Before we get into it, perhaps we should start here: What, in fact, defines the nature of a cupcake? And what makes it different than a muffin? My amateur suspicion was that muffins are more in the "bread" family and cupcakes are more squarely in the "cake" family, and that ingredients (i.e. chunks of fruit, or lackthereof) and key flavors play a major role. But I turned to an expert to get the real scoop. Here's what my friend John, a baker at Chicago's legendary cupcake shop Sweet Mandy B's, had to say:
"Muffins are quickbreads. Cupcakes are just small cakes. So the difference lies in the ingredients and ratios between them. Quickbreads have a lot more flour than cakes, and generally will use butte as the fat. Cakes on the other hand tend to use oil as their fat and have more sugar." To that I would add that no matter what kind of flavors are used, a cupcake must also somehow be SWEET. For a pastry to hold as a cupcake, there must be a clear sweet note in the flavor profile.
So there we have it. Now, how do the nuevo cupcakes appearing on the current culinary scene match up? With new flavors being added to the mix, the new debate, of course, arises between tradition and innovation: what's better? Traditional cupcake flavors, expertly executed, or unique new flavor combinations that cause our palates to take notice? This very juxtaposition was played out on an episode of the Food Network's Throwdown with Bobby Flay, of which I caught a rerun few nights ago (it originally aired around this time last year).