A little cake gets big

By Jan Shure, June 6, 2008
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Suddenly cupcakes, which you only used to see at your grandma’s tea parties, are in culinary fashion

You can thank — or, if your waistline is expanding, blame — Nigella for the revival of that retro teatime treat, the cupcake. After putting one on the cover of her How To Be A Domestic Goddess cookbook in 2003, she made a batch on TV, amid — naturally — much pouting and licking of spoons.

A few cameo roles for cupcakes on US TV shows such as Sex and The City has not hurt their profile either, and these days you can barely attend a grown-up’s birthday, a batmitzvah or a wedding without encountering a display of little cakes nestling under an acropolis of buttercream frosting.

For those readers of a certain age, who remember cupcakes as small, sawdust-flavoured, topped by a half-inch of extruded chocolate and wrapped in a case of corrugated, triple-strength foil, this new generation of hand-made cupcakes is as different as home-made chicken soup from a Pot Noodle.

What distinguishes the 21st-century cupcake is not only that it is fresh and bespoke, but also the high quality of the ingredients, such as Callebaut or Valrhona chocolate, Madagascar vanilla, free-range eggs and butter and milk from local, organic dairies. And unlike those you might find on the supermarket shelves, you will search in vain for artificial additives in any of the cupcakes on offer from the new breed of uber-cake makers.

In London, the purveyors of some of the most mouthwatering cupcakes are Romy Lewis, 25, and Victoria Jossel, 26, the pair behind Primrose Hill-based Lola’s Kitchen, whose popular confections can be sampled at Selfridges, W1, the DKNY Café in Bond Street, Raoul’s in Notting Hill and Maida Vale, and a slew of cafes across North London, including the Din Cafe in Temple Fortune.

Lewis and Jossel have known one another since childhood, but making cupcakes was not necessarily what either had in mind when they graduated, respectively, from Leeds and Birmingham universities, the former with a degree in broadcast journalism, and the latter in computer studies.

Lewis, whose father is Stuart Lewis, MD of travel firm Peltours, explains: “My mum, Cheryl, is a natural cook and caterer and some of this rubbed off on me. After graduation, I spent a year with two friends researching food with the intention of gaining a proper understanding of the food business and learning whether it was something that would interest me full time.”

Jossel, who was working as an investment banker with Goldman Sachs, concedes that she was not a keen cook. “It was not the cooking that grabbed my attention, it was all about the revival of cupcakes.” She attributes the cupcake renaissance — from their 19th-century start — to cafes in New York and on the US West Coast.

The decision to create a cupcake business was taken at a family Friday-night dinner in 2005. “Victoria expressed her ideas and I immediately liked the idea,” says Lewis. “We observed New York and LA and their success in creating a cupcake craze. This led us to believe it was a perfect time to take on the UK.”

The business began in the kitchens at home, assisted by family members.

“We spent our time experimenting with generic recipes, trying out grandma’s secret recipes and just testing and tasting. Customers are forever asking how we achieved the perfect-tasting carrot cupcake. The truth is, long hours in the kitchen and not giving up until every person around the table rated them 10 out of 10. We both feel that our mothers, Vanessa [Jossel] and Cheryl, deserve credit. It was primarily their efforts that led us towards our sensational cupcakes,” declares Lewis.

Initially, their clients were family, friends and friends-of-friends, but their client base rapidly expanded. Jossel explains: “Moving into our new offices meant no looking back. It was us, an oven, a Mix Master and three shelves.”

The company now employs four bakers, four decorators, two administrators, two delivery drivers and, of course, the founders. It offers a range of around 30 handmade cupcakes, as well as full-sized, bespoke celebration cakes.

“We work very closely with our suppliers to ensure that we always receive the best-quality produce. The basic ingredients are vital, so whilst they are expensive, they differentiate us from the competition,” says Lewis firmly.

Cupcake tips

Baking tips from Lola's head baker

  • Never ice a cupcake when it is hot — the icing will melt and the cake will collapse
  • Make sure all ingredients are at room temperature before you begin your recipe because they will combine much more easily.
  • Don’t over mix or add cold butter — this will mnake for a lumpy batter
  • Tiered stands are the perfect way to display cupcakes for any event or dinner party.
    • Last updated: 12:41pm, June 5 2008