Cupcakes: Trend or Tradition? A Guide to the Goods

Eileen Weber

A friend of mine recently referred to cupcakes as “portion-controlled cuteness.” While I can’t argue with the cuteness part, I may take issue with the portion control. At least, my self-control is a little lacking in that department.

Admittedly, the tasty little treats are perfect for a toddler’s birthday party. But lately, they’ve become a different kind of indulgence. 

The craze took flight in 2004 when New York City’s Magnolia Bakery had their signature red velvet cupcakes featured on Sex in the City. Since then, cupcakeries have popped up across the nation with reckless abandon. No doubt the little cuties are a recent phenomenon. The real question is sustainability. Is their popularity as fleeting as being crowned Prom Queen or will they reign supreme for decades to come?

“I don’t think we’ll ever lose that popularity,” said Kelly Lindquist, owner of Sweet Rewards in Brookfield. “But I don’t think the hype will last forever.”

Lindquist is not alone in that opinion. Bakeries all over the region shared that sentiment. But for those major metropolitan areas in which cupcakes flourished early on, a new love interest has come along.

There is debate, however, as to what that love interest is. Some say it’s the whoopie pie. Others, according to an October 11th article from Reuters, believe the French macaron is the next big thing. Diane Mercado of Pink Sprinkles in Fairfield agreed.

“A lot of the newspapers say that macaroons are taking over but I'm not a macaroon lover so I'll just stick with cupcakes,” she said. “I think as long as we keep fresh and creative, the craze will always be with us.”

And in an October 25th article in The New York Times dining section, anything teeny-weeny is king. From mini cannolis to double-crust fruit pies, there is nothing that can’t be miniaturized.

Rachel Kramer Bussel, the co-blogger for Cupcakes Take the Cake along with her fellow enthusiasts Nichelle Stephens and Stacie Joy, has been tracking cupcakes since they became the “It Girl” of desserts. She said their longevity, in part, comes from nostalgia. But what really gives them staying power is the innovation bakers have shown over the years.

“Their longevity I believe is because of their malleability…They can be cute and kid-like or fancy and elegant,” she said. “What's sustained it is the creativity of bakers, who've created companies selling just mini cupcakes…there is still room for plenty of expansion, as we've seen with vegan, gluten-free, organic and locally-sourced cupcakes.”

Izzi B’s is one such cupcake bakery. Located in Norwalk (and featured in a previous article on this site), they make allergen-free cupcakes void of just about everything under the sun. They have no eggs or other dairy, gluten, nuts, honey or refined sugar. With all of the ingredients they don’t have in their baked goods, you would think they would be void of taste as well. But, in fact, they are surprisingly yummy.

Pam Nicholas, the owner of Izzi B’s, will tell you that the desire to create an allergen-free cupcake was born out of necessity. When her daughter was diagnosed with an egg allergy, she spent nine months perfecting her winning recipe. 

“Everyone should have a cupcake. I just didn’t want anyone to feel left out,” she said. “Cupcakes have always been around and are always part of a celebration.”

Cupcakes are often the focal point of birthdays, Sweet 16’s, and the holidays. Weddings have increasingly included cupcake towers in their dessert buffets and even corporate cookie trays have yielded to the almighty cupcake. 

So what is it that makes a great cupcake? Some say the cake must be moist, otherwise it’s a flop. Some say the ingredients must be high quality. And still others say the cake to frosting ratio is a key factor. 

“I hate it when I get mile-high frosting,” said Maria Sanchez, owner of Sweet Maria’s in Waterbury. “Do you want to eat all that on a little piece of cake?”

Some argue that today’s funky flavors are the big draw. Brenda DuPonte, owner of Sugar Bakery & Sweet Shop in East Haven and a winner on the Cupcake Wars last year, said the craziest request was for liquer-filled cupcakes that tasted like your favorite cocktail.  

“People are getting inventive,” she said. “That’s what keeps their interest.”

The bakers at Toppings in Bridgeport, which recently opened their storefront as an anchor for their New Haven-based The Cupcake Truck, think the funky flavors may be getting a little out of hand. 

“We think the fads—you know, deep-fried cupcakes, chocolate-covered-cricket cupcakes with fresh arugula sprinkles, Cupcake TV, etc.—will disappear in time,” they said. “Still, we think cupcakes as a whole are forever. They’ve been around as long as any of us can remember and will probably be here long after we’ve hung up our aprons.” 

So, the next time you think you need a little something sweet to quell those cravings, skip the macarons and the mini cannolis and grab a cupcake. Their “portion-controlled cuteness” may just be the thing.