Friday, 17 September 2010

I...Don't Like Cupcakes. There. I said it.

A disclaimer, first of all. People I know and like very much have made cupcakes which I have eaten and enjoyed. They are fun food; sweet and silly snacks - the effort that goes into making them for friends is a gesture, for me at least, more touching than the food produced. The objections I outline below are more about the elevation of the cupcake to (faux) cuisine and its incumbent - to my mind, false - symbolism of a food-loving culture. To those of you who make cupcakes for fun times, please don't be hurt, this isn't about you. You all exude Nigella Lawson-esque sexpottyness without having to try one iota.

Well of course I don’t hate cupcakes. They are, after all, cake. The delicate combination of a wodge of carbohydrate and a dollop of fat melts on my tongue the same way as it does for any human being. It tastes nice. It tastes good, even, but - and here’s the key - it rarely tastes interesting.

I like food. I don’t count myself as a trailblazer in any way (my offal curiosity blanches somewhat at anything that handles bodily waste), or even a particularly engaged foody but I do prefer the food I put in my mouth to taste of food. Fresh vegetables, juicy fruit, rich meat, creamy dairy; they’re all flavours that can be combined to the limits of your creativity to engender sensations that teeter at the edge of your imagination but still surprise and delight in actuality. And what is the cupcake? Well it’s sponge. Plain sponge. It is sweet and carby and fatty but it’s not exciting. And buttercream. Buttercream is sugar and fat. Our cave-man brains like sugar and fat and so our taste buds like them too, but is there any complexity or depth of flavour in refined sugar? Does a glug of vegetable oil burst on your tongue like a just-picked raspberry? No.

Don’t get me wrong, I know that many cup-cake bakers go to great lengths to source good quality ingredients and make interesting additions to their cupcakes but the formula is there and so rarely diverted from that cupcakes essentially come in three forms:
If you’re lucky you might get all three but underneath the window dressing (the equivalent of making your dog wear a tutu and tiara) you’ll still be left with the same basic sponge and butter cream that couldn’t hold a candle to a strawberry and dark chocolate torte or a pistachio and apricot roulade.

Then there is the culture of the cupcake. The wave of sprinkles and red velvet (an elaborately evocative name for what is essentially sponge with red food colouring) that has swept through the UK has left a wake of press releases citing “Emily’s love of baking” and “Susie’s passion for all things sweet”. Have you been to a launch or opening recently? The canapes have let themselves go and bloated to tooth-achingly sweet concoctions of infinite colour and self-proclaimed grandeur but only one flavour. Sweet.

I’m blogging about this mainly because I’m shocked to find myself one of only a very few dissenting voices, and the only woman I know of. It seems that cupcakes are universally liked, and the love of cupcakes has become as much a by-word for “I’m a girl, me” as the near-compulsory shoes’n’bags obsession. Somehow “i love cupcakes” appears to have become shorthand for “i love food, no really i do” as if by loving something so safe, so anodyne as an unexceptional bit of flavourless cake imbues you with the same sexual gluttony as Nigella Lawson fellating a cream-covered whisk. It doesn’t. As a woman, saying you love food and using cupcakes as proof is like saying you love film and citing the Sex and The City movies as your touchstone influence. Maybe that’s true, maybe it is, but if that’s you, really, I beg of you, watch Magnolia and revel in a full-blooded taste sensation.

It’s about that cupcake shop in New York. Honest.