Saturday, 28 June 2014

Cupcake wars

Kooky Bakes Red Velvet Cupcake

The history of the cupcake as phenomenon, cultural symbol of western femininity and modernity, started in 2005 when the first series of Sex and the City aired. In between zipless fucks, Manolo Blahnik heels, Mr Big and Manhattan cocktails, our fearless protagonists, that is, four go mad in New York, would buy cupcakes from Magnolia Bakery. Before that cupcakes did of course exist; they were mass produced and sold in supermarkets, they were baked in china cups in the dying embers of range cookers by Little House on the Prairie homesteaders. But nobody had really noticed them before. They weren't a thing.
Suddenly the small cake was pimped up, with a new hairstyle and attitude.

Cupcakes take the cake.
So after the Marmite cupcake debacle, I decided to look closer into the sweet but savage world of cupcakes. I'd received several private messages recounting dastardly deeds with baked goods; it seems rip-offs abound. Cupcake bakers will get very angry if their designs or original ideas are taken by another company. Magnolia Bakery started in 1996 but the California based Sprinkles, who claim to be the world's first cupcake company, opened in 2005. By 2012, Sprinkles even opened a cupcake ATM in New York, for addicts. Sprinkles are fairly litigious when it comes to stealing designs, specifically their signature 'dot' fondant design. But some cupcake companies seem to be totally cool about others being like, really really similar.
There can be difficulties when famous bakeries produce cookbooks. The first Humingbird bakery, which started in London in 2004, brought out a cookbook in 2009. There were many complaints;  it seemed they'd merely divided their large scale commercial recipes down to 10 cupcakes and of course, the recipes didn't work. They had to get in testers and now insist on domestic testers for each book, so the problems have been ironed out. Since then the books have been the most popular cupcake recipe books in the UK. But bakers can be a tight-fisted and paranoid lot: I know of at least two famous UK based bakers who put inaccurate recipes in their cookbooks, I got this inside information from their ex-employees. One will see desperate tweets and Facebook questions from amateur cooks who blame themselves rather than the cookbook.
Big cakes aren't dying but there are an increasing amount of people living alone, and the cupcake is perfect for them. You could almost say the cupcake is a diet food, for it is portion control!

This week, I went with my friend Scott of Kooky Bakes on a 'cupcake crawl'. Instead of beer, we got drunk on sugar and buttercream.
Our first stop, the Primrose Hill Bakery, is in the heart of yummy mummy land, nestled between the green heights of Parliament Hill and the gritty delights of Chalk Farm tube. The interior consists of icecream pastels; lemon yellows, mint green and strawberry pink with the polished chrome detailing of 1950s furniture. Scott tried a Red Velvet cupcake while I tried their signature bake, the salted caramel cupcake.
The Red Velvet cupcake was not very red. They'd gone for the 'natural' look of faintly rosy brown. Primrose Hill doesn't use much buttercream. I know people criticise the amount of buttercream, the ridiculous height of a cupcake in comparison to the humble low-key fairy cake, but I actually like buttercream.
How much buttercream should there be on a cupcake? I interrogate my expert companion.
Scott sighs: "I do a third. A third of the height of the cake.This would be a classic American cupcake."
Why do you think cupcakes are so popular?
"People think that starting a cupcake business is easy, they can do it from home. That's how I started, but now I have a unit and three assistants." He continues,"the market is saturated. But there is still a huge appetite for it."
Scott arrived in the UK from America in 1999.  He wanted to work in food and twice got to the semi-finals of Masterchef. The first time, he was in the same section as Thomasina Miers, who went on to win. Scott started his company in 2010. He doesn't have a shop but sells at markets like Brick Lane, Brockley, Tottenham, Wapping, Kerb and Street Feast.
Why do you think people get so angry about cupcakes?
"It's hip to be down on cupcakes."
It's true, the cupcake craze has been blamed for the demise of the modest fairy cake; the reversal of feminism and the obesity crisis.
What is the future of cupcakes?
"Well cupcakes rode through the recession. It's the perfect little treat, a cheap luxury. Cupcake companies are starting all the time, there is obviously the business for them. So I think it's still growing."
Scott adds: "There is no new cupcake. Yes we have the cronut and other things but nothing supplants the cupcake. The cupcake is extremely functional, portable, individual. You can buy one for yourself and not feel guilty."
Scott charges £2.50p per cupcake, the standard London price. "It's a fair price for small batch hand-made cakes."
At the Primrose Hill Bakery, we take a systematic approach to tasting.
First, we look at the buttercream density and consistency.
Scott's advice:
"Buttercream should be light but not claggy and it shouldn't fall apart. It shouldn't be hard, it should be soft, with no crust. I look at the levels of sugar, butter and cream cheese. I look at acidity and tang. But most importantly the buttercream should taste of something."
Secondly, we consider the cake:
Scott: " It should be moist with an even crumb, no giant holes."
Scott likes to squeeze them a little, around the casing, to see if they are moist. He prefers a thin cupcake case, slightly translucent, it doesn't pull apart.
He changes his recipe according to the weather, if the temperature is warm then the whole thing, buttercream and cake, is softer.

What size should a cupcake be?
"A US cupcake is the size of a British muffin. The sponge should come up to the top of the paper cases. A UK cupcake is a little bit smaller. There are three size baking tins: muffin size, bun size and fairy cake size."

Next we visit Sweet Things a few streets away in Primrose Hill. The shop isn't as pretty but they have interesting glass panelled sweet-filled tables.
Scott again orders the Red Velvet cupcake (£2.60p). Straight away we can see that there is more buttercream and that they've used the classic Number One sized piping bag nozzle which makes a bouffant swirl.
The sponge is softer and moister "made with vegetable oil" informs Scott knowledgeably, but it's fairly tasteless and greasy. It's not sweet enough either. The colour on the other hand is a proper crimson red.
The salted caramel cupcake (£3) has chocolate buttercream icing with a little sea salt on top. I like the sea salt but feel the buttercream should have been caramel not chocolate. Scott extracts a microscopic hair from my cake. "I'm obsessed with that sort of thing".
Scott says sadly: "There is not much flair here. The Red Velvet buttercream is cream cheese heavy.
Vegetable oil is used because it has a longer shelf life, especially in the heat. It's very common in baking in the United States. Sometimes margarine and vegetable fat can work well, Dan Lepard has been known to use Trex. But this Red Velvet cake, it's not sweet or tangy, there is no buttermilk. There should be buttermilk."

Scott gives me a present of one of his cupcakes, the most popular flavour, Red Velvet, which I try when I get home.
It is perfection. The height of the buttercream, the ratio of frosting to cake is ideal. The colour is vibrant, the cake has the sour flavour of buttermilk undercutting the sweetness. The sponge is moist with a small even crumb and no holes. You want American baking? Ask an American to bake for you.
In Primrose Hill


  1. Replies
    1. Kooky Bakes were. Can't stop thinking about it.

    2. I'm not a fan of Sweet Things but I have it on good authority that they do not use vegetable oil in their cupcakes. The only one containing vegetable oil is the carrot cake.

    3. Their cake didn't taste very nice. I once had a cake which I thought was delicious, it tasted really buttery. I asked the baker and she said she'd used margarine. So I don't think it's always the case that veg oil/margarine cakes taste bad, it just did in this case.

  2. caramelnibbles2 July 2014 at 11:36

    The Primrose Hill Red Velvet doesn't look like a Red Velvet at all! All that no-dye can be forgiven, but the scant buttercream cannot.


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