Apparently name-dropping the ‘cupcake revolution’ is the fashion equivalent of extolling the maxi-dress: very 2008 darling. But the cupcake trend is still on a [parchment baking] roll – except that where in 2008 we were buying ’em, now we’re making ’em. Enter the cupcake class – tutorials for the disenfranchised office-worker, wondering if they too could clear four grand a month* just by knocking up a few of Nigella’s best and selling them at £2 a pop to London’s glitterati. Of course it would seem I’m suggesting that such an entreprenual venture might be as simple as it is alluring. Believe me, it’s not.
Behind the domestic goddess veneer of women such as Bea Vo from Bea’s of Bloomsbury and Shikhita Singh from Fair Cake are in fact steely powerhouses of skill, determination and grit – not to mention lack of sleep and backache (but more on that in a moment). The cupcake market is a tough one. So if you were considering jacking in the day job and beating the Hummingbirds and Primrose Hills at their game, you could do a lot worse than having a bit of a trial run first.
Off then to Bea’s of Bloomsbury where a 2 ½ hour mid-week evening course will set you back £100. Bea’s is effectively a glamorous ‘tea room’ with a lot of very fancy cakes (although lunch is served too). It has an open kitchen at the back from which Bea works and teaches. The class started at 6pm but Miss Keen here arrived early so was seated in the café with a fellow Keeny and (I must say) quite the most delicious hot chocolate I have ever tasted. By the time my new buddy and I had exchanged pleasantries we were being ushered up to the kitchen, aprons on, and hello to a third cupcake groupie
American-born Bea originally trained in law but a passion for being in the kitchen took her to where she is today – en route as a pastry chef at some very respectable London eateries. This woman knows food. The course was centred on icing techniques as opposed to baking itself. She talked us through her Italian buttercream icing (lighter and less sweet than conventional buttercream) and we watched, transfixed as she poured her (heated-to-precision) sugar syrup into her egg whites. We were also expertly talked through making a chocolate ganache and how to create a small piping bag and write words and messages. Essentially it was pretty much a hands-on, learn as you do it affair – with Bea there for help and advice. Just when we thought we could just possibly give Lola’s a run for their money, she would deftly show us another trick from her locker leaving us cooing with admiration (I admit: I pinched one of her’s at the end so I could palm it off as my own…) Best of all, we got to leave with stacks of cupcakes, all prettily boxed and bag’ed up. I don’t think I’ve ever left a café feeling quite as puffed-up proud as I did that night.
Onto Fair Cake in Greenwich, and *Shikhita Singh, quite one of the most inspirational women I think I’ve ever met. This was an all-day’er (£150) and held at Shikhita’s home. Now she really did give up the day job (fund management) and now bakes around 600 cupcakes a week. A London website recently hailed her’s as ‘the best in town’. Not bad considering the PR efforts of others. Shikhita herself (entirely self taught) literally started with a bowl, a wooden spoon and a grand in the bank.
The course talked us through making the cakes themselves (it’s all about Precision! Maths! Temperatures!) and then the bling part we’d all really come for: icing those babies. Reality check: great fun on a Sunday afternoon when you’re making a dozen or so for the school fete; a whole different ball game when you’re on the clock, making 250 for Mr and Mrs Bridegroom. Lack of sleep and baker’s back-ache sort of come with the territory – and those cupcakes have to be pimped-up big style honey. As Shikhita herself said ‘in the beginning, behind every perfectly iced cupcake were one hundred others that looked nothing like a cupcake.”
Still, we all left feeling incredibly inspired – and I’ve never had as much fun playing with a set of icing nozzles (now there’s a sentence I never thought I’d see in print). It helped that Shikhita had the most fabulous and endearing manner – lots of funny asides and useful little tips (all ovens lie – so get a proper thermometer! / don’t bother sifting the flour, life’s too short and it makes no difference anyway); the woman was as generous with her advice as she was with her tea.
Post-lunch we decamped to the kitchen table, all of us completely engrossed in making sugar paste flowers and at that lovely ‘I’m comfortable enough to be sitting next to you without the need for small talk’ stage. Did we get competitive? Yeah, a little I guess. Shikhita herself drifted around us, demo’ing techniques and divulging secrets and gossip – all the while as French ooh-la-la music wafted in the background. I did wonder if there could possibly be a nicer way to spend a Saturday afternoon. Food for the soul, quite literally.
Psst – but if you do want to sound like you’re on the pulse of all things cupcake, Buttercup is the new one-to-watch – ask for the Elvis and tell them Lois sent you.