[dropcap size=small]M[/dropcap]eet the closet bakers who could give the professionals serious heartburn.
Anthony Huang, chief financial officer @antsandbeessg
Anthony Huang is a numbers guy. By definition, that makes him left-brained – organised, analytical, precise and rational. Not the kind prone to unpredictable, spur-of-the-moment behaviour like coughing up $700 for a cake-mixer at Takashimaya without even knowing how to bake.
“I thought it looked very nice,” rationalises the chief financial officer (CFO) of payment services company 2C2P, of his impulse buy. He had no real intention of baking despite being a cake lover, but “it was very expensive and I didn’t want to waste the money.” Now, Huang is a much sought-after party guest thanks to the Instagram-worthy confections he never fails to bring with him. He has even baked for the Queen herself – Channel 8’s Zoe Tay, who is reportedly a fan.
Baking didn’t come naturally to him. His first attempt at banana cake from a flimsy recipe provided by a chef from the Amanresorts group, where he used to work, flopped.
But his second attempt was a success and there was no turning back. After attending some classes and poring through cookbooks, his weekends are now a whirl of flour and butter that begins as early as 6am and ends with a tray of breakfast breads and pastries and up to three different kinds of cakes for tea. “Most people like to sleep in on weekends. But I like waking up early to bake.”
Stand back, leisure home-bakers content with just a lemon pound cake for tea on a Sunday. In these days of Cake Boss, The Great British Bake Off and social media, high-achieving bakers like Huang are the norm.
In the last few months, he started an Instagram account (@antsandbeessg) to showcase his bakes, although it’s still getting off the ground. He’s also amassed a collection of cake domes to display his creations at home. He also learned to make most shades of food colouring using only natural ingredients. “I’ve never used food colouring because I don’t believe in shortcuts,” he declares.
Instead, he prefers to grow his own pandan leaves, squeeze his own coconut milk, and pick the blue flowers off his neighbour’s butterfly-pea plant instead of using food colouring or pre-packaged coconut milk from the supermarket. It’s in line with his belief that “to get a good result you have to start with good ingredients.”
Yes, he thought of turning professional once when he was between jobs. “My friend encouraged me to take orders. But I hesitated while my friend designed a logo and found a name. As it happens, I found a new job. So now I just bake for leisure.” His specialities? Old-fashioned cake and Nonya kueh salat.
His left brain is perfect for baking because of its emphasis on precision. “People think baking is so scary. But as long as you follow all the measurements to the letter, you can’t go wrong.” But his right brain finds baking de-stressing.
“To mix in the ingredients and have them come alive in something so flavourful and pretty is an achievement for me. And to see people enjoy it makes me very happy.”
Yasaki-Tan Rie, passenger relations officer @happyhomebaker
Early morning in Yasaki-Tan Rie’s house is like waking up inside a pillowy fragrant loaf of brioche. The 42-year-old’s oven is all cranked up and burning bright, unloading fresh loaves that she will deliver to friends and neighbours. For free.
The former flight stewardess isn’t so much a closet baker as she is an obsessive one.
The Hiroshima-born Yasaki-Tan, who now works part-time as a passenger relations officer and interpreter, loves making bread so much that she ends up with more than she and her husband can finish on their own. “I don’t know why I like baking so much, but I guess it’s very unpredictable. You won’t know what will happen until you see the outcome,” she adds. “And it’s kind of an achievement for me because I do it from scratch.” She bakes all her breads and pastries using homemade yeast from fruits and herbs.
She picked up baking at around seven, with her mum – who wasn’t a good baker. She remembers failing miserably at baking a cake in Primary Five and became determined to learn from books “because there was no way I could learn from my mum”. She continued baking even after moving to Singapore in 1996 to join Singapore Airlines.
Four years ago, she decided to quit and pursue her passion full time. She spent one and a half years in Paris to take up a professional course (La Pâtisserie Française) at culinary school École Gastronomique Bellouet Conseil.
“We have a Japanese style of baking that I grew up with, but I wanted to learn the traditional French ways to incorporate into my own style,” she says.
The endgame is to turn professional but for now, her main focus is posting cake porn for the over 7,000 followers of her Instagram account (@happyhomebaker).
The photos look professionally styled, but Yasaki-Tan says they only take her 15 minutes to do, thanks to tips she gleaned from magazines, books, and advertisements.
“Since I take the time to bake everything, styling is important before I serve my food to my loved ones. But I try not to take too long otherwise my husband is kept waiting,” she says.
Her signature pastries include a mont blanc chestnut tart, and shio pan – a Japanese salted bread. Croissants are a challenge because of Singapore’s weather, “so I’m still struggling with that”. Even then, her kitchen is fitted with an air-conditioner so she can handle cake decoration and finicky pastries.
She shops for ingredients around the world, from French butter to Japanese flour. In Japan, for example, there are so many new kinds of flour depending on the season, and each has different characteristics. “I once brought back 7kg, which is nothing to me.” Now all we need is her address so we can move in next door.
Siow-Ling Kong, industrial engineering manager @thebakinghermit
Siow-Ling Kong’s dreamy confections that clutter her Instagram account look like the work of a professional cake artist. Nothing of the sort. She’s an industrial engineering manager who works full time in the semiconductor industry and just happens to be an exceptional home baker.
With her lemon meringue tart or chocolate and pistachio mousse cake as models, she takes up to two hours to painstakingly style and shoot. She took up photography and bought a mirror-less semi-pro camera just to get the best shots possible.
“I’m a perfectionist by nature, so it has to be exactly right, otherwise I wouldn’t bother doing it at all. I enjoy looking at nice photos and I like the fact that I own an (online) album of my personal handiwork to browse through.”
Baking is the perfect foil for work where “I spend most of my days in meetings, conference calls, and staring at a screen,” says Kong. “But with baking there’s instant gratification once it comes out of the oven. It helps as a stress reliever.”
There are sentimental reasons for her baking passion. As a child, she and her grandmother – whom she was very close to – spent a lot of time in the kitchen. She passed away when Kong was in her teens, so baking has been her way of keeping her in her heart.
It only became a serious hobby three years ago. At a dinner with friends, one of them showed her a photo of a rainbow cake baked by a 12-year-old. “It was really pretty and I was impressed. My friend said ‘look, a child can do it, so I’m sure you can too’. That same night I went to buy an oven and I’ve been baking almost every week since.” It was also the same time that she started a blog, which she maintains regularly to keep track of the various recipes she has used. Her Instagram account, meanwhile, feeds slightly over 1,000 cake-gawkers.
She’s often asked the same question – turn her baking into a business. No. She prefers to keep the two separate especially since she already has a full-time job that she’s happy with. “I want baking to remain a hobby. If it becomes an income source then I won’t have any hobbies. Besides, I don’t know how people could like baking and want to go into F&B,” she says, jokingly.
As much as it will likely remain as a pastime, Kong is not beyond daydreaming about taking up a professional course some day. She says: “I’ve considered taking a few months off work to go and get an actual pâtisserie diploma either locally or overseas, but it’s just something I think about. I don’t know if it’ll ever come true.” Her fans will no doubt dream along with her.
Sandra Lee, former HR professional @garden_of_serenity
Some people buy luxury bags, others like fancy shoes. But nothing catches Sandra Lee’s eye like a full copper set of canele moulds or the latest non-stick bakeware. The 43-year-old former HR professional admits she can’t go into a baking store without buying something. “But compared with other people (who buy branded goods), I guess I save money in a way,” she laughs.
Lee is now a stay-at-home mum with two kids – the main beneficiaries of the cakes and pastries that she bakes every week and showcases on her Instagram account (@garden_of_serenity). Like most working mums, she quit her job about eight years ago to take care of her first son who was then in primary school.
She’s following the footsteps of her mum who used to bake for her when she was a child. “What left a big impression was her pandan chiffon cake. I thought I should do the same for my children, too.” She only started seriously when her second son turned two.
“I started out with simple things like cupcakes and muffins, then moved on to more challenging things such as layered cakes, complete with cream and decorations,” she says. Along the way, she took baking classes to learn how to make bread and rainbow cakes.
But what her mum didn’t do was post her efforts on Instagram. Lee’s 3D chiffon cakes and banana split cupcakes get the gastric juices going for her nearly 20,000 Instagram followers. She confesses that the shots take up to two hours to be perfect. Her sons are well-trained not to lay a hand on her cakes before then.
“I like that on Instagram I get to show people what I bake, and share tips and recipes with them. I think it’s a good platform for that kind of fast interaction, which I like. People liking my photos makes me happy and motivated to bake more often, because it shows I’m doing the right thing,” she adds.
It might be a long time before she ever considers selling her baked goods though, because for now, Lee is happy having free time to spend with her kids.
“When they don’t need me anymore then I might consider baking as a career, but at the same time I feel like that might take away my love for it. When you bake for profit, there are things you have to sacrifice like quality because you have orders to rush. I much prefer to bake at my own pace,” she says.
Adapted from The Business Times Singapore