Come and meet Issy Randall, proud owner of The Cupcake Cafe.Issy Randall can bake. No, more than that - Issy can create stunning, mouth-wateringly divine cakes. After a childhood spent in her beloved Grampa Joe's bakery, she has undoubtedly inherited his talent.When she's made redundant from her safe but dull City job, Issy decides to seize the moment. Armed with recipes from Grampa, and with her best friends and local bank manager fighting her corner, The Cupcake Cafe opens its doors. But Issy has absolutely no idea what she's let herself in for. It will take all her courage - and confectionery - to avert disaster . . .
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Jenny Colgan is the author of numerous bestselling novels, including The Little Shop of Happy Ever After and Summer at Little Beach Street Bakery, which are also published by Sphere. Meet Me at the Cupcake Cafe won the 2012 Melissa Nathan Award for Comedy Romance and was a Sunday Times Top Ten bestseller, as was Welcome to Rosie Hopkins' Sweetshop of Dreams, which won the RNA Romantic Novel of the Year Award 2013. For more about Jenny, visit her website and her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter: @jennycolgan.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Issy Randall refolded the piece of paper and smiled.
"Are you absolutely sure about this?" she said to the figure in the easy chair. "This is the recipe?" The old man nodded vehemently. He held up one finger, which Issy recognized immediately as his cue for a lecture.
"Well, the thing is," Grampa Joe began, "baking is..."
"Life," filled in Issy patiently. She'd heard the speech many times before. Her grandfather had started sweeping up in the family bakery at the age of twelve; eventually he had taken over the business and run three large bakeries in Manchester. Baking was all he knew.
"It is life. Bread is the staff of life, our most basic food."
"And very un-Atkins," said Issy, smoothing her cord skirt down over her hips and sighing. It was one thing for her grandfather to say that. He had spent his whole life skinny as a rake, thanks to a full-time diet of extremely hard physical work that started with lighting the furnace at 5:00 a.m. It was quite another when baking was your hobby, your passion-but to pay the bills you were sitting down in an office all day. It was hard to show restraint when trying out... She drifted off, thinking about the new pineapple cream recipe she'd tried that morning. The trick was to leave enough of the pith in to give the flavor bite, but not so much that it turned into a smoothie. She needed to give it another shot. Issy ran her hands over her cloudy black hair. It went well with her green eyes but created absolute bloody havoc if it rained.
"So when you describe what you're making, you must describe life. Do you see? It's not just recipes...next thing you'll tell me you're measuring in metric."
Issy bit her lip and made a mental note to hide her metric scales the next time Grampa visited the flat. He'd only get himself worked up.
"Are you listening to me?"
They both turned to look out of the window of the assisted living facility in north London. Issy had installed Joe there when it became clear he was getting too absentminded to live on his own. Issy had hated moving him down south after he'd spent his life in the north, but she needed him close enough to visit. Joe had grumbled of course but he was going to grumble anyway, moving out of his home to anywhere that wouldn't let him rise at 5:00 a.m. and start pounding bread dough. So he might as well be grumpy close by, where she could keep an eye on him. After all, it wasn't as if anyone else was around to do it. And the three bakeries, with their proud, shiny brass handles and old signs proclaiming them to be "electric bakers," were gone now; fallen prey to the supermarkets and chains that favored cheap white pulp over handcrafted but slightly more expensive loaves.
As he so often did, Grampa Joe watched the January raindrops fall across the window and read her mind.
"Have you heard from...your mother recently?" he said. Issy nodded, noting as ever how hard he found it to say his own daughter's name. Marian had never felt at home as a baker's daughter. And Issy's grandmother had died so young, she hadn't had long enough to provide a steadying influence. With Gramps working all the time, Marian had rebelled before she could even spell the word, hanging out with older boys and bad crowds from her teens, getting pregnant early to a traveling man who had given Issy her black hair and strong eyebrows and absolutely nothing else. Too much of a questing spirit to be tied down, Marian had often left her only child behind while she went off in search of herself.
Issy had spent most of her childhood in the bakery, watching Gramps as he manfully beat the dough or delicately shaped the lightest, most mouth-melting filigree cakes and pies. Although he trained bakers for each of his shops, he still liked to get his own hands white with flour, one of the reasons Randalls were once the most popular bakers in Manchester. Issy had spent countless hours doing her homework under the great Cable Street ovens, absorbing through her pores the time and skill and care of a great baker; much more conventional than her mother, she adored her gramps and felt safe and cozy in the kitchens, even though she knew, of course, that she was different from her classmates, who went home to little houses with mums and dads who worked for the council, and dogs and siblings, and ate potato waffles with ketchup in front of Neighbors and didn't wake up before the sun, the smell of warm bread already rising from far below.
Now, at thirty-one, Issy had just about forgiven her troubled, untethered mother, even though she of all people should have known what it was like growing up without your mum. She didn't care about the sports days and school outings-everyone knew her grandfather, who never missed one-and she was popular enough, rarely without a cast-off box of scones or French cakes to bring to school occasions, while her birthday party spreads were the stuff of local legend. She did wish someone in her life had cared a little more for fashion-her grandfather bought her two cotton and one woolen dress every Christmas, regardless of age, style, or size, even when everyone else she knew was in legwarmers and Pineapple T-shirts, and her mother would swoop back at regular intervals with strange hippy-style garments that she was selling at festivals, made of hemp or itchy llama wool or something else equally impractical. But Issy never felt short of love in the cozy flat above the bakery where she and Gramps would eat apple pie and watch Dad's Army. Even Marian-who on her flying visits would strictly admonish Issy not to trust men, to stay off the cider, and always follow her rainbow-was a loving parent. Nevertheless, sometimes, when she saw happy families larking in the park or parents cradling their newborns, Issy felt a desire at the pit of her stomach so strong, it felt like a physical gnawing for the traditional, the safe.
It was no surprise to anyone who knew the family that Issy Randall grew up to be the straightest, most conventional girl imaginable. Good A-levels, good college, and now a good job with a thrusting commercial property company in the City. By the time she was ready to start work, Gramps's bakeries were all sold: victims of his getting older and the changing times. And she had an education, he had pointed out (sadly, she sometimes thought); she didn't want to be getting up at sparrow's fart and doing hard manual labor for the rest of her life. She was set for better things.
But deep down she had a passion for kitchen comforts-for cream horns, balanced with the perfect weight of caterer's cream and light, flaky pastry, set off by the crunchiest diamond crystals of clear sugar; for hot cross buns, baked at Randall's strictly during Lent and Lent only, their cinnamon and raisins and orange peel spreading an exciting, sticky smell to half the road; for a perfectly piped butter icing on top of the highest, lightest, floatiest lemon cupcake. Issy loved all of those things. Hence her project with Gramps: to get as many of his recipes down on paper as possible, before-although neither of them ever referred to it-but before, or in case, he started to forget them.
- - -
"I got an email from Mum," said Issy. "She's in Florida. She's met a man called Brick. Really. Brick. That's his name."
"At least it's a man this time," sniffed her grandfather.
Issy gave him a look. "Shhh. She said she might be home for my birthday. In the summer. Of course she said she'd be home for Christmas, but she wasn't."
Issy had spent Christmas in the home with Gramps. The staff did their best, but it wasn't all that great.
"Anyway." Issy attempted a smile. "She sounds happy. Says she loves it over there. Said I should send you over for some sun."
Issy and Gramps looked at each other and burst out laughing. Joe got tired out crossing the room.
"Yes," said Gramps, "I'll just go catch the next plane to Florida. Taxi! Take me to London Airport!"
Issy tucked the sheet of paper away in her handbag and stood up.
"I have to go," she said. "Um, keep doing the recipes. But you can keep them quite, you know, normal if you like."
She kissed him on the forehead.
"See you next week."
- - -
Issy got off the bus. It was freezing, with dirty ice on the ground left over from a short day's snowfall just after New Year. At first it had looked pretty, but now it was getting a little ropy around the edges, especially poking through the wrought-iron fencing of the Stoke Newington Municipal Offices, the rather grand edifice at the end of her street. Still, as ever, Issy felt pleased to be stepping down. Home, Stoke Newington, the bohemian district she'd stumbled upon when she moved south.
The smell of hookahs from the little Turkish cafés on Stamford Road mingled with the incense sticks from the Everything for a Pound shops, jostling next to expensive baby boutiques that sold children's designer Wellingtons and one-off wooden toys, perused by shoppers with Hasidic ringlets, or headscarves; crop tops and patois; young mothers with buggies; older mothers with double buggies. Despite her friend Tobes once joking that it was like living in the bar in Star Wars, Issy loved it all. She adored the sweet Jamaican bread; the honey baklava sitting out by the cash registers in the grocers; little Indian sweets of dried milk and sugar, or dusty slabs of Turkish delight. She liked the strange cooking smells in the air as she came home from work, and the jumble of buildings; from a handsome square of pretty flat-fronted houses to blocks of flats and red-brick conversions. Albion Road was lined with odd shops, fried chicken joints, cab firms and large gray houses. It was neither commercial nor residential but lay somewhere in between, one of the great winding thoroughfares of London that once upon a time had led to its outlying villages, and now connected its suburbs.
The gray houses were stately, Victorian and potentially expensive. Some of them remained grotty subdivided flats with bicycles and damp wheelie bins cluttering up the front gardens. These boasted several doorbells with names crudely taped to them, and recycling boxes piled high on the curb. Some of them, though, had been reconverted into houses and gentrified, with reclaimed oak front doors, topiary trees on the steps and expensive curtains leading to polished hardwood flooring and stripped-back fireplaces and big mirrors. She loved the area's mix of shabby and new, traditional, rough and ready and smart and alternative, with the towers of the City on the horizon, and the tumbledown churchyard and crowded pavements...All types of people lived in Stokey; it felt like a microcosm of London; a village that reflected the city's true heart. And it was more affordable than Islington.
Issy had lived here for four years, since she moved out of south London and onto the property ladder. The only downside had been moving out of range of the tube. She'd told herself that didn't matter, but sometimes, on an evening like this with the wind cutting between the houses and turning noses into red dripping taps, she thought perhaps it did. Just a bit. It was all right for the posh yummy mummies in the big gray houses; they all had 4×4s. She did wonder sometimes, when she saw them out with their huge, expensive buggies and tiny, expensive bodies...she did wonder how old they were. Younger than her? Thirty-one wasn't old, not these days. But with their toddlers and their highlights and their houses with one wall covered in smart wallpaper...she did wonder. Sometimes.
Just behind the bus stop was a little close. It was lined with tiny shops, older places that had been left behind by the Victorian development. Once upon a time, they would have been stables or produce stores; they were quirky and oddly shaped. There was an ironmonger's with ancient brushes around the door, old-fashioned toasters for sale at inflated prices, and a sad-looking washing machine that had been sitting in the front window for as long as Issy had been coming to the bus stop; a telephone/Wi-Fi/Internet office that stayed open at strange hours and invited you to send money to places; and a newsagent that faced onto the road and was where Issy picked up magazines and Reese's peanut butter cups.
Right at the very end of the row, tucked into the corner, was a building that looked like an afterthought, somewhere to use up the spare stones. It was pointed at one end, where a triangular corner of glass stuck out toward the road, widening into a bench, with a door coming out onto a small cobbled courtyard with a tree in it. It looked quite out of place, a tiny haven in the middle of a village square, something absolutely out of time-like, Issy had once reflected, an illustration by Beatrix Potter. All it needed were bottle- glass windows.
Wind blew up the main road once more, and Issy turned off toward the flat. Home.
- - -
Issy had bought her flat at the very height of the property boom. For someone who worked in the property business, it hadn't been very astute. She suspected prices had started to decline about thirty minutes after she'd picked up her keys. This was before she began dating her boyfriend, Graeme, whom she'd met at work (although she had already noticed him around, as had all the other girls in the office); otherwise, as he had said several times, he would certainly have advised her against it.
Even then, she wasn't sure she'd have listened to him. After hunting through every property in her price range and hating all of them, she'd been on the point of giving up when she got to Carmelite Avenue, and she'd loved it straightaway. It was the top two stories of one of the pretty gray houses, with its own side entrance up a flight of stairs, so really it felt more like a little house than an apartment. One floor was almost entirely an open-plan kitchen/dining room/sitting room. Issy had made it as cozy as possible, with huge faded gray velvet sofas, a long wooden table with benches, and her beloved kitchen. The units were going cheap in the sales, almost certainly because they were a very strong shade of pink. "Nobody wants a pink kitchen," the salesman had said, slightly sadly. "They just want stainless steel. Or country cottage. There's nothing in between."
"I've never seen a pink washing machine before," Issy had said encouragingly. She hated a sad salesman.
"I know. Apparently it makes some people feel a bit queasy, watching their washing go around in one of those."
"That would be a drawback."
"Jordan nearly bought one," he said, momentarily perking up. "Then she decided it was too pink."
"Jordan decided it was too pink?" said Issy, who had never thought of herself as a particularly pink and girly type of person. This, however, was such an endearingly full-on Schiaparelli pink. It was a kitchen that just wanted to be loved.
"And it's really seventy percent off?" she asked again. "Fitted and everything?"
The salesman looked at the pretty girl with the green eyes and the cloud of dark hair. He liked rounded girls. They looked like they would actually cook in his kitchens. He didn't like those sharp ladies who wanted sharp-edged kitchens to keep their gin a...
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