What Is It Anyway? is a series that examines the histories behind peculiar and obscure foods. Today, we're explaining fairy cakes.
So, what are they anyway?
Fairy cakes are not, as their name might imply, themed cakes designed and decorated to the liking of fantasy and sci-fi fans. They are, simply stated, smaller versions of cupcakes. They're widely popular in the UK, and tend not to pile on the icing in the same way that American bakers do with cupcakes. Mich Turner, a British baker and champion of the fairy cake, describes American cupcakes as having "the wrong icing: great wodges of lurid buttercream, rather than the traditional non-fat glace stuff." Conversely, fairy cakes use a lighter glace icing. They also are traditionally made with a lighter sponge cake as opposed to the thicker butter cakes used in cupcakes.
Alternatively, a fairy cake is a type of cupcake with its top cut off and replaced in two pieces, like wings. These are also called butterfly cupcakes.
The history of the fairy cake is akin to the history of the cupcake, which first shows up in literature at the end of the 1700s, in "American Cookery," described as "a cake to be baked in small cups." Muffin tins weren't always an available product, so bakers instead baked cupcakes in ramekins or individual pottery cups.
Before the cupcake revolution at the beginning of the century (arguably brought on by Carrie Bradshaw and Magnolia Bakery), the Americans and the British both waxed poetic about their nostalgic longing for the desserts, which were both staples at children's birthday parties. Cupcakes have since become a food for adults as well, especially in America. Nigella Lawson brought the trend to the UK after including a lighter fairy cake recipe in "How To Be A Domestic Goddess."
Of course, the petite fairy cakes are named as such because of their size -- small enough to be served to the tiny mythical creatures. The word "fairy" (or "fairie") appeared around 1300, referring to "enchantment" and "magic." We certainly agree that fairy cakes and cupcakes are both enchanting and magical.