Cupcake chronicles

Shabnam Minwalla | Updated on September 19, 2014 Published on September 19, 2014

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Paperback characters who a decade ago formed girl bands or perfected cartwheels are now baking cupcakes, working as baristas and dreaming of their own cookery shows

It’s a familiar theme in the realm of schoolgirl fiction — but with lashings of white chocolate peppermint mousse and silver sprinkles on top. Girl moves to new school. She’s lost, friendless and definitely not a part of the Popular Girls’ Club. The maths teacher is mean and her parents are getting a divorce. But then, girl meets cake — and the world is magically brighter and happier.

Suddenly, young adult fiction is full of pistachio rosewater cupcakes and peanut butter and jelly French macaroons. Not to mention jellybean disasters, exotic coffee blends and mysterious jobs at eateries called Killer Pizza. So paperback characters who a decade ago would have been forming girl bands or perfecting cartwheels, are today baking up batches of cupcakes, working as baristas in swish coffee shops and dreaming of their own cookery shows.

Food is clearly the flavour of the moment. After all, every 12-year-old these days is hooked to Junior Masterchef and ‘cooking birthday parties’. And the siren call of vanilla frosting certainly cannot be ignored — as I realised a couple of weeks ago at a book fair.

Like a well-trained mummy, I obediently trailed my three excited daughters as they browsed through roomfuls of mysteries, fantasies and classics. They fought, they debated, they giggled — and finally handed me a pile of “absolute must-haves”. To my astonishment half the books had names like The Cupcake Queen and Scones and Sensibility, Banana Splitsville and Better Latte then Never.

Here’s a tasting menu of those frothy, raspberry confections: there was Sugar and Spice, part of a series called Confectionately Yours, in which Hayley sorts her best-friend problems as she whips up basil cream-cheese frosting for her gran’s tea shop. Then there’s the Triple Shot Betty series about three teenagers working behind the counter of a coffee shop one summer. And My Saucy Stuffed Ravioli about the escapades of aspiring chef Angelica Potts.

And then, of course, there are the new books in the Cupcake Club series — a hot favourite in our house. We’ve already read the Cupcake Cure, in which Katie is dumped by her best friend Callie, is convinced that her locker is an evil robot in disguise, and eventually makes new friends who bond over baking. They even bake 200 vanilla cupcakes for the school fundraiser and earn more than the nasty, snobby, rival group. Yippee yay.

In Katie’s New Recipe, Katie’s mum gets a boyfriend, her indifferent father fails to recognise her, and the Cupcake Club bakes delicacies filled with guava jelly, topped with candied ginger for the PTA dinner. As Katie bites into her sweet-spicy creations she realises that like these cupcakes, life too is a mix of flavours and experiences.

For in these books, food is not just something to be gobbled. It teaches lessons, it offers comfort — and is often more articulate than the well-meaning but confused adults at the periphery of teenage trauma. In Sugar and Spice, for example, Hayley muses while she bakes: “I peer through the little window of the oven and see that the domes of my cupcakes have turned golden brown. This is a trial batch. I’m testing a new flavour, code-named Reassurance.

“The sweet smell of cinnamon and vanilla wafts through the café as I pull the hot baking tin from the oven. I sneak a peek at the table by the window, where Chloe and Rupert are busy reading together. She doesn’t look up from her novel and I wonder if the smell alone is enough to ease her mind.

“I figure that if the Victorians can have a language of flowers, I can have my own language of cupcakes. The first message is for my sister.”

Clearly, for this breed of teen-and-tween protagonists, lemon cake is the latest cure for best-friend break-ups. The perfect eggs benedict is the new path to middle-school stardom. While the coffee you order is as revelatory as a Rorschach Test. Or so believes Jane Turner, a 17-year-old barista in The Espressologist. Jane claims that those who order a small pumpkin spice are usually fun and sassy. While those who prefer a medium Americano like things simple. And a medium iced vanilla indicates a gentle nature. Using these insights, Jane starts matchmaking between friends and customers — and pairs her best friend Em (medium hot chocolate) with sexy Cam (toffee nut latte). Then her boss finds out about Jane’s unique take on “espressology” and uses it to promote the coffee shop. Jane soon becomes a local celebrity — but instead of being thrilled, she is tormented by jealousy.

Another teen protagonist who finds fame and fabulous food is Sophie Nicolaides. In Pizza, Love and Other Stuff that Made Me Famous, 16-year-old Sophie auditions for the reality show Teen Test Kitchen, where she encounters a cute French chef, Korean spicy chicken lollipops and much drama. She also comes up with a recipe for deconstructed baklava — an indication that while Sophie values her Greek heritage, she’s ready to forge her own path and do things her way. Yet another protagonist to skip along the orange creamsicle path to popularity and happiness in these trying years.

(This is part of a monthly series that follows a food trail through the realm of fiction.)

( Shabnam Minwalla is a journalist and author of The Six Spellmakers of Dorabji Street)

Pineapple Upside-Down Cupcakes

(Katie and The Cupcake Cure by Coco Simon)

Makes 18

1 box of vanilla cake mix

1 cup sour cream

1/2 cup pineapple juice from canned pineapples

1/3 cup vegetable oil

4 large eggs, room temperature

1tsp vanilla extract


8tbsp unsalted butter, melted

3/4 cup light brown sugar

1 can pineapple, crushed or finely chopped and drained


1 Preheat oven to 180oC. Grease cupcake tins well with butter.

2 In a mixing bowl, with an electric mixer on medium speed, mix all ingredients (except topping) until smooth. Spoon the mix into cupcake tin till it is about halfway full.

3 Toppings: Mix the melted butter and sugar with a spoon. Sprinkle about a teaspoon of the mixture on top of the cupcake mix in the tins. Now add a layer of about one tablespoon of pineapple.

4 Bake the cupcakes for about 18 to 20 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the centre comes out clean.

5 Remove from oven and place on a wire rack to cool for about 5 minutes. Carefully run a knife around the edges and invert the cupcake pan onto the wire rack. Cool for 20 minutes. Enjoy.

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Published on September 19, 2014
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