Gilding the lily – a cupcake society

golden phoenix copy.jpg

The Golden Phoenix cupcake. $1007. Bloomsbury’s Dubai. Photo: Bloomsbury’s.

The house smells good. I have been baking. There is a reason for this… it is an act of rebellion.

I’ve always baked. Not so much these days when there is usually only me, the dog and a recalcitrant waistline… though my lemon meringue pie seems to be in demand… but the recipes I’ve used since I was a child, learning with Great Granny, have stuck with me. I have used them so often that I don’t need to look them up,  weigh the ingredients or be bound by procedures. It all goes on ‘feel’ and varies with whatever I happen to have in the cupboard.

When the boys were small, I baked every day. When they were a little older and I was once again working full-time, there would be a mass bake once a week. A huge batch of Victoria sponge and one of shortcrust pastry for starters. They would form the basis of a variety of cakes, a fruit pie and the base of a quiche. There might be Cornish pasties and sausage rolls…with the leftover pastry trimmings making jam tarts, maids of honour or almond slices. The cake mix would be flavoured with spices and fresh or dried fruit, chocolate and peppermint, coffee…or whatever else I had to hand… and every shelf of the oven would be in service for hours.

There were no bought cakes. I made bread and sweet bread dough for Devonshire splits and Chelsea buns. The biscuits, cookies and chocolates were home-made too. While all that was in the oven, I’d cook up some savoury stuff on the hob, hiding vegetables in stews and sauces. Meats that could be served as they were as a main meal, and extra portions transformed into completely different meals for later. It took about four hours, start to finish and left us with home-cooked food for most of the week.

It wasn’t anything special, it was just what Mums did as far I had been taught. It ‘cost’ me a morning doing something I love, often with my sons helping and learning and saved us an awful lot of money we didn’t have. Plus, I knew what the boys were eating… including the variety of hidden vegetables they swore they hated.

These days, I admit I am lazy. There is no fun cooking for one, but I do enjoy cooking for guests and still get my ‘fix’ of real cooking for Nick every day…but I rarely bake.

I threw away most of my baking tins when I moved, realising that they had seen better days and done valiant service. Today I decided to replace at least the basics as I was obliged to go, kicking and screaming against the necessity, into town.

A $750 Cupcake

Decadence D’Or cupcake, $750. Photo: The Palazzo, Las Vegas.

I am not a fan of shopping, especially with the limited resources offered by both my town and my purse, so it is something I do as rarely and as fast as possible. Even so, I was surprised by the paucity of standard baking paraphernalia on offer and had a look around. I could have bought pretty much anything I wanted for sugarcraft but, while it is something I enjoy, there is little call for it on a daily basis. Everything else seemed to be geared towards the baking, decoration and presentation of cupcakes.

In recent years, there has been a rising demand for cupcakes and innumerable businesses have sprung up providing gorgeously decorated examples for weddings and special occasions. The glamorous American model has effectively ousted its plainer country-cousins from their place on the tea-table.

The cupcake started out as a small, individual portion of cake baked in a cup. They were probably quite simple to begin with and may still be so in domestic situations. The first known mention of this type of cake is in American Cookery by Amelia Simmons published in 1796. In Britain, we did the same thing, calling them fairy cakes or, in my neck of the woods at least, buns.

Now a bun is the Cinderella of the cupcake world. Usually simple, plain and homely… perhaps even lopsided. It doesn’t matter; like Cinders, the real beauty of a bun is not hidden beneath deep layers of decadence and stylish confection. It is an inner beauty and all about taste.

Speaking of taste, though, I have often worried about Cinderella. Frankly, if her charming prince danced with her all night, but could only recognise her by her discarded footwear, I have to wonder whether he was incredibly shortsighted, had his eyes fixed elsewhere or had a shoe fetish… However, I digress…

Created for Food Network, £768.85 Photo: Nicky Johnston

The humble bun is mainly cake, not a mere platform for deep layers of fondant fabulousness with uncountable calories per bite and a degree in sculpture. It has substance. Mine would occasionally be drizzled with chocolate or topped with a blob of frosting. They might even rise to the dizzy heights of butterfly cakes for special occasions, or have half a cherry on top…but the flights of fantasy stopped there.

But, it would seem, no one wants buns any more. They want cupcakes. They want swirls and colour, artistry and culinary bling and the kind of personalisation that writes their name on top. They have even become luxury items where the price, say, of a small family car or an awful lot of groceries, is devoured in two bites.. the ultimate status symbol, perhaps?

As I headed home, with my cupcake bun tin under my arm, I had to wonder what that says about the way our society’s values as a whole have changed. Have we created a culture that values superficiality over substance? Are we so insecure that we, as adults, still need to have our names emblazoned even our food to remind us of who we are? Or are the bright colours of the cupcakes a reminder, a momentary escape from the weight of the world, that carries us back to a lost childhood, touching, through their fairytale prettiness, something we feel we have lost?

The customer wanted to splash out for his wife's milestone birthday

Created by Le Dolci bakery, Toronto. $900. Photo: Mercury Press and Media Ltd.

I know which ones I’d rather eat…

Perfect Little Fairy Cakes

Mixed Berry and Cream Fairy Cakes. Priceless. Photo (and recipe) from The Rebel Kitchen

About Sue Vincent

Sue Vincent is a Yorkshire-born writer and one of the Directors of The Silent Eye, a modern Mystery School. She writes alone and with Stuart France, exploring ancient myths, the mysterious landscape of Albion and the inner journey of the soul. Find out more at France and Vincent. She is owned by a small dog who also blogs. Follow her at and on Twitter @SCVincent. Find her books on Goodreads and follow her on Amazon worldwide to find out about new releases and offers. Email:
This entry was posted in fantasy, food, Life and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

65 Responses to Gilding the lily – a cupcake society

  1. That was our treat as children at my grandmother’s house. She made cupcakes and sometimes put chocolate chips in them or swirled in food coloring. I don’t know why, but a cupcake with red or green food color swirls tastes better than a plain cake. She never frosted them either. I’d often get into trouble for sneaking extra ones out to our hired help. They were my friends and hid me under their skirts from her switches.


  2. Ah memories of when I baked. I don’t bake anymore. Or, rarely. It’s just Garry and I … so for holidays, sometimes. But I miss not the taste, but that smell of fresh baked everything. Nothing else smells that good.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Those cupcakes look like nothing less than the curse of Midas…the buns on the other hand…


  4. Excellent article! The “gilded” cupcakes were not so interesting to me in general, but the buns made my mouth water because they would be a perfect match with my coffee for breakfast!


  5. barbtaub says:

    i am not a fan of American style cupcakes where enormous mound of frosting not only surpasses the cake volume but leaves the roof of your mouth feeling like you’ve just coated it with wax. Those gorgeous little fairy cakes (even the name is better!) are much more appealing. And a $1000 cupcake? It’s just going to give you a pain (stomach\wallet\the opinion of whoever you buy it for….).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sue Vincent says:

      I can admire the artistry of the confectioners and bakers, but they don’t appeal to me either, Barb. And paying that amount for anything edible, in a world where folk go hungry, just seems entirely wrong….

      Liked by 2 people

  6. adeleulnais says:

    oh wow, can we go back in time and I`ll be in your kitchen helping with the baking and ehrm licking the spoons? lol, my aunt used to bake all the time as well and I always got to lick the spoon. I worked in a wonderful cafe when I was older and the baker there, who is still a great friend, used to bake fresh on a Wednesday and I persuaded her to let me lick the spoons. This was before health and safety got silly.


  7. Grandtrines says:

    Reblogged this on Still Another Writer's Blog.


  8. Baking is love. 💜


  9. Mary Smith says:

    What a mouthwatering post, Sue. We called them buns, not cupcakes, and fairy cakes were created by slicing the top off and cutting the slice in two before attaching them, wing-like, to the top of the bun, held in place with a dab of butter icing. My mother was a great baker but my gran was even better. I can almost feel the sensation of biting into one of her meringues – light, crisp outside with a wonderful, slightly chewy bit in the centre.


  10. Sunday was always baking day, myself and Mum alike. Unless we’re visiting and I’m cooking, I don’t ‘bake’ on the boat. These creations are totally fabulous, but I’d want to put them in a safe rather than eat them!


  11. ksbeth says:

    i went through a cupcake making phase a few years back and learned through trial and error. i love the simpler ones, took to calling mine fairy cakes too, once i heard the name, seemed more whimsical and magical and more of a special treat. it sounds like you are quite the baker, and i’m glad you are headed back towards the art once more. like you, i am not a fan of the elaborate, they seem more like something to see, not to eat and enjoy –


  12. jenanita01 says:

    Lovely post Sue, but those expensive creations are just another indication and proof, of a world gone mad…


  13. such decadence – I’ll take the fairycakes – they look scrumptious


  14. I don’t want to worry about what I’m trying to digest when I eat. Some of these may be pretty but don’t call to me to eat. 🙂 I like understanding what I see as food. And being able to taste it without having heart issues that I’m consuming one thousand dollars in a bite. Those fairy cakes look delicious!


  15. Those gilded cupcakes are works of art, but tough on the pocket book. I wonder how they taste (?). I like buns though (we call them “muffins” here). They go great with a fresh cup of coffee 🙂


  16. Bun Karyudo says:

    First of all, Sue, I admire your ability to bake. I have not statistics to hand to prove it, but I have the impression that it is a skill that fewer and fewer people seem to have. I can’t see any need to spend hundred of pounds or dollars on a cake and I wouldn’t do it on principle, even if I had the money.

    I remember reading (perhaps a decade ago) about a Wagyu beef sandwich being sold in Selfridges in London for £85. At the time, it was called the world’s most expensive sandwich. To be honest, I wonder about the morality of something like that in a world where so many people don’t even have enough bread or rice to eat.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sue Vincent says:

      Baking seems to be a skill we are losing, which is a cryng shame. I taught my sons as I was taught. They don’t do it much… but they can.
      Yes, I agree with you. That kind of price tag seems immoral. If I had the money to make such a ‘look at me’ statement ( which is all it is as far as I can see) I’d rather put the cash into a charity box. In pennies if my ego demanded I got noticed.

      Liked by 1 person

  17. Judy Martin says:

    I agree with you, Sue. I much prefer a fairy cake, or as a treat a butterfly cake! It took me a while to realise that ‘cupcakes’ we just fancy buns!
    I prefer the simpler things in life, and as beautiful as some of those cupcakes look, they would be way too sickly sweet for me, and I would probably regret it!


  18. dgkaye says:

    Yum, yum, you made me hungry. Those fairy cakes look divine. And yes, cupcakes are the big thing here, even for weddings, toppled above one another in place of cakes.
    I had to laugh at the ridiculous price tag on the ‘Toronto’ cupcake, where I live. Lol, it’s so darned expensive to live here that soon that will be the price for a dozen. LOL 🙂


  19. This post made me laugh. (And made me hungry.) I don’t bake. It’s shameful. But the smell of fresh baked cookies or cupcakes (buns, whatever) is divine. I especially love the smell of fresh bread. Well, those fairy deserts look amazing (though I did wonder if the tube sticking out of that fancy pants cupcake had liquor in it. Because yum…). I might drizzle some raspberry liquor over those fairy cupcakes. 💖


  20. Eliza Waters says:

    I’ll definitely take the fairy cakes! ❤


  21. Éilis Niamh says:

    Perhaps for all those reasons, Sue. Goodness, I had no idea that cupcakes got that elaborate, or expensive! Already a young adult, I can relate to feeling whistful over the moments of innocence in childhood and the occasional longing to make a difference in the world by engraving my name on it (it’s a weird desire, we’re taught to value that kind of personalization but ultimately it does no good for the person or the world, when it crosses my mind I view it as a leftover and ignore it.)

    And this post made me really hungry!


    • Sue Vincent says:

      These expensive cakes are not only made with ridiculously expensive ingredients, but are sculpted and then coated in gold leaf and powdered gold. I don’t find that appetising. Many of the cupcakes that are so fashionable are barely any cake and inches deep in frosting and sugar decorations. I can do without those too. The last ones, all cake, berries and cream… those are different. And making me hungry too 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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