BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 12:30 GMT, Friday, 23 October 2009 13:30 UK

The cupcake revival


By Tamsyn Kent
BBC News Magazine

After Carrie Bradshaw bit into a cupcake on Sex and the City, it wasn't long before exquisitely frosted fondants appeared on high streets around the world. What is it about these pretty little cakes?

"Buttercream frosted, pink hearts and sprinkles, melt-in-your-mouth candy and violet petals." It might be the perfect menu for an additive-enhanced children's party, but these lavish confections are driving a sugar-coated revolution.

Magnolia Bakery, a stop on a Sex and the City tour
SATC acolytes queue to buy from Carrie's favourite bakery

From three-tier wedding cupcake concoctions to a quick sugar fix, the little cakes are the bun-de-jour. Where Carrie Bradshaw led, the rest have followed.

And cupcake business is booming. Recent data from market researchers TNS shows cupcake sales are overtaking flapjacks to rival biscuit sales, with a 22% increase over the past year to £37m.

Cupcake was the fastest rising recipe search on Google last year. And for those who prefer to buy, rather than make their own, ready-made cupcakes are on sale at supermarkets, specialist bakeries and online stores that deliver to your door.

Cupcakes with different national flags at World Food Festival event in Lebanon
From little cakes in Lebanon...

"They're so easy to make and they look so pretty. You can be incredibly creative about it. Anything goes," says TV chef Rosemary Shrager.

Some see the cupcake boom as part of a wider trend. A recent Mintel report suggests sales of home baking products went up almost 20% between 2003-07.

So what, besides sugar-lust, is behind the cupcake revival?

Dr Gavin Smith, sociologist at City University London, thinks it is down to more than taste.

"There is an alternative reality being constructed by people here. It's about mixing the old with the new - the nostalgic and the contemporary.

Cupcakes at Nike marketing event
... to marketing events in the West

"We're returning to things we've done in childhood, activities like baking, which gave us joy. It could be about the legacy of heritage. People are trying to hang on to a recipe that was sacred, that granny used to make."

Some believe it taps into recent trends towards traditional pursuits. We are baking, growing our own food, sewing and knitting.

It could be about a yearning to return to 1950s style domesticity. The designer Cath Kidston, famous for her modern take on chintzy English kitchenware from that period, has also seen sales rise in the past year from £19.2m to £31.3m.

Sign of gentrification

According to others, cupcakes are a clear cultural barometer. Academics in New York are constructing a map of emerging cupcake shops throughout the city. The theory is that these give a more accurate guide to gentrification than traditional demographic and housing surveys.

On sale in London's Covent Garden
Pretty, but awfully sweet

Nicola Twilley, of Edible Geography, believes "cupcake gentrification" could even be a cause of urban regeneration and not an effect.

"While I wouldn't argue that cupcakes can single-handedly cause a neighbourhood to gentrify, I think it's possible that they could contribute.

"The best agents for social change are virally popular and easily integrated into our daily lives - there's no doubt that cupcakes fit that bill. You could create an investment fund that would back local cupcake entrepreneurs who wanted to set up shop in depressed neighbourhoods."

The humble cupcake has even been linked to political culture. Ms Twilley sees cupcakes both democratic - one each - and libertarian - there is no imperative to share and everyone chooses a flavour - in marked contrast to the communal cake.

Eating a cupcake
It's down to size - cupcakes are three-four times bigger
Cupcakes have sweeter base and topping
Cupcakes date from 1800s, when baked in earthenware cups

Dr Smith believes there could be something behind this theory. "There are more diverse kinds of families now," he says.

"These social changes could have an impact upon the type of baking we're producing. Quantity could have changed - it might be that we prefer lots of little cakes to one huge one now."

But cupcakes could be just another food fashion, in the same way ciabatta and cappuccinos previously found favour.

"It is a trend, but one that will always be there. I've always made them and I always will," says Ms Shrager.

"It's a little bit like when we brought in nouvelle cuisine. It taught us a lot about presentation, and although it's not as popular what we learnt is still there. And cupcakes won't change, they're traditional. And who can say no to a cupcake?"

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