The Magnolia Bakery cupcake craze (triggered by cupcake consumption in Sex and the City and The Devil Wears Prada) is long over, but New York City is still home to quite a few cupcake shops.
Like the donut, the cupcake is an American favorite. The first mentions of cupcakes (including the term itself) appear in early cookbooks published in Massachusetts. Their UK and Australian counterpart is the “fairy cake,” but fairy cakes usually lack the rich and copious buttercream frostings that are the hallmark of the cupcake–and indeed, of most traditional cakes in the US. We do indeed have a taste for overly sugary treats, though I must say that my first taste of Battenberg cake, consumed in Vancouver BC, was shockingly sweet. Excessive sweetness is characteristic of nursery food, and the cupcake has long been a staple of children’s parties. When chefs turned their attention to cupcakes, they came up with “adult” flavors like Pretzels & Beer, or Spice Islands Carrot. But a surprising number of these shops go for the classics, with plain yellow cake and vanilla buttercream, chocolate/chocolate, or strawberry. That’s as it should be.
I still recall with great nostalgia the frozen cupcakes that my mother used to buy in the grocery store. They came six to a box and had a variety of flavors, including a strawberry one that I loved. They were not gourmet, but the freezing kept them surprisingly fresh, with fewer preservatives than a Hostess cupcake. Here is a blast from the past (1970s):
Laura asked to speak with Tabitha in her office. “Cupcake?” she offered, pointing to a box of cakes in different sizes and colors. Some were topped with elaborate sugar and fondant flowers, while others looked homemade, with pastel frosting and sprinkles. “James is writing a feature on cupcake bakeries in Manhattan. He said to bring these to work because he doesn’t want to eat them all.”
“It must be difficult to keep one’s weight down, as a food critic,” said Tabitha, selecting a red velvet cake with piped cream cheese icing. “I suppose he has to be careful.”
“Yes, he often skips breakfast. Isn’t that terrible? Imagine saying no to banana pancakes and home fries!” replied Laura vehemently, as though she had experienced just such a rejection. “Anyway, I wanted to let you know that you’re doing great. Nigel’s very pleased with your work.”
“Is he? I wasn’t so sure after London. He acted like he thought I just wanted a free trip.”
Laura chuckled. “That’s because he wishes he could have a free trip. But he told me he was impressed with your identification of the fragment as a Latin epitome of an Irish saga.”
“Oh. That sets my mind at ease. Thanks.” She licked her fingers. “These are amazingly good. But, I have to admit that I didn’t know a thing about Irish saga before. It was Rúairí Lafferty who realized the connection.”
“He came to London with you, didn’t he?” asked Laura smilingly. “He’s very good-looking.”
“And has a girlfriend,” said Tabitha, dismissing the subject. She eyed Laura speculatively as she finished the cupcake. “Nigel mentioned to me that you… ah… sometimes feel a special affinity for a book.”
Laura’s expression changed, becoming more intent and inward. “Yes, I study Alexander Pope, and books that he owned or wrote in. Whenever I see his handwriting in a book, it gives me a certain feeling. And I’ve had some odd experiences. James is skeptical, of course. He thinks I’m a fantasy-prone personality. Especially after I have a few drinks.”
“And what do you think?”
Laura drew a frosted cupcake with a lemon-yellow flower from the box. “I cherish those experiences. It doesn’t matter whether they’re real in a scientific sense. Some things can’t be measured or categorized. Those are usually the best things in life, the ones you can’t explain. Like really good sex, or a meal you’ll never forget.”
Tabitha felt a little envious. She enjoyed sex and good food, but there had been no unforgettable, transcendent experiences in her life. Until the dreams came, she realized. “What would you say if I told you that I dreamed the story in the manuscript, before I read it? That the dreams are still going on, and getting very intense?”
Laura didn’t hesitate. “I’d say it has something to do with the missing half of the manuscript. It’s a puzzle, and your dreams are the catalyst for solving it.”
“My therapist said the dreams were to do with my psychosexual development, and Rúairí thought they were some kind of Irish mystic vision.”
“Well, I don’t know anything about those. But I know something about the kind of work you’re doing. And I think this is about the manuscript itself. It wants to be reunited with its other half.”
“You really believe that?”
“You bet.” Laura pointed to the cupcake box. “I’ll give Nigel and Ruth the rest of these. They can eat all day and never gain weight. Lots of nervous energy.”
“How’s Cissy doing?” asked Tabitha.
“Oh, she’s fine. But Galen’s dropped into a funk over what happened to her, the assault. She says he can’t stop brooding about it.” Laura shook her head. “I hate to say this, but he would probably react the same way if someone razored pages out of one of his books. Galen’s company specializes in security systems, you know, online and off. He loves Cissy a lot, but he also took the attack as a personal affront, and so far the police have had no leads. He’s very frustrated. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s hired a private investigator.”
“You mean, his manly honor is at stake? Because someone attacked his woman?”
“Yes, that’s exactly what I mean. Primitive, isn’t it?”
“Yes. Men can be like that,” observed Tabitha. “Now, if someone mugged James and beat him up, would you scour the earth without resting until you brought the attacker to justice?”
“Of course not. I’d be very upset, but I’d let the police handle it,” said Laura sensibly.
Copyright 2017 by Linnet Moss
Notes: Laura is a character in my “erotic gourmet” trilogy. She loves food, beautiful men and old books, not necessarily in that order. She has a lot in common with yours truly, especially the feeling that books give us a metaphysical link to people in other places and times. Laura may be a bit more woo-hoo than I am, but I wouldn’t absolutely veto the idea that two pieces of a broken manuscript “want” to be reunited!
Paul S said:
Living over here I’m more familiar with the fairy cake and sickly sweet Battenberg. Ah the sweet taste of my childhood!
I haven’t had a chance to try a fairy cake, but it’s on my list for an upcoming visit to London. Also, tea at Fortnum and Mason.
Love the idea of the literary metaphysical link…also love cake. I have eaten lots of cake, but I still think my mother makes the best cake – a chocolate sponge with buttercream icing….🍰🍰🍰🍰
Chocolate with buttercream (any flavor) is my favorite too. It’s surprisingly hard to make a good chocolate cake from scratch, and I don’t like to use mixes.
My mother used a Marguerite Patton book from the ’70’s, it’s practically a family Bible!
I looked her up–very interesting stuff about cooking with rations during wartime. And: always think positive! I appreciate that–she’s like Julia Child.
Mum uses a lot of her recipes still, simply because they are so good 😺 I like Julia Child too 😺