Like many acts of pure genius, the invention of the cupcake is lost in the creamy fillings of history. According to food historian Andrew Smith, the first known recipe using the term “cupcake” appeared in an American cookbook in 1826. The “cup” referred not to the shape of the cake but to the quantity of ingredients; it was simply a downsized English pound cake. Lynne Olver, who maintains a Web site called the Food Timeline, has tracked down a recipe for cakes baked in cups from 1796. But we will probably never know the name of the first cook to take the innovative leap or whether it had anything to do with a six-year-old’s birthday party. “Just like other popular foods—the brownie comes to mind—it’s impossible to pinpoint a date of origin for the cupcake,” says culinary historian Andrea Broomfield.
That cook almost certainly lived on the left bank of the Atlantic. Broomfield says that the earliest known cupcake recipes in England date to the 1850s and that their popularization was slow. One writer in 1894 had evidently never heard of cupcakes: “In Miss [Mary E.] Wilkins’s delightful New England Stories, and in other tales relating to this corner of the United States, I have frequently found mention of cup-cake, a dainty unknown, I think, in this country. Will some friendly reader... on the other side of the Atlantic kindly answer this query, and initiate an English lover of New England folks and ways into the mysteries of cup-cake?” Even to this day true cupcakes—as opposed to muffins or cakes cut up into cup-size portions—are sadly uncommon in Europe.