In the face of a bad harvest, a harsh winter, bread riots and peasants revolting, Marie Antoinette probably did not say, “Let them eat cake.” But if she had, she was on to something. Leap forward 200-plus years, and here we are: collapsed housing market, unemployment hovering at 10 percent and a brutal financial crisis. Yet within this mess, or maybe because of it, something continues to grow in popularity: cupcakes. Why do cupcake bakeries continue to succeed as all else fails?
Tyra Abrams, co-owner of New York’s famed Magnolia Bakery, can wax poetic on the power of a fresh, well-made cupcake. “It looks charming, inviting and is just the right size,” she says. “It reminds us of childhood and the notion of simpler times at a time when things are not so simple. It comforts on a blue day and helps us celebrate any occasion. And no matter what the economy or who is in office, one can always depend upon it being absolutely delicious.”
Cupcakes are the perfect small indulgence, concurs Charles Nelson, owner of the Beverly Hills-based bakery Sprinkles. “It’s $3, so while the economy is definitely in a recession, people still have a few dollars to treat themselves. It’s a pick-me-up to help brighten your day.”
Proclaiming itself the world’s first cupcake bakery, Sprinkles opened in Beverly Hills in April 2005, putting it on the leading edge of this icing avalanche. Nelson already has stores across the country and more planned for New York; Chicago; Washington, D.C. — and maybe even London and Tokyo.
But there’s a bicoastal cupcake showdown brewing.
In Los Angeles, on the corner of Orlando and 3rdstreets,in a space formerly used by a dry cleaner, signs in the window announce “Magnolia Bakery, New York, coming soon.” Magnolia has sold a variety of baked goods since opening in 1996, but cupcakes are what put it on the map, thanks to mentions on HBO’s “Sex and the City.” So popular are its cupcakes at the original store on Bleecker Street that each customer is limited to an even dozen — a policy into which I ran headlong in 2004 when I needed 18 for a birthday party. Nothing would make the store sell me an extra half dozen. I had to walk down the street to another bakery, which gladly filled my order.
I recently walked up and down 3rd Street in Los Angeles, near where Magnolia will move in early next year. The recession has taken its toll on this popular shopping area: It is dotted with shuttered storefronts with large “For Lease” signs. This same block is where the recently closed and much-missed Cook’s Library bookstore was. Across the street is the family-run gourmet shop-deli-bakery Joan’s on Third. “I can’t imagine Joan [McNamara, the owner of Joan's on Third] can be very happy,” says the man behind the counter at Blanche, a neighboring housewares boutique. “But it will be good if it brings more people to the neighborhood because business is slow for all of us.”
Still, it’s not as if Los Angeles has a cupcake shortage — especially with Sprinkles just a few miles west. So what is it Magnolia brings to the fight? Fresh baked-on-premises, says Abrams. “Everyone will enjoy the visual ‘theater’ and delicious aromas that are part of the Magnolia experience. … For a city that expects fresh, high quality food, our concept is a perfect fit,” she says. “Over the past couple of years, we’ve carefully expanded our array of specialty cupcakes and they are amazing! But, Magnolia’s Classic vanilla and chocolate cupcakes, iced with our iconic pastel butter-cream frosting with that recognizable swirl are the real stars everyone’s been waiting to see and bite into.”
I asked Sprinkles’ Nelson what he thought about Magnolia’s arrival on his home turf, and he was very politic. “There have been 12 to 15 new bakeries that have opened in Los Angeles the last nearly five years. I think it’s a large town with a lot of people and so we welcome anyone who wants to come to L.A. and sell baked goods. We wish them the best. We are going to be opening up in New York probably by the end of next year, so we’ll end up being neighbors on both coasts. We’ll become BFFs!”
This best-friends-forever attitude has its charm, but underneath this sugary exterior these businesses are fierce about protecting their intellectual property. Sprinkles has sued several times and sent letters to a dozen bakeries around the country asking them to cease copying the Sprinkles brand. Last year Sprinkles sued Modern Cupcakes of North Hollywood for copying its trademarked candy disk that tops each cupcake and then turned its lawyers on a new bakery in Montecito, Calif., called Sprinkled Pink Cupcake Couture. It changed its name to Whodidily. (Interestingly, both Candace Nelson, wife of Charles Nelson and co-owner of Sprinkles, and Wendy Jones of Whodidily will appear on the Food Network’s upcoming series, the aptly titled “Cupcake Wars” — Nelson as a judge and Jones as a contestant.)
The 1990s cupcake wars in New York were the stuff of legend. The Magnolia Bakery founders and high school friends Allysa Torey and Jennifer Appel fell out, dissolved the partnership and their friendship went with it. Appel moved on to start the Buttercup Bake Shop. An ex-manager of Magnolia opened Billy’s Bakery. Then Peggy Williams, who had left Magnolia to work at Buttercup with Appel, opened Sugar Sweet Sunshine on the Lower East Side. Other ex-employees of Buttercup started The Little Cupcake Bakeshop in Brooklyn only to be sued by Buttercup: They had signed a confidentiality agreement Buttercup instituted in the wake of Williams’ departure. Torey eventually sold Magnolia to Tyra and Steve Abrams in 2007. Given such drama, it’s surprising it took Food Network so long to launch a reality show.
Sprinkles, continuing to drive the zeitgeist, launched a cupcake food truck, two years in the planning. The customized Mercedes Sprinter, painted chocolate brown with frosted red-and-white hubcaps, delivers cupcakes to studio lots, special events and neighborhoods far from their Beverly Hills and Newport Beach stores.
Like others’ mobile food fleet, you can follow Sprinkles and its truck on Twitter, complete with a daily word to whisper to get a free cupcake. Recently, the truck has been at UCLA, USC and various studio lots as part of the store’s October charity drive: All proceeds from the sale of its special strawberry cupcake, the Sprinkles’ Pink Ribbon cupcake, will be donated to the Entertainment Industry Foundation’s Women’s Cancer Research Fund.
For the moment, Sprinkles seems to have the only cupcake cater-craft trolling Los Angeles, but that won’t be the case for long. The proprietors of New York’s Cupcake Stop truck are looking to expand into other markets. Babycakes NYC, another East Coast bakery, plans to launch a truck from its forthcoming storefront in downtown Los Angeles. With the food-truck competition building, it’s only a matter of time before one food truck sues another — and my bet is that the cupcake trucks will be first.
In the meantime here’s a recipe to bake cupcakes from scratch — useful to that ever-shrinking population that remains remote from a cupcake bakery or truck.
Sprinkles Spice Cupcakes
with Cream Cheese Frosting
Courtesy of Candace Nelson of Sprinkles
Makes one dozen cupcakes
- 1½ cups all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
- ⅛ teaspoon ginger
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 1 stick butter
- ⅓ cup granulated sugar
- 2 large eggs
- ¼ cup unsulfured molasses
- ½ cup milk
- In a bowl, whisk together the flour, the baking soda, the spices and salt.
- In another bowl, combine the molasses and milk.
- With an electric mixer, cream together the butter and the granulated sugar, beat in the eggs, and beat in the flour mixture alternately with the molasses mixture, beating well after each addition.
- Divide the batter among 12 paper-lined cupcake tin and bake the cupcakes in the middle of a preheated 350 F oven for about 20 minutes, or until it springs back when lightly touched.
- Turn the cupcakes out onto a rack and let them cool completely.
Sprinkles Cream Cheese Frosting
- 8 ounces cold cream cheese
- 4 ounces unsalted butter, still firm but not cold
- ⅛ teaspoon salt
- ¾ pound + 2 tablespoons powdered sugar, sifted
- ½ teaspoon vanilla
- If you like, add eggnog to taste
- Blend cream cheese, butter and salt until smooth and creamy.
- With mixer on low, gradually add powdered sugar until incorporated.
- Gradually add vanilla (and eggnog), and mix just until incorporated. Do not over-mix or mix on high speed because it will incorporate too much air. The frosting consistency should be creamy and dense, like ice cream.