At my 21st birthday party, I had a perspex tower of cupcakes, with huge swirls of icing – ivory and duck egg blue, to match my invitations. I was so desperately proud of them. I was energetic, brave and stupid. Stupid because cupcakes are simply dreadful.
I thought they were the height of sophistication, and that I in turn was sophisticated by association. But cupcakes have now become a parody of themselves (and, ahem, perhaps already were in 2009): dry, unloved little pucks of sponge cake, lost underneath piles of elaborately piped pastel icing reaching up to the sky, or at least up your nose. It is entirely impossible to bite into one of those creations and not cover yourself in icing. If I want a cake, I want to eat a cake: whole tablespoons of butter icing going directly to my mouth are strictly the preserve of my empty kitchen.
I hate cupcakes. I hate that they’re trendy. I hate that it’s trendy to hate them. I hate that they’ve made me use the word trendy. I hate their stupid icing. I hate that they’re Instagram bait, and Pinterest porn. They are saccharine in every sense, sickly and eminently impractical. Cupcakes, as we know them, are trash.
But. But. But. I love that they’re self-contained. I love that they’re portable. I love the possible flavour combinations. And I love sponge cake and I love icing – just in the correct proprtions. And they should work. Terribly light sponge, made with lots of milk so that it drips off the spoon into the little cases. No plates or knives necessary. They tick all the cake boxes.
I realised that what I wanted was perhaps closer to the fairy cake of birthday parties of my childhood, but revamped. Could I make a sophisticated fairy cake? Probably not, but I was willing to try.
Crème brûlées were the first truly grown up food I encountered. The first time I felt sophisticated. A gangly, self-conscious 11-year-old sitting in a in small station restaurant on holiday in northern France with her parents, desperate to be fully grown and convinced if I was just three, four, 10 years older, I would be. I ordered the creme brûlée because my father did. The silken custard, not quite set, hidden by the bitter, blistered, mahogany crust, grains of sugar clinging to the edges of the underside: I glimpsed adulthood. In that moment, I felt sophisticated.
This is the simplest, lightest sponge cake recipe I know. The custard is a classic custard, with cornflour added to give it enough body not to slipside down your cake. The custard is spooned on splodgily, thick enough to sit proudly on the cake. I scoop out a little bit of the cake and add some brightly-flavoured jam. Finally, sugar is sprinkled on the custard and then burnt with a blowtorch or under the grill. This will for a crisp brûlée on the custard, and should be eaten immediately. (Do leave the brûléeing until just before serving or the sugar will dissolve into the custard and lose its brittle brûlée top, which you can perhaps see happening in some of the photo above. If this happens, you can always sprinkle more sugar on top and re-brûlée!)
You can do this without a cook’s blowtorch but you probably want to do the following things: don’t use cupcake cases, but rather grease and flour the muffin tin and pour the batter in directly. When they come out of the oven, let them cool for ten minutes, and carefully remove from the tin, using a palette knife to help you. Place on a flat tray before adding the custard and sugar, and place under a hot grill, watching like a hawk, removing as soon as the sugar is melted and burnt.
It goes like this…
Crème Brûlée Cupcakes
Makes: 12 cakes
Takes: 30 minutes (total)
Bakes: 20 minutes (including time on the stove)
For the cakes
150g butter (if you want to use burnt butter, you can find my method for making it here)
150g caster sugar
150g self raising flour
1 tsp vanilla extract
For the custard
250ml whole milk
2 egg yolks
50g cornflour vanilla
4 tablespoons of your favourite jam
4 tablespoons of caster sugar
1. Preheat your oven to 180° C.
2. In a large bowl, cream the sugar with the butter until the sugar-butter is light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs one by one into the mixture. Fold into this 150g of self raising flour.
3. Dole out a tablespoon of mixture into each of the cupcake cases (which I place in a muffin tray for support). Don’t worry if they don’t look full: they’ll rise in the oven, then sink back giving you a flat surface to work on. Bake for 12 minutes until golden.
4. Heat the 250ml milk in a saucepan until it just reaches boiling point. Remove from the heat.
5. Whisk 2 egg yolks with 100g sugar and 50g cornflour in a large-ish bowl.
6. Pour a little bit of the hot milk into the egg mixture and stir vigorously with a whisk. Now pour your egg-milk mixture into the rest of the hot milk.
7. Return to the (gentle) heat and stir until thickened. Whip it off the heat as soon as you’ve seen a geyser-like bubble or two coming through the mixture.
8. When the cakes are cool, scoop out a little bit of the sponge from the centre of your cake (I opted for a combination of gentle cutting with a knife, and scooping with a teaspoon, but whatever works for you). Eat the bit you removed. Repeat with all twelve cupcakes.
9. Add a little bit of bright, not-too sweet jam into the hole you’ve created, just until the hole is level.
10. Spoon two teaspoons’ worth of custard onto the top of the cake. You can chill the cakes at this point until you’re ready to serve them.
11. Just before serving, spoon a scant teaspoon’s worth of sugar onto the custard, and brûlée confidently with a blow torch, or place under the grill, bearing in mind the cautions/instructions above! Stop as soon as the sugar turns a deep brown, and before the cake begins to catch.
12. Ta dah!
Icing on the Cake
I made these cakes with my little sister. We ate these alongside little cups of strong coffee and felt sophisticated. Then abandoned the coffee and went out for cocktails.