Cobbling together a history of cupcakes was about as challenging as eating one without getting frosting all over my face, as the origin story of America’s Favorite Handheld Dessert is a murky one. Speaking to Scientific American, food historian Andrew Smith said cupcakes first popped up in an American cookbook a couple years prior in 1826, although earlier recipes dated back to the 1850s in England. Meanwhile, Krystina
Cupcake Castella, author of “Crazy About Cupcakes” writes that the word first appeared in print in 1828 in Eliza Leslie’s “75 Receipts for Pastry, Cakes and Sweetmeats.” Leslie was a Victorian-era Betty Crocker who may have picked up the cupcake “receipt” in England where she grew up.
Very likely, the “cup” in cupcake referred to measuring the ingredients out in cups rather than weighing them, as had been the prevailing culinary custom until then. Hence, from the pound cake came the cupcake. That shift from weighted to measured cooking that we take for granted these days was revolutionary for Victorian cooks, and the combination of that plus the quicker baking time required for the smaller confections served up a huge time savings. Nevertheless, they took a while to catch on, as indicated by a 1894 writer who was clueless about cupcakes:
“In Miss [Mary E.] Wilkins’s delightful New England Stories, and in other tales relating to this corner of the United States, I have frequently found mention of cup-cake, a dainty unknown, I think, in this country. Will some friendly reader … on the other side of the Atlantic kindly answer this query, and initiate an English lover of New England folks and ways into the mysteries of cup-cake?”
A couple decades later in 1919, Hostess brand brought cupcakes into grocery stores, and homemade versions were popular children’s treats starting in the early 20th century thanks to their kid-friendly size. These days, adults are the ones who are cuckoo for cupcakes, as it’s hard to walk a few blocks in any urban area and not run into a cupcakery peddling the premium-priced desserts. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that cupcakes may have actually become too popular for their own good (or at least entreprenuerial bakers’ bottom lines), and people’s sweet teeth may be heading in other directions (why a cupcake version of a pie hasn’t been invented beats me). But which kitchen gets the ultimate credit for cooking up the iconic dessert remains unknown.
“Just like other popular foods — the brownie comes to mind — it’s impossible to pinpoint a date of origin for the cupcake,” says culinary historian Andrea Broomfield.