There is no smell quite as good, or quite as memory-inducing.
Sweet, buttery vanill-aryness is infusing the air and whisking me back to childhood. I could be in my mum’s kitchen on a baking Sunday.
In reality, I’m in the midst of an anonymous industrial estate.
Identi-kit grey structures sit to left and right, but the cupcake bakery I seek actually doesn’t need its girly-pink insignia; the whiff of a golden, rising Victoria indicates that the heart of the Fancie empire is close by.
I follow my nose and arrive at Amanda Perry’s bakery drooling like a bloodhound.
Incredibly, I find Sheffield’s queen of cakelets and her right-hand women in the office, utterly cakeless.
That heavenly baking aroma? Fancie have cooked up so many cakes, they’ve grown immune.
From little cupcakes, it seems, big things have grown. Former pastry chef Amanda shifted her bakery to the Parkwood Road estate six months ago to cope with rising demand. She had already outgrown two previous bakeries.
Now she’s got three huge ovens baking 7,000 cupcakes a week, in batches of 700 at a time.
The little production line is like a scene from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
A radio is playing merrily and despite the fact they’ve been here since 3am, Amanda’s team of young pastry chefs and trained bakers, many honed by Sheffield College, are smiling as they whip up giant bowls of creamy cake batters and their trade secret rainbow-hued frostings.
On the worktops it’s a Blue Peter badge-owner’s paradise - jars of edible glitter and stars, pots of jam, lemon curd, hand-made caramel and fudge fondant, tubs of peanut butter and Nutella chocolate spread await the next batch of freshly-cooled buns.
Bakery manager Rachel Talkowski, at the ready with her piping bag, can frost and trim 480 in 20 minutes.
Confides Amanda: “The trick to great piping is to get your stance right. You need to get into a really stable position, and for the perfect cupcake swirl, you don’t twist the cake, you twist your wrist in one swift movement.”
It’s a far cry from four years ago when Amanda began in business, using the little oven at her home in Hillsborough.
“I remember things taking off and having 1,000 cakes to make. I could only get 36 at a time in my oven; I didn’t sleep for 72 hours; it was a crazy few days,” she recalls.
Many of the recipes are still the same, though. “And everything is made by hand, the way it would be done at home, but on a bigger scale. This is home baking on steroids,” she says, waving a hand in the direction of the crates of eggs in the corner, the cement-bag sized sacks of icing sugar.
Before she decided to reinvent the beige cake shop window into Barbie’s World, Amanda Perry was a pastry chef at top establishments all over the country.
Her most famous diner was the brilliant, wheelchair-bound scientist Stephen Hawking. Not that she realised it when her Lake District restaurant boss summoned her to Hawking’s table.
“Through his computerised voice, this man told me he’d really enjoyed my sticky toffee pudding,” she recalls. “Someone told me his name but it didn’t mean anything. I had to ring my dad to find out I’d been complimented by only the most intelligent man in the world,” she says. “I find that more and more shameful as the years go by....”
It was shortly after that Amanda decided to move to a different life, stuck a pin in a map and came to Sheffield. After working a few shifts in the kitchens at Doncaster Prison (“one of the most scary things I’ve ever done in my life; they issued me with a rape alarm”) she decided to turn her back on the 15-hour days of catering life and got a job in sales with BT.
She loved it, but was always coming up with hair-brained ideas for a business. The best one came to her over Christmas in 2008. I was at my mum and dad’s, surrounded by boxes of chocolates they’d been given and suddenly it struck me: why didn’t people give each other cake instead?” she explains.
She decided cupcakes would be the easiest to box up and deliver, then tried out various flavour combos on colleagues at work.
Fancie now has a tea shop on Sharrowvale Road to supply, plus cupcake kiosks in the heart of Meadowhall, the University of Sheffield and Sheffield’s Winter Gardens to keep stocked. And there’s a host of delivery orders to meet; people are now saying it with cupcakes; even getting married with cupcakes.
Everyone has gone a little cake crazy.
You might expect a cupcake queen to be all sweetness and light with a soft centre, a pinny-clad domestic goddess with a head as fluffy as thrice-whipped buttercream. But Fancie’s Amanda Perry is a self-confessed control freak with a steely determination.
“I’m eagle-eyed; every detail has to be perfect. And I am very protective of my brand,” she says unashamedly.
It’s clearly what has helped her rise above the scores of copycat cupcake makers baking up batches of dainty cakiness in their home ovens right this moment.
But there is undoubtedly a softer side. It slips out when she talks cake.
“When someone makes you a cake, you feel loved; it reminds you of being nurtured in childhood,” she enthuses.
The US TV series Sex And The City is credited with starting the cupcake frenzy on both sides of the Atlantic when Carrie and the girls revealed a passion for dainty, frou-frou cakes from New York’s legendary Magnolia Bakery.
Amanda had never seen the show when she launched into business, but she wholeheartedly agrees there’s definitely something that draws single girl and cupcake together.
“When you’re feeling a bit lonely or flat, a little bit of calorie-laden indulgence makes you feel happier. You’re treating yourself,” says the single businesswoman.
“I admit they were my love substitute in the early days,” she blushes. “But now it’s work that’s my love substitute. I don’t get time for a life, never mind a relationship. And that’s something I’ve got to change. I’m 33 – I’d like to find the right man, settle down, have a baby.”
She giggles: “In Fancie cake terms, the man would be some way between the confident and unusual chocolate and peanut Snickerlicious and the Victoria sponge - classic, simple and always nice.”
Fancie tips for cupcakes at home
Never overbeat your flour; beat gently so keeping the sponge light and fluffy (about 60 seconds max)
Make your frosting with a mixture of melted chocolate and good quality cocoa for a richer, smoother taste (minimum 70% cocoa)
Weigh your eggs for a more consistent bake (use 50g eggs)
Make sure your cakes are completely cooled before you start frosting them so the icing doesn’t run (touch the base to make sure they are cooled right the way through)
Always bake with love; cakes taste better that way!