A cupcake (the common US, Canadian, and Australian term) or fairy cake (the common British term), is a small cake designed to serve one person, frequently baked in a small, thin paper cup. As with larger cakes, frosting and other cake decorations, such as sprinkles, are common on cupcakes.
In the early 19th century, there were two different uses for the name "cup cake" or "cupcake". In previous centuries, before muffin tins were widely available, the cakes were often baked in individual pottery cups, ramekins, or molds and took their name from the cups they were baked in. This is the use of the name that has persisted, and the name of "cupcake" is now given to any small cake that is about the size of a teacup. The name "fairy cake" is a fanciful description of its size, which would be appropriate for a party of diminutive fairies to share.
The other kind of "cup cake" referred to a cake whose ingredients were measured by volume, using a standard-sized cup, instead of being weighed. Recipes whose ingredients were measured using a standard-sized cup could also be baked in cups; however, they were more commonly baked in tins as layers or loaves. In later years, when the use of volume measurements was firmly established in home kitchens, these recipes became known as 1234 cakes or quarter cakes, so called because they are made up of four ingredients in equal ratios; butter, sugar, eggs and flour. They are plain yellow cakes, somewhat less rich and less expensive than pound cake, due to the reduced proportion of butter. The names of these two major classes of cakes were intended to signal the method to the baker; "cup cake" uses a volume measurement, and "pound cake" uses a weight measurement.
A standard cupcake uses the same basic ingredients as standard-sized cakes: butter, sugar, eggs, and flour. Nearly any recipe that is suitable for a layer cake can be used to bake cupcakes. Because their small size is more efficient for heat conduction, cupcakes bake much faster than layer cakes.
Originally, cupcakes were baked in heavy pottery cups. Some bakers still use individual ramekins, small coffee mugs, or other small ovenproof pottery-type dishes for baking cupcakes.
Specialized pans are made for baking cupcakes, similar in form to muffin tins. These ovenproof pans are most often made from metal, with or without a non-stick surface, and generally have six or twelve depressions or "cups". They may also be made from stoneware, silicone rubber, or other materials. A standard size cup is 3 inches (76 mm) in diameter and holds about 4 ounces (110 g), although pans for both miniature and jumbo size cupcakes exist. Speciality pans may offer many different sizes and shapes.
Individual cups, or cupcake liners, may be used in baking. These are typically round sheets of thin paper pressed into a round, fluted cup shape. Liners can facilitate the easy removal of the cupcake from the tin after baking, keep the cupcake moister, and reduce the effort needed to clean the pan. The use of liners is also considered a more sanitary option when cupcakes are being passed from hand to hand. Like cupcake pans, several sizes of paper liners are available, from miniature to jumbo.
In addition to paper, cupcake liners may be made from very thin aluminum foil or, in a non-disposable version, silicone rubber. Because they can stand up on their own, foil and silicone liners can also be used on a flat baking sheet, which makes them popular among people who do not have a specialized muffin tin. Some of the largest paper liners are not fluted and are made out of thicker paper, often rolled at the top edge for additional strength, so that they can also stand independently for baking without a cupcake tin. Some bakers use two or three thin paper liners, nested together, to simulate the strength of a single foil cup.
As an alternative to a plate of individual cakes, some bakers place standard cupcakes into a pattern and frost them to create a large design, such as a basket of flowers or a turtle. To 'simplify' this approach, a recent innovation is a silicone cake pan with varied shapes of cups to form the large design without leaving gaps between the cakes.