What’s wrong with you cupcake?!
One of my most vivid childhood memories is having a tantrum in Sainsbury’s when Mum broke it to me that the wafer ice-cream cones we’d bought did not come ready-made with the delicious toppings pictured on the packet. I’m fairly convinced that the bafflingly obvious ‘serving suggestions’ on food (put milk on my cereal? Thanks Mr Kellogg’s), are a direct result of this incident. Maybe a plucky young trading standards exec witnessed my face crumble when Mum announced that I would not be dining on the mint choc-chip, marshmallow encrusted sundae I’d been fantasising about the whole way round the shop, but on left over Neopolitan scrapings – and that I would lump it. To add insult to injury I’d actually chosen the smaller, weirdly truncated cones because their toppings looked marginally tastier. Never has anyone ever been so distraught at needlessly missing out on an inch of edible cardboard.
This sort of thing seemed to happen to me frequently as a child. Packaging, adverts and art programmes held a weird kind of power over me. I would instantly be convinced that Tracey Island would turn out just as it had on Blue Peter, that pinning tissue paper to clothes pegs would create elegant lady dolls and that ice-cream could pop out of cardboard boxes miraculously intact in all its swirly, pastel coloured glory.
Turns out not much has changed. If you’ve never stood in your kitchen on a Sunday afternoon glaring at bright yellow buttercream and wondering why you can’t make a cake look more duck-like, you’re either more realistic about your crafty capabilities than I, or simply have a life.
I’d decided to dip into my favourite Christmas present of 2010, a ‘What’s New Cupcake?’ recipe book, the sequel to ‘Hello Cupcake‘. What’s new are cakes that look like Chinese food, painstakingly topped with icing noodles and fruit chew broccoli, robot cupcake sculptures, shuttlecock cupcakes and all manner of artistic creations that would surely have the baker shaking and weeping when people greedily demolished their hours of painstaking work in two mouthfuls.
I thought I was being quite sensible, deciding to make the duck cakes, as they seemed to be one of the most straight forward recipes. All I’d need were some eggs, marshmallows, doughnut holes, cans of frosting, buttermilk… and to cross the Atlantic to fetch said ingredients.
Of course. American baking, I quickly realised as I scanned the shelves desperately for dairy overload and the one bit of cake you’re not supposed to eat, is a whole different ballgame. I may have to make a pilgrimage one day just to stand in the baking aisle of an American supermarket, agape at all of the various potions, cake mixtures and confectionery that would make a cupcake that looked exactly like a tiny roast turkey dinner entirely achievable.
Well, I’m English thank you very much, and as such I like to needlessly make things from scratch and spend hours trying to beat hard, cold, lumpy butter into submission. So I quickly found a recipe for the sponge mixture online at http://uktv.co.uk/food/recipe/aid/514084. Self-raising, caster sugar, vanilla extract; this was all much more reassuringly quaint territory.
In fact the only addition to a regular fairy cake or Victoria sponge recipe was a dash of milk.
The sponge baking all went fairly well, apart from my filling the paper cake cases too high and it all slopping over onto the tray underneath which made them all a bit mishapen. I did get asked the next day how I’d achieved such a good duck shape though so I really can’t blame this stage for the slightly monstrous results.
When the cakes were out of the oven and had had time to cool I made my bright yellow butter cream from softened butter, icing sugar, milk and vanilla essence. There’s really no need for measuring- just keep adding the various ingredients until you have enough mixture and it’s a nice firm texture. Mind you, it’s entirely possible that it’s this sort of slapdash attitude that spells doom for all of my crafty endeavours. No shoebox for Tracey Island? That’s ok, just use the shoe.
It was at the buttercream stage I realised that it would really pay off for us Brits to take a more American approach to baking- one that unashamedly treats sugary ingredients as essential enough to be sold in a can. Instead we faff about and coat ourselves with fine layers of flour and icing sugar, probably out of some kind of misguided feeling that, if you’re going to indulge in a naughty treat, you should at least put some hard graft in first.
Not having found any doughnut holes, I decided the structural underpinning of my ducks would have to marshmallows. Don’t laugh.
I spread the butter cream onto the cakes and placed a whole marshmallow at one end for a slightly angular head and half a marshmallow at the other for a tail. Then I tried to cover the marshmallows in more yellow butter cream. This was an extremely fiddly and time-consuming process that put me in mind of finding a five year old’s party at which to present them- just to make it all actually worthwhile.
The ‘What’s New Cupcake?’ recipe suggests melting the ‘frosting’ slightly in the microwave for about 45 seconds and then dipping each duck into it for the final layer of yellow. This gives a smoother finish. In my defence I don’t have a microwave and so might have achieved a better result with better resources. But I think it’s best I don’t kid myself that adding more gloop to proceedings was going to help. My ducks were definitely of the fluffy/curdled, newborn variety and should probably have been drowned at birth.
To finish the ducks, I made beaks from moulded Starburst sweets, cutting each in half, moulding them into ovals and then folding them in half. I also made some ducks bottoms with one marshmallow in the middle and Starburst feet. These were actually more successful but probably a bit weird as a whole plateful. Then it was chocolate chips for the eyes and a little gasp at how horrifyingly demented they looked.
I’ll leave you with a game of spot the difference. I’ll give you a clue: mine are the ones that will haunt your nightmares tonight… “HELLO CUPCAAAAKE!”