These home bakers are so good cafés are getting their cakes from them. We sift through the trend with four home-based cake entrepreneurs.
Meet the cake makers
‘I couldn’t even fry an egg,’ the chatty Sophia Foo says. ‘It was only when I went to university in Melbourne that I started cooking properly.’ Exposure to fresh food markets, exciting modern restaurants and gourmet food magazines in Melbourne heightened her infatuation with food.
When she came back to KL, Sophia booked a job at a restaurant where she learned to stand on her feet 13 hours a day on a ridiculously low salary. After an eight-month stint, her dream of enrolling in culinary school in New York was hampered by high tuition fees. But Sophia was compensated two Christmases ago when her sister-in-law ordered cupcakes and macarons off her, and faster than she could say ‘Kitchen Aid’, orders were rolling in for Chinese New Year.
A few bazaar appearances later, her friend Caroline of The Good Batch suggested featuring a few of Sophia’s cakes at the café. Little did they know, the restaurant would go on to become the most popular of last year’s café boom. If you only eat one of Sophia’s cakes, make it The King. Featuring classic Elvis flavours, two banana cakes are separated by banana slices and chocolate chunks (which melt when warm), and generously iced with peanut butter frosting. If you’re one of those misunderstood folks who don’t like peanut butter, try her kaya toast cake, lemon curd cheesecake or Milo Dinosaur cake instead.Classics like chocolate and carrot are avoided because Sophia claims ‘they have to be to really excellent’ to stand out.
Because she’s a one-woman show, baking, decorating and delivering 40 cakes a week means only getting four hours of sleep a night. With Pudu’s handsome coffee joint VCR also jumping on the Frost & Flourish bandwagon, Sophia only has more exciting sleep-deprived days to look forward to.
Frost & Flourish currently supplies to The Good Batch and VCR.
Eddie Tan faced a minor setback before setting up Cake Tella: He didn’t quite know how to make cakes. He had graduated from culinary school but majored in hot cooking, and his short stint at a mall kitchen didn’t particularly hone his baking skills. After months of measuring butter in his kitchen and an unwavering perseverance, Eddie is now an expert in the decorated world of sugar and frosting.
‘Back then [in February 2012], I started selling online. If I could sell two cakes a month, I was happy,’ Eddie reflects. When the 25-year-old plunged into the business full time, he proactively made sample cakes and distributed them to various cafés along with a price list. ‘I sealed the deal at espressolab and Kaffa Espresso Bar, and things just grew from there.’
Unlike most home bakers, he steers clear of butter cakes and focuses on mille crepe or alcoholic mousse cakes. Modernly presented, his cakes aim to surprise; you might find popping rock chocolate on the cake’s surface or a heady amount of whisky in the middle. The Bailey’s chocolate mousse and Kahlua tiramisu cakes are chilled, multi-layered and perplexingly crunchy in texture – no wonder they’re such favourites among Cake Tella regulars. Every swipe of frosting is rounded off evenly with a palette knife and caramelised nuts are arranged over the top for a contemporary look.
A conversation with a budding businessman doesn’t end without a bit of money talk. Eddie allocates a whopping budget for expensive imported ingredients like liquor, hazelnuts and mascarpone cheese, a disheartening reality faced by all home bakers. Still, Eddie very much prefers his line of work over a restaurant job. ‘I spent RM70k on my degree but a starting full-time chef only gets an average of RM1,200 to RM1,500. And you have to work six days a week,’ he says of the underpaid industry. Comparatively, making cakes at home is a luxurious alternative to working in a back kitchen, a fact that Eddie has happily resigned himself to.
Cake Tella currently supplies to espressolab, Kaffa Espresso Bar, TiPsy Brew O’Coffee @ SetiaWalk Puchong, Crave @ Oasis Square, Slurp @ 3 Two Square, CAFFEine; @ SetiaWalk Puchong and Ante Kitchen & Bar.
Basira Yeusuff has been puttering around with sieves and whisks since the age of 13. ‘I used to sell brownies at my school because I wanted money to buy a drum set,’ she says. A drum set wasn’t all she attained from her thriving passion for food: She also completed a degree in culinary arts, underwent an apprenticeship in Germany, worked as a saucier in a fine dining restaurant in Singapore, spent a year in Switzerland, managed a bistro kitchen on Changkat and became head honcho of Crumbs, a sandwich café in Bangsar. All that and more before the 27-year-old decided to stay home and make yummy things in the confines of her kitchen.
The now-discontinued Crumbs (‘The overheads killed us,’ Basira laments) served as practice for running a business, and paved the way for yay, sammich!, a sandwich company that gathered cult followers of her tender beef brisket sandwiches at gigs and festivals. Soon after, Basira’s baking project picked up momentum with the assistance of social media and pop-up stalls. She currently supplies salted caramel brownies, Earl Grey milk tea cakes and pecan pies to The Bee, a gig that has helped put yay cake! on the map. ‘I think it’s good that cafés are turning to home bakers. It gives us a chance to display our goods without having to open a café,’ Basira points out. ‘And I suppose it’s more cost-effective for the cafés to get cakes from us rather than hire an in-house pastry chef.’
Most businesses implement SOPs but there’s a grey area when cafés rely on home bakers. How does one regulate the quality of ingredients, hygiene or the application of halal protocol? ‘It’s the cafés’ responsibility to figure out where they’re getting stuff from,’ Basira says. ‘And as suppliers, it’s our responsibility to answer truthfully.’ Hand to heart, Basira is going places.
yay, cake! currently supplies to The Bee, Targa Cafe @ Plaza Damas and Sanbanto.
Karen’s devotion to baking didn’t grow by chance. ‘My grandma and mother are phenomenal cooks,’ she says. Spending her teenage years in London, her first break came one Christmas at boarding school. ‘When I was about 18, I volunteered to cook Christmas dinner for 100 people in my school. And it turned out brilliant.’
As stress loomed at the turn of adulthood, Karen turned to baking as therapy, leading to the creation of #TartArt. Food Bites, the city’s first independent food market, was Karen’s own Ed Sullivan Show debut. ‘I didn’t want to just sit at a table and sell cupcakes. I always resisted. But when Food Bites came along, they were more artisanal,’ the 41-year-old says.
In a market saturated with carrot cakes and brownies, Karen made a conscious decision to focus on unusual treats like her strawberry tart with black pepper crust and balsamic vinegar dressing or the pineapple and star fruit tart with salted gula Melaka caramel. Her cakes are laden with gourmet twists, a feature that caught the keen eye of Joey Mah, co-partner of Artisan Roast. When Joey’s pop-up coffee joint Nowhereman Coffee launched in November last year, Karen was a shoo-in.
She worked with Joey to bounce off flavour profiles to complement his (former) Cough Syrup coffee blend: lemon, orange and Turkish pistachio mini cakes were just a few things she whipped up to harmonise with the mild, citrusy coffee. She enjoys some amount of flexibility too, which she uses to test rare combinations like chocolate and avocado. But a sense of adventure may not be Malaysians’ strongest suit. ‘Serious cake lovers will be open to trying unusual flavours,’ Karen says. ‘But every time I go to a coffee shop, I don’t like to see the stockstandard red velvets. I understand that cafés need to make money but these places don’t have unique selling points.’ If only more cafés could take a leaf from Karen’s thoughtfully penned book.
#TartArt currently supplies to Three Little Birds Coffee.