Back in the days before cupcakes had taken over the world, there was only the humble patty cake. You could turn these cakes into butterfly cakes by slicing off the tops cutting them in half and arranging them as wings on top of a the cake with a dollop of cream (my mother used to always put a tiny dollop of red jelly in the centre of the wings as well). If you didn’t want to get that fancy, you could simply ice them with a glace icing, decorate them with a crescent of hundreds and thousands and call them ‘fairy cakes’.
A few years ago, I made some of these old-fashioned fairy cakes for my son to take to class for his birthday. In an age of overwrought cupcakes with their over the top swirls of butter cream, I was a bit nervous and thought these old fashioned cakes, with their minimalistic icing, would be spurned. But my son’s classmates loved them and I’ve made them for my son’s class birthdays ever since. These simple cakes provide a ‘Proustian Madeleine’ moment, a jolt of remembrance of past children’s parties, every time I bite into the glace icing and crunch through to the soft cake underneath. When I came to photograph them, no amount of fancy art direction could make them look more than what they are – these fairy cakes are a world and another time apart from the fancy bakery cupcake with their swirls of butter cream and exotic flavours. They look slightly wonky, determinedly home made, which is really where their charm lies.
This recipe comes from Margaret Fulton’s Encyclopaedia of Food and Cookery. I should note that even Margaret, the incomparable doyenne of Australian cookery, has them filed under cupcakes, so I feel like I’m swimming against the tide here. Of course, when I make these for my son, I call them cupcakes as well, but I made this batch for a friend’s daughter’s fifth birthday, so I feel that for this post, at least they can go by their true name.
Notes on the recipe
As with all Margaret Fulton’s recipes, this really doesn’t need to be messed with. While you don’t absolutely HAVE to triple sift the flour, your cakes won’t be as light or the crumb as delicate if you don’t.
You have to work fast with the glace icing before it hardens. You can refresh it a little with a bit more boiling water but if you’re making a double batch of these cakes, it’s best to make two batches of the icing. Then, of course, you can make different colors as well. I usually have a small saucer of hundreds of thousands, which I quickly dunk the cake in after I ice them. That is how I remember my mother making them and, with six children, she must have iced thousands of them, so she had the method down to a fine art.
- 125g (4oz) butter
- ¾ cup sugar
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 2 eggs, lightly beaten
- 2 cups of self-raising flour
- pinch of salt
- 2/3 cup of milk
- Glace icing
- Decoration: Hundreds and Thousands
- Cream butter with sugar until light and fluffy.
- Add vanilla and beat in eggs a little at a time.
- Sift flour and salt three times and fold into creamed mixture alternatively with milk, beginning and ending with the flour.
- Spoon into patty cases set in muffin tins. Bake in a preheated moderately hot oven (190 C/ 375 F) for 15minutes or until golden and when a skewer inserted in centre comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack. When cool, ice with glace icing and decorate with hundreds and thousands.
Glace Icing or Warm Icing
A quickly mixed icing, that sets firmly to a decorative glaze. Decorations need to be added quickly before the icing sets.
- 1 ¼ cups pure icing sugar
- 1 tbspn boiling water
- few drops of flavoring essence
- food coloring as desired.
- Sift icing sugar into a small, heatproof bowl.
- Add boiling water gradually, mixing to a smooth, thick paste that will coat the back of the spoon.
- Place bowl over a small mount of boiling water and stir icing for one minute. Add flavoring and coloring as desired.
- Pour icing quickly over cake and smooth surface with a spatula or knife dipped in hot water. This is enough icing to cover top of a 20 cm (8 in) cake.
Butterfly Cakes: Use the same mixture as for fairy cakes, but increase oven temperature to hot (200°C/375°F) and bake cakes in the hottest part of the oven. The tops of the cakes will rise in a peak. When cool, cut a slice from the top of each cake and reserve. Top cakes with a dollop of sweetened whipped cream. Cut cake slices in half, arrange on top of cream to form ‘wings’ and dust with icing sugar