Cupcake Mania

Can you ever have too much buttercream? Knoxville bites into the tastiest trend ever.

No illegal drugs, revealing outfits, religious conflict, eccentric artists, or pretension required—just a knack for comfort food, good taste, and making an everyday treat look special.

At last, Knoxville has come upon a trend it can excel at: cupcakes!

Four bites of heaven in a fluted paper liner are selling out long before close at full-service bakeries like MagPies in the Old City, VG's in Farragut, and the Village Bakery in South Knoxville. And the cupcakes-only sellers like the Cupcakery in Oak Ridge and West Knoxville's Party Box caterers say business is booming.

Never to be outdone, home bakers are following recipes from books like the bestselling Crazy About Cupcakes, which you can find at any Knoxville Cracker Barrel, tweaking recipes and prettifying the toppings to make homemade "boutique style" cupcakes. Those are showing up at tailgates, barbecues, church suppers, teas, even weddings.

But no matter who creates the cupcakes, Knoxville is gobbling them up—mini, jumbo, savory, and even breakfast style. From stay-at-home West Knoxville moms to competitive bridal shower hostesses to truck drivers out for a steak at Litton's, it seems no one can resist a taste. Sometimes, they even pause to look at the pretty presentation, first.

"Nationwide, the cupcake trend started with Sex and the City," says Peggy Hambright, Knoxville's undisputed diva of all things baked and owner of MagPies in the Old City. "They went to Magnolia Bakery for cupcakes early in the series and that kicked things off."

The "No Ifs, Ands or Buts" episode from Season Three first aired in 2001, while cupcake sales didn't start soaring in Knoxville until this past year, just in time for the release of the Sex and the City movie. "It takes a little while longer for food trends to reach us," says Hambright.

But the cupcake craze is here now, bringing such sudden success for two local caterers they were blind-sided. "We started in December doing the cupcakes for parties at Sprout Studio in West Knoxville and we just kind of took off," says Kathi Mitchell, a young mother and retired school teacher who started Party Box with her friend Polly Sumner, a native of Brazil who is an attorney by training and also has a young child.

"We sold cupcakes and handed out cards at the Duck, Duck, Goose consignment sale earlier this year, and people started calling us all the time," she says. The pair peruses recipes on the Internet and in cookbooks, but they also cherish their chocolate recipe from Mitchell's grandmother's best friend Janelle Bowers in Big Falls, Minn., and the carrot cake directions that came from another family friend in that state.

All recipes yield full-size cupcakes they sell "by the each" (in baker's parlance) along with trios of minis at Kira the Nailtique in West Knoxville. They also have a thriving custom delivery business, where customers can choose a bottom and a top flavor in a variety of counts and sizes. "The individually boxed cupcakes are very popular," says Mitchell.

"We like to keep them simple, but elegant," says Sumner, to which her partner adds, "...boutique style."

Other marketers riding the cupcake wave bake more ordinary stuff. "Ours are more like your grandmother or great-grandmother used to make—more cakey, not as dense as the ones made with cupcake batter," says Lynda Jones, the bakery manager for Litton's Restaurant and Bakery in Fountain City. "We use the same batter as we do for our cakes, and make the same flavors—red velvet with chocolate icing, strawberry with cream cheese icing and German chocolate."

Jones tries to keep two dozen of each stocked for stop-by customers and diners, while larger orders require an advance phone call. "The cupcakes have been very, very good for us," she says. "It's been a pleasant surprise."

Even long-established bakers like Hambright are getting a big boost from the little round cakes. MagPies has supplied red velvet full-size and mini cupcakes with cream cheese icing for an adoring and addicted public most of the 17 years she's operated, along with a few other standards, but in the past year cupcakes of all sorts have taken a primary spot in her storefront. The bakery case is now a fully-stocked and dazzling display of pop-in-your-mouth varieties like blackberry buttermilk and Italian cream, sold in dozens or mini-dozens (but no longer, alas, "by the each").

Ironically, were it up to Hambright, they might have stuck with just the red velvet and an occasional batch of white with chocolate icing. "I think cupcakes are a pain in the ass," she says in her typical way of calling it as she sees it. "But I've hired Brenna Whaley, a mother of two from Morristown, and she is obsessed with cupcakes. She's sort of run with it. And everyone else in the shop is really excited—every day they have new ideas."

Some of those brainstorms become a "super deluxe flavor," or an entry at the taste-test Magpies hosts once a month for loyal e-mail newsletter subscribers, complete with milk shots. "The customers come by and help us decide the flavor of the month," says Hambright.

Why Cupcakes?

Anyone with the mildest sweet tooth who bites into a Magpies red velvet, or rolls VG's German chocolate topping around their tongue, or pops a Party Box amaretto mini into their mouth is quite clear on why cupcakes are good.

But why has that simple delight turned into a trend, a fad, a craze in our area? And why now?

"It's the everyday treat," says Hambright. "To get a whole cake you sort of have to have an occasion."

Cupcakes are less expensive than the big decorated to-do, too—a dozen at most places costs around the same as the movies for two, and less than a good haircut. And while no one could argue that they are highly nutritional, they have the advantage of limiting the splurge to the amount contained in the wrapper. Heck, you can even get vegan versions at the Tomato Head, or do without the icing by ordering "crumb bums" at MagPies.

Litton's bakery manager Jones says the appeal has some to do with taste, and diet, but just as much to do with eye candy. "Part of it is eye appeal," she says. "I just like the look—like the strawberry cupcakes with the pink curls, I've grown really fond of them."

The understated nature of the humble cupcake—even when it's gussied up with curls or candies or a swirl of pure strawberry puree and creamery butter—plays a part in soothing our recession-economy wracked spirits, too. "Cupcakes are homey, easy to do, something you could go home and make yourself and not put yourself out doing," says Jones.

And Hambright has one other compelling, if not flattering, explanation for why cupcakes are hitting the spot with local consumers. "They're fun, and quick," she says. "You just pop them in your mouth and they're gone... and there's no evidence left behind."

The Cupcake Wars?

Two new competitors are poised to enter the local cupcake scene in early June. St. Louis-based The Cupcakery opened its first offshoot in Oak Ridge a couple of months ago, and will double its East Tennessee presence with a store opening in Bearden. Its standard flavors, sold individually at the store as long as they last, and by the dozen for those who phone ahead, include peanut butter cup and tuxedo, a dark chocolate cake with vanilla buttercream frosting, while featured flavors include lemon drop (with a lemon candy on top) and mocha cappuccino.

Joining the fray in a week or so: Cities Cupcake, which will be about a mile east of The Cupcakery on Kingston Pike. The brainchild of three-year Knoxville transplant Linda Hurst, it will feature cupcakes designed to reflect the character of different cities. Some will be fairly standard—"Chicago," for example, is devil's food cake with light chocolate buttercream and a few "snow crystals"—but others will be a significant departure for Knoxville taste buds. Hurst's specialty Salty Cupcake Line, for example, is savory, like the beer-batter-and-cream-cheese-topped Milwaukee cupcake.

With all these creative dessert chefs going all-out, just one week on the aggregate Knoxville cupcake menu could involve, say, cola-flavored cupcakes as an Atlanta tribute from Cities Cupcake, a cream cheese buttercream atop hearty carrot cake from The Cupcakery, and whatever MagPie's staff comes up with to utilize the cake batters they already bake every day, with a new taste in the frosting. "We try to work most of the flavor into the icing and into whatever's on top, although obviously the batters like lemon poppyseed have to be made separately," says Hambright.

Too many cupcake bakers for one mid-size city?

There's no such thing, says Hambright. "I think we can all have our niche," she says. "Some of the bakeries have really uniform cupcakes, some people like shortening icing—a lot of people in the last generation are not used to butter. I'm not worried because there is definitely room in the market for everyone.

"It's all a matter of taste."