Cupcake Nation

The popular treat is spawning TV shows, books, retail chains—and the cake pop

That glut of new shows hasn't hurt the ratings for Cupcake Wars, which started off with 1.3 million total viewers and a .6 in the 25-54 demo in its first season, and pulled in 1.5 million viewers and a .7 in the demo for this summer's season 6. That's close to one of Food Network's biggest shows, Chopped, which reliably draws in excess of 1 million viewers.

Despite the ratings dip, Bob Tuschman, general manager and svp of Food Network and Cooking Channel, says Cupcake Wars is still going considering a crowded field of nine Food Network dessert shows. From a programming angle, he calls them “mini-culinary masterpieces,” combining art, science and technique. “It’s a great canvas to test the skills of pastry artists. It makes incredibly compelling viewing.” On a recent episode of Cupcake Wars, contestants competed to cater cupcakes at the launch party for actress Kate Walsh’s new perfume, Billionaire Boyfriend. The judges had to choose between the two final contestants’ displays of 1,000 cupcakes. One was shaped like a giant perfume bottle with cupcakes inside, another was a wooden cruise ship on a table whose decks displayed the cupcakes. (The perfume bottle won.)

Other pretenders are trying to elbow in. One recent contender is the macaron, the French butter cream-filled almond meringue sandwich spelled with one “o,” to differentiate it from Manischewitz coconut cookies often associated with Passover. “Move over, cupcakes! Try Parisian macarons!” a Today Food headline trumpeted last November. “French macarons may soon be the new cupcake,” reported CBS.

Even as cupcake shops invaded her hometown of Paris, Cecile Cannone wanted to introduce the French macaron to New York. Owner with her chef husband Arnaud Cannone of the city’s three Macaron Cafés, Cannone declares: “Chocolates are out. Cupcakes are out. Macrons are in. The luxury box [a clear plastic rectangular container with a ribbon] makes for a beautiful presentation.” With a projected $3 million in sales this year, their confections are also sold in gourmet supermarkets such as Dean & Deluca and Balducci’s.

Yet the delicate French sweet, about the size of an Oreo cookie, may be too upmarket to reach mass popularity. “Macarons are quite an expensive item,” Brockman points out. (They cost $2.50 each at Macaron Café, while gourmet cupcakes twice the size range from $2.50 and more.) The ingredients are also expensive and generally can’t be made at home. “They’re a fashion item, not an everyday treat,” Minton concludes.  

In the decade since the Magnolia Bakery sparked the cupcake craze, the store’s owner Steve Abrams has seen it all. “The elite food press is constantly trying to knock the cupcake off its perch and put something else there, macarons being the latest fad,” says Abrams, who has expanded his homey-feeling destination to eight outposts in the U.S. with plans for stores in Kuwait, Lebanon, Abu Dhabi and Japan.

Continue to next page →