On cupcakes, fairy cakes, butterfly cakes, mug cakes and muffins

“In Britain, cupcake fanatics enrol on special course and dress to match their concoctions.”

William Sitwell, A History of Food in 100 recipes

It’s National Cupcake Day in Britain on August 17th, but we’re all still in lockdown baking mode, and we can’t wait that long, so here’s a post on cupcakes….and the myriad of other assorted baked goods which get confused with them.

Until very recently I used the terms cupcake, fairy cake and butterfly cake interchangeably, so what were the differences?

And if a cupcake was developed as a cake baked for an individual in a cup, what was the difference between a cupcake and a mug cake, I pondered.

Muffins were, I knew, something else. And also, on an eye-opening (in all senses) trip to Las Vegas, a source of amused confusion. What was an English muffin? I didn’t think I’d ever seen one in England.

And, really, did it matter? After hours of research, I teased out the distinctions. But I also came to understand that most people use all these terms interchangeably, just as I did. So, no…. it probably doesn’t!

In any case, first things first.

The cupcake

The first printed recipe for the cupcake appears, in 1828, in Eliza Leslie’s Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes and Sweetmeats. It was the beginning of a global trend demonstrated more recently by proliferating cupcake shops and specialist cupcake clubs. If you still need further proof, look at the success of Martha Stewart’s Cupcakes, which spent eleven weeks at the top of the New York Times bestseller list in 2009.

Cupcakes got their name from the cup-shaped mould (sometimes in actual oven-proof cups, or ramekins) in which they were baked, and also from the fact that a lot of the measuring was done in cups. One reason for their instant popularity was their simplicity: Eliza Leslie promises her recipes are ‘drawn up in a style so plain and minute, as to be perfectly intelligible to servants, and persons of the most moderate capacity.’

all about cup cakes
Eliza Leslie…. by all accounts a bit of a stickler, she was most proud of her book on etiquette.

But it is the individuality, the beneficence, and the variety of cupcakes which is at the heart of their popularity.

A cupcake is an offering to the eater, and no other; no need to share. Its very individuality is what defines the cupcake.

A cupcake is at least bigger than a fairy cake; cupcakes are bounteous and blousy, and they are definitely not health conscious. Cupcakes can, and mostly do, have a mountainous summit of butter icing for the happy eater to scale. Some even have additional fillings squeezed into the centre via a nozzle.

The fairy cake, on the other hand, is limited to fat-free royal icing. Cupcakes are for adults…. they are indulgent… naughty even.

This cupcake is being filled with salted caramel sauce
This one has a lemon curd filling

And, again in comparison with the fairy cake, cupcakes can be any sort of cake, they can be red velvet cake, lemon meringue cake, chocolate cake, carrot cake… anything as long  as it uses the ‘creaming’ method – fluffing up the sugar and butter together at the beginning of the whole process.

what is a cupcake
A cup cake can be any kind of cake, carrot, red velvet etc, with any kind of icing, cream cheese, butter, royal…anything

For the recipe for the lemon meringue cupcakes, follow this link.

For the recipe for the salted caramel filled cupcakes, follow this link.

The fairy cake

The fairy cake is more of a British phenomenon, made popular by Nigella Lawson in her 1998 best seller, How To Be A Domestic Goddess. The fairy cake was the star of this particular show, with top billing on the front cover.

There’s a strong element of nostalgia about fairy cakes: their raison d’être is really the children’s party. They’re small enough (also shallower) for children’s hands and stomachs. There’s sugar there, certainly, but no plenitude of e-numbers and saturated fat to encourage bad behaviour and obesity.

The fairy cake is fairly well defined, and not just by its size. The cake element is the classic Victoria sponge cake (follow this link for more about that); and the icing is a classic glacé royal icing. This is made by simply mixing icing sugar with enough boiling water to make a pourable-spreadable paste.

Any further embellishment comes from additional coloured icing (which can be shaped), or sugar sprinkles of one kind or another.

Classic royal icing and sugar sprinkles, aka ‘hundreds and thousands’
Additional embellishment from coloured royal icing

The butterfly cake

The butterfly cake is also an item of nostalgia. This is really a mini Victoria sponge cake with wings. An ordinary Victoria sponge cake mixture is baked, in exactly the same way as for a fairy cake, in small tins.

Then the top rounded part of the cake is sliced off to leave a flat top. That’s spread with a little strawberry jam, and a blob of whipped cream. The sliced-off top is cut into two semi-circles and those are anchored onto the cake by the jam and cream, at an angle to form wings.

Just to add to the confusion, sometimes these are also referred to as fairy cakes, because of the wings.

Butterfly cakes…. or are they also fairy cakes???

For a post all about the Victoria sponge cake, the science of making it, and its history, follow this link.

The mug cake

Right. So if a cupcake is simply a cake baked in a cup, how is it different to a mug cake? A mug cake isn’t made using the ‘creaming’ method described above. Indeed, more often than not it is made more along the lines of the muffin – all the dry ingredients mixed together first. And it’s often minus an egg.

And it is made in the microwave.

To make a rather good, chocolate, mug cake

To make a simple mug cake you might take a large microwavable mug, and in it put 4 tablespoons of plain flour, a ¼ teaspoon of baking powder, 2 tablespoons of Dutch cocoa, 2 tablespoons golden caster sugar, and a pinch of salt. Stir to mix.

Then add 5 tablespoons of milk and 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil. Stir.

Put a tablespoon of Nutella on the top in the centre. Microwave on 800 for a minute.

Very, very simple. If you want to make it a tad more sinful, pour over salted caramel sauce.

Alrighty, now, what about the muffin?

Being slightly older than many I am old-fashioned enough to remember muffins as being a sort of bready alternative to a crumpet (see the section below for more on that).

But more recently, muffins have come to mean something else. More like a bready alternative to a cupcake in fact.

The first thing to understand about the new-fangled (a couple of decades old, rather than a couple of centuries that is) muffins is that they can be both sweet, and savoury, or somewhere in between. The SD team makes a rich, chocolatey beef stew, and by far the best thing with them, better than potatoes…noodles…. rice… anything, are savoury muffins.

savoury muffins
Savoury muffins, the best thing to go with a rich, chocolatey beef stew.

Breakfast at a tea plantation in India included apple and cinnamon muffins – which were sort of in between… good with bacon…

And, of course, you can get some damn good sweet muffins. For 53 examples, no less, go to the Delish site.

What distinguishes muffins from cupcakes and fairy cakes is the cooking method and the consistency. Muffins are made by mixing the dry and wet ingredients separately, and then mixing the wet ingredients into the dry. There is proportionately less egg and more milk in a muffin recipe. And the result, as I discovered when I tried to recreate the plantation apple and cinnamon ones which I had so enjoyed in India, is often very solid… best served with a good dollop of yoghurt. Nigella is pretty clear on all this, her team explain it very clearly on her site. Muffins often have fruit or nuts included in the dough – as in a blueberry muffin, or the apple and cinnamon ones I describe above.

what is a muffin
A bit heavy… best served with a good dollop of yoghurt…

So what about the old-fashioned traditional muffin?

So I remember an old-fashioned muffin, a sort of bready kind of crumpet. An accurate observation in fact because the original muffins are a type of bread, made with dough and yeast, in some ways they are not wholly dissimilar to baps. I feel on safe ground regarding crumpets, a favourite for a fireside tea with Gentleman’s Relish. Crumpets are made with batter, and baking soda as well as yeast, and only toasted on one side.

In the days before everyone had an oven, muffins would be sold door to door by hawkers, and there was a well-known nursery rhyme all about it. They are toasted on both sides, and the traditional base to an eggs Benedict.

traditional old-fashioned muffin
Traditional old-fashioned muffin

What is an English muffin?

So far, so clear. But when I am in north America I find ‘English muffins’ on menus. Some sources tell me that this is the old-fashioned muffin described above. But what usually turns up is the new-fangled common or garden muffin.

Music to listen to as you read

Have You Seen The Muffin Man, sung by Teddy Tahu Rhodes

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