Watching cooking shows on the television is something I haven’t done in a long time, but it has come to my attention, through other viewers, that a British cooking show called “The Great British Bake Off” has made some claim to the origin of the name for “cupcakes”, being they were once baked in cups and this is how they received their name.
(*edit: I finally managed to watch this episode, I must give some credit to a nod to the “cup cake” being measured by cups, though I still wish the ‘cooked in a cup’ was not so definitive on the show)
Out of curiosity, I did a quick search to see if this was the prominent thought on this matter and found two articles of some interest. The first being on Wikipedia where the writer suggests that two separate entities evolved, one being a cake that used cup measures giving it the name (opposed to other cakes that were measured in weight) and one that received it’s name through being a cake baked in a cup. Amelia Simmons , in American Cookery was credited as having the first cake baked in a cup, while the actual term “cupcake” being said to be first from the 1828 book “Seventy-five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats” by Eliza Leslie.
This is where I’ll bring up the other article (or really, articles), “Food History Jottings” on this very subject. If you click on the link, you will see Ivan Day’s three articles on this very subject. There is a fair bit of information here (which I sadly only clicked after spending a few hours reading through recipes and books), it’s pretty decent and I’d suggest the read if this is of interest to you. What I would like to do though is elaborate a bit, but not on cupcake papers or particularly where we are on cupcakes today, but more on when a “cup cake” is not a “cupcake” (as we know them now) and when they changed to their present status.
Cakes are Baked in…
“Soft Cakes in little pans.
One and a half pound sugar, half a pound of butter, rubbed into two pounds flour, add one glas wine, one do. rose water, 18 eggs and a nutmeg”
“A light Cake to bake in small cups.
Half a pound sugar, half a pound butter, rubbed in to two pounds flour, one glass wine, one do rose water, two do. emptins, a nutmeg, cinnamon and curants.”
Indeed Amelia Simmons’s recipe (above) “A light Cake to bake in small cups” and recipes where cakes are baked in pans or ‘little pans’ suggest something “cupcake” like in our minds, but nothing present in her book is actually called a “cupcake”. Eliza Leslie’s recipe, however, does suggests a “cup cake”, such as we associate the name with today in this recipe of 5 eggs, “two large tea-cups full of molasses” and “the same of brown sugar”, “the same of fresh butter”, 1 cup rich milk, 5 cups flour, 1/2 cup of powdered allspice and cloves and 1/2 cup of ginger which is cooked in small buttered tins. However, with her recipes, and while two are indeed cooked in buttered “small tins” or “little tins”, another recipe has the “cup cake” simply baked in a buttered “tin pan”. This, unfortunately, is hardly proof that the term “cupcake” originated from the cakes being cooked in cups.
“Cup Cake. This is about as good as a pound cake, and is cheaper. One cup of butter, two cups of sugar, three cups of flour, and four eggs, well beat together, and baked in pans, or cups. Bake twenty minutes, and no more.”
The Lady’s Annual Register, and Housewife’s Memorandum-book for 1838
By Caroline Howard Gilman
This same recipe, word for word, also shows up in a later published, and expanded version, of The American Frugal Housewife by By Mrs. Lydia Maria Child in 1841, which serves as a lovely, and early, example of a “cup cake” recipe actually baked in cups (as opposed to tins). The catch here, of course, is that it was also baked in pans, as were earlier versions by the same name.
In “Every lady’s book”, “By a Lady of New York”, published 1845, we have before us several “cup cake” recipes. The “Common Cup Cake” batter is cooked in “a couple of two quart basins”, one of them is unspecified, two are cooked in square pans and then cut up into smaller squares and the last is most interesting…
“Tea Cup Cake, without Eggs.–One cup of butter; two cups of sugar; one cup of sour milk or cream; a bit of volatile salts, the size of a small nutmeg, or a teaspoonful of salæratus; half a nutmeg grated; a gill of brandy; and a teaspoonful of essence, or the ring of a lemon grated; use flour enough to make a stiff batter; bear it well; put it an inch and a half deep in buttered basins, and bake in a quick oven.”
The name itself, does suggest it could be baked in “tea cups” or at least something pretty darn close in shape. However, going back to Eliza Leslie’s recipe for “Cup Cake”, her “tea cups” are clearly meant as measures “Two large tea-cups full of molasses” which could very well be what was meant by “Tea Cup Cake” regardless of the basins that were used for baking. Similar examples of tea cups being used as measures can be found in “The American Matron”, 1851, where one “cup cake” recipe is measured with “tea-cups” and another “cup cake” recipe is even measured with “coffee cups”! Also in 1881, “Housekeeping in the Blue Grass: A New and Practical Cook”, a few “cup cake” recipes are also measured with a “tea-cupful”.
Of course tea cups were actually used in baking and not just in reference to Simmons’s “small cups”. With a little searching, I found a recipe in “The Accomplished Housekeeper, and Universal Cook”, by T. Williams, published in 1717 showing a recipe for Citron Cheesecakes being baked in “teacups”. In “The London Art of Cookery”, by John Farley, published in 1789, “Citron Pudding” is again baked in “tea-cups” and then turned out of the cups onto a china dish. Of course various basins, tins and custard cups existed for the purpose of baking. This brings us to “Queens Cakes” (also mentioned in “Food History Jottings”, linked previously), where the recipes do not only compare but also relate to each other in some ways.
If you looked at the article, you will see pictures of the various types of tins these were baked in, being typically fancy little shapes and in sizes not too distant from that of a modern cup-cake. Here is an example of two early recipes for “Queen Cake”:
|“To Make Queens Cakes” (1725)
“You must take a Pound of dry’d Flour, a Pound of refin’d Sugar sifted, and a Pound of Currants wash’d, pick’d, and rubb’d clean, and a Pound of Butter wash’d very well, and rub it into the Flour and Sugar, with a little beaten Mace, and a little Orange-Flower-Water; beat ten Eggs, but half the Whites, work it all well together with your Hands, and put in the Currants’ sift over it double refin’d Sugar, and put them immediately into a gentle Oven to bake.”
|“Queen Cakes” (1739)
“Take a Pound of sugar, and beat it fine, four Yolks and two Whites of Eggs, half a Pound of Butter, a little Rose-water, six Spoonfuls of warm Cream, a Pound of Currans, and as much Flour as will make it up; stir them well together, and put them into your Patty-pans, being well butter’d; bake them in an Oven, almost as hot as for Manchet, for half an Hour; then take them out and glaze them, and let them stand but a little after the Glazing is on, to rise.”
The House-keeper’s Pocket-Book, by Sarah Harrison
Though early, and with some differences, they read similarly to a pound cake with currants, flower water and are for making “cakes” as opposed to just one or two large cakes. (note: In the next century, mention of flower waters start to cease and currants are not always present) They also bare a fair bit of resemblance to Simmons’s “A light Cake to bake in small cups” mentioned at the beginning of this article, with the difference of having no added leaven where hers specifically has yeast added where her actual recipe for “Queens Cake”, in “American Cookery” does not. It does, however, have wine instead of flower water, which is sometimes seen. Her “Queens Cake” is baked in pans, which does not describe well the type of pan generally used for these recipes, though often it was small tins, as mentioned in the second recipe above, or tins made specifically for baking “Queen Cakes”. Of course, as seen in the recipe below, from the “New Cyclopaedia of Domestic Economy, published in 1872, you can see that even a “Queen Cake” was sometimes baked in teacups.
Teacups and other measures….
So yeah, maybe the one thing that makes a “Cup Cake” a “Cup Cake” is the fact that it is measured in cups rather than pounds, like all the recipes I’ve found….
except for these two found in “Economical Cookery: Designed to Assist the Housekeeper in Retrenching her expenses”, published in 1840:
Half a pound of sugar, the same of butter, 2 pounds of flour, 1 glass of rose water, a nutmeg, and some currants, a little yeast.”
Which, btw, sounds an awful lot like a “Queen Cake” if it were to be baked in little tins that is. However, this is not the only “Cup Cake” in that book, here are two others:
“Another cup cake. Three pounds flour, 2 of sugar, 1 pound of butter, and 8 eggs, a little carraway seed’ add milk, if the eggs are not sufficient.”
One cup of butter, 2 of sugar, 3 of flour, and 4 eggs, well beat together and bake in small pans or cups. Bake just twenty minutes. This Cup Cake is about as good as pound cake and is cheaper.”
…well, one… maybe two? out of three ain’t bad? However the last one is baked in “small pans or cups” at least.
Sooooo…. What did other people have to say about the Cup Cake?
Here is a neat little story I found in the Farmer’s Review, 19th May, 1906 (also found in “Everyday Housekeeping”, 1899 and could quite be possibly published elsewhere)
It starts off with someone attempting to sell a batch of cookery books with a plethora of cake recipes where she, quite nervously, takes the books to “Aunt Susan”, a well known local baker with some fame… She looks through the books and says…
“Yes,” said Aunt Susan, “and let us look at the recipes and see if they are not all made after the one, two, three, four cake rule which my mother used to call ‘cup cake,’ but which I always call ‘the mother of cakes.’ White Mountain cake, one cup sugar, one-half cup milk, one and on-half cups flour, baking powder and vanilla extract. Double that and you have the one cup of butter, two cups of sugar, three cups of flour, and four eggs of the old time recipe.”
So according to this bit of history, that has been around since at least 1899, “Cup Cake” is the original name for “1,2,3,4 cake”, which is a cake that uses the formula of:
“one cup of butter,
two cups of sugar,
three cups of flour,
and four eggs”
And indeed, there are some “Cup Cake” recipes that follow this rule, such as the 1840 recipe previously shown from “Economical Cookery” where the measures are exactly the same: “One cup of butter, 2 of sugar, 3 of flour, and 4 eggs”, as was the 1838 recipe from “The Lady’s Annual Register” (previously mentioned). And we see this again in the “Ladies’ indispensable assistant” published in 1852:
“Cup Cake: Take one cup of butter, two cups of sugar, three cups of flour, and four eggs. Tea-spoonful of salæratus, nutmeg and rose-water.”
In this 1895 excerpt from a publication called “Household News”, “one, two, three, four cake” is further explained:
“In making one, two, three, four cake, there is no milk mentioned. Is none required?”
“No. One, two, three, four cake is simply a sort of pound cake, and was originally called cup cake.”
Of course there are other variations of “Cup Cake” that have cream or milk in them, though sometimes called “Cream Cup Cake”. The “Ladies’ indispensable assistant” from 1852 has two more such recipes:
“Best Cup Cake
Five cups of flour, three of sugar, one of milk, three eggs, one tea-spoonful of salæratus, raisins, one cup of butter, nutmeg, rose-water.”
“Cream Cup Cake
Four cups of flour; two cups of sugar; three cups of cream; and four eggs. Beat it well, and in square tin pans. When cold, cut it in squares. Bake in a quick oven.”
In American Cookery – 1925, Volume 29, Issue 9, “Cup Cake” is also described: “So, likewise, you might bake an angel cake mixture in individual cups, and this we should think ought not to be difficult. But never, never can you make a cup cake from any angel cake mixture that ever was mixed. The true cup cake means the “One, Two, Three, Four” cake, which called for one cup of butter, two of sugar, three of flour, and four eggs. It was called “Cup Cake” because a cup or its multiple was the standard of measuring — a cup filled to the brim, and with no divisions into fractional parts.”
Even 1917 “Favorite Recipes Cook Book: A Complete Culinary Guide” by
Marion Harris Neil, treats “Cup Cake” as a type of cake useful for making layer cakes, where it instructs under the title “Layer Cakes” that layer cake batter “may be made of plain cup cake or sponge cake and may be put together with any desired filling or icing and frosted to suit the individual taste.” This idea also shows up earlier in 1895 in “Instruction in Cooking with Selected Receipts” that states: “1-2-3-4 cake can be used for layer or cup cakes, or baked in a sheet iced and cut into blocks; or it may be used as a pudding eaten with a sauce.”
And… according to the “Blue Ribbon Cook Book”, printed in 1905, (one of my lovely Canadian publications to shake things up a bit) tells us that for “Cup Cakes”: “Any cake mixture may be used, but scant the flour. Serve plain, or iced, or remove a small part of the centre and fill with custard filling, whipped cream, fruit, etc.” Sounds positively modern doesn’t it?
For comparison, my 1930 copy of “The Boston Cooking School cook Book” suggests that any cake recipe can be used for “cup cakes” by “reducing the flour by 1 tablespoon for each cup flour in the recipe.” These are then baked in individual tins or paper cups.
But just as we figures this all out, the 1883 book “Ice Cream and Cakes”, offer up another history following the instructions for this cup cake recipe:
1/2 pound Butter
1 pound powdered Sugar
1/2 pint Sour Cream
1 1/2 pounds flour
1 Nutmeg, grated
1 teaspoonful cinnamon
1 gill Rose-Water
2 teaspoonfuls Saleratus- Water
Cream the butter and sugar, gradually add the cream, by turns with one-half the flour. beat the eggs well and stir in, alternately with the rest of the flour. Add the spices, rose-water, and saleratus, beat the whole very hard, put into small tine, or patty-pans, and bake in a moderate oven, about twenty minutes. It is also baked in cups, and hence its name. By some it is made, and preferred, without any spices.”
So this bring us back to the “baked in cups” origin of the name, not that it proves much, but points out that even accounts about these old recipes, made about over 100 years ago varied and even contradicted. This is further shown where the same book claims: “Number Cake” was “formerly known as “1, 2, 3, 4 Cake,” and afterwards as Measure Cake.” Their recipe, incidentally, to bake the batter “in cups, or cake-pans”.
“Measure Cake”, “Number Cake” and “1, 2, 3, 4 Cake” do all appear to be just different names for the same sort of cake, but it’s hard to say if there is one meaningful order in which they came or if the names sort of staggered in. “The Practical Housekeeper”, by M. L. Scott, published in 1855 has such a recipe which was written almost 30 years later :
“Number Cake–Take one up of butter, two do. of sugar, three do. of flour, and four eggs.”
So, Cup Cakes… a little more complicated than One, Two, Three, Four?
Because I already started to pull out the Canadian Cook books, here are some from “The Home Cook Book” published in 1877 to compare further.
This version of the 1, 2, 3, 4 Cake is a bit unusual as it seems to want us to add more flour and treat it more like a cookie, however it’s basic premise is still a 1, 2, 3, 4 cake.
Lets compare “Cup Cakes” from the same book:
Cup Cake (from Mrs. Arthurs)
One cup butter, two cups sugar, three cups flour, four eggs, cup milk, three teaspoonsful Cook’s Friend.
One cup of butter, two cups of sugar, three cups of flour, four eggs, a teaspoonful of soda dissolved in a cup of milk, two teaspoonsful of cream of tartar mixed into the flour, flavour with essence of any kind.
Here we see that the first recipe is essentially “1, 2, 3, 4 Cake” as above and the second one is not entirely different. The only really notable difference is the addition of Baking Powder (the “Cook’s Friend” and the soda + cream of tartar). This reminds me a bit how Simmons’s “A light Cake to bake in small cups” breaks away from from her “Queens Cake” with the addition of yeast. However, later, books end up publishing “queen cake” recipes with the addition of baking powder, such as a recipe found in”Hints on the Daily Duties of a Housekeeper”, by Elizabeth Nicholson, published 1856. Similarly, a recipe from the same book has a recipe for “1, 2, 3, 4 Cake” made with: “1 cup butter, 2 sugar, 3 flour, 4 eggs, nutmeg, 1 tea-spoon soda, 2 cream tartar.” Later, in 1893, in “The Home Queen”, recipes for “Number Cake” and “1-2-3-4 Cake” have additions of soda or baking powder.
Below: Two other recipes, from “The Home Cook Book”, move a little further from the 1-2-3-4 formula of measures but are still very comparable.
Some for fun cake comparisons from “The Dominion Cook Book”, published in 1899. (Canadian, of course)
What I like, is that we can see a nice strong break from Queen Cakes, though also showing a change to the Queen Cake recipes while they still maintain most of their original essence with a pound cake type batter and currants still being used. With the Ginger cup cake, we are actually instructed to bake it in a buttered “pan or earthen mould” but, alternatively, may be baked in “queen cake pans”, just earlier described as “little buttered tins” in the recipes above.
The “Handy Cake” actually resembles a “1, 2, 3, 4 cake” quite a bit as well, but with one notable difference not found in either the “queen cake” or the “cup cake”, which is the use of boiling water.
But what about Cup Cakes baked in Muffin tins?
This recipe was scanned from a 1906 book called the “Royal Baker and Pastry Cook”, another Canadian publication. Now we are seeing a real move away from the basic pound cake and the “1, 2, 3, 4 cake” where we begin to see a rising in… well raising agents such as baking powder, as well as the addition of cream or milk which used to mostly show up previously in recipes such as “cream cup cakes”.
Here are a few more random recipes from around the same era:
Five eggs beaten separately, 2 cups sugar, 1 cup milk, 1/2 cup butter, 3 cups flour, 2 tea-spoons baking powder; flavor to suit taste: bake in 3 tins and fill with jelly or icing.”
“The Home Queen” published in 1893
“Cup Cake– 1-2 cup of butter, 2 eggs, 1 cup of sugar, 1-2 cup of milk, 1 1-2 cups of flour, 1 heaping teaspoonful of baking powder sifted with the flour, 1 cup raisins and currants, beat butter, sugar and yolks of eggs together, stir in milk, then whites well beaten, then flour and raisins.
“A Book for the Cook: Old Fashioned Receipts for New Fashioned Kitchens”, 1899
“Small Cup Cake.–Two eggs, 2 cups of flour, 1 cup white sugar, 1/2 cup butter, 1/2 cup of sweet milk, 1 teaspoonful of baking powder.”
“The Portland Ideal Cook Book”, 1905
“Cream cup cake –Mrs A. Dean
Cream together 1 cup thick cream and 1 1/2 cups sugar, add 3 eggs, beat well. 3 cups flour sifted with 1 teaspoonful soda and 2 of cream tarter, 1/2 cup milk. Flavour to taste.”
“Sunnyvale Cook Book”, 1906
“Cup Cake.–1 cup butter, 2 cups sugar, 4 eggs, 1 teaspoon Royal Baking Powder, 3 cups flour, 20 drops extract bitter almonds. Rub the butter and sugar to a cream. Add the eggs, 2 at a time, beating 5 minutes after each addition. Sift together the flour and powder, which add to the butter etc., whith the extract. Mix into a smooth, medium batter. Bake in well-greased cups or muffin-pans in a rather hot oven, 20 minutes.”
“Royal Baker and Pastry Cook”, 1911 (printed in New York)
“Cup Cakes with Orange Frosting
1/4 cup butter or other fat. 2 cups sugar. 4 eggs. 1 cup milk. 3 cups flour. 4 teaspoons baking powder.
Mix according to the usual method for butter cakes, and bake in gem tins. This recipe should make 24 cakes.” (the frosting recipe followed this with a note recommending it as a means of using orange juice and uncooked egg yolks)
“Farmers’ Bulletin”, January 17, 1916
“Anna’s Cup Cake.—One-half cup of sweet milk, 1/2 cup of butter, 2 eggs, 1 cup of sugar, 2 cups of flour, 2 teaspoonfuls’of baking powder. Can use this for many kinds of cake, with or without fruit, with different kinds of flavoring and different kinds of filling; bake in loaf or layer, or in patty pans.”
“The People’s Home Recipe Book”, Alice Gitchell Kirk – 1920
I think the line does indeed go like this: “It’s complicated”
What I believe I’m seeing here is a sort of evolution of “Cup Cake” not before or after “1, 2, 3, 4 Cake” but along with it. As “Cup Cake” evolved from a sort of cheaper to make pound cake to something with milk or cream and baking powder added, as did “1, 2, 3, 4 Cake” or “Measure Cake”. As these cakes evolved, however, older versions of these recipes were still being published and even showing up in the same cook books, as very similar recipes, but with different names. The only real connection with a “queen cake” and a “cup cake” seems to be that sometimes the same vessels were utilized in baking them. Ingredient-wise, the Queen cake would either have wine or other liquor in it and/or flower water and would more often, than not, have currants, raisins or some other dry/candied fruit. But, unlike the “queen cake”, “cup cake” was not always baked in a small vessel.
Why did “Cup Cake” evolve into what we consider a cupcake to be today?
This I don’t know, it could be that as the recipes for “1, 2, 3, 4 cake” and “cup cake” evolved into something that used measures beyond cups and the standard “1 cup butter, 2 cups, sugar, 3 cups flour, 4 eggs” formula, the meaning became obsolete, especially as “cup measures” became more commonplace.
It could be, as this happened, that the only major thing to carry on from the original recipes was the fact that it was sometimes baked in small cups, evident as more cook books from the early to mid 20th century tended to offer instructions for baking cup cakes using other recipes in their books.