Cupcakes or muffins; That is the question!

In the last few days we were happy to enrich our sweet pastry tools collection with some silicone molds. We couldn’t wait to use them, but we found ourselves in front of a dilemma: to bake cupcakes, muffins or simply small cakes? For a while we couldn’t find a way to answer this existential impasse…

Silicone molds and cups from our pastry tools collection

Then, as a deus ex machina came to our minds a Psychology phrase we recently heard: Conceptual Representations. You’ll probably wonder what does such a heavy phrase have to do with small cakes… and yet! It is the answer to our problem!

Mini cake, a theoretical approach

Be patient or skip the following chapter!

In his book Children’s Thinking (order online), Siegler analyzes the basic theories concerning the ways people organize concepts in their minds: the classical theory, the prototype theory and the theory-theory. We intend to use those to investigate how we apprehend the concept small cake and whether it really matters what kind of small cakes we choose to bake…

The classical theory organizes concepts in a way that resembles the definitions of a dictionary. For example, someone’s uncle is the brother of his father or his mother or his aunt’s husband. Those are the sufficient and necessary characteristics that someone has to have in order to be an uncle. Likewise, a small cake is food, comes in a small size and is made with a cake recipe. A large cake baked in a rectangle loaf tin can’t be part of the small cake category.

The prototype theory sees concepts as entries in an encyclopedia. Instead of the few characteristics that are obligatory (someone can be an uncle only if he’s the brother of a parent or the husband of an aunt), people can represent concepts by properties that are associated with each other but not in a perfect way. This means that an uncle is usually nice to his nephews, but not always; he usually is of almost the same age as the parents, but not necessarily. Respectively, a small cake is usually sweet, but it can also be savory; it is mostly baked in the oven, but it can be also made in the microwave.

This approach includes the notion of the prototype introduced by Rosch. A prototype is the most representative example of a concept. When we come across something new, we compare it to the prototype in order to put it into a category. For example, in order to decide whether a dessert is a small cake, we compare it to the prototype we have for this concept, such as a Blueberry Muffin. If it is similar enough, then yes it is a small cake.

Theories are like the chapters of a book; they focus on the causal relations between elements. Theories include explanations for the reasons why uncles are usually nice, why they have the same age as the parents etc. Or explanations for the reasons why small cakes are usually sweet, why we bake them in the oven etc. According to this approach, concepts are not only associations between key attributes. Concepts comprise of theoretical convictions about the world, that affect our reaction to something new. Thus, we will react differently if someone tells as that he saw a car with orange wheels than if he tells us that he saw a car with square wheels. Likewise, we will have a different reaction if someone says “I made a small cake using the liquid from a can of chickpeas” (we will see it as a vegan recipe, no matter how disgusting it may sound) than if he says “I made a small cake using activated carbon”.

So, did we solve our problem?

Having thought of all that and -let’s face it- having burned our brains out- we reached the following conclusion: choosing between a muffin and a cupcake is a false dilemma, which shouldn’t bother us at all. We will follow one of our favourite cake recipes, we will use small baking cups, we will make the cakes sweet because that’s how we like them and of course we will eat them first!

Before all that though, because as you know we love to learn everything, we will read about their differences, their history and their variations.

The real story of muffins and cupcakes

A common image of a muffin that comes to our minds

When talking about muffins, a particular American image comes to mind, but in fact their origin is British. English muffins differ from the American ones we are used to, due to their shape, but also to their dough which falls into the bread category, as it contains yeast. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America (2004) mentions that the British didn’t use to call those treats muffins but crumpets.

Toasted English muffins

We learned that muffins’ roots date back to the 10th century in Whales. They have the poor for a long time, until the end of the 18th century when they entered the tea tables of the aristocracy. Their name derives from the French word moufflet, which means soft and usually describes bread. During the 19th century English muffins became even more popular, factories producing them opened all over England and in the British streets wandered the muffin men, bearing pans with muffins on their heads and ringing their bells to attract customers.

A muffin man ringing his bell in 1924 (source)

In a historic article we read that muffins were traditionally baked on a hot griddle, in metal rings. An excerpt from the Dollar Monthly Magazine of 1864 describes the process: “the griddle, and rub it hard with a coarse cloth; have a piece of pork about four inches square on a fork; rub the griddle with it…”. After baking them on the one side, one had to turn them to the other side using a spatula. When ready, the muffins were cut in half and toasted.

Preparing authentic crumpets or Εnglish muffins (source)

According to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, muffins weren’t that popular in America in the first half of the 19th century. Historian Karen Hess notices that the reason was possibly the fact that Americans prefer their cakes and breads softer. To attain such a texture in muffins, they had to turn them quite early in the baking process, which needed some skill.

The awarded Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America (2012) with over 1400 entries for food lovers like us (find it here)

In the second half of the 19th century though, they became much more popular. In her book The Young Housekeeper’s Friend of 1859, Mary Cornelius published a muffins recipe with almost the same ingredients as her previous one, but using soda instead of yeast. The advantage was that the muffins baked more quickly, but the metal rings were really inconvenient for this recipe.

Towards the end of the 19th century muffin pans made their appearance and muffins as we know them were born. In 1881 Μaria Parloa published in her cookbook the exact recipe of Cornelius, but with much more sugar (half a cup instead of a tablespoon). Its major novelty, though, was that she baked the muffins in a cast iron pan with adjacent cups, an invention that excited her very much. This particular recipe, cut in half, remained the basic recipe for muffins in American cookbooks for the next hundred years.

Advertisement in the Montgomery Ward spring and summer catalogue, No. 57, 1895 (source)

The muffin rings of former years have done their duty, and should be allowed to rest, the convenient cups, which come in sheets, more than filling their place.

Maria Parloa, Miss Parloa’s New Cook Book: A Guide to Marketing and Cooking, 1881

In her book of 1896, Fannie Farmer published many variations of the muffin recipe (the soda one): with no eggs, with a cake texture, with oat, with rye, with berries, raisins, nuts, apples, bacon, cheese… Their reputation got bigger and bigger, as they were easy, quick and totally versatile. They were sweet and fluffy like the beloved cakes of the times, but they still remained a type of bread.

Stainless steel rings so that we make our own authentic English muffins (order online)

It wasn’t before the end of the 20th century that muffins left the bread category and resembled cakes more and more. Parloa’s recipe became heavier, with double, triple or even quadruple the amount of butter and sugar. The preparation was simple, mixing the liquids and the solids separately and then combining those two just a little so that the gluten isn’t activated, to achieve the soft texture.

After the 1980s, the method resembled the one used for cakes even more: creaming the butter with the eggs and the sugar, and adding liquids and solids alternately. As the method, ingredients and flavors ended up the same as those used in cakes, the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America notes that the result was cupcakes.

Cupcakes as we know and love them!

Now, we read that small-sized cakes existed since the 18th century. An example are the queen cakes, individual portions of the classic pound cake with fruit. However, Eliza Leslie is considered to be the mother of the cupcake, as she was the first to use the name in her cookbook of 1828. According to historian Broomfield though, who and when trully invented cupcakes is impossible to define. It will remain one of history’s sweet mysteries.

We can bake individual small cakes using the classic pound cake recipe

Before muffin pans, cupcakes were baked in small ceramic bowls (ramekins) or ceramic cups, therefore their name. Another version of the story says that the name comes from the measuring of ingredients (1 cup of butter, 2 cups of sugar, 3 cups of flour etc.) which is the same as the pound cake recipe. Due to those measurings, those small cakes used to be called number cakes too.

Today, we can bake small cakes in a variety of molds, such as individual silicone cups (find them here)

In the 20th century, cupcakes became part of the American pop culture. We read that after the end of World War I, the first commercial cupcake was created by the American Hostess company. It was made -and still is- with the devil’s food cake recipe (a rich chocolate cake) and during the 1920s had a vanilla or chocolate icing. In the 1940s an orange version was created. But only in 1947 they became the sweets that Americans enjoy today, with better ingredients, authentic chocolate and a cream filling -made possible thanks to the invention of a filling machine.

The historic Hostess Cup Cakes… You have to taste them! (Order online)

We are proud to announce to the people of Ogden that the first supply of Hostess Cup Cakes will be baked tomorrow morning. […] Sobwe believe this day has more than ordinary importance to Ogden women. Therefore we urge you to try these new cup cakes at once. Serve them to your family. Compare them with the finest you can bake yourself. Then, make your own fair and square decision. Your grocer will have them, starting tomorrow morning

Hostess advertisement of 1928

All in all, the conclusion is that the difference between muffins and cupcakes is the method for preparing them, as they contain the same ingredients and come in similar flavors. Also, muffins could always be savory too, while only recently have chefs started to create savory cupcakes. Cupcakes have icing or frosting on top, but who’s to say that we can’t frost a muffin?

Taking all that into consideration we reached our final decision. We will use a pound cake recipe from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Cake Bible (order the book) that we have many times tested, we will add some candied fruit inspired by queen cakes and we will decorate with a chocolate frosting, because we want so!

Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Cake Bible (1988), a classic, awarded book with all the cake recipes we will ever need! (Find it here)

Vanilla cupcakes with candied fruit and chocolate frosting

Our recipe

Ingredients for the cupcakes (12-14 pieces)

(adapted pound cake recipe from The Cake Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum)

Milk45 gr
Cake flour (sifted)150 gr
Sugar150 gr
Baking powder1 tsp
Salt1/3 tsp
Butter (room temp.)185 gr
Vanillin2 pieces
Candied fruit50 gr
The first step is always to weigh and organise our ingredients

How to make the cupcakes

Place the eggs and the milk in a bowl and combine them lightly. In another bowl pour the solids (flour, baking powder, sugar, salt, vanillin) and mix on low speed for 30 seconds. Add the softened butter and half the egg mixture, beat just for a moment on low speed and for 1 minute on high speed. Scrape the batter from the sides with a spatula and add the rest of the eggs in two batches, beating for 30 seconds after each addition.

Beating the batter in the mixer

Add the candied fruit (we used citrus, it’s delicious!) and mix with a spatula. Fill your moulds leaving 1/3 from the top and bake in a preheated oven at 175°C for 20 minutes. Let cool completely.

Ingredients for the chocolate frosting

Dark chocolate couverture100 gr
Heavy cream150 gr
Extract, spice or herb

How to make the chocolate frosting

As Rupert doesn’t like buttercream very much, we desided to top our cupcakes with the so-called ganache montée, or chocolate whipped cream. Ganache montée usually has a lower ratio of chocolate to cream (100 gr chocolate – 300 gr heavy cream). But we put more chocolate to gain an even richer flavor!

A little secret!

Ganache montée is a classic ganache (chocolate and heavy cream) whipped to gain an airy texture, but more stable than plain whipped cream. It is perfect for frosting cupcakes, cakes and also as a layer in tarts and other desserts. We can use dark, milk or white chocolate. The heavy cream must be full fat (just like in whipped cream) or else it won’t get whipped.

Cut the chocolate to small pieces and put them in a bowl. Heat 50 gr of the heavy cream and right before boiling, pour it over the chocolate. You can flavor the cream with a spice or herb (better let sit overnight in a bowl in the refrigerator). Cover with plastic wrap and let it stand for 3 minutes. Then, mix with a spatula to homogenise the ganache. Add the rest 100 gr of cold heavy cream and mix. If you use an extract, now is the time to add it (we used strawberry extract).

Mixing the chocolate with the heavy cream to homogenise the ganache

Cover with plastic wrap and put in the refrigerator for 1 hour. Then, whip the ganache with a mixer, being careful not to overbeat. Use a piping bag, a food bag (see how to make your own piping bag in the linzer torte recipe at the end of the article) or simply a spoon to garnish the cupcakes. Decorate with some berries or anything else you like, take a picture to remember them and enjoy!

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5 Comments Add yours

  1. I feel like baking now, but it is time to sleep..


    1. 😊 Thank you very much! Sweet dreams! 😴


  2. I love your article, very very interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We’re so happy to hear that, thank you very much! 😊


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