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Why Britain Has Gone Mad About Baking

Where the streets are lined with cake: This royal-themed cake was served during a street party in South London last June as part of celebrations of Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee.
Andrew Cowie
AFP/Getty Images
Where the streets are lined with cake: This royal-themed cake was served during a street party in South London last June as part of celebrations of Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee.

The first rule of cake club is: You ONLY talk about cake.

The second rule of cake club is: Try as many cakes as possible.

OK, so the members of Britain's Clandestine Cake Club may not be pugilistic like those of Chuck Palahniuk's fictional Fight Club, but they're just as hard-core about their chosen obsession. Just listen to founder Lynn Hill:

"There is instant interaction as soon as you slice into a cake," she says. "If a cake is completely covered in frosting, you have no idea what's inside; the moment you slice it, it's suddenly revealed. There's so much engagement with the 'oohs and aahs,' and 'Isn't it amazing?' "

Over the past three years, cake clubs like Hill's have been growing in popularity in the U.K. The concept is similar to a book club — except with cake. Often there's a theme: new recipes only, international or other mandates. Hill, who created her Clandestine Cake Club in 2011 (there are now 168 chapters in the U.K. alone), likes to build excitement by keeping meeting spots secret until the last possible moment.

Members rendezvous regularly at local tea shops and cafes, where they show off their homemade cakes before digging in.

There are no limits on servings, but rookies often forget a key rule: Pace yourself. "I've learned to moderate by having finger slices," she says, "which means no thicker than the width of a finger."

The clubs are just one manifestation of a baking madness that's sweeping Britain.

In the last year alone, some 9 million Britons have taken up baking, according to market research firm Mintel. Indeed, the home-baking market grew a whopping 84 percent between 2007 and 2012, according to Mintel. Increases included sales of all baking-related products, from flour to decorating items, baking tins, mixers, even cake stands.

"Sales of flour were at an all-time high in 2012," says Alex Beckett, senior food analyst for Mintel.

The recession and the rising cost of food in the U.K. are just part of what's making baking so popular. Last summer's London Olympics and the Queen's Diamond Jubilee inspired Brits to bake for street festivals and village fairs to commemorate both events.

And the financial crisis has encouraged the nation to stay at home, finding low-cost leisure activities — including watching cooking shows on TV. "The Great British Bake Off," which premiered in 2010 and tests home bakers on every aspect of baking skill, is also credited for the revival. The show is the most-watched in the history of BBC Two. It's been syndicated in other countries, including the U.S., where it's set to air this month.

"Every charity and school is now doing a bake-off," says London-based chef Eric Lanlard, who was one of the hosts. "One program really changed the way people think about baking. Every food magazine has had a cake on the cover in the last two years. We've never seen that before."

Baking's so hip these days that, when 31-year-old Chris Holmes decided to quit his job as an airport immigration officer to become a full-time baker, he wrote his resignation letter in icing on a cake — an image that quickly went viral.

Baking, says Holmes, is "an antidote to modern life." Hands getting dirty cracking eggs and mixing flour are too busy to check email, which Holmes says, is a big part of the attraction. (Funny enough, that was also part of the appeal of fight club for the characters in Palahniuk's novel.)

"Everyone's glued to their smartphones, consuming so much of this digital stuff," says Holmes. "It's nice to be creative in your own kitchen. ... It makes you feel alive."

Hill's local cafe in Leeds, The Arch, regularly hosts Clandestine Cake Club meetings. It recently began selling cakes based on recipes from the club's newly published cookbook, more than 70,000 of which have been sold since February. Manager Fiona Rotherhay says she's had to double production every week to keep up with customer demand. "The ginger syrup cake," she says, "has sold amazingly well."

Lanlard says he doesn't care what people bake. He's thrilled to see the baking industry get such recognition.

"Last year, for the first time, they did a cake and bake show in London," he says. "This year, they're doing a three-day show to accommodate all the interest. This would never have happened before. We go there and we're like rock stars."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Amy Guttman
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