Totally grown up cupcakes coming back in a big way

By The Associated Press

The cupcake is a classic. An unsung favorite for eons, in recent years it has hit the culinary pop charts, even the art scene. The sugary little darlings have become big business, but they still retain their cozy place in our hearts.

These days not only do bakeries across the country sell cupcakes, you can go out to eat at a cupcake cafe and choose a ritzy cupcake from the dessert menu of an upscale restaurant. You can order cupcakes online from cupcake boutiques, there are plenty of cookbooks focusing only on cupcakes, and you can get married with cupcakes starring as the wedding cake.

Celebrity has spotlighted cupcakes from the Magnolia Bakery in New York City, munched in endless reruns of television’s “Sex and the City,” and cupcakes from Sprinkles in Beverly Hills, sent by Barbra Streisand as a gift to Oprah Winfrey.

Dede Wilson’s newly published “A Baker’s Field Guide to Cupcakes” (Harvard Common Press, 2006, $17.95) is as smart and handy as the cupcake itself: a colorful ringbound collection of some 60 recipes for every occasion, each with photo and “field notes” besides loads of other tips.

Children have always felt a close link to these diminutive confections, Wilson pointed out recently, speaking from her home in Massachusetts. After all, each cupcake is yours alone: “All of that cake and frosting is just for you.”

Also, she said, “I think for a lot of us as children cupcakes seemed to be tied in with school functions- you often didn’t see them outside that mother-child home-baking connection.”

That was then.

“Now we see how versatile they are, how fun. They’ll go from a homey bake sale to an individual dessert for a shower, to a campy, kitschy item for adult holidays.”

Currently, food and women’s magazines are filled with ideas for turning cupcakes into spiders, mummies, and all things Halloween.

Indeed, cupcakes have totally grown up. The demure white and yellow coexist with more soigne versions: Sophisticates including hazelnut praline, orange savarin, raspberry Sachertorte and tiramisu with espresso have been spotted on stylish menus.

What’s the charm that wows everyone?

Chicago food stylist and recipe developer Lisa Bishop thinks people love cupcakes because they’re a dessert that doesn’t carry too much guilt. “Cupcakes can be rich, homemade, trendy- but they are not as overwhelming as a cake,” she said.

And they don’t intimidate home cooks. “I think everyone’s looking for some kind of fun twist to show off their skills.”

Terri Leckas, owner-operator of Queen of Cakes, Edina, Minn., sees things from the professional cake-maker’s point of view, and it can be a surprisingly practical one.

“I believe one of the reasons people choose them for weddings is so they can get around the serving fee caterers charge for cutting large wedding cakes,” she said.

Her business makes wedding and other cakes to order, and also operates a small retail store with a daily selection of cupcakes.

Cupcakes are often ordered for weddings now, she said- the largest number they’ve made for a wedding was 300, she recalled. Cupcakes are more casual than a formal wedding cake, she said, but on a stand they can be made into quite a fancy presentation.

Special-order cupcake flavors change with the season, just as wedding cakes do. “In spring or summer they could be strawberry mousse or liqueur-based. Just now we’re doing lots of apple and spice, and pumpkin with cream cheese.”

For a child’s birthday party, she added, “another thing we do is make a `cupcake cake’- we group cupcakes closely together on a board and hold them together with frosting, so the children can pull them out one at a time.”

Kara’s Cupcakes in San Francisco adds a wholesome West Coast note to the delectable aura: they say they “make every possible effort” to obtain and use local, organic ingredients for their well-reviewed cupcakes.

Kara Lind started her catering business, focusing on special events and delivery, about a year ago, and says she’s busy baking away while she’s preparing to open a store. She e-mailed her explanation of the cupcake magic: “Small is the new big, and people love the personalization of a cupcake!”

The vanilla girl may have a boyfriend who loves chocolate, she points out, and with cupcakes each can indulge an individual taste for dessert.

As for customers’ favorite flavors, she said, “Really, people are pretty much in love with good old-fashioned chocolate or vanilla.” But, she added, these days they’re taking more risks in flavor tasting; they’re evidently going wild for Kara’s passion fruit-filled cupcakes, for one.

Dede Wilson’s book brings the high-flying cupcake back comfortably into the home kitchen with basic advice. Aim for the best, she said, “Bake your own and make them good.” Even if they’re only basic chocolate or yellow cupcakes.

Wilson’s ultimate compliment for cupcakes:

“One thing they have over other baked goods – they just bring a smile to people’s faces.”