x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

You can have your cakes?

They may be the cake du jour but a cupcake by any other name is still a cupcake, no matter the existential role they may play

Cupcakes may be the flavour of the month with the fashion brigade, but their popularity could well prove to be just another fad.
Cupcakes may be the flavour of the month with the fashion brigade, but their popularity could well prove to be just another fad.

Once upon a happy accident, there came a batch of cupcakes. And from those cupcakes a revolution was launched that stirred the ghost of Betty Crocker and synchronised the great plazas and shopping malls of the world in a butter cream ballet. The last decade's hyperabundance of cupcakes began with a bowl of leftover cake batter at New York City's Magnolia Bakery and flourished when the resulting frosted treats were featured in Sex and the City. Today, Magnolia enforces a maximum-purchase rule of a dozen cupcakes per person in an effort to share the love, or at least the sugar high, with as many queuing customers as possible.

Personally, I think that Magnolia's cupcakes leave a lot to be desired. Biting into one is like taking a swipe at an old piñata full of birthday memories: flabby yellow cake and gritty frosting, with nuances of nursery fare and candy floss. In case it isn't obvious by now, let me spell it out: I am not a fan of cupcakes. But before you assume I also torture small animals for pleasure, allow me to explain why.

The immediate appeal of cupcakes is no great mystery. Though arguably neither small nor sophisticated, they are diminutive, both in terms of action and consequence, and are thus perfect for celebrating minor daily triumphs. They fit into school lunches and can be decorated, inscribed or otherwise personalised. They are a snap to make but tricky to master; fun for kids and budding pastry chefs alike, with the added benefit of nearly always being edible. They are unpretentious and can be adapted to suit any nutritional or socioeconomic lifestyle without ever being imposing or demanding. They don't require utensils. They weren't made for sharing and so can be ravaged unapologetically while still quelling a brazen sense of entitled individualism. They can be topped with anything; citrus glaze, cream cheese frosting, butter cream, Italian meringue, ganache. They hook into the puerile, the princess, and the playful personas within us. Is it possible for cupcakes to transcend the sandbox era, or is it their raison d'être to provide the sort of uncomplicated joy often associated with childhood? And despite their self-consciousness, cupcakes often make great eye candy, especially if you're into lace, pastels and icing sugar.

On the other hand, cupcakes can seem silly, overly precious, ungenerous, uninteresting, non-committal, uneconomical, impractical, and difficult to eat, making them the epitome of form over function, I see your cupcake - and I'll raise you a litre cake, a layer cake, and a bundt cake all at once. If the word "cupcake", which designates a Génoise about the size of a teacup, sounds innocuous, then consider the teacup puppy: the fetishised but often sickly underdogs favoured by the misguided and the smothery types who really just want the right accessory for their pet carrier. Proust's madeleine to the Middle American masses, cupcakes. In the Emirates, I've wondered if the success of cupcakes is symptomatic of something else. After sampling the local wares; Sugar Daddy, Sprinklez and House of Cakes (all in Dubai), I felt as though I had been churned through Hello Kitty's digestive system and seen the light at the end of the tunnel through the goggles of diabetic shock.

Behind the scenes of corporate cupcakeville, there is a lot more happening than unicorns and light. In an ironic twist, the clothing designer Johnny Cupcakes is suing a competitor for a T-shirt that reads "Make Pastry Not War" for its similarity to the company's slogan "Make Cupcakes Not War". In Hollywood, Sprinkles has sent about a dozen letters requesting name changes and filed three law suits against other cupcakeries: Famous Cupcakes, a company formerly known as SprinkleSprinkle, and Sprinkled Pink Cupcake Couture. In Chicago, More Cupcakes filed suit against Sugar Bliss Cupcake Boutique in violation of a confidentiality agreement.

A few summers ago, my sister undertook a project unofficially dubbed "The Great Cupcake Crawl" of New York City. Her benchmark flavour was red velvet. I was at once fascinated and revolted by her commitment. There is more chocolate flavour in Willy Wonka's empty pockets than in most modern red velvet cake, which is flavoured with a minuscule amount of chocolate and a lot of red food dye. So, when the same sister stood in my kitchen one day and suggested that we bake cupcakes, I relented on one condition: we would have to find something I'd want to actually eat. Cheryl Porro aka Chockylit's cupcake blog, "Cupcake Bakeshop" (www.cupcakeblog.blogspot.com), was the eventual compromise. We were torn between Himalayan goji berry chocolate cupcakes topped with chocolate ganache and Himalayan pink salt, walnut cupcakes topped with rose white chocolate mousse and baklava, and the fresh fig and almond cupcake bombe with fresh fig sorbet and mascarpone cheese icing. I fell in love with Porro's recipes, but at the end of the day they were still cupcakes, and filling the little paper cups with moist batter made me feel like I was on an assembly line making dessert for an entire infantry battalion. Give me an oblong, hand-shaped galette, a sharp knife, and an odd number of guests any day of the week over the precision of two dozen small cakes. The day I need to have my dessert portioned out in paper cups is the day I should probably reconsider why I'm eating it.

Cupcake boutiques have spread like wildfire, but since this fad doesn't seem to be fading, there may be more to it than mere marketing and another flash in the proverbial pan previously occupied by Krispy Kreme. Remember the wedding cake constructed entirely out of doughnuts? Cupcakes are the new warm glazed. "What's wrong with you? Who'd live in a world where there are people who don't like cupcakes?" asks a friend. I explain that my fantasy mall fixture is good artisanal, regional breads. Instead of another little salon of frosted cakes, I dream of wheat breads. Raqaq, a crisp, papery unleavened cracker, the pancake-like chabab, the aromatic, fried khanfaroush, and greasy, savoury muhalla'. There would be khameer, which is a yeasted flatbread, mutammar or mamroosa and local breads with dates. Or just a really great baguette.

Now those are things for which I would wait in line.