Some early cakes, such as "Queen's Cakes" [ more info here] were baked in small containers such as cups or small pans. The name could have come from the measured ingredients 1,2,3,4 cups of butter, sugar, flour and 4 eggs. Much more information and recipes below...
The first cookbook published by an American author American Cookery by Amelia Simmons in 1798 contained two recipes for cakes baked in cups or small tins.
"Soft Cakes in little pans.
One and half pound sugar, half pound butter, rubbed into two pounds flour, add one glass wine, one do. rose water, 18 eggs and a nutmeg.
A light Cake to bake in small cups.
Half a pound sugar, half a pound butter, rubbed into two pounds flour, one glass wine, one do. rose water, two do. emptins, a nutmeg, cinnamon and currants."
Bake in cups
Baking the cakes in small cups may have been one source for the name Cup Cake.
Another source of the name Cup Cake may be that in some, but not all recipes, the measurements were in increments of a cup. Family Magazine,1837, stated in its "White Cup Cake" receipt: "The cups in which most of the ingredients are measured, must be of half pint size." In 1840, Eliza Leslie wrote to "measure one large coffee cup."
One example of the cup measurement is Child's The Frugal Housewife in 1830:
"Cup cake. Cup cake is about as good as pound cake, and is cheaper. One cup of butter, two cups of sugar, three cups of flour, and four eggs, well beat together, and baked in pans or cups. Bake twenty minutes, and no more."
A 1,2,3,4 type recipe that used milk rather than eggs, and pearlash as leavening, is found in The Cook Not Mad of 1831: "Cup Cake. Four cups of flour, three of sugar, two of butter, one of milk, small tea spoonful of pearlash, spoonful of ginger, essence of lemon." After 1850, some recipes were named "1, 2, 3, 4 Cake" or "Numbers Cake."
A variety of Cup Cakes appeared in the first half of the 1800s, including New-York, Cream, Molasses, Tea, and CC without eggs. In 1846, Mrs. Cornelius gave two cup cake receipts, the second recipe included currants.
"Five teacups of flour, three of sugar, one and a half of butter, one of cream, or sour milk, five eggs, a half a teaspoonful of saleratus, and a lemon. Currants or not, as preferred. ...
New Orleans or good brown sugar is best for raised, fruit, and wedding cake, but it must be coarse-grained and clean. It will answer also for cup cake, especially if fruit is used. Crushed white sugar must be used for sponge and other white cake.
The fruit must be added to raised cake when it is ready for the oven. It should be spread equally over the top, and stirred only a little below the surface, else it will sink to the bottom."
Cornelius, Mrs. The young housekeeper's friend. Boston: 1846
©2011 Patricia Bixler Reber