1 of 4
Brian Nicholson, Deseret Morning News
A ghost \— actually a chocolate cupcake covered with white fondant from Carlucci's Bakery \— is surrounded by Les Madeleines' miniature cupcakes, a chocolate spider and other cupcakes made in the Deseret Morning News test kitchen.

Cupcakes are making a comeback. Once relegated to kids' birthday parties and neighborhood bake sales, they're now starring in formal venues, such as weddings.

In the past couple of years, bakeries known as "cupcakeries" or "cupcake boutiques" have sprouted up in big cities — Cupcakes in Chicago, Magnolia Bakery in New York and Sprinkles Cupcakes in Beverly Hills, Calif. But the fad is apparently just getting started in Utah.

"I'm starting to see a lot more cupcakes here, but not bakeries devoted just to cupcakes like they have in other big cities," said Romina Rasmussen, owner of Les Madeleines. "They've been on the coast for awhile and are working their way inward."

"I've always loved them. They're the perfect portion size, and you can play around with different flavors and do some fun things with them."

Every day Rasmussen's bakery offers chocolate and vanilla cupcakes, plus one specialty. That might be pumpkin cake with cream cheese frosting or coconut cake filled with dulce de leche and topped with coconut. She also likes decorating them with tiny frosted sugar cookies. A regular-size cupcake sells for $1.75; minis are 93 cents each.

The bakery did carrot cupcakes for an 85th birthday celebration, with cream cheese frosting and little pink sugar cookies on top. "When there's 100 of them together, it's really striking," Rasmussen said. "She (the customer) wanted everything bright green and bright pink."

"We've been doing cupcakes since we opened almost four years ago," said Therese Martin, owner of Carlucci's Bakery. "They're not your plain run-of-the-mill cupcakes. We always have some type of filling and cutesy toppings, and they change with the seasons. In the summer, when berries were at the top of their season, we featured them on the top of lemon cake with lemon-curd filling. Now we're doing ghost and spider ones."

Cakes de Fleur recently did a "cupcake tree" for a wedding cake. "It was five tiers high, and we did 600 cupcakes. Some were on the table below, and they kept replenishing the tiers," said owner Lauralee Morrison. "We did yellow-and-green polka dots on one-fourth of them, the couple's initials on one-fourth, grass on one-fourth, and a handmade flower on the last fourth."

Schmidt's Pastry Cottage has also been asked to do wedding cupcakes. "A lot of times they'll want a flower in their colors on each one, and then they're placed in tiers. They can't get a lot of them on each tier, but they can keep replenishing it," said owner Steve Borg.

But overall, Borg's bakery hasn't noticed an increased demand for cupcakes. "We've always had a strong cupcake business, and we do them with the seasons. For Halloween, they are topped with fall sprinkles and little spiders, pumpkins and skeletons. But for us, cookies are the most popular, then cupcakes and then doughnuts."

Some say the cupcake craze took off in 2000, after an episode of the TV series "Sex and the City" showed its stars eating the Magnolia Bakery's cupcakes. (The bakery is now a featured stop on the "Sex and the City" bus tour.)

What's the draw? Maybe a backlash from low-carb diets. Maybe it's part retro-food fun. And like doughnuts (which had their heyday a few years ago), cupcakes are portable, don't require a knife and fork and are small enough to give a sense of portion control (if you stick to just one).

The new cookbook "Cupcakes!" is a testament to their popularity. Author Ann Byrn baked up "The Cake Doctor" in 1999, featuring fabulous desserts made from boxed cake mix. A sequel, "The Chocolate Cake Doctor," followed a few years later.

"The beloved cupcake gets my nod for food of the year — make that any year," writes Byrn. "A cupcake is a sweet handful that needs no knife, no fork. You just peel back the paper and eat."

These are also made with cake mixes, but there are few plain-Janes in the bunch. Key Lime Pie with Coconut Meringue, Rhubarb Crumble, Chocolate Almond, Orange Marmalade Ricotta, Warm Chocolate with Molten Centers and Caramel Spiced Apple are some of the different varieties.

Byrn also doctored up muffin mixes to come up with Cinnamon Applesauce Lunchbox Muffins, Chunky Peanut Butter Muffins and other cupcake variations.

Halloween is the perfect time for cupcake cuisine, with decorations ranging from glamor to ghoulish. Last week, Julie Bakker of Kaysville made spider cupcakes with her three young sons to share around the neighborhood. They were chocolate with deep chocolate frosting, with chocolate sprinkles making them look "furry." Unable to find black licorice for the legs, she cut regular black licorice in half lengthwise and in thirds width-wise. The eyes were pastel mints with a glob of black decorating gel.

"We always do some type of cooking project together once a week, and we saw this in Family Fun magazine," said Bakker.

Other magazines have picked up on the current cupcake cuisine. Country Living featured Halloween cupcakes on its cover, and Martha Stewart's Kids made them into "creepcakes." And on the Food Network, famous pastry chefs competed in a "Cupcake Cook-Off" this month.

For those who want to keep it simple, just get a box of cake mix and follow the cupcake directions (for "high-altitude") on the box. Then get creative with holiday pan liners, frostings and toppings. Or simply dust the tops lightly with powdered sugar or chocolate curls. Either way, they will soon do a disappearing act.


PUMPKIN MUFFINS WITH CHOCOLATE CHIPS

Vegetable oil spray for misting the pan

1 package (17.8 ounces) chocolate chip muffin mix (or use blueberry muffin mix, minus the blueberries, plus 1 1/2 cups chocolate chips)

1 cup canned pure pumpkin (not pumpkin pie filling)

1/2 cup milk

1 large egg

1/2 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice

Place rack in center of the oven and preheat oven to 400 F. Prepare muffin tin by misting the bottoms of 12 cups with vegetable oil spray. Set pan aside. (You can also make your muffins in the shape of a pumpkin by using 2 1/2-inch Bundt muffin pans. Serve them fluted side up.)

Place muffin mix in a large mixing bowl and make a well in the center. Place the pumpkin, milk, egg and pumpkin pie spice in the well and stir the wet ingredients with a fork to combine and break up the egg yolk. Stir the wet and dry ingredients together with a wooden spoon just until combined, about 20 strokes. The batter will still be a little lumpy. Spoon or scoop 1/3 cup batter into each prepared muffin cup, filling it three quarters of the way full. Place the pan in the oven.

Bake the muffins until they spring back when lightly pressed with a finger, 20-22 minutes. Place pan on a wire rack to cool 5 minutes. Run a dinner knife around the edges of the muffins, lift them up from the bottoms of the cups using the end of the knife, and pick them out of the cups carefully with your fingertips. Place them on a wire rack to cool for 15 minutes. Makes 12 muffins.

— "Cupcakes! From the Cupcake Doctor," by Ann Byrn


CHOCOLATE SPIDERS

Add these to the top of any cupcake

1 1/4 cups chow mein noodles

2 1/2 cups semisweet chocolate chips

1/3 cup milk

1/2 cup confectioners' sugar

1 cup crispy rice cereal

Line a baking sheet with waxed paper and set aside.

Measure out 3/4 cup chow mein noodles and break them into small pieces. Break the remaining noodles into 2-inch pieces. These will be the spiders' legs. Set the noodles aside in separate groupings.

Combine the chocolate chips and milk in a saucepan over low heat, stirring frequently, until the chocolate has melted and the mixture is smooth, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the confectioners' sugar, cereal and the small chow mein noodle pieces until blended.

Drop the chocolate mixture by tablespoons in a slightly oblong shape onto the prepared baking sheet. You will have about 30 bodies, about 2 inches in size. Immediately insert the noodle legs into the spider bodies, four on one side and four on the opposite side. Space them evenly apart. Place the baking sheet in the refrigerator and chill the spiders until hardened, 30 to 40 minutes.

Once chilled, remove them from the waxed paper by pushing up from the underside of the waxed paper.

Store spiders in plastic storage container at room temperature for up to 2 days.

— "Cupcakes! From the Cupcake Doctor," by Ann Byrn


LITTLE PUMPKIN CINNAMON CAKES

The pumpkin shape comes from baking the cupcakes in 2 1/2-inch Bundt muffin pans and serving them fluted side up. But you can still bake the batter as regular cupcakes, using cupcake or muffin pans with paper Halloween liners (no greasing or flouring is necessary).

Vegetable oil shortening for greasing the Bundt pans

Flour for dusting the pans

1 package (18.25 ounces) plain yellow cake mix

1 cup canned pumpkin

1/3 cup vegetable oil

1/2 cup milk

3 large eggs

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Glaze:

2 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar, sifted

2 1/2 to 3 tablespoons milk

1/2 teaspoon pure orange extract

3 drops yellow food coloring

1 drop red food coloring

24 green gumdrops or Dots candy, cut into bite-size pieces for the stem

Place rack in center of oven and preheat oven to 350 degrees. Using a pastry brush, grease Bundt muffin pans with vegetable oil and dust with flour. Shake out excess flour and set pans aside. (If using muffin/cupcake tins and cake liners, no greasing or flouring is necessary.)

Place the cake mix, pumpkin, oil, milk, eggs, vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg in a large mixing bowl. Blend with an electric mixer on low speed for 30 seconds. Stop the machine and scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Increase the mixer speed to medium and beat 2 minutes more, scraping down the sides again if needed. Spoon or scoop 3 tablespoons batter into each prepared pan, filling it 2/3 of the way full.

Comment on this story

Bake the cupcakes until they are golden and spring back when lightly pressed with your finger, 12-15 minutes. Remove pans from oven, cool on wire racks 5 minutes. Run a dinner knife around the edges, then invert the pan onto wire rack to unmold the cupcakes. Cool 15 minutes before glazing. If you're baking in batches, cool pans, wipe out stray crumbs and grease and reflour pans before refilling and baking.

For the glaze, place the confectioners' sugar, milk, orange extract and food colorings in a small mixing bowl, whisk to combine well, making sure the colors blend evenly. Spoon the glaze over the top of the cupcakes. Immediately place a green gumdrop or other candy piece in the center to resemble a pumpkin stem. If using Bundt pans, you will get 34 to 36 cakes; if using regular muffin tins, you'll get 24 cupcakes.

"Cupcakes! From the Cupcake Doctor," by Ann Byrn


E-mail: vphillips@desnews.com