The monstrous economy may be devouring more expensive luxuries and the businesses that purvey them, but it can't get its teeth around one reinvented American comfort food: the cupcake.
A sweet love affair that began before the recession is going strong during it, as more of these niche bakeries rise and prosper in the Philadelphia area.
Indeed, just two weeks ago, the city's newest cupcake business literally rolled into town: the confetti- covered Buttercream Cupcake Truck, which announces its stops on Twitter and has been drawing long lines around Center City.
That follows a "build-your-own" cupcake shop called Cupmakes that opened in July in Society Hill, and the already existing dozen or so cupcake-centric or cupcake-only bakeries in the region, including Cupcakes Gourmet in Frazer, the Wish-Cake delivery bakery, Velvet Sky Bakery in Jenkintown, and two Brown Betty Dessert Boutiques in Philadelphia.
Launching a business in a bad economy may seem counterintuitive. But Kate Carrara, who regularly parks her cupcake truck at LOVE Park, saw it as an opportunity: "I kind of felt that because of the recession, I could try something that was completely different," she said.
Others, like Lauren and Peter Zelm, who own Velvet Sky Bakery, found that the economy pushed customers their way. Their business has increased of late, in part because brides are opting for their cupcake towers for wedding receptions in lieu of the far more expensive wedding cake.
The owners of Cupcakes Gourmet in Frazer are seeing more customers pampering themselves. "People need a little comfort food when the weather is gloomy," said owner Heather Carter, 43.
She and friend Maki Garcia Evans, who opened their bakery in 2008, recently expanded to include a mail-order business and are now selling their beautiful, fluffy, and scrumptious products through the Williams-Sonoma catalog.
"People are saying, 'I can't afford a Coach bag, but I can afford a cupcake,' " Evans said.
Like most new businesses, the owners said, not every month has been financially satisfying for their cupcake bakery, with average monthly sales about $23,000. But in July, they said, they turned a profit with sales of about $1,000 per day - or about $31,000 for the month - after retooling to be as efficient as possible.
The modern cupcake craze may have started with a 2000 episode of Sex and the City, when its stars ate pink-frosted cupcakes in front of New York's Magnolia Bakery.
But the trend has outlasted expectations and blossomed into an impressive cupcake-related industry, with a continuing stream of cupcake cookbooks, including New York Times bestseller Hello, Cupcake! (Houghton Mifflin, 2008) and Martha Stewart's Cupcakes (Clarkson Potter, June 2009), not to mention cupcake journals, calendars, kits - even a line of clothing that features the cupcake-and-crossbones logo of its manufacturer, Johnny Cupcakes.
The Web is stuffed with cupcake blogs and a pages-long chronology of cupcake history. (Did you know cupcakes were first mentioned in a cookbook in 1828?) Philadelphian Jessica Victor has started an Internet database for cupcake recipes and other information (opensourcecupcakes.com).
Yet the business is not invincible: Three New York cupcake bakery franchises - two SoHo Bakery shops and a Buttercup Bakery - that opened in the Philadelphia region around 2005 have closed.
And a recent article by Daniel Gross posted on Slate predicts the cupcake bubble will soon burst, in part because, he argues, while other products like coffee and chocolate have evolved and become more sophisticated, cupcakes have remained "willfully uncomplex, familiar, and comforting."
The cupcakes being sold locally, however, are not your mother's PTA variety, but Belgian chocolate, Madagascar bourbon vanilla, chai latte, and coconut lime, to name a few. The Flying Monkey, a bakery in Reading Terminal Market, offers Jim Beam bourbon buttercream chocolate cake stuffed with raspberry preserves, iced with lavender buttercream.
A zucchini flavor - and 300 other cupcakes at Carrara's cupcake truck - sold within two hours on a recent weekday. Soon after the truck pulled up at 11th and Walnut Streets, a line of more than 20 people had formed.
"I do think that what I'm selling, a cupcake at $2, is something that's a small pleasure for a lot of people," said former lawyer Carrara, whose husband, Andy, also helps.
"It's nice, particularly in these times, to see someone out there with an entrepreneurial spirit," said Dan Kremens, a Jefferson University Hospital neurologist after walking away from the truck with a fresh half-dozen.
Carrara is hoping to recoup the $20,000 in start-up costs - the biggest expense was buying and refitting an old postal truck - and start breaking even with operational costs by year's end. Now that the truck is ramping up its number of stops in the city, she expects weekly sales of $4,000 worth of cupcakes, which cost her about $1,500 to make.
At the other new bakery, Cupmakes, which opened at Second and Lombard in mid-July, customers can pick their cake flavor, frosting, and toppings.
Some people gulp hard at the cost - $2.70 for a vanilla, chocolate, or marble cupcake, plus 30 cents for each topping. But not everyone.
"Yea!!!" said one customer, as she held her chocolate cupcake with peanut butter frosting and chocolate-chocolate chip cookie dough topping.
Explanations for why the cupcake phenomenon has endured range from an expression of American individualism to a nostalgic return to innocence.
"Cupcakes bring us back to when we were young and life was fun and easy," said chef William Tillinghast, director of the International Culinary School at the Art Institute of Philadelphia.
Christopher Noxon, author of Rejuvenile: Kickball, Cartoons, Cupcakes, and the Reinvention of the American Grown-Up, said "adults of today are looking for options to introduce play and a childlike sense of fun and flexibility and wonder in their lives."
That is especially so in this time of instability, he said.
The trend may seem at odds with efforts to ban bake sales and sweets in schools to combat childhood obesity. (In response, Texas lawmakers a number of years ago passed a "Safe Cupcake Amendment" to give parents unquestioned rights to take the goodies to class.)
"I look at it from the point of view of 70 percent of adult Americans are overweight," said Dorothy Blair, an assistant professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at Pennsylvania State University, who added she had nothing against cupcakes per se.
Nutritional concerns over cupcakes are misguided, chef Tillinghast said. "What we need to do is get the kids out playing, not take their cupcakes away," he said. "If the cupcake is America's worst problem, I think we're doing pretty damn good."
Iced Pistachio Cupcakes
Makes 34 cupcakes
1 cup unsalted shelled pistachios
1 1/4 cups unsalted butter, room temperature
6 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
3 cups sugar
6 large eggs, room temperature
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon coarse salt
3/4 cup coarsely chopped salted pistachios
Drippy icing (see note)
1 1/2 cups unsalted pistachio slivers, for garnish
1. Preheat oven to 325. Line standard muffin tins with paper liners. In a food processor, grind shelled pistachios to a paste.
2. With an electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat butter, cream cheese, and pistachio paste until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Reduce speed to medium-low. Gradually add sugar; beat until smooth, scraping down sides of bowl as needed. Add eggs, one at a time, beating until each is incorporated. Beat in vanilla. Reduce speed to low. Add flour and salt, beating until just combined. Fold in chopped pistachios by hand.
3. Divide batter evenly among lined cups, filling each three-quarters full. Bake, rotating tins halfway through, until a cake tester inserted in centers comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Transfer tins to wire racks to cool completely before removing cupcakes. Cupcakes can be stored up to 1 day at room temperature, or frozen up to 2 months, in airtight containers.
4. To finish, place cupcakes on a wire rack set over a baking sheet; spoon icing onto each, and garnish with pistachio slivers. Cupcakes are best eaten the same day they are glazed; keep at room temperature until ready to serve.
Notes: To make the drippy icing, whisk 1 cup plus 3 tablespoons confectioners' sugar (sifted), 3/4 cup heavy cream, and 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice in a small bowl until smooth. Use immediately.
Also, slivered pistachios are available at specialty markets and baking-supply stores. If you can't find them, use chopped pistachios instead.
Per cupcake: 293 calories, 5 grams protein, 31 grams carbohydrates, 21 grams sugar, 17 grams fat, 69 milligrams cholesterol, 328 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Peanut Butter Filled Chocolate Cupcakes
Makes 12 cupcakes
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
4 ounces semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, coarsely chopped
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3 large eggs
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
Peanut butter filling (see note)
1. Preheat oven to 325. Line a standard muffin tin with paper liners. Whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt. Put butter and chocolates in a heatproof bowl set over (not in) a pan of simmering water; stir until melted. Remove from heat, and let cool slightly.
2. Whisk granulated sugar into cooled chocolate mixture. Add eggs, and whisk until mixture is smooth. Stir in vanilla. Add flour mixture; stir until well incorporated.
3. Spoon 2 tablespoons chocolate batter into each lined cup, followed by 1 tablespoon peanut butter filling. Repeat with another tablespoon of batter, and top with 1 teaspoon filling. Swirl top of cupcake batter and filling with a wooden skewer or toothpick.
4. Bake, rotating tin halfway through, until a cake tester inserted in centers comes out with only a few moist crumbs attached, about 40 minutes. Transfer tin to a wire rack to cool completely before removing cupcakes. Cupcakes can be stored up to 3 days at room temperature in airtight containers.
Notes: To prepare peanut butter filling, stir together 4 tablespoons unsalted melted butter, 1/2 cup sifted confectioners' sugar, 3/4 cup smooth peanut butter, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract.
Per cupcake: 383 calories, 7 grams protein, 33 grams carbohydrates, 23 grams sugar, 27 grams fat, 85 milligrams cholesterol, 201 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.