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Cupcake lovers finding new ways to make, share, indulge hobby

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TORONTO - Cupcake Camp isn't for the faint of heart.

Standing elbow-to-elbow, attendees jostled for position at the presentation table in the hopes of nabbing one of 1,000 cupcakes made by 40 amateur bakers.

The event, held Sunday in an art studio in Toronto's trendy Leslieville, attracted close to 400 cupcake connoisseurs who were there to share their passion for making and eating the icing-topped mini-treats.

"I don't work in a bakery. It's just something I do as a hobby," Amber Morden cheerfully shouted at the crowd as she presented a tray of red velvet cupcakes with vanilla buttercream frosting. They were devoured in seconds by the hungry mob.

Move over, knitters. Step aside, scrapbookers. The latest hobby fad is the cupcake.

To meet increasing demand, craft and kitchen stores are stocking shelves with special cupcake tools, how-to books, stands and liners in a multitude of designs and colours.

Cupcake lovers, meanwhile, are finding new ways to share their passion and showcase their weekend projects. There are blogs, Facebook groups, Twitter pages and flikr accounts dedicated solely to making, sharing and indulging in the mini-cakes, called cuppies by devotees.

Baking cupcakes is growing as a hobby because it's not that difficult to get into, says Howard Chang, a 27-year-old Torontonian who blogs about the almighty cupcake with his girlfriend on A Baked Creation (www.abakedcreation.com).

"This kind of hobby is a lot cheaper than some others out there," he said. "It's a lot easier to pick up on ... most people love to bake anyway."

Most of those attending Cupcake Camp were weekend hobbyists who make the treats for family and friends, said Monica Fitzpatrick, who co-organized the day.

"This is totally just for fun," said the 32-year-old executive assistant at a financial firm in Toronto.

An offshoot of an event held in San Francisco last year, Toronto's Cupcake Camp (www.cupcakecamp.ca) was designed to allow amateur bakers to step out of their kitchens and into the spotlight.

Modelled after BarCamp, a tech conference where participants demonstrate software, Cupcake Camp sees bakers bring out their creations one batch at a time and present them with a short speech. There are tastings throughout the day.

There's another camp taking place Feb. 7 in Sydney, Australia. A similar event is in the works for Ottawa.

Fitzpatrick says cupcakes are pushing traditional desserts out of the spotlight because they're a lot easier to make and can be personalized in the decoration. A self-described "un-crafty" person, Fitzpatrick loves to experiment.

"You can do so much more with it," said Fitzpatrick, who made vegan cookies-and-cream cupcakes for the event.

A single-serving dessert, cupcakes have traditionally been made with butter, sugar, eggs and flour in basic vanilla or chocolate flavours. But today's cupcakes have become far more fun, hip and gourmet.

Cupcakes at the camp included lemon meringue, vegan chocolate, black sesame with matcha (a type of tea) icing and fig-walnut and caramel. There were even some non-sweet varieties such as Green Eggs and Ham, made with cornbread, cheese, pineapple and ham, as well as mini-meatloafs topped with mashed potatoes that had been piped on top to resemble frosting.

Fitzpatrick says absolutely anyone can start making cupcakes with just a few basic tools that they likely already have around the kitchen.

She suggests starting with a boxed cake mix and pre-made icing before becoming more adventurous.

"Don't go too crazy. Stick to the recipe," she said. "I'm so not creative, but somehow I can do cupcakes."

But she warns: "Once you start, you can't stop."

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Create a perfect top for your delectable cupcakes with these tips

Creating a perfectly smooth or nicely swirled top on your cupcakes is a cinch, say Karen Tack and Alan Richardson in their cookbook "Hello, Cupcake: Irresistibly Playful Creations Anyone Can Make" (Houghton Mifflin Co).

Your aim is to spread the frosting up to but not over the edge of the paper liner and to glue down the crumbs in the process. Then you can make the surface as flat or as fancy as your like. "With frosting, less is never more," they write.

Here are some other tips from the authors for spreading icing on cupcakes:

-Make sure the frosting is at room temperature; it will have a better texture and be easier to handle. Always stir the frosting before using it.

-Place a generous dollop of frosting in the centre of the cupcake.

-Push it away from you to the edge with a spatula, working your way around the cupcake.

-Holding the centre portion of the blade at a slight angle, remove any excess frosting and smooth the top.

-At the end of a smooth stroke, keep the blade flat and pull to the side to avoid lifting the frosting into peaks. If the top needs more smoothing, wipe the spatula clean and swipe again.

-For a mounded top, use an extra-large dollop of frosting.

-Hold the cupcake by its paper base in one hand and grasp the spatula in the other. Spread the frosting with a clockwise motion, while turning the cupcake counter-clockwise. Work in long, continuous strokes.

-For a swirled peak, hold the tip of the blade at a higher angle. Make a swirl stroke, pulling the tip straight up.

-To centre the peak, work the spatula tip in a spiral from the outer edge to the centre, then lift.

Source: "Hello, Cupcake: Irresistibly Playful Creations Anyone Can Make" by Karen Tack and Alan Richardson (Houghton Mifflin Co).

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