We English don’t easily accept the idea of being influenced by America. We’ve always been the slightly supercilious older brother of our younger indefatigable sibling across the pond, wincing at the loosening of our Queen’s erudite parlance, the widening of the vowels, the advent of stuffed-crusts, of bagels and Reese’s peanut butter cups, the creator of drive-thru culinary culture and the over-eager stentorian expression which makes the refined of Kensington tut condescendingly. Yet it’s an indubitable fact of English life that the influence of the big U-S-of-A is all around us, in our music, in our food, on TV, in politics and on the high street, and no more so is this influence felt than in the way we party. The US gave us candy-abundant halloween and fairy light-filled dazzling Christmas spectaculars. And the latest craze which is doing the rounds is the Baby Shower.
According to wikipedia, a Baby Shower is generally thrown either shortly before or shortly after a baby is born. Only women are invited (!) and the new mother in question is “showered” with presents. So when my dear friend Sarah gave birth to a beautiful baby girl, Ruby, a few months ago, and announced that she would finally bring her angelic daughter down to London to be celebrated amongst our vivacious friendship circle, I decided that this baby shower business ought to be tried and tested, refined in the way that only the english know best. For starters we had men, and quite right too. In the modern world, with fathers playing an increasingly dominant role in the daily task of bringing up their children, why shouldn’t they too be showered with gifts and praise and plenty of sweet treats? Presents were showered aplenty – little cute girly outfits and some alcoholic indulgence for papa (when he’s off duty, naturally) and my gift – a norm sketch of course – devoted to little Ruby.
Welcome Ruby (© 2012 Nicholas de Lacy-Brown, pen and ink on paper)
As for the sweet treats – cupcakes went all tropicana, as I chose flavours referencing the mixed and culturally rich heritage of Ruby’s parents – I made one batch of tropical cupcakes – pineapple and coconut cupcake referencing Sarah’s Jamaican heritage and father Truong’s South Pacific patrimony – while tropical banana meets England’s now demised Hungry Monk restaurant, inventor of the infamous Banoffee Pie, inspiration for my second selection – a banoffee cupcake, loaded with indulgent dulce de leche and a gingery spiced banana sponge. Tropical flavoured, but London refined, these cupcakes were the epitome of english chic, served like a chequerboard of black and white, with one cake covered in coconut and the other in chocolate vermicelli. The fruit in both, and additions of creamy coconut milk and indulgent full fat milk respectively, made these cakes moist and delicious, while the butter cream icing was a suitably indulgent celebration of the beautiful new life in our midsts.
My recipes were adapted from London’s favourite purveyor of cupcakes, the Hummingbird Bakery. To make the pineapple and coconut cupcake, take 140g caster sugar and beat in 40g unsalted butter. Then add 120g plain flour, a pinch of salt, and 1 and a half teaspoons of baking power and mix everything together with an electric mixer. Once everything is combined, gradually mix 120ml of coconut milk and half a teaspoon of vanilla essence into the flour mixture, and finally add and mix in one egg (I actually used a bit more coconut milk – my mother always told me that the softest sponge mixtures always drip of the mixing spoon like syrup, and therefore I always add a bit more milk to achieve this effect – but it’s a matter of personal taste). Prepare 12 paper cupcake cases. Chop up 8 rings of tinned pineapple into small chunks and disperse evenly in the bottom of the paper cases. Pour the cake mixture on top and place in the oven at 170 degrees celsius for around 20-25 minutes. Test with a skewer to make sure the cakes are cooked. The skewer should come out clean. Once the cakes are cooled, make your butter icing. Beat 250g icing sugar with 80g unsalted butter with an electric mixer. Slowly add 25ml of coconut milk and whisk until very white and light and frothy (around 5-10 minutes). Paste onto the cake with a palette knife and sprinkle liberally with desiccated coconut.
The banoffee cupcakes are pretty similar. 140g of caster sugar should be added to 80g of unsalted butter. Then add 120g plain flower, a teaspoon of baking powder, a pinch of salt, a teaspoon of ground ginger and a teaspoon of ground cinnamon. Mix until well combined and then slowly add 120ml of whole milk and two eggs. Separately mash up approximately one largish banana (around 120g peeled) and stir into the cake mixture. Spoon into paper cases and cook at 170 degrees for around 20 minutes. For the icing, beat 250g icing sugar with 80g unsalted butter. Then, if you want to make your icing indulgently dulce de leche, take a small can of condensed milk and simmer on a low heat for 3 hours (yep, this takes patience) without opening the can. Make sure the water doesn’t dry out in the pan and the tin is always covered with water or the tin will explode. After three hours, open up the can and you should find yourself with a tin full of caramel deliciousness. Add a few tablespoons of this to your butter icing mixture depending on how sweet and rich you want it. Build up on your cakes with a palette knife and sprinkle chocolate vermicelli liberally over the cakes.
And there you have it. Uber sophisticated tropical cupcakes, perfect for the summer, whether a baby is forthcoming, newly arrived, or just a distant pipe-dream.
PS: Talking of uber-chic cupcakes, I am SO proud of my friend Celia whose red-velvet multi-layered ombre cake made it into this week’s Sunday Times style section as shown here… amazing!