Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Why cupcakes thriving in England, but diving in US

Some of this year's winners at Britian's National Cupcake Championship except for the Mary Poppins cupcakes, which were for display, not competition.

     Ever since the cupcake bakery chain Crumbs crumbled in the U.S. earlier this year, people have declared the mini cakes dead several times over. If only the cupcakes here could get a spa weekend in England.
     Our neighbors across the pond crowned several winners at Britain’s National Cupcake Championship earlier this month. The final judging round in Birmingham on Nov. 8 was clearly a huge deal. It was not a bunch of bakers getting together in someone’s kitchen or rec room. The contest was held on the second day of Cake International, or The Sugarcraft, Cake Decorating & Baking Show, at the National Exhibition Centre. It was organized by British Baker magazine, an industry publication. The judges included the chair of England’s Association of Pastry Chefs. The finalists had been whittled down from more than 150 entries covering categories open to amateurs and professional bakers.
     Martyn Leek, a British Baker editor, said this is the sixth year the competition has been going on.
     “For trendsetters in trendy parts of London, cupcakes are passé. They’ve moved on,” Leek said. “For the child coming home from school, they want a treat. There’s still that wow factor, an innocence.”
     As a cynical American, I was surprised that someone went to the trouble of organizing such a competition. But what was even more surprising was the number of people in attendance at Cake International. The cupcake was alive and kicking. Crowds of women and men (but mostly women) were snapping up cake decorating supplies as well as photos of cakes and cupcakes on display.
     I was left overwhelmed by The Sugarcraft, Cake Decorating & Baking Show. It was like Comic-Con but for baking geeks. I saw some cake decorating implements I have yet to see in U.S. stores. There were authors of cake decorating books doing signings at booths throughout the hall as well as demonstrations with everything from gum paste to melted chocolate. The only thing missing was people dressed as their favorite cake or dessert.
     Leek said he’s seen items like cake pops and whoopee pies being hailed as the next cupcake but they haven’t succeeded on the same level.
     “You’re either a fan of the cupcake or you’re not. There are some bakers in Britain that don’t do cupcakes. But there is an audience,” Leek said. “Whether it’s growing or waning, who can tell. Bakers who do it well sell well.”
      Manjit Reyat, who came from Coventry, which is a 10-minute train ride, said the crowd is much bigger than when she came in 2012. She said the interest likely stems from the TV baking competition show, “The Great British Bake Off.” The show, which airs on BBC One, just finished its fifth season. Twelve contestants vie to be declared the best amateur baker. Each episode has bakers facing three challenges and one person is eliminated every episode.  But they don’t just do cupcakes but tarts, croissants and desserts I can’t pronounce.
     “I think people are definitely fans of the ‘British Bake-off’ and fancy a go at it themselves,” Reyat said.
      She also thinks the size of the country may have an effect on cupcake fatigue.
     “You’re bigger out there (in the U.S.). They come and go quite quickly. It’s still thriving here,” she said.
     Alan Whatley, chair of the Association of Pastry Chefs, said “cupcakes are not on the decline, not at all.”
     "I think in England we’re very good at revisiting things and making them fresh,” Whatley said. “We’re good at keeping momentum going."
For a complete list of this year’s winners of the 2014 National Cupcake Championship, go to http://www.nationalcupcakeweek.co.uk/page/2014_winners.html.