Monday, 17 September 2012

Why fairy cakes win

Note: The cakes shown on this blog are not new to anyone who knows my work. However, this article is here to kick of National Cupcake week. Over the next week I'll be making new cupcakes every day and putting them up on I'll be blogging about my week of cakes (with pictures) next week.

I recently had a strange experience: I saw a display of cupcakes that didn't make me hungry. This is very rare for any cake - most of them look appetising to me - and I set about working out why. It could have been the thick chocolate icing and glitter making them look slightly mucky, or the fact they had clearly been rushed in finishing. But what was really offputting was the size of them.

When I was young, we make fairy cakes: small, fun cakes that were perfect with a beaker of milk. Then muffins came to town. Compared to fairy cakes, muffins are huge but then they can be: they are made with oil, not butter, they are far less sweet and they are not covered in icing.

When did the cupcake become the size of a muffin? There is a general feeling with cakes that bigger is better but that's not true. With a small iced fairy cake in front of me I feel I'm in for a treat, with a giant muffin-sized one I feel intimidated. If I want a large cake I'll go for a slice of something: Carrot cake, for example, or Victoria sponge. A cupcake, on the other hand, should be small but perfectly formed, indulgent but not excessive.

If I use an American cupcake recipe, I always get almost 50% extra from the mix. I can only assume that American cupcakes are either muffin sized or significantly larger - can anyone shed any light on this for me? A rudimentary web search on the difference between the two seems to reach a consensus that they are the same just with different names. However, many people claim cupcakes are larger than fairy cakes. My favourite answer was: one is made by Americans, the other by fairies.

This is why fairy cakes are better:

1. Cakes are very sweet. It may seem obvious, but too much will leave you feeling full, queasy and dehydrated. A cupcake you can hold in your hand and eat in three bites will make you happy and satisfied without bad after effects.

2. You can go mad with the toppings. On a large cake, the prospect of so much sugar is terrifying. On a small one, it's wonderful. A tall swirl of icing on a fairy cake is still edible. Simple decoration looks better, and fancy decoration more impressive.

3. You can make more. 12 large cupcakes or 18 fairy cakes? I know what I'm going for. Everything looks better in large quantities, and design-wise they are far more pleasant to look at. Plus, you can feed more people, and no-one feels bad eating two. In fact, with a large cupcake, nobody will want to eat two.

4. When doing fondant icing for a picture cake, you can decorate on top of the cake and the icing becomes king. These Pac-Man cakes look like a picture, not a big pile of cakes. The fondant is thick but the cake is the right size to make a perfect combination of light sponge and sweet fondant.

5. Flavour. The most important aspect of any cake. I love making cakes from anything from beetroot to dark chocolate to fresh fruit. In a small cake these flavours are king - you can taste every key ingredient. In a muffin-sized cake with icing, they almost certainly just end up tasting sugary.

And in case you need any more convincing, butter icing as just that: butter. I'd hazard a guess that a fairy cake has around a teaspoon of butter on top of it, a muffin sized one about two.

So I say bring back the fairy cake. Let us have a sweet treat with our afternoon cuppa, not a massive dinner-threatening snack. A cake children can hold and eat, not one they have to dissect and lick the icing off first. Let us free ourselves from massive portions and get back to the Instagram-tinged cakes of our childhoods. Let fairy cakes rule again.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Marshmallow teacakes

Today I made my first attempt at marshmallow. In fact, I made teacakes.

Flicking through my recipe books to find inspiration for a friend's birthday treat, I came across these in Peyton and Byrne's British Baking. I've had this a while but never made anything from it, partly because a lot of the recipes are ones for which I already have good recipes, partly because my friend had a disappointing lunch at Oliver Peyton's St James' Park restaurant (mine was lovely) and partly because I don't find the excuse to bake new recipes as often as I'd like.

Anyhow, it's rather a lovely book with lots of traditional baking recipes in it from jammy dodgers to banana butterscotch pudding (find it here: and the teacakes caught my eye mainly because I fancied trying something new. In fact, I'm not even much of a fan of the shop-bought version, finding them rather cloying and thick. I prefer the Danish flødeboller, which have a thin wafer base, light, uncooked filling and a very thin layer of chocolate (Try them from
But a light biscuit, soft marshmallow (not the set one with gelatine) and melted chocolate cannot fail to tempt, and I particularly like how egg yolks and whites are both needed - that's a tidy recipe.
Can I just state here that making marshmallow is brilliant. Egg whites, sugar, syrup and vanilla essence are heated over a pan of water and whisked constantly to become frothy and light. Then an electric mixer turns it into a meringue-like substance that pipes happily onto the biscuits. It's baking alchemy of the kind I love most.
Here's the making of the marshmallow:

I failed to get a decent picture of the piles of marshmallow piped onto the biscuits but they looked ace. With smaller bases and some coconut, they would be perfect as they are.
So far so good but I was nervous about the chocolate. I'm always apprehensive about working with chocolate and usually opt for a ganache but in this case I was following the recipe exactly. I melted half the chocolate in the usual way then added the other half, finely chopped, and let it sit for 7 minutes. I couldn't see it working but it did. I suppose the temperature of freshly melted chocolate would be too much for the marshmallow so this was a good solution for the right texture without the heat. It still seemed a little cold as the chocolate covered unevenly, and didn't reach the base. It's very possibly my technique but I can't see too many ways of spooning chocolate over a biscuit.

The resultant teacakes are, erm... rustic. I would like the chocolate to have been thinner and neater but they have a satisfying home made quality nevertheless. And most importantly, they taste amazing. The marshmallow is soft and melts in your mouth, the base is light and buttery and the chocolate set but not crunchy. They are not sticky or heavy at all but light and moreish. I may well try to make them again, but better. Or I may find every other marshmallow recipe I can lay my hands on and try them instead. Either way, marshmallow is the most fun I've had in the kitchen in a while and I suggest you try it immediately.