I'm a bit late for National Cupcake Week, which was 12-18 September, but I think I have a fairly valid excuse. You see, dear readers, when you may have been in the kitchen whipping up delightful sugary treats, I was twenty metres below sea level.
I spent that week in Gibraltar, learning how to scuba dive. It was without doubt the most terrifying experience of my life. In second place would be learning to ski for the first time, but at least when skiing there's no risk of running out of air. Or sharks. Or jellyfish. Or the bends. I suppose you could argue that diving is safer than skiing, with no risk of sudden death by broken neck or back, but it didn't feel that way when I was twenty metres below the ocean surface, freezing my face off in a wetsuit that didn't fit properly, twelve kilos of lead strapped around my waist and almost certainly causing irreparable damage to my ovaries, being asked by my instructor to remove the oxygen-giving device from my mouth or take off my mask underwater and put it back on again. They like to call this "safety drills". I like to call it "torture".
Forgive me, then, if cupcakes were the last thing on my mind during such a time.
Admittedly, when I came up to the surface and got back on the boat, if someone had offered me a cupcake I would probably have bitten their hand off along with it. What is it about extreme sports that makes one so damn hungry? Is it the adrenalin? Something weird was going on, because I don't think I have ever in my life wolfed down four Hobnobs in swift succession.
Oh wait...apart from when I was skiing.
Both diving and skiing left my body in a bizarre state, quivering uncontrollably, bruised, exhausted yet exhilarated, and with serious cravings for calories. For this, among other reasons, I can't get enough of them. I'm already planning my next diving trip, and I'm definitely going skiing in December and already cannot wait. I love the way such activities make me eat all these things that I'd never normally allow myself, and that I don't feel in the slightest bit guilty, because I bloody well deserve them. Surely after the trauma of being rendered either blind or airless underwater, I can eat a Hobnob.
Or four...plus some minstrels...and a flapjack later...and there was that enormous lasagne for dinner. Oh well. Wetsuits are very forgiving things.
On the flight home I had all sorts of good intentions to return to my normal life of relatively healthy eating.
And then I returned to a parcel containing three cupcake recipe books, a kind gift from New Holland Publishers in celebration of National Cupcake Week. Good intentions, out of the window. Sugar, flour, butter and eggs, in the stomach.
Firstly, Cupcakes by Sue McMahon. This is a great introduction to cupcake baking - the opening sections contain notes on equipment and ingredients, plus several basic recipes (like plain and chocolate cupcakes; vanilla buttercream; cream cheese frosting; chocolate ganache; swiss meringue buttercream; royal icing). Next up are some classic flavour combinations, like coffee and walnut, apple and cinnamon, or even vanilla cheesecake. Then we have children's favourites, like raspberry and white chocolate, blueberry and maple syrup, or chocolate and peanut butter. The "grown-up favourites" section has interesting flavours like Irish coffee, lavender, cherry and coconut, Earl grey, saffron and sultana. There's also parsnip and hazelnut, which intrigues me - I hate parsnips, but I do wonder if I'd find them palatable in cupcake form. Next, there are celebration cupcakes for birthdays and Christmas, and finally a chapter on special diet cupcakes - gluten-free (ginger polenta; date and banana), egg-free (currant cupcakes), dairy-free (honey and bran), reduced sugar (blueberry and vanilla) and reduced fat (chocolate and prune).
I really like this book as a comprehensive guide to all things cupcake. It's quite small, about A5 size, and the pages are ring-bound which makes it really easy to flick through and keep open while you're baking from it. It feels like an easygoing, handy companion to have around when you're embarking upon a cupcake adventure, but at the same time the flavour combinations and decorative photos are sophisticated and pretty. This is probably the only cupcake recipe book you'll ever need - there are enough flavour combinations to keep you going for years.
If you're interested in any of the recipes from this book, in honour of National Cupcake Week a selection are available online to download for free, here.
Next, Special Cupcakes by Wendy Sweetser (I suppose with a surname like that, you kind of have to write a cupcake book). This book contains over 50 recipes for exciting, new and special cupcakes, going beyond your basic chocolate and vanilla (think brazil nut and clementine; peach melba; chocolate and chilli; pistachio, rosewater and grenadine; banoffee and toffee fudge). There are also recipes for celebrations such as Christmas, Valentine's Day, Weddings and Baby Showers as well as recipes for cupcakes using interesting ingredients and unusual flavours (this is my favourite part of the book - I love the idea of Caribbean mango and palm sugar cupcakes, Tiramisu cupcakes, and strawberry daiquiri cupcakes, to name but a few). One of my favourite parts of cooking is thinking up flavour combinations, and cupcakes are such a great way to showcase them, being easy to make and to present beautifully.
Another part of the book I loved is the chapter on not-so-guilty cupcakes such as carrot, orange and cinnamon, beetroot and bitter chocolate, or sweet potato and orange (which I can't wait to try). A basics section at the beginning covers essential equipment, ingredients and decorations as well as basic recipes and techniques, decorating tips and packaging and presentation ideas. Every recipe is accompanied by a beautiful photo, so you can get inspiration for how to decorate the cupcakes you've baked. To download a selection, click here.
Finally, Divine Cupcakes by Tamara Jane. Subtitled "a book of temptation", this beautiful book takes the humble cupcake to another level entirely. It's heavily focused on how to decorate your cupcakes to professional standards, with instructions on how to make a piping bag, craft sugar flowers and chocolate filigree patterns, and make modelling paste. The cupcakes may look difficult to replicate but Tamara breaks everything down into easy-to-follow steps. Flavours, as with Special Cupcakes, are exotic and delicious: gingerbread, coconut butter, almond and lime, rum and raisin, as well as the basics (chocolate, vanilla, lemon). There are also a few gluten- and dairy-free options which is always nice to see. The book isn't just limited to cupcakes, however, featuring several beautiful large celebration cake recipes, like the fabulous chocolate mud cake, decorated with a chocolate collar and gold stars.
My only criticism of this book is the quantities: each recipe makes anything from 24 to 36 cupcakes, which is often far too many for the average baker (though I suppose if you're making them for celebrations or as gifts, that's quite a good number). However, I suppose you could just scale everything down if you wanted to. To download a selection of recipes, click here.
I debated for ages about which recipe to try out first, but the rosemary and honey cupcakes from Sue McMahon's book won, largely because I had all the ingredients to hand (there's a huge rosemary bush in our garden), and because I'm always intrigued by the use of herbs in sweet dishes. With no idea how they would taste, I set about making a very easy cupcake base, to which I added honey and very finely chopped rosemary (Sue adds a note at the beginning reminding you to use fresh, young sprigs of rosemary rather than tough woody specimens, otherwise you end up with a rather gritty texture). They went in the oven, emerged beautifully risen and golden, and I iced them with a plain icing sugar and water icing. The book suggests colouring it orange, but I thought the white would look lovely against a decorative sprig of rosemary on top.
I didn't intend this, but these cupcakes seem very Christmassy to me. I think it's because the mound of white icing with the sprig of rosemary on top reminds me of a mountain snow scene with Christmas trees. Perhaps a bit early for that, given it's September, but it's just made me determined to make more come Christmas season.
Especially because these are absolutely divine. It sounds like an odd combination of flavours, but it really works. Even my mum, who is normally sceptical about my weird flavour combinations said she loved them, and took the whole lot to work with her. There's a slight warm, caramelly note from the honey, coupled with a delightful sweet fragrance from the rosemary. Add the sugary icing and you have a very special cupcake indeed. I'd urge you to try this recipe (and then buy the book, as I guarantee you'll be hooked).
Rosemary and honey cupcakes (makes 12):
150g butter, softened
100g caster sugar
4 tbsp clear honey
3 medium eggs
150g self-raising flour
1 tbsp very finely chopped fresh rosemary leaves
250g icing sugar
2 tbsp water
12 mini sprigs of rosemary
Pre-heat the oven to 190C/170C fan oven. Line a bun or muffin tray with 12 paper cases.
Beat the butter, sugar and honey together in a large bowl using an electric whisk, until the mixture is light and fluffy. Add the eggs and flour, then beat until smooth. Stir in the chopped rosemary.
Divide the mixture between the paper cases and bake for 15-18 minutes until just risen and slightly golden - they should be firm to the touch. Remove from the oven and allow to cool on a wire rack.
To ice, mix together the icing sugar and water until you have a fairly thick icing (add a little more water if too thick, and a little more sugar if too runny). Drizzle or spoon the icing onto the cakes, and finish with a sprig of rosemary.