Home > Christmas at the Cupcake Café (At the Cupcake Café #2)

Christmas at the Cupcake Café (At the Cupcake Café #2)
Jenny Colgan

Chapter One

Gingerbread

This is not for gingerbread men, which is more of a cookie recipe as it has to stay hard and crunchy. And it is not for gingerbread houses, unless you have endless time on your hands and (let’s say it quietly) are a bit of a show-off who would rather their cakes were admired than devoured. No, this is old-fashioned soft, sticky gingerbread. It doesn’t take long to make, but you’ll be glad you did.

NB Oil the container before you fill it with treacle. Otherwise you and your dishwasher are going to fall out really badly.

50g white sugar

50g brown sugar

120g butter

1 egg

180ml treacle

300g self-raising flour

1 tsp baking powder

1 tbsp powdered cinnamon

1 tbsp powdered ginger (or a little more if you like)

½ tsp ground cloves (I just threw in a ‘lucky’ clove)

½ tsp salt

60ml hot water

Preheat oven to 175°C/gas mark 3. Grease a loaf tin or square baking tin.

Cream sugar and butter together (you can do this entire thing in the mixer), then add the egg and the treacle.

Mix the spices, baking powder, flour and salt. Fold in to wet mixture. Add the water, then pour into baking tin and bake for 45 minutes.

You can sprinkle icing sugar on the top, or make an icing glaze, or just slice it like it is – proper yummy, sticky Christmas gingerbread. Serve liberally to people you like.

The scent of cinnamon, orange peel and ginger perfumed the air, with a strong undercurrent of coffee. Outside the rain was battering against the large windows of the eau-de-nil-painted exterior of the Cupcake Café, tucked into a little grey stone close next to an ironmonger’s and a fenced-in tree that looked chilled and bare in the freezing afternoon.

Issy, putting out fresh chestnut-purée cupcakes decorated with tiny green leaves, took a deep breath of happiness and wondered if it was too early to start playing her Silver Bells CD. The weather had been uncharacteristically mild for much of November, but now winter was truly kicking in.

Customers arrived looking beaten and battered by the gale, disgorging umbrellas into the basket by the front door (so many got left behind, Pearl had commented that if they ran into financial difficulties, they could always start a second-hand umbrella business), then would pause halfway through wrestling with their jackets as the warm scent reached their nostrils. And Issy could see it come over them: their shoulders, hunched against the rain, would slowly start to unfurl in the cosy atmosphere of the café; their tense, anxious London faces would relax, and a smile would play around their lips as they approached the old-fashioned glass-fronted cabinet which hosted the daily array of goodies: cupcakes piled high with the best butter icing, changing every week depending on Issy’s whim, or whether she’d just received a tip-off about the best vanilla pods, or a special on rose hips, or had the urge to go a bit mad with hazelnut meringue. The huge banging orange coffee machine (the colour clashed completely with the pale greens and greys and florals of the café itself, but they’d had to get it on the cheap, and it worked like an absolute charm) was fizzing in the background, the little fire was lit and cheery-looking (Issy would have preferred wood, but it was banned, so they had gas flames); there were newspapers on poles and books on the bookshelves; wifi, and cosy nooks and corners in which to hide oneself, as well as a long open table where mums could sit with their buggies and not block everybody else’s way.

Smiling, people would take a while to make up their minds. Issy liked to go through the various things they had on offer, explain what went into each one: how she crushed the strawberries then left them in syrup for the little strawberry tarts they did in the summer; or the whole blueberries she liked to use in the middle of the summer fruits cupcake; or, as now, making customers smell her new batch of fresh cloves. Pearl simply let people choose. They had to make sure Caroline had had enough sleep or she tended to get slightly impatient and make remarks about the number of calories in each treat. This made Issy very cross.

‘The “c” word is banned in this shop,’ she’d said. ‘People don’t come in here looking to feel guilty. They’re looking to relax, take a break, sit down with their friends. They don’t need you snorting away about saturated fats.’

‘I’m just trying to be helpful,’ said Caroline. ‘The economy is in trouble. I know how much tax avoidance my ex-husband does. There’s not going to be the money to pay for cardiac units, that’s all I’m saying.’

Pearl came up from the basement kitchen with a new tray of gingerbread men. The first had been snapped up in moments by the children coming in after school, delighted by their little bow ties and fearful expressions. She saw Issy standing there looking a bit dreamy as she served up two cinnamon rolls with a steaming latte to a man with a large tummy, a red coat and a white beard.

‘Don’t even think it,’ she said.

‘Think what?’ said Issy guiltily.

‘About starting up the entire Christmas shebang. That isn’t Santa.’

‘I might be Santa,’ protested the old man. ‘How would you know?’

‘Because this would be your busy season,’ said Pearl, turning her focus back to her boss.

Issy’s eyes strayed reluctantly to the glass jar of candy canes that had somehow found their way to being beside the cash till.

‘It’s November!’ said Pearl. ‘We’ve just finished selling our Guy Fawkes cupcakes, remember? And don’t make me remind you how long it took me to get all that spiderwebbing down from Hallowe’en.’

‘Maybe we should have left it up there for fake snow,’ wondered Issy.

‘No,’ said Pearl. ‘It’s ridiculous. These holidays take up such a long time and everyone gets sick of them and they’re totally over the top and inappropriate.’

‘Bah humbug,’ said Issy. But Pearl would not be jarred out of her bad mood.

‘And it’s a difficult year for everyone,’ said Caroline. ‘I’ve told Hermia the pony may have to go if her father doesn’t buck up his ideas.’

‘Go where?’ said Pearl.

‘To the happy hunting grounds,’ said Caroline promptly. ‘Meanwhile he’s going to Antigua. Antigua! Did he ever take me to Antigua? No. You know what Antigua’s like,’ she said to Pearl.

‘Why would I?’ said Pearl.

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