I asked the question. So I figured I should try and answer it. A similar question seeking clarification between jams, jellies, marmalades and preserves was raised months ago and I actually did the research for that but never wrote the post. So here is my answer to the question – muffin or cupcake? The first reference book that I reach for in situations like this is The Oxford Companion To Food, compiled by Alan Davidson. It is within arms reach of my desk/computer, and it is my favorite food book. Davidson describes a muffin as being derived from the French word moufflet, which was used to describe a â€œsoftâ€ bread. This makes total sense when referring to an English muffin (the most common reference in the U.S. would be a Thomasâ€™s English Muffin) which is a flat, yeast based bread that I personally love and used to halve using a fork (not knife, you heathen!), toast and then watch a big blob of sweet butter melt into the nooks and crannies. When says â€œnooks and cranniesâ€ my mental vision is a Thomasâ€™s English Muffin, which you can sometimes find in the frozen section of Rustanâ€™s groceries if you are lucky and donâ€™t mind the exorbitant price asked for it. This form of muffin has written references as early as the 1700â€™s and there are recipes for it published around that time, so letâ€™s just say that is a pretty good description of an â€œoriginalâ€ muffin. This type of muffin was often enjoyed at tea-time, and purveyors used to go around villages selling them and ringing a bellâ€¦not unlike our own taho vendors todayâ€¦
The AMERICAN muffin, according to Davidson, is a small, squat round cake which may be yeast leavened though baking powder is used instead to get that â€œriseâ€ in the cake. It is usually sweetened, though not always and often flavored with fresh or dried fruit, nuts, chocolate, etc. These muffins are baked in MUFFIN pans or cups and served primarily for breakfast, though some types are served for dinner (most notably corn and savory corn variations). Seeking more information, I turned to Nancy Silvertonâ€™s Pastries from the La Brea Bakery Cookbook and she describes her muffins as substantial little cakes that are simple to make but which can carry complex and unique flavors. She too relies on baking powder rather than yeast and she has an amazing selection of muffins such as Banana-Cocoa Muffins, Browned Butter-Pecan Muffins, Lemon-Ginger Muffins, Ricotta Muffins and surprisingly, Yam Muffins. Ms. Silverton goes further to suggest a topping or Streusel is a nice addition to a muffin (as in the Wild Blueberry Muffins I wrote about here) and encourages toppings that hint of the muffin itselfâ€¦hence a touch of brandy soaked prunes or a white lemon glaze. Turning to Martha Stewart, in The Baking Handbook, she like Silverton, prefers the use of Â½ cup capacity muffin pans. Both eschew the humongous muffins often sold in breakfast places or delis in many U.S. cities. Stewartâ€™s suggested concoctions include Plum Coffee-Cake Muffins, Cranberry-Zucchini Muffines and Date-Bran Muffins. Both specify that these are simple, easy to make,yet delicious baked goods (and frankly, are worldâ€™s apart from the ENGLISH muffin, described above).
Cupcakes on the other hand, are described by Davidson as a name given to small cakes baked in a cup-shaped mould or paper (sometimes waxed) cupsâ€¦ and he says this name became popular during the 1800â€™s in Britain and at about the same time, North America. He further explains that in North America, it may have gotten its name because the measurements for the confection revolved around cups as in pound cake where the simplest version use a pound of butter, a pound of sugar, flour, etc. (geez, they were dummifying recipes even then!). Davidson says there is a reference to a cupcake recipe from 1828 where the ingredients include â€œa cup of cream, a cup of butter, two cups of sugar and four cups of flour. The prepared mixture is then baked in little tins.â€ Checking my cutesy (I donâ€™t like cutesy in general) cupcake specific cookbook called The Artful Cupcake by Marcianne Miller, she describes a cup cake as having a cake base and a yummy topping or frosting. She goes further to define a cupcake as â€œan individual cake that spent some part of its creation in a MUFFIN pan.â€ Her basic recipes call for cake flour and in general, they must result in a lighter puffier cake than an AMERICAN muffin. Bizarrely, she then goes on to describe cupcakes as small cakes, UNLESS â€œthey are like a pie, cookie, custard, cheesecake, etc.â€ Now that it just stretching the definition a bit far, if you ask me. There probably wasnâ€™t enough material to write a whole book on a basic cupcakeâ€¦ You can see why I think poorly of this last bookâ€¦ Finally, I should mention that I did a surprisingly HOT post which elicited so many comments on Cupcakes by Sonja, the leading purveyor of these goodies in Manila at the moment. The Kid bought a peanut butter cupcake at Sonja’s the other day and the place was totally empty. And the price at PHP65 or so seemed lower than I remembered them to be…could it be they are heeding the call for more reasonably priced cupcakes?
At any rate, I like many of the comments on my previous post on Kalamansi Muffins, trying to differentiate cupcakes from muffins. I especially like the one that says a cupcake thrown against a wall goes â€œpoof,â€ while a muffin flung against a wall goes â€œthud.â€ Let’s just say I am more of a muffin kinda guy than a cupcake… Any more concerns on this topic???