A childhood favorite: cupcakes

A childhood favorite: cupcakes (Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times)

Even the Retail Bakers of America, on its official list of a baker's dozen reasons behind the cult, notes that cupcakes are "somewhat indulgent, yet sensible because they are portion-controlled."

Just ask Nicole Winhoffer, a personal trainer who says she has a daily Sprinkles habit. When I suggest that's a lot of cupcakes for someone who is as fit as she is and ask if she knows how many . . . she interrupts before I can get the words out, with, "Yes, 497 calories." (For the record, Nelson says she does not have an official calorie count.)

Cupcakes have become one of those generic gifts -- high status but not too personal, says Genevieve Ostrander, who owns Delilah Bakery in Echo Park. During the December holidays, Ostrander says friends told her, Hollywood mailrooms were piled floor to ceiling with gift boxes of cupcakes. At least it's not fruitcake.

At Johnny Cupcakes on Melrose Avenue, they're not even cupcakes. Not real ones, anyway. The decor is fake ovens, bakery cases, aprons, pastry boxes. The store stocks T-shirts with images that use cupcakes to replace pop icons -- the skull and crossbones, the Statue of Liberty's torch.

You can eat your cupcake and wear it too.

Granted, some people might be tired of cupcakes. A colleague who brought some to a recent dinner party in Manhattan was greeted with this: "Oh, thanks. How third grade."

Was that supposed to be an insult? Come on, childhood is part of the point. And besides, nutrition-conscious schools have outlawed cupcakes.

"I actually am in love with what my friends call the chemical cupcakes" -- supermarket ones sweet enough to make your teeth seize, Ostrander says.

Grown-up pleasure

But despite the popularity of basic chocolate or vanilla, don't mistake cupcakes for kid-only food. Try blueberry-Port cupcakes or "cuptails" flavored like margaritas. Or tiers of elegantly iced wedding cupcakes.

And Martha Stewart is chiming in with some -- surprise, surprise -- labor-intensive decoration and presentation ideas in her book "Martha Stewart's Cupcakes," published Tuesday. These include graduation cupcakes topped with cookies made to look like diplomas (tied with blue sour candy ribbons), cupcakes covered in piped grass icing with little marzipan ladybugs, and cupcakes frosted to look like little chicks.

And then there's the Obama "cupcake cake" from Polkatots Cupcakes in Pasadena.

The winner of the 2009 L.A. Cupcake Challenge, an event that drew 450 people, the shop makes goodies that look like decorated sheet cakes but actually are dozens of nestled cupcakes.

One of their creations is a knockoff of Shepard Fairey's Barack Obama portrait in red and blue, which took about 100 cupcakes, says one of the shop's owners, Alma Tarriba.

There also is a scarlet mystery in cupcakes: Why do customers fall for red velvet?

"We've tried to figure that out and we can't," says Brogan Faye, an owner of Yummy Cupcakes in Burbank and Santa Monica.

mary.macvean@latimes.com