Beginning to bake #7: Cupcakes (or fairy cakes)

Icing on top

To most people, cupcakes and muffins are pretty much the same thing. Certainly, if you buy them in supermarkets, both will be very sweet, quite dense, and come in individual paper cases. Cupcakes are likely to be differentiated by a swirl of thick icing or perhaps a glaze of shiny royal icing.

But in baking terms, the two are very different. Muffins have relatively little fat or sugar, and are combined very carefully. They produce moist, not-too-sweet buns, which often have fruit mixed through the centre. They rely on a big boost of baking powder or bicarbonate of soda to make them airy, and because they contain so much moisture (and water + flour = gluten), you have to mix them very gently so they won’t be tough.

Cupcakes, however, are just sponge cakes made in little cases. Think of fairy cakes or butterfly cakes you might have made at school. Although the recipe in this post is for cupcakes, you can also bake it in a larger cake tin to make a sponge cake. For that matter, almost any cake recipe in this format (where you cream the butter and sugar together first) can be converted to cupcakes by just baking it in paper cases (a useful thing to remember if you don’t have the right sized tin, or the mixture looks like it won’t fit – bake the excess as cupcakes). You just need to make sure you adjust the baking time (and in some cases, the temperature).

Structure of the batter

The structure of a cupcake is a foam, a web of flour starch and egg proteins, with many tiny bubbles. The big difference between making cupcakes and any of the previous recipes in this series is that incorporating the air is much more important. The batter you end up with is quite delicate, with just enough connection between the ingredients to hold the all-important air in there.

The starting point for incorporating air in this type of cake is creaming, mixing butter and sugar really thoroughly to create bubbles. Both of the biscuit recipes started by mixing together the butter and sugar, but this is not creaming. Creaming involves beating the butter and sugar together for a long time, to allow the sugar to create little bubbles in the butter – what Hannah Glasse in 1774 described as a ‘fine thick cream’. This is work that calls for electric assistance – Hannah Glasse suggested that using your hand, this should take an hour. Another 19th Century book suggests it is “the hardest part of cake making” and you should have your manservant do it.

In the absence of a man-servant, a handheld electric mixer or a stand mixer like a Kitchenaid makes this much, much easier. With a small quantity it can be done by hand, but expect a decent workout. You need the mixture to change colour – as the air is incorporated, the bubbles make the mixture look paler. The texture also becomes much fluffier.

Basic recipe:

(adapted from Nigella Lawson’s cupcakes in ‘How To Be A Domestic Goddess‘)

This recipe is for a plain sponge, more of an old-fashioned fairy cake than a fluffy American cupcake. However, if you master the techniques for this, then most other cupcake recipes will look familiar*.

  • 125g butter, room temperature
  • 125g caster sugar
  • 2 eggs, room temperature
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 125g plain flour
  • 1½ teaspoons baking powder
  • 2-3 tbsp milk

Diagram of recipe

To make sure everything mixes together easily, you need to make sure that everything is at room temperature, and that the butter is really soft but not melted. To warm eggs up, put them in a bowl with warm water for about 5 minutes. To warm butter, microwave on the lowest setting, or use a very, very low oven (60C or so.)

I’m also going to assume an electric mixer of some sort, although with enough elbow grease, you can do the same with a wooden spoon.

Start by beating the butter on its own to make sure it’s soft. Add the sugar and mix together, then beat really thoroughly until creamed – pale and fluffy. This should take at least 5 minutes with an electric mixer, probably longer.  It’s almost impossible to do this for too long.


Beat the eggs in a small jug or bowl. Add a little at a time to the butter and sugar, beating really thoroughly after each addition. Add the vanilla, or any other flavouring (such as lemon zest for lemon cupcakes). It’s at this point that the mixture can curdle, especially if things started out a bit cold – the mixture will look lumpy and a bit scrambled (see photo, ahem). If this happens, the answer is just to keep going – it might not be as light, but it will come back together when you add the flour, and the end result should be fine.

Curdled mixture with eggs

Sift in the flour and baking powder. Mix very gently, ideally by hand, just to combine and mix in any visible streaks of flour. A silicone spatula is good for this, as you can scrape the sides and right down to the bottom of the bowl.

With flour added

If the mixture is still quite stiff, you can add a little milk to loosen it up. The traditional description of this is ‘dropping consistency’, meaning if you scoop up a big spoonful and hold it upside down of the bowl, it will drop off. Mix the milk in very gently – remember that the liquid in the eggs, plus the milk will activate the gluten in the flour, and too much stretching at this stage will make the network of protein in the cake too tough.

Divide the batter between the muffin cases. Bake for 20 minutes at 190C/170Cfan until the tops are evenly golden and the centres spring back when you push them gently (meaning the centres are cooked through).

Into cake cases

Cool on a wire rack before icing. The simplest icing is to use icing sugar or royal icing sugar mixed with a very small amount of water or lemon juice and spread over the top.

Baked until golden

* There are some sponge or cake recipes that ask for you to mix the fat and the flour together first, waterproofing the flour as much as possible, and relying on the baking powder for the rise.


The most obvious variations are flavour ones. The main thing is to use concentrated flavours so that you don’t add too much liquid or too much dry ingredients and change the balance of the mixture.

  • Replace some of the flour with 2 -3 tablespoons of cocoa to make chocolate cakes. Ice with chocolate ganache (an equal mixture of cream and chocolate, melted together).
  • Flavour the mixture with lemon zest (or Boyajian lemon oil) and use lemon juice to make the icing. Leave out the vanilla in this case.
  • Use instant coffee to make a coffee-flavoured sponge.

For further variations, see the next post on sponge cakes.

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I’m Louise, and I’m a compulsive baker, cookbook hoarder and a bit of a food geek. I learnt to cook at home, and later at Tante Marie’s cooking school in San Francisco. With a science degree and a background in IT analysis, I like to understand why a recipe works, not just how to do it. Why the rules are there and when they can be broken.

12 thoughts on “Beginning to bake #7: Cupcakes (or fairy cakes)

    1. Thanks for your comment! There’s something nice about the individual portion size of cupcakes, being able to have one all to yourself. They certainly went down well at work, anyway.

    1. Thanks for your comment! The photos are hard as I mostly bake in the evenings, but I’ve been doing what I can to make them better. Still a lot to learn though!

    1. Yes, I really like Michael Ruhlman’s ratio book. It’s always good for getting down to recipe basics, though someone the terms are different in the UK. Thanks for your comment!

    1. Ah, sorry – they all disappeared pretty fast – and they don’t keep that well. Best to make your own!
      Thanks for your comment.

    1. Thanks, Kat! I quite like the decorating, but not always sure what it’s going to end up like when I start!

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