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Have Your (Less Sinful) Cupcake And Enjoy It, Too

The good news is, the cupcake craze is not going away. The bad news is that the sweet joy of biting into a cupcake often is diminished by feelings of guilt. Like most treats, cupcakes are hardly a healthful addition to your diet. Most are high in calories and fats because flour, butter and sugar are the main ingredients. Butter cream frosting, after all, is simply whipped butter, sugar, vanilla and sometimes milk.

I want to be able to sink my teeth into the fluffy cake and creamy frosting without having my sugar-coated Zen moment interrupted by reprimanding thoughts. I'd like to serve my guest something I know is not just empty calories.

I want to be able to sink my teeth into the fluffy cake and creamy frosting without having my sugar-coated Zen moment interrupted by reprimanding thoughts. I’d like to serve my guest something I know is not just empty calories.

Once seen mostly at childrens' parties, cupcakes have grown up. For adults, the miniature cakes are recession friendly in cost and satisfying in size.  Often beautifully constructed, cupcakes can be a form of self-expression; if you find a fellow red velvet cupcake lover, an instant connection is made.

Hoping to create a cupcake that both kids and adults will enjoy while improving the nutritional benefits, I began to play with new ingredients: beans, pumpkin, yogurt, applesauce and bananas. I found that it is possible to create a cupcake that no one but I would know was healthful.

While I understand a treat is a treat often because of its decadent ingredients, having another option to send in your child's lunchbox or to snack on with your mid-morning coffee without shame is a treat in itself. Beans add protein and fiber, and yogurt supplies protein and moisture to the cake. Fiber-rich pumpkin puree can act as a replacement for eggs, butter and oil. Bananas and applesauce up the vitamins.

Unlike most fads, cupcakes' popularity shows no sign of fading.  In fact, cupcakes have only gotten more popular since appearing on a 2001 episode of Sex and the City, when characters Carrie and Miranda discussed men over Magnolia Bakery’s frosting-topped treats. The trend has caught on with such fervor that three television networks have added cupcake-related programs to their lineup: the Food Network's Cupcake Wars, TLC's DC Cupcakes and the WE TV's Cupcake Girls.

The history of the cupcake is vague. Some say the name came from the measurement used to create the cake (all ingredients are easily measured in cups), while others claim cups were used as molds for the cakes.  According to food historian Andrew Smith, the cupcake first was seen in American cookbooks in 1826.

In their current iteration, cupcakes have become exceptionally diverse. They can be decorated for any occasion, wearing flowers for weddings, offering hearts to Valentines or four-leaf clovers on Saint Patrick's Day. The list of flavors is endless. The most popular combinations remain vanilla cake with vanilla icing, and chocolate cake with chocolate icing, but bakers have risen to the challenge of gourmet cupcakes with flavors such as strawberry shortcake, pumpkin, Oreo, peanut butter and even tequila. Many cupcakeries arrange cupcakes in the shapes of mascots or logos for teams and businesses. During a recent conversation with a friend about alternatives to a wedding cake, I suggested tiered cupcakes. "Oh, everyone is doing that," she said.

Easily portable, cupcakes are the perfect lunchbox addition for children.  Many associate cupcakes with afternoons of baking with parents, birthday parties and middle school bake sales. I vividly remember eating Halloween cupcakes with plastic pumpkin rings on top. I recall the agonizing choice between vanilla cake with chocolate frosting, or chocolate with vanilla frosting, not to mention the anguish of choosing between jack-o'-lantern rings or spider rings.

As the cupcake has grown up, the food world has become more health-conscious. In an effort to apply new knowledge to an icon, I went through several experimental batches, afternoons of cake-battered aprons and sticky frosting-covered fingers. In the end, I came up with several healthful, friendly recipes. Many are flourless, all skip butter and oil, and some can even be prepared with nothing more than one bowl and a blender. Let the cupcake revolution continue.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eve Turow