What is the difference between a muffin and a cupcake? Is a sweet muffin merely a cupcake in disguise? If so, wouldn’t it do well to have a real disguise? My sweet Marxipan Muffins are wearing Groucho Marx disguises made out of marzipan, so that they needn’t risk being found out.
The etymology of the word cupcake is self-evident – it is a small cake, baked in a cup-shaped container. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition agrees. The AHD goes on to inform us that the word muffin is derived from the Low German word muffen, a plural of muffe, meaning “small cake”. Merriam-Webster concurs. Etymology, therefore, gets us nowhere.
According to 100% Petroleum Jelliffe, a cupcake is nothing more than a sweet muffin. But I remember stumbling across a small restaurant in Sag Harbor years ago that had the sweetest corn muffins I have ever tasted. We were walking through a row of private homes’ backyards, when someone stepped out of their back door and greeted us. We asked this stranger whether we were invited over for breakfast, as the smells coming from their kitchen were just wonderful. To our surprise, we were. The house was a tiny restaurant in disguise, and their corn muffins were the biggest, sweetest, most ideal corn muffins I have ever had – and yet they were unabashedly muffins, not cupcakes.
According to All Cupcakes, All the Time, cupcakes are cakes and muffins are breads. But that only takes us to a different controversy – what is the difference between a cake and a bread? I have never met the banana bread that didn’t strike me as a cake.
How the Cookie Crumbles suggests that the difference lies in how much you fill up your muffin/cupcake tin: “cupcakes should be just slightly rounded on the tops, while muffins have a more pronounced dome.” WFTV argues that the difference lies in the frosting. I’m a bit skeptical, having eaten both frosted muffins and unfrosted, domed cupcakes. Or so I thought at the time.
Out of Spec, among others, suggests that a muffin is something that you eat for breakfast and a cupcake is something that you eat for dessert. What, then, are those cuppins/muffcakes that you eat for dessert, and then for breakfast, and then again for dessert? Do they exist in a quantum state, flipping back and forth between muffin and cupcake depending on when they are being eaten? That sounds very stressful for a very small baked good.
Recipezaar makes the distinction based on how sensitive the batter is to overmixing. According to them, cupcakes contain a batter that can be thoroughly beaten, whereas muffins contain a batter than is very sensitive to overmixing. Even if that is evidence of whether you have a muffin or a cupcake, though, it sounds more like a consequence of some other dispositive factor.
Diana’s Desserts and The North Coast Journal of Politics, People & Art join together in laying down the black letter law: “A basic formula for muffins is 2 cups flour, 2-4 tablespoons sugar, 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1 egg, 1/4 cup oil, shortening or butter, 1 cup milk. When the fat, sugar and egg ratio in a recipe reaches double or more than this, you have reached the cake level.”
This is one of the rare situations where I cannot share my recipe. My muffins in disguise will never confess their secrets, let alone their fat, sugar, and egg ratios. All I can tell you is that a simple syrup with a 1:1 ratio of sugar and water, simmered until it thickens, works well as glue to affix a marzipan disguise onto the face of a muffin.