chunks. The meringue will deflate and look broken but will whip together nicely. Add flavorings to taste. The butter cream is good for filling and icing cupcakes.