Mrs Beeton would be turning in her grave. Her sensible muffins, crumpets and tea cakes and loaves studded with dates and raisins have been staple bakery favourites since 1861, when her seminal Book of Household Management began teaching Britons how to live "economically, tastefully and well". A century and a half later, these pantry treats are being overlooked in favour of doorstop-sized cupcakes in lurid shades of pink, green and red, crowned with inch-thick smears of sugary frosting and sprinkled with chocolate vermicelli and enamel-cracking gold and silver dragees.
Cupcakes, it should be noted, are a different genre of sponge fancy to the fairy cakes we bake for children's parties. They are larger, and as much a grown up indulgence as a child's. The sponge is mixed with a combination of butter and oil or butter and milk. The "frostings" are whipped up from icing sugar and butter with milk or cream cheese, a superior, though equally sickly, concoction to the icing sugar and water mix stained with a few drops of artificial dye we pour over fairy cakes.
The search for something to sweeten dull winter days must have fuelled the rush for cupcakes, though the trend has been bubbling under for some years. This year Marks & Spencer, a trustworthy arbiter of national tastebuds, has caught on, and is bringing cupcakes down from their pretty glass stands in expensive cake shop windows and into high street stores. At the same stroke comes The Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook, from the chic Notting Hill bakery which kicked off the craze in Britain.
The cupcake hails from the US and is such big business over there that the so-called "cupcake wars" hit the headlines late last year, when Californian celebrity cake haunt Sprinkles started issuing trademark lawsuits against baking rivals.
The Hummingbird Bakery and others such as the Primrose Bakery, Peyton & Byrne, Candy Cakes and Outsider Tart are the result of Americans or Americanophiles chasing their cupcake-filled fantasies on these shores.
Tarek Malouf dreamt up his Hummingbird Bakery in 2002 after spending Thanksgiving in North Carolina devouring desserts. "At that point, cupcakes seemed to be unknown in London," he says. "As soon as the shop opened, a lot of high-profile customers began to write and speak about it. Tourists flock to Portobello Market and they were soon queuing up to try our cupcakes."
The book, out next week, features recipes for a variety of cake and dessert recipes; most are wildly indulgent, like the Brooklyn blackout and coconut meringue cakes, and Mississippi mud and key lime pies. The cupcakes come in every creed and colour from vanilla to peaches and cream, lavender, ginger and the cult red velvet, a knockout rich red sponge cake with white cream cheese frosting. The vanilla cakes with pink frosting sell best.
Malouf went to baking classes in New York to perfect his American baking techniques. The M&S team did the same, but have amended their recipes to suit British tastebuds, adding a dollop of filling to strawberry, raspberry, lemon and chocolate cupcakes, though the carrot is all sponge. "American cupcakes are very sweet and the fruit compote cuts through this," explains Alison Delicia. "We wanted people to be able to eat a whole cake!"
The official cupcake dimensions stand at one third frosting to two thirds sponge. Most shops now offer mini cupcakes which are a perfectly respectable size and will play less havoc with your waistline, but developing a cupcake habit will also weigh heavily on your bank balance. Hummingbird's kick off at £1.55 for a standard cake and Primrose Bakery's are £1.75. Outsider Tart, who provided cakes at London Fashion Week, go for £2.25, but the Venti Espresso and Lemon Rum creations do sound like the sort of cake worth making the effort for. Candy Cakes are £2.90.
M&S's range will launch in April with the easier to digest price of £2.99 for four. Waitrose have been selling cupcakes at their bakery counters since 2007. Individual cakes start at 79p but the pretty lemon & lavender, cherry & geranium, banana & toffee and chocolate & peppermint cakes are 99p each. Packs of four are £2.99.
If you're still not sure, maybe you will be tempted by the fact Victoria Beckham has been a cupcake devotee since Heidi Klum bought her a year's supply for her birthday last summer. I'm not suggesting you copy Mrs Beckham's style, but if a woman who normally survives on edamame beans, seaweed shakes and frozen berries can't say no to a cupcake, can you?
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies