Hey there, I just made Nigella's Blueberry Muffins from "How To Be A Domestic Godess" and while they're cooling, I'm musing about what a muffin is. I always figured that muffins were bigger than cupcakes, but I used 12 cupcake paper cups and was just about able to fill them up - so they're not bigger and that can't be the distinction. Also, Nigella talks about fairy cakes - now, is that something different from a muffin or a cupcake? I'd be delighted if you could help me out with some culinary genre distinctions. Best, Helene
There can be some confusion between muffins and cupcakes, but the main difference is the type and amount of liquid in the batter and the mixing method. Cupcakes are usually made more along the lines of a creamed cake method, with sugar and butter being mixed together and then eggs are beaten in before adding the flour. Sometimes sour cream or buttermilk are added but this is usually incorporated in parts, alternating with additions of flour. This gives a tender cake-like texture.
Muffins however are usually made by mixing dry ingredients like flour and sugar together, separately mixing together any liquid ingredients and then mixing the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients. There is usually a higher proportion of liquids such as milk, and a lower proportion of eggs. This gives the muffins a denser texture and they also tend to stale more quickly than cupcakes. The larger quantity of liquid can also make the glutens in the flour tougher, meaning that the final mixing should be done quickly and it doesn't matter if there are a few lumps in the batter. Also muffins are more likely to have mix-ins such as fruits or nuts and can be sweet or savoury.
The term "fairy cake" is a term that tended to be used in the UK to describe an individual sponge cake, which was usually a Victoria sponge mixture and often with a glace icing. They were smaller than the cupcakes we know now and were made in shallower tins or pans (patty pan tins). Nowadays most people would think of a fairy cake and a cupcake as being pretty much the same thing.