Americans claim the cupcake as their own, and I hate to send a chill breeze across that warm fuzzy feeling, but it is a bit like the pavlova debate that divides Australia and New Zealand. The pavlova issue is really about the name, not the invention of meringue mixtures, which clearly goes back to early medieval times.
The first recipe for cakes ‘to be baked in cups’ is in an American cookery book of 1796 (it is given below) and the first use of the phrase ‘cup cake’ is also in an American cookery book of 1828 – although this is for the second type – the large cake whose ingredients are measured by the cupful.
I would be interested to hear from any cupcake historians out there, but it seems to me that small cakes/pies etc were cooked in small containers (patty-pans) since long before 1796. Perhaps a determined housewife in the American colonies, in the absence of the proper tins, used a couple of old cups to make her little cakes – and ‘cup cakes’ were born.
At that time of the ‘invention’ of cup cakes - if we can indeed say it was around the late 18th century – a ‘cake’ was essentially a form of sweet bread (it being prior to the development and widespread use of baking powders), as the ‘first known recipe’ shows.
A Light Cake to Bake in Small Cups.
Half a pound sugar, half a pound butter, rubbed into two pounds flour, one glass wine, one d[itt]o. Rosewater, two d[itt]o Emptins*, a nutmeg, cinnamon and currants.
American Cookery, (1796) Amelia Simmons.
[* emptins – liquid leavening from beer or cider sediment, potatoes, etc]
A far cry from a modern cupcake, Yes? I want to give you a glimpse of the range of things called cupcakes over the years and centuries, before I sign off for the day. You all know how I love finding recipes in odd sources – so how could I resist a recipe from a Methodist Almanac?
Corn Meal Cup Cakes.
One quart corn meal, one pint wheat flour, three pints milk or water, one teaspoonful salt, one of lard, one of soda, two of cream of tartar, one half cup molasses, one or two eggs. Bake in small patty pans or old teacups.
The Methodist Almanac (Baltimore, 1860)
Rice and Indian Cup Cakes.
One tea-cup of soft boiled rice; add a quart of Indian meal; a quart of milk; two eggs, a little salt; a half table-spoonful of molasses. Bake in cups or pans.
The American Matron (1851)
Molasses Cup Cake.
Two cups of molasses, two cups of butter, three eggs, one-third of a cup of cold water, and one tablespoonful of soda; then bake.
Godey’s Lady’s Book of receipts and household hints (1870)
And a modern (in 1943) version that shows the blurred line between cupcakes and muffins. A muffin (in the modern sense of the word) is a name for a cake that you want to justify as a breakfast item, isn’t it?
Peanut Butter Cup Cakes.
(for 12 servings)
Fat, ¼ cup
Peanut Butter, ½ cup
Sugar, 1 cup
Eggs, beaten, 2
Flour, sifted, 3 cups
Baking powder, 1 ½ tablespoons
Salt, ½ teaspoon
Milk, 1 cup
Vanilla, 1 teaspoon.
Cream together the fat, peanut butter, and sugar.
Stir in the beaten eggs.
Add sifted dry ingredients alternately with the milk, then the vanilla
Bake in greased muffin tins in a moderate oven about 20 minutes, or until lightly browned.
School Lunch Recipes, by United States Bureau of Human Nutrition and Home Economics, 1943
And finally, an English pudding which is cooked in cups, and could therefore legitimately be called a cupcake if you substitute frosting for the sauce.
2 eggs, their weight in flour, the same in butter, ditto in white sugar; the butter beaten to a cream , then add the sugar; and stir all together, mix them till quite smooth; this will be sufficient to fill 4 or 5 cups. Served with sweet sauce.
Household Hints to Young Housewives, by Mary Careful (pseudonym) (London 1852)
Quotation for the Day.
How do they taste? They taste like more.