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Cupcakes with more substance than style

Cupcakes

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As National Cupcake Week draws to a close, it seems love them or loathe them, cupcakes are here to stay. But even if you're not a fan the next generation may just win you over.

Detractors label cupcakes as a one dimensional sugar-hit, all wrapped up in some worrying gender stereotypes.

But with cupcakeries from Torquay in Devon to Todmorden in Lancashire, they have become a fixture in British high streets, bakeries and supermarkets over the past 10 years.

Flavour sensations

Gingerbread cupcakes

Once associated only with heaps of lurid buttercream and covered with sprinkles, now a new flavour-first aesthetic is gaining ground.

Cupcakes hit British shores at a time when baking's star was already on the ascendant.

Such is the popularity of baking that there was a 50% increase in home baking shops and a 17% increase in bakeries in the UK in 2011, a new report by Simply Business found.

And Britain, a country with its own well-established baking heritage, has well and truly opened its arms to the culinary interloper.

We ate 44m shop-bought versions of the sweet treats in 2011, an 11% increase on the previous year, according to a Kantar Worldpanel report.

And if homemade cupcakes were included in this, it would be 65m, it said.

Quite why baking has become such a popular pastime is difficult to pin down, but a cupcake trend in an age of austerity supports Anthony Trollope's theory that "cakes and ale prevail most freely in times that are perilous and when sources of sorrow abound".

Hundreds of bakeries have sprung up around the UK in recent years, as many people looking for a new business venture have seen them as a winning product that sells.

"Cupcakes were repopularised in the 1990s and there are various schools of thought as to why it happened," says Charles Banks, director and co-founder of The Food People, who has spent years tracking the evolution of cakes and desserts around the world.

"But probably the most popular one is that the Magnolia Bakery in Manhattan opened."

What's in a name?

  • One theory is that early versions were baked in small cups.
  • Another points to American cup measures of the ingredients as the source of their name.

The bakery "became sort of immortalised" with an appearance on the hit television programme Sex and the City, making a cupcake the "en vogue thing to have", says Charles.

Lily Vanilli, [real name Lily Jones] a graphic designer turned baker, whose unusual designs caught the eye of the fashion press, said it was a watershed moment as "it was the first time that fashion and food made friends".

She says: "Before, fashion was allergic to food.

"[But fashion magazines] really embraced the cupcake because of its aesthetic qualities.

"It became a fashion accessory that people could afford. You might not be able to afford a designer handbag, but you can afford a cupcake."

But this very relationship meant that Lily found herself quickly cast in the UK as "the reluctant poster girl for cupcakes", as her products were sold in Harrods food hall, and Elton John and Nigella Lawson were named as fans.

"The connotations are a bit funny. They're not really synonymous with quality baking," she explains.

Cupcakes v fairy cakes

Fairy cakes
  • Cupcakes and fairy cakes are essentially the same thing, the only differences being size and decoration.
  • Cupcakes can be up to four times bigger than a typical fairy cake.
  • Fairy cakes are usually decorated with a thin layer of glace icing.
  • Whereas cupcakes typically have a huge swirl of frosting, which can amount to 50% of the finished cake.

"Customers would come into the bakery, and if they saw cupcakes they would automatically make an assumption about who you were - and it was usually negative."

So how have her cupcakes evolved since she began baking?

In fact, Lily no longer sells "cupcakes", preferring to concentrate on more artisan bakes, occasionally selling individual cakes under the label of "fairy cakes".

And why? Because it celebrates Britain's baking heritage.

"Rather than looking to America we're looking to England. England has an incredible history of beautiful pastries and cakes, as there is in France, and I think people are getting more interested in that."

By all accounts, the image of cupcakes can be that of style over substance but a new breed of bakers is determined to change that.

For some, flavour comes first, rather than feminine icing.

Emily Johnson, co-owner of the Upsy Daisy Bakery in Hammersmith, won this year's National Cupcake Championships with her mojito cupcake.

"Cupcakes including alcohol are one of the biggest trends at the moment," she says, her priority being to do something different.

"We're always trying to achieve something a bit more sophisticated than your typical cupcake.

Cupcakes without the headache

Cupcakes

"We're trying do something that's an alternative to the American style thing and bring in a more English flavour palette."

"I do flavours like apple crumble rather than the more American flavours."

New flavours also play a part in attracting men to the food.

Charles says he has seen "a brandy and tobacco infused sponge", and a nostalgic flavour profile is also common, such as a flavour based on the biscuits jammy dodgers.

Emily also inserts curd fillings into her cupcakes.

"It works every time: a nice soft, moist cake with a tangy curd in the middle and then a sweet buttercream on top with a little added crunch."

Edd Kimber, former winner of The Great British Bake Off judged the National Cupcake Championships and has seen cupcakes mature.

He says the adding of fillings can add a welcome tang or bitter note to what can often be an overly sweet product.

"A few people fill [cupcakes] with chocolate ganache or jam - all sorts of different things.

"You get a play on texture and a play on taste," he explains.

Charles Banks agrees that bakers are turning their backs on American versions, with the aesthetics getting broader.

"There are even cupcake shops in Paris, which is probably the last place on earth you'd expect to find a cupcake shop because it's all about fine patisserie."

"I don't see the cupcake as a trend," says Charles.

"It's as much part of our cake culture as Victoria sponge."

Additional reporting by Michelle Warwicker.

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