Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Lovely Things Day 2: Cupcakes

Unrelated "weather-sucks-here" note:
Wow, what wretched weather this week of "loveliness" has
brought us! It's all I can do to keep my head above the London bog to write about these dalliances. I seriously need to purchase one of those anti-depression sun-lamp thingamajigs.

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Once upon a time, in another life, I worked in a cupcake wonderland. I managed a small and quintessentially cupcake-y shop in London's
über chic Primrose Hill. Gasp, I know.

Without getting into the practicalities of my role - because, honestly, who cares about the practicalities of a cake shop? (Isn't the point of a cake shop complete and utter frivolity and impracticality?! I won't dash the illusion for you) - I will say that I had the opportunity to work in an environment where sweetness is king (or queen, as it were), where taste-testing is a mandate, and where you get to go home not only with free samples, but also smelling of sugary-goodness every single delightful little day. And we all know that when you smell like cake and always seem to be carrying a box of goodies, people want to be your friend - crumby shirt and chocolate-smeared smile notwithstanding.

Yes, there were perks, my friends, there were indeed perks to working in cupcake-candyland.

It would naturally follow that Lovely Thing #2 is *fiendish bugle ditty* CUPCAKES.

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I won't go into the obvious Manhattan-Magnolia-Bakery- Sprinkles- Girls-Next-Door-red-velvety- dribble everyone in the cupcake "know" seems to rehash time and time again. Instead, I'll give a brief overview of the real reasons I believe cupcakes to be a lovely thing indeed, and therefore, a good thing to indulge in on the day of love (this upcoming Saturday for those of you who are more out of it than me with regards to days of the week), or at any other time for that matter.

A Short Treatise on Cupcakes Being a Good Thing Indeed
my humble opinion on the subject

5. The Temptation Factor
I am not a baked goods person. I don't prefer baking and I almost never indulge in a sweet breakfast (apart from the occasional toast with Bon Maman Strawberry/Wild Strawberry Jam - for the love of God try it!) or slice of cake. It just doesn't really attract me that much. That's why I figured I was totally safe taking a job at a cupcake bakery. No temptation involved for me there. Not like
working at a restaurant where I'd be tasting the goods 24/7, right? Wrong. Flat-out wrong. Cupcakes are damn tempting. Something about the gently swirled buttercream (if it's not buttercream, it's not icing), the pastel-y colors and the way almost nobody can avoid getting it all over their hands while they eat it, therefore requiring a mandatory lick-age of the fingers. All very tempting. And what's life (or Valentine's Day) without a little temptation?

4. If you're gonna say it: Say it loud. And say it with sugar.
What better way to communicate than through tiny letters piped / placed on a miniature cake? Believe it or not, some of these cupcake places actually deliver - and having prepared many a special box myself, I know how precious this sort of package can be. I've seen everything from "Happy Birthday" to "Marry Me" spelled out on cupcakes. And I've also often been the one to take the phone call afterwards thanking us for the tasty announcement (she said yes, just fyi).

Put it this way: if done correctly, those may just be the best twenty or thirty quid you've spent in a long time.

3. Everything is cuter in miniature. Trust me, I'm an expert.

Up until about fifth grade I was one of the tallest kids in school. Then suddenly out of nowhere I turned into the "short one" when all the boys' hormones decided to kick in. What the hell? (Definitely something they should psychologically prepare girls for, but anyway...) Since then I've had to deal with being given all sorts of diminutive nicknames: shorty, petite, impish - you name it, I've been called it. Twenty-some odd years of this has led me to one very valuable (and, incidentally, self-affirming) conclusion: small things are just much cuter. And cute always equates with better.

On that note: cupcakes are, by nature, small. That's the point of not making a big honking layer cake instead, right? Their small size, I think, is what gives them that extra lashing of whimsy that makes their very existence a special occasion. You're not getting a slice of the cake - you get a WHOLE cake all to yourself (even if it is teeny), and I'm all about that.

2. The Cup-sized Revolution
Historically speaking, cupcakes were revolutionary to the art of baking. I found this blog entry which explains it much better than I can, but suffice it to say, all us home-bakers have cupcakes to thank for that incredibly practical switch to cups and spoons from weight scales when measuring ingredients.

So they were called cupcakes because they were measured in cups! Aha! Add to that the visionary decision to bake the cakes in small cups (tea cups sometimes) rather than huge tins - apparently small desserts, small baked goods just weren't feasible in a time of gigantic village ovens - and you've got yourself one small but rather expansive revolution of the cup-sized persuasion.

1. The Non-universal, Universal Experience
While I understand that cupcakes are probably an unnecessary, luxury good unavailable to the masses of the earth for obvious and unfortunate reasons, I will take a moment to make a gross generalization that, I think, is not so gross: Everyone likes cupcakes. I won't say LOVE
(that's your job on Saturday), but definitely LIKE.

If you know someone who doesn't, it's either because they're allergic to gluten, hate chocolate, or were tortured with icing as a young, school child and are therefore a desperate iconoclast. In all of the aforementioned cases, the person is deserving of your pity but does NOT, I repeat, does NOT count as a normal human being who can reasonably be lumped into the sample masses used to make this (not-so-gross) generalization.

Therefore, by default, if everyone likes them, they MUST be a good thing.
Eat your heart out Professor So-and-So from University Logic 101.

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The Practical Stuff
If you're looking for good cupcakes here in London town, you won't be short on choice. I will (in vain) attempt to deal with the three main ones impartially. For a more objective opinion, go dally on their websites - I guarantee you'll immediately be able to tell which one most appeals to your own sense of aesthetic. And let's be honest, that's the main thing to judge cupcakes by.

Primrose Bakery
With two locations, Primrose Hill (the original) and Covent Garden (the new), these cupcakes are now more convenient to procure and therefore less expensive (delivery charges can get pretty steep as each is bespoke). They are also, IMHO, the tastiest of the three brands here in question. The vanilla sponge is a little dense to the American palette, but the chocolate is dark and to die for, and, the lemon (my personal favorite) has the most amazing icing ever. Their shops are also worth hanging out at - retro furnishings and the best mix of British-Americana in terms of candy and music.

Style: Home-style, hand-iced pastel-y pretties with internationally sourced decorations which are hand-placed every time. The swirl of the icing and intricate flower and sprinkle decor is what makes these cupcakes distinctive. That combined with their unflinching commitment to "the good old days" will keep you coming back for more.

Located on Portobello Rd. and in South Kensington, these are probably the most recognizable because of the superb job the owner has done with branding (don't you just love that midgety little hummingbird of a logo?). That doesn't make the icing jobs or the colors any better. Where Hummingbird might have an advantage is that they offer "red velvet" cupcakes, which are kind of the "new black" of modern-cupcake-mania thanks to the Magnolia Bakery. Does that alone make the visit worthwhile? Probably not. Their Portobello Rd. store is tiny and offers little in comparison to the charming antique shops outside, but the South Kensington store is a veritable arena as London real estate goes, so perhaps there's something to that if you go for the whole "it feels like I'm back in a strip mall in the states" kinda thing.

These cupcakes, in general, look kind of sloppy and come in some highly unnatural, borderline florescent, icing colors - not appealing to me, anyway. The decorations are your run-of-the-mill sprinkles, so nothing special there either, and the cake...well, it's nothing to write Betty Crocker about. Nice packaging though.

Lola's Kitchen

Let's start out by saying that flattish-looking cupcakes are just NOT my bag (see their "signature cupcakes"). If you're looking for a veritable force of flavor-choice, Lola's is your joint. There is, however, no joint. As in, they have a kitchen but no shop. They sell (like Primrose Bakery) at department stores and deliver, but prefer to try to maintain the Charlie-and-the-Chocolate-Factory-Oompa-Loompa mystique with regards to production (trust me, there's never anything that cute or other-worldly about small baking kitchens). They have a signature bullseye decoration which is very um...modern...but doesn't quite fit my idea of what a "fun little cupcake" should look like. Maybe if your apartment is decorated exclusively in white or exclusively in black you'll dig it. Otherwise, they seem to have bought into the "more means better" mantra with regards to choice and batter...I'll let you take that to its natural conclusion.

Style: Super modern with some cool colors in their range of icings. Really nice, branded packaging, but they look extremely store bought: think, "I got this at the bakery in the really nice grocery store down the street and it was pre-packaged." If you want polish over quaint, go for it. Otherwise, stick to the aforementioned(s).

Today's lovely thing is brought to you by Feist's "Secret Heart." It's whimsical and sweet, just like cupcakes.
And not to point out the obvious but, the song is all about a HEART!

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1 comment:

  1. Definitely one of my favorite desserts right there with Brownies. Good Post, pretty pictures. :) Makes me want to go and stick my fingers in all the little cakes.