Los Angeles gave us Sprinkles. New York gave us Magnolia and Crumbs. But it was Philly that gave us Eliza Leslie.
A 19th century Philadelphian, Leslie gained renown as a cookbook writer. But one of her most important claims to fame has been mostly forgotten — and thus the fact that cupcakes originated in Philly is missing from most history books.
Born 1787 at the corner of Second and Market, Leslie was a third-generation American of Scottish and Swedish descent. Her watchmaker father Robert came from a family of farmers, but after moving to the city, ended up close friends with Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, and was elected a member of the prestigious American Philosophical Society.
Like her dad, Leslie was both intellectual and plainspoken, and the combination worked to her advantage when she decided to write a cookbook.
Published in 1827, Seventy-five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats broke the mold for culinary tomes of the day. Not only did Leslie codify the idea to list ingredients separately from preparation instructions instead of one mish-mosh prose paragraph, she also kept her recipes simple. This was in strict contrast to other books, which targeted elite cosmopolitans with access to expensive French or British ingredients and hard-to-get kitchen tools.
Instead, Leslie’s book was written for her compatriots, no matter their class status. “The receipts in this little book are,” she wrote in the preface, “in every sense of the word, American.”
Seventy-five Receipts went on to become the most popular US cookbook of the century, eventually selling more than 150,000 copies. And its author, who became known as “Miss Leslie,” translated that success into additional cookbooks, a series of novels, and a set of anthologies with contributions from Edgar Allan Poe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
But lost in the shuffle was the fact that Leslie was the first person to publish a recipe for “cupcakes.”
Actually, her recipe had the phrase as two words: “Cup cakes.” Which was because the “cup” referred not necessarily to the size of the cake, but in how its components were measured. At the time, measuring cups were not yet common — most ingredients were portioned out by weight instead of volume. Interestingly, using weight has come back into vogue recently because modern gram scales allow for more precise measurements. But in 1827, suggesting a delicious cake could be made by just tossing together a few cupfuls made for an astonishingly easy bake.
Where’d the miniature size come into play? Unclear.
While Leslie’s original cupcake recipe finishes with the instruction to pour the batter into “small tins,” there’s no indication she was suggesting individual portions.
Petite, personal-size teacakes had been common in England as far back as the early 1700s, baked in ceramic ramekins or actual tea cups. A variety called “Queen Cakes” — which Leslie included in Seventy-five Receipts, with the suggestion to bake them in “about two dozen little tins, or more” — also called for icing spread over the top.
As it happens, Leslie also helped popularize another characteristic of the sweets Sex and the City helped make a national obsession: Paper liners. Her cookbook contains several suggestions to line baking tins with buttered paper to keep cake from sticking to the sides.
So whether or not Leslie actually “invented” them in their modern form, it’s pretty clear cupcakes deserve a rightful spot on the extensive list of Philly firsts.