Cupcakes have come a long way since I was a little lass. Back int day they were dry fairy cakes at birthday parties; wonky wings and warm cream with a generous layer of icing sugar sprinkled over the top. Or a classic Victoria Sponge mix, covered with runny icing - brightened with food colouring that had sat in the kitchen cupboard for a thousand years and that stained your hands for days (you had been warned) - all decorated with an excess of hundreds and thousands and silver balls.
LOTS of butter icing (you'll see what we mean)
They were messy and silly, sugary-sweet and childish – evoking nostalgic memories of standing on a kitchen stool stirring ingredients in a huge mixing bowl, being allowed the decadent luxury of licking the spoon and the joy of creating overtly girly, pretty things. Simple pleasures.
But nowadays, there is nothing simple about the cupcake, nothing chaotic about the icing, nothing modest about taking a tin of humble cupcakes to a birthday party. Oooh, all this cupcake talk and you could just eat one, you say? Alas, may I offer you a Valrhona chocolate cupcake with a whipped Callebaut chocolate frosting topped with a fondant flower? Or perhaps a coconut cupcake with a vanilla cream-cheese frosting capped with a cloud of shredded coconut? Or a baby pink tinted traditional sweet vanilla buttercream frosting on a Madagascar bourbon vanilla cupcake topped with caramelised hazelnuts?
What do you mean you can’t decide?!
Unless you’ve been living under a rock bun for the last few years, you may have noticed that we are a nation besotted. We are baking, buying, selling, reading, watching, learning, eating and thinking cupcakes – and this national love affair looks unlikely to wane any time soon.
So how has the humble cupcake hit the mainstream with such intensity, upgraded from children’s party-food to grown-up, trendy, boutique-luxury status? And what is it that gives them this miraculous staying-power?
We can thank the economic climate for this one, kick-starting the trend in 2009 when the recession hit and an army of eager British bakers began bustling away in kitchens in an attempt to save the nation. ‘It really is like that,’ laughs Carla, one half of cupcake company, Canny Little Cupcakes, ‘but I love that British mentality: What’s that? You’ve been made redundant, lost your business and can’t afford to keep your house? Have a cup of tea and some cake, pet!’
‘Cupcakes aren’t just making the customer happy though,’ says her business partner, Lorna. ‘They’ve changed our lives as well. What started off as something we did for fun, became something that we could make money from. We like making cakes, people like buying and eating them – everyone’s happy!’
‘I think people have had to downscale and make significant changes to their lifestyles,’ says Carla, ‘and that’s hard, but it has spun the baking boom - you might not be able to afford to go on holiday abroad this year, but you can treat yourself to a fancy cupcake. They are an affordable luxury. And that goes for making them too. I think part of the attraction is that it’s something you can do from home without lots of expensive gear.’
However, the more we bake, the more paraphernalia we buy and though it is a relatively inexpensive hobby, the retail market is cashing in. According to the British Independent Retailers Association, bakeware and cake-craft (that’s cake decorations to you and me) saw a 66% growth in sales last year, Lakeland sold 3,500,000 disposable piping bags in the first half of 2102 alone, with baking accessories shooting up by 42% and Marks and Spencers saw the sales of cake stands shoot up by a whopping 243%.
‘There has certainly been a shift in the British mentality,’ muses Carla, ‘probably backed up by The Great British Bake-Off, and I think that’s really positive. This back-to-basics mind-set is uplifting; the simple pleasures of baking for your friends and family.
‘It’s nowhere near as quaint and sophisticated as I initially thought though,’ laughs Lorna. ‘I thought it would be 1950s tea dresses and calmly making roses out of icing. But it’s 1am and you’re pulling your hair out and covered in flour, wondering what you’re doing with your life. But then nothing beats the feeling that we get when we give someone cakes that we have made, seeing them light up, and knowing that we’ve done that – we’ve made someone happy.’
So do they think the cupcake craze is going to simmer down any time soon? ‘No!’ they both say in unison. ‘At the beginning we wondered whether this was just a trend that would die out quickly,’ says Lorna, ‘and yes – the hype has simmered down. But our orders are usually for occasions – birthdays, weddings, christenings, hen parties etc. – and this isn’t going to change. As long as people keep celebrating, we’ll keep baking!’
‘Also,’ says Carla, ‘we’re not stingy with our butter icing! Will you mention that?’ I nod. ‘Honestly, so many companies try to cut back on their costs and do that with really stingy amounts of butter icing and it makes me furious. Canny Little Cupcakes promise to never cut back on butter cream!’
That’s what we like to hear. Geordie lasses making us proud.
You can find out more about Canny Little Cupcakes on their website www.cannylittlecupcakes.co.uk. Check out their hen party cupcakes (or anything else for that matter). As their tagline says, 'they're proper lush'.
Canny Little Cupcakes