Looking Deep Into Cupcakes

I try not to be negative, I really do, but when I see something like I did on today’s Daily Candy, for Melissa’s Cupcakes, I can’t help myself. I’m not blaming Melissa—in fact good for her for accomplishing what she set out to do—and I’m not blaming anyone who likes her cupcakes. But really. When it comes to cupcakes, when will it end?

The whole cupcake craze fascinates me. When Magnolia Bakery, which started the cupcake rolling when it opened about ten years ago in my West Village neighborhood, I liked the idea: an old-fashioned Americana bakery to appeal to New Yorkers who are so typically far from home. The fact that nothing Magnolia offered was very good—baked goods baked at too low of a temperature so they were blond and soggy instead of browned and crusty, cookies that looked so appealing displayed as they were in old-fashioned tin-topped cookie jars in which you could feel the sugar granule when you bit into them—seemed to be beside the point. There was something heartwarming about seeing the neighborhood gather around enjoying Nilla Wafer pudding and, yes, a then little known icon of another, arguably sweeter era of American life: cupcakes.

Innocently enjoying a cupcake, and subsequently creating an icon.
Innocently enjoying a cupcake, and subsequently creating an icon.

A lot of people think that Magnolia started the whole crazy but in fact, the original New York cupcakery (that I know of) is The Cupcake Cafe in Hell’s Kitchen. Long before Hell’s Kitchen, a gritty neighborhood on the west side of Manhattan where much of The Godfather was set became the name of a television show, fans of this little gem of a bakery would walk through the screened door and into the dingy space for the insider favorite, apple cider doughnuts or the cupcakes and cakes gorgeously decorated in flowers dyed in saturated colors.

In the beginning, there was The Cupcake Cafe...
In the beginning, there was The Cupcake Cafe..

In our current post-Magnolia reality, pretty much anyone who has ever creamed butter and sugar together in a mixing bowl has begun baking cupcakes. When Sprinkles opened in Los Angeles several years ago, promising a stylish cupcake made with premium ingredients (Valrhona chocolate, organic Nielson-Massey vanilla) I thought: Aren’t they a little late to catch the cupcake wave? I really and truly thought that cupcakes had had their 15 minutes. What did I know? Now Oprah has her sanctioned cupcake source. Crumbs, whose cupcakes are even grosser than Magnolia for reasons having to do with More is Not More: (think Magnolia meets Cold Stone Creamery) is spreading across the country like a bad rash. And now this: Melissa’s cupcakes the size of a quarter, giving them an extremely high cake-to-icing ratio already—but let’s not stop there: they are then filled.

Not long ago, a friend emailed me saying that all the women in her Los Angeles “mommy group” insisted that Magnolia cupcakes were the best and, she added: “I can’t help but think they must be wrong.” She was asking me what I thought were the best cupcakes. My first thought is that cupcakes by definition are not good. As far as sweets go, I I would rather have a good cookie, ice cream, fruit desserts, dark chocolate, milk chocolate: basically anything else but a cupcake. But truly, without exaggeration or irony, I’d say that though Magnolia has the cache for reasons having to do with consumer stupidity and the power of television (e.g. Sex and the City) their cupcakes are probably the worst in town. A fact that I imagine is just fine by them. I don’t believe Magnolia set out to do anything special like Sprinkles did. It would seem that their goal was to create a cupcake that imitated those our suburban parents made for our birthday parties. The fact that housewives from Middle America now form a line that wraps around the block waiting for a cupcake whose very existence is to imitate those that we New Yorkers imagine these women made for their children, a cupcake so cloying your teeth ache when you bite into it, a cupcake whose iconic status, really, is based on its mediocrity—that’s where I think that we as a people may be in trouble, or that we might at least want to look at what it is we are looking for in these cupcakes. A taste of New York it is not. A taste of stardom? Or a bite of nostalgia from a childhood we only wished we had?


15 thoughts on “Looking Deep Into Cupcakes

    1. wow, thank you. and here i am writing in the closet (my mom doesn’t even know the url) with my brand new blog. you’ve given me the courage to go on, like putting french fry oil in the biodiesel mercedes of my mind. (no, i drive a bmw….)

  1. I don’t get the whole cupcake thing either, but I never got Sex and the City — who are those women, and why would I want to be anything like them? That said, if Melissa’s cupcakes have a huge amount of icing, then their cake-to-icing ratio is extremely low, not high.

  2. I think cupcakes can be good, but so many of the ones you find out there are most certainly not. I don’t understand the wholesale obsession with them, either, but Sex and the City has a lot to answer for, as it’s created armies of mindless trendoids anxious to taste what they’ve seen on teevee.

    The Magnolia cupcake is too dry, crumbly, and has way too much (and way too sweet) icing. It’s awful.

  3. Thank you for expressing your feelings about Magnolia. It is great to hear someone secure enough to write what seems to me to be the absolute truth. The stuff is horrible and for those of us who bake high quality goods for a living, it is tough to watch the line ups for what is less than mediocre. If we baked dry tastless and overly sweet cup cakes whose icing is too greasy as well, our customers would return them to us and refuse to pay! It is clear that their success is a result of a publicity machine that must have cost a lot but was well worth it in the end. There was a time I could not pick up a magazine or newpaper and not read about Magnolia. Publicity like that, as we all know, is never free. From a PR standpoint they did a great job of selling bad baked goods to a public that obviously has no taste either. In the real world your company does not get featured on a major TV show without the connections necessary to pull that off. Now Magnolia was sold to someone else who is opening branches of this place all over. Just what everyone needs, more bad cup cakes! As for Crumbs, another disgrace, and they are opening branches all over too! Go figure. Can it be that the public is that numb? In the days when we started our bakery the public was always craving something new, cutting edge, delicious and would analyze the hell out of everything they put in their mouth. Now it seems we have hoards of people who just line up and eat what other people and the press tell them is good. Too bad. Where are the food critics who can taste the secret ingredients in a chocolate cake or who can explain the nuances of a particular flavor, or have they been told “hands off” while Magnolia runs to the bank? Believe me it has been a mystery to me too.

  4. Dear Carolynn,

    After reading your article, my family and I were curious when your last visit to our bakery was. Did you know that we acquired Magnolia from the original owner about 2 years ago and have worked tirelessly to address many of the very issues you brought up? As newish owners, we are very open to feedback from our clients. Our mission is to make the best products we possibly can, from fresh, quality ingredients and baked in small batches throughout the day. We care enormously about our products, our staff, the physical space we provide, and all the little details that hopefully make most people’s visit to the bakery a positive experience. I know we can never please all the people all the time but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. And we do.

    I would personally like to invite you to meet with me at the bakery to sample some of the many wonderful products we make here. I would appreciate having the opportunity to hear any thoughts or feedback you might have. Magnolia is a process in the sense that each day is another opportunity to be better. We take that challenge quite seriously. We don’t rest on someone else’s laurels. This is our family’s business so it means everything to us and we put our heart and soul along with a good dose of butter and sugar into it every day.

    I hope to hear from you and meet with you in early 2009.

    All the best,

    Tyra Abrams
    Owner Magnolia Bakery

  5. Carolynn, I totally concur with your cupcake assessment. I like cupcakes because I love frosting, specifically buttercream. I used to love Cupcake Cafe but at some point a few years ago the cake went from being moist and buttery to dry and merely a support for the elaborate frosting. Magnolia–forget it. NYMag did a tasting a few years ago of which I was part. The confectioner’s sugar made everyone’s teeth hurt. I had a Billy’s red velvet for my birthday which was good, but I don’t understand why it’s so hard for people to make frosting that doesn’t crunch when you bite into it.
    Interesting the Magnolia owner posted you here.

  6. Carolynn
    Firstly, love the BLOG, it’s terrific.
    And I agree with you The Cupcake Cafe was the first, is it still open?
    Best, Joe

    1. hi joe!
      yes it’s still open but not in its original wonderfully grungy locale. the world is going to gentrified pot!

  7. The other thing that really drives me nuts about the cupcake craze, is how much people can charge for a cupcake! Really, a cupcake has got to be the easiest thing in the world to make! Cupcake shops are popping up around my city and I have to laugh at the people who dole out $2.50 for an vanilla cupcake with icing, when they could make a dozen for the same price at home (and then they tend to taste better).

  8. Whenever people ask me why I like ice cream so much, I always respond that when I am eating ice cream I feel like a child again. I tasted my first ice cream in San Francisco when I was four years old. Since then I have always enjoyed eating ice cream. My favorite flavors were dulce de leche (caramel) and banana split. Both flavors were popular then, and they are still the most popular flavors in San Francisco today.

    Ice cream! Ice cream!, If you buy one, you are going to be happy forever!”

    Thank for sharing this informative post about ice cream.
    Modern Lighting

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