Where have all the cupcakes gone?



By Jody Stump

I read a fascinating, but disturbing, factoid the other day in the New York Times. The Zagats, food researchers and purveyors of the famous restaurant guides, reported that the number of culinary categories they report has exploded in their 25-year history-from nine to 216. While some may regard this as progress and evidence of cosmopolitanism oozing across the land, I suspect the seemingly endless quest for a new bing on the taste buds has met a backlash.

At the same time that a few New Yorkers are experimenting with fleur de sel sprinkled on their chocolate, more are flocking down to Bleecker Street in the Village and gobbling up All-American sweets from the plain Jane Magnolia Bakery. Selling out everything nostalgic from sticky buns to snickerdoodles, the one old-fashioned bakery everyone knows in Manhattan is a whopping success. But, why is there only one?

Where have all the cupcakes gone?

Where is Los Angeles’ Magnolia? Where is there a corner bakery that has hung on from the days of “Ozzie and Harriet?” Who still sells unadulterated, no preservatives or margarine, cookies and cakes, the kind of dessert America was once famous for? I asked every foodie I knew. No one could name a single American bakery in Los Angeles. Then I asked a more pointed question, “Where have all the cupcakes gone?”

I got an answer. Joan’s on Third Street near the Beverly Center. It’s not properly a bakery-Joan’s is more a hip, typical take-out haven serving tarragon chicken salad and brie panini, but right up front, ready for grabbing at the cash register are the tempters, tall cake plates overflowing with cupcakes. Chocolate with sprinkles, freshly shaved coconut, creamy pumpkin, not-too-plain vanilla and Joan’s signature cake, the platonic ideal of a Ding Dong.

With its slick chocolate icing and the squiggle of vanilla etched across the top, a Hostess Ding Dong is desire at a third-grade level. Every child knows that buried underneath the chocolate lid is a squish of irresistibly sweet, creamy marshmallow, the hidden treasure that has sold a trillion cupcakes. Step it up a notch in flavor and perfect the crumbly texture and you have a dessert even grown-ups crave.

Maybe that’s because we all remember third-grade cupcakes. For my friends and me, our first stop after school was Mrs. Schiffer’s sunny kitchen where cookies and cakes were still warm from the oven and where the milk was always fresh and icy cold. From Mrs. Schiffer, I learned that a perfect cupcake was kids-fist sized. The cake was moist and tender and a little bit crumbly. You should be able to wear a good cupcake. Whatever the flavor, the ingredients should meld together into one-round POW of sensory explosion on the palate and the crumbs should melt on the tongue. If the cake was vanilla, it should have black flecks from boiling the bean in milk; if chocolate, it should be rich with flavor at once dark and mysterious. And, if it was filled like a Ding Dong or Mrs. Schiffer’s raspberry Jelly-Jams, there should be just enough goo to lick out with the tip of your tongue while still holding the cake intact. Icings were simple-just fresh sweet butter creamed until the butter was almost pale as milk, pure flavoring and then confectioner’s sugar beaten in slowly until it was spreadable on not-quite-cool cake. Mmmmmm.

Mrs. Schiffer’s kitchen is a continent and decades away now, but I have a version of her recipe to share. Of course, you could always drive to Joan’s but you could have 24 fresh from the oven cakes in the time it takes you to drive there and back.

Vanilla Cupcakes

Makes 24 kid-sized cupcakes

Here is a never-fail, kid’s favorite recipe any cook can master. I recommend using pure vanilla bean paste instead of extract. The alcohol in extract burns off, but it leaves the cake a little drier and the flavor somewhat bitter.

2 sticks sweet butter, soft

2 cups sugar

4 eggs, room temperature

1 1/4 cup self-rising flour

1 1/4 cup unbleached, all purpose flour

1 cup milk

1 tsp. vanilla paste

1. Preheat oven to 350-degrees.

2. Cream butter until fluffy. Add sugar gradually, still beating. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating them in well.

3. Combine the flours together. Mix the vanilla with the milk. Add the flour to the butter mixture in four parts, alternating with the milk.

4. Pour into a muffin tin lined with cupcake papers. Bake approximately 20 minutes.

5. When cool, frost with your choice of icings.