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An interview with cake designer and alternative baker Lily Vanilli, a.k.a. Lily Jones

With a newly launched book and cupcake collection at Harrods, life is looking sweet for Lily Vanilli

Written by Kat Phan

Photography courtesy of Michael Clements

I first heard of Lily Vanilli last year when I read an article in The Observer Magazine about the candidates who made the shortlist for Courvoisier The Future 500 (2009). The graphic designer-turned-bespoke cake designer was listed in the top five and cited as one of the rising stars to watch for her innovative approach to cake baking.

Turning the cupcake business on its head, try Lily’s delicious cakes are the antithesis of the conventional, story cutesy cupcake with their unusual and macabre themes. Her fabulous creations are essentially mini edible sculptures (e.g marzipan beetles, decease morbid meringue bones, etc), an aesthetic delight, which are all crafted by hand in Lily’s kitchen in East London. This, combined with unusual ingredients such as bacon and avocado and a killer melt-in-the mouth sponge recipe, makes for a thrilling culinary experience. Speaking as a dessert fiend and as someone who has sampled Lily’s gourmet cakes, I have never been happier to move over to the dark side of cake!

Lily’s imaginative style to cake baking and kooky creations have earned her somewhat of a cult status within the industry and her decadent cupcakes, which are tailored specifically for each occasion, have featured at parties for Elton John, Henry Holland, Sadie Frost, Hello Kitty, Downing Street, Saatchi Gallery, Levi’s and The Sunday Times. Not bad for someone who only started baking as a hobby.

Photography courtesy of Cico Books

Last month saw the launch of Lily’s first ever book, ‘A Zombie Ate My Cupcake’, in which she shares her secret recipes for the first time ever. Guaranteed to be unlike any cake baking book you already own, ‘A Zombie Ate My Cupcake!’ is a graphic horror novel/cookbook comic featuring 25 gory recipes ranging from Sweeney Todd’s Surprise, a chocolate cupcake which looks like a pie with a severed bloodied finger poking out of it, to Bleeding Hearts, which, well, looks like squashed bleeding hearts with arteries and veins attached ‘n’ all.

Featuring other sweet treats aptly named ‘Eerie Eyeballs’, ‘Shattered Glass’ and ‘Marzipan Beetles’, the book is a visual feast, fusing the worlds of art and cuisine. With quirky detailed comic illustrations provided by up-and-coming illustrator Paul Parker, ‘A Zombie Ate My Cupcake!’ is a must for any cupcake enthusiast who is ready to take on the challenge of some slightly more sinister baking.

To celebrate the launch of Lily’s new book and her cupcake range at Harrods, Amelia’s Magazine caught up with the alternative cake designer and baker to talk about experimental food movements, taking on the cupcake world and crowd surfing with Nick Griffin’s head…

Photography courtesy of Cico Books

Your background is as a graphic designer – do you think the skills you picked up during your training have helped you in your cake baking career at all?
I was a self-taught designer and I’m a self-taught baker so I never had any training for either! I definitely think there are transferable skills though and it’s valuable to learn how to apply yourself and your creativity to different things; design skills are always useful these days.

What excites you most about being in the cake baking industry?
I think it is a really exciting time for food in the UK; take a look at the Experimental Food Society of which I am a member. There are lots of young and creative people pushing boundaries in food. I think this is just the beginning and it’s going to get really fun. 

What sparked off the idea of going against the conventional cutesy cupcake?
It was a backlash. I was accidentally thrust into the world of the ‘cupcake’ which was never my intention as a baker, and I found it saturated with style-over-substance, overly sweet cakes, iced in glitter and sprinkles and sold at inflated prices. I wanted to bring it back to quality and play with preconceptions of appearance, for example, baking things that were ugly to look at but using quality ingredients.

Photography courtesy of Cico Books

How did you come up with the ideas for the different recipes in your book?
It didn’t take much! I love horror and the macabre and I always had a fascination with things like insects and dark stories like Sweeney Todd. I just played around for a few hours and that was it.

On average, how long does it take you to perfect a recipe including the design?
Most of my recipes are works-in-progress that I have been developing for years. It starts with a flavour or an idea about a perfect cake – texture, smell, flavour, etc – and then I develop it from there. None of my recipes are ever finished. I’m always tweaking and improving things, or adding a new twist. I have one cake, it was the first one I developed, which I have been working on for years – it always gets better. It’s a very wintry cake so I’ll be making it again soon. I can’t wait!

How did you end up working with Paul Parker on the illustrations in your book?
I originally got in touch with an artist I really admire called Richard ‘French’ Sayer. He makes these very beautiful dark and twisted black and white drawings, we had a few meetings about the project and he loved the idea, but once we got started it turned out it wasn’t a perfect fit for the book so he recommended Paul and straight away he completely nailed it. Paul’s work is much more colourful and the comic book/graphic horror novel style was exactly what I wanted. Everything I described to him he produced perfectly. He’s really young and just getting started but I think he’s going to do great things!

Photography courtesy of Cico Books

Have you had any cake baking disasters?
I once made a sculpture of Nick Griffin’s head for an event called ‘ The British Internationalists Party’. I spent about eight hours on it but it died (due to structural issues). We used it anyway and it crowd surfed at a gig, completely deformed by then. People were biting chunks out of it on the sweaty dance floor and marzipan ears were flying around – it was all pretty crazy! The worst part of it was that I had to look at images of Nick Griffin for a full day.

What’s the best cupcake you’ve ever had?
Definitely the best cupcake I’ve ever had is my vanilla with passionfruit, coconut & toasted almond. It really is just the perfect cake – so light and fluffy with a slight chewy texture at the top and beautiful vanilla flavours with gentle creamy buttercream and the sharpness and flavour of the passionfruit balances any sweetness. I made it the perfect cupcake for me, so I definitely say that’s the best one I’ve had…

Who do you most admire in the cake baking industry and why?
There are some really talented cake sculptors, such as Michelle Wibowo and Louise from Love to Cake, but the really exciting people for me in food are people like Bompas & Parr who bring art and science into food creation and push boundaries with everything they do.

What’s next for Lily Vanilli?
I’m launching at Harrods at the moment! This is a huge step for me as they are my first supplier. We will keep it seasonal and creative with new flavours each month. This month sees a special ‘Bonfire night’ cupcake. It’s a warm, wintery spiced cake, with a light lemon frosting and a popping candy chocolate disk with caremelised biscuit. It explodes in your mouth and tastes delicious! I think it’s a real sign of progress for foods in the UK that one of the worlds most visited and prestigious food halls would take a chance on an artisan baker from East London… I’m very excited!

Lily’s new book ‘A Zombie Ate My Cupcake!’ is published by Cico Books and can be purchased here. 


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One Response to “An interview with cake designer and alternative baker Lily Vanilli, a.k.a. Lily Jones”

  1. Faye West says:

    LOVE!!! Esp the candy skull cupcakes!

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