The First American Cookbook Author Also Invented The Cupcake

Next time you whip up a batch of homemade cupcakes or bite into a miniature delight from your favorite neighborhood bakery, take a moment to thank Amelia Simmons, the inventor of this iconic dessert. In addition to introducing the sweet treat, which has become a ubiquitous menu item in pastry shops around the globe, she also holds the title of the premier American cookbook author. "American Cookery," published in 1796, holds a special place in history. The groundbreaking anthology presents a window into the culinary practices of our nation when it was relatively young and introduced the novel concept of the cupcake.

While Simmons' personal life remains largely a mystery, her cookbook's preface offers some intriguing glimpses. The domestic manual's foreword identifies Simmons as an orphan and reveals that the book was, in part, a comprehensive guide for women in similar circumstances — those navigating the kitchen without a mother's counsel. Simmons' pragmatic culinary style (which prioritized local groceries and simple, practical instructions) evidently stemmed from her experiences.

One of the recipes in "American Cookery" was entitled "a light cake to bake in small cups" — the earliest known reference to what we now call "cupcakes." Small cups were not only used to measure the ingredients — sugar, butter, flour, wine, rosewater, emptins (yeast made from hops), nutmeg, cinnamon, and currants — but also acted as the baking vessels. This technique marked a departure from the conventional method of baking larger cakes that required slicing and serving.

Amelia Simmons changed cooking and baking forever

A few decades later, the term "cup cake" appeared in the 1828 cookbook "Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats" by Eliza Leslie of Philadelphia. Over time, "cupcake" gained its own definition and became a unique category. Simmons' innovation laid the groundwork for a confection that would eventually flourish in the U.S., paving the way for the best cupcake shops in the country today. Through the centuries, cupcake recipes have evolved to incorporate an array of flavors, frostings, and decorations, becoming a versatile treat enjoyed by people of all ages for all types of celebrations.

For most of the 18th century, though, many Americans turned to English cookbooks, which often didn't account for ingredients and conditions found in the New World. Amelia Simmons, however, bravely rose to the challenge. She adapted traditional recipes to incorporate native ingredients as well as chemical leavening agents like pearlash (what we used before baking powder). The famous cookbook featured sections on vegetables, beans, fruits, meats, pies, puddings, custards, tarts, preserves, and (of course) cakes.

Simmons' cookbook was a pioneering work that reflected and shaped the emerging landscape of American cuisine. Her groundbreaking approach to homemade meals and her foundation for the cupcake have left a lasting legacy. The cupcake, a humble dessert darling, continues to serve as a delicious reminder of Simmons' independence and ingenuity.