Mom recently turned 70. Turning 70 is huge: it is not just any birthday, but celebrating 7 decades of life, the whole of it. The good and bad, but always so many more good than bad.
As the one usually taking charge of our family birthday cakes, such an auspicious birthday calls for a not-your-ordinary birthday cake. Not-your-ordinary cake costs a bomb (for good reason), but I can’t bring myself to skimp on one.
So I called upon Quin, a closed friend of mine with a not-your-ordinary talent.
Quin is the one and only home baker that comes to my mind for such an important cake. One that put her heart and soul in all the cakes that she does. You know how store-bought cakes (sometimes) lack of soul? That, you won’t get from Quin, who does a helluva job in making people happy.
I approached Quin one month ahead, as I know that she appreciates a heads-up. She didn’t give me an immediate answer. One week later, she said yes, AFTER hearing my descriptions of the type of cake and design that I have in mind. She wanted to make sure that she is able to meet my brief, before saying yes to the order. For that, I respect her.
It started with “one tier butter cake, red color fondant cover, family figurines mixed with prosperity/longevity buns (寿桃).”
I also said that it MUST features prosperity/longevity buns (寿桃), but not ‘in your face’ kinda way … I told her that I can’t bring myself to ask for a whole cake shaped in prosperity bun. That is tacky and too-Chinese for my liking
, and I do have better taste than that.
Why family figurines? Well … Quin made a cake for my mom’s birthday few years ago, with family figurines. I thought that having figurines will make a nice ‘encore’, like down the memory lane kind of thing.
Red was chosen because it’s such an auspicious-celebration colour, and of course it symbolises happiness and (good) luck for Chinese people.
Mom doesn’t like a lot of thing / taste .. so a simple butter cake can’t go wrong.
I tried to keep my brief simple, yet clear. I think that it is important to give her the creative freedom to come up with the design and to do her things.
The discussions and ideas sharing
The discussions and ideas sharing were done mainly through Whatsapp, as I was in Bangkok and she in KL.
These discussions helped a lot. With her vast experience in making custom cakes, Quin patiently guided me in the decision making process. I knew that tackish-too-Chinese look is not right down my alley, but I didn’t realize that subconsciously, I was gearing towards a classy and sophisticated kind of look.
Quin came up with “Golden 70th” theme, and that shaped the look and feel of the cake.
We were sharing cake photos from internet with each other, and this helps her to understand the things that I like, and don’t. Quin doesn’t copy other cake designs, as a respect for the originator of the design. These cake examples mainly help us to visualize. This is another reason why I have high respect for Quin.
From these photo sharings, the cake design was coming together nicely. I wasn’t entirely convince that red and gold will not be over-the-top Chinese, but I told myself to leave it in Quin’s capable hands.
At one point, she thought that I wanted ‘real’ prosperity buns (instead of fondant) on the cake. Blessed her for even trying to discuss that with me.
I wasn’t expecting drawings, but she sent few to me …
Expect the unexpected
One piece of advice that I want to share is to expect the unexpected when working with a (home) baker. If you have given them a clear brief, let them do their things. Be flexible: expect slight ‘imperfection’ and minor tweak to design until the final production stage.
4 days before cake delivery date, Quin suggested adding “shou” (寿) (which means long life) word on the cake. At the initial discussion stage, I did share my concerns that the cake might be too plain with just the propsperty buns at the top layer . I gave Quin my blessings to move around the placement of the buns, if she sees fits. But, hey, she came up with this awesome tweak at her own initiative, to make the cake looks less plain! Bravo!!
She then also suggested tweaking the cake size from 8″ to 7″, to increase the height, so that the cake won’t look too fat and bulky. Because of that, if I am not wrong, she couldn’t find the right box size and had to DIY the box a bit. I thought that it makes the whole cake more charming, and special … like it’s for you and you only; no other people.
The ingredients and recipe
Quin told me that she used a new recipe, and it is a baking powder-free cake. A health conscious baker, with cakes that taste delicious …
Mom, who knows her butter cake inside out, commented that the cake smells ‘fragrant‘ … and Quin attributed that to the French butter she used.
Now do you see why she is not-your-ordinary baker?
Behind The Scene
Here are some of the Behind The Scene photos, shared by Quin, at my request.
She even gave me the extra prosperity bun fondants, and mom still has these babies stored in our fridge. Hmm .. what is she going to do with these fondants?
Quin told me that the age number was broken when she inserts it to the cake. But luckily she made extra. See the amount of preparation, including the back-up?
She went the extra mile, by getting the sparkling candles that I wanted to buy. But, please avoid this brand, as it didn’t work at all .. no sparkle, nada.
As she wasn’t sure if the sparkling candles work alright, she even bought normal candles for standby. Heart her for the back-up plan.
The final product
How much does it costs?
I checked with her twice, and she didn’t reply me. I should have guessed that she was “up to no good” …. that girl with a heart of gold intended to give the cake to my mom as a birthday present! It was totally unexpected, and I can’t accept it. I was the one who approached her in the first place, and she hardly knows my mom.
Quin asked me to only pay for the ingredients cost. I am still trying to get her to accept payment for her hard works … Will have to force her if I have to … hmph.
But … trust me when I say that this article is as ‘professional’ as it could be, even though she is a sweetie-sweetheart.
Is custom cake worth it?
A not-so-ordinary cake brought so much joy to the birthday girl; yes, it’s worth every single cents. Do splurge on one when the occassion calls for it.
Telling the story from Quin’s perspectives
“Why are custom cakes so expensive?” I asked Quin. Here’s why, telling it from the person slaving away in the kitchen. And she wants to get people like you and me to understand why custom cakes are so expensive, and the process behind it.
a) The cost of the ingredients – “you get what you pay for” .. the cost commensurates with the ingredients. It will be more expensive if the baker uses premium ingredients. For example : imported pure butter vs margarine, vanilla bean vs vanilla essence, etc
There are many legworks involve as well, running from one place to another to source for ingredients, especially FRESH ingredients. Let’s say you request for imported fruits, you need to understand that the baker more often than not, have to visit few stores to get these ingredients.
Quin says, when it is custom cake, it means that the baker will usually buy the ingredients upon confirmation of order. Hence, the price of purchase is higher than bulk purchase.
b) The tools – bakers invest a lot in tools. These are not the tools in your nor my kitchen, and it ain’t cheap.
c) Time – loooooooooooooong time spent from A to Z, from researching, to preparation till the finished cake. Especially when everything is handmade with love.
A custom cake may takes a week (or more) to prepare, depending on the complexity of the design. Some of the decorative items may need to be prepared in advance for setting purpose. For a simple custom made cake, it takes minimum 3 days to prepare.
Personally to Quin, labour cost is the main factor.
And what is the thought process? How does she conceptualizes the cake design?
a) Client’s brief – Some customers already have a design or theme in mind. Then, the baker will share their ideas, and design based on the client’s theme. Baker usually will sketch or find some references from internet, so that the customer will have an idea on the look of the cake.
Well .. unless if the bakers are being given free hand to design. But how many of us are that daring?
b) Size of the cake, no. of serving, venue and flavour / types of the cake will be taken into consideration too.
I also asked her to help us, you and I, how to be an exemplary customer. You want a cake that’s going to be the showstopper of the night? Do it right, you yourself.
a) Sufficient notice
b) To share their thoughts with the baker, to discuss
c) The brief must not be conflicting. For example, “I want a Chinese traditional themed wedding cake, but I want it to be cute and don’t want red at all”
Has she ever said no? And why?
a) Many times she turned down orders due to time pressure. She received quite a few orders for cake to be delivered the next day. (Hey people, most of these home bakers also hold a full time job, okay? Be considerate please)
b) Ordering type of cake that is not suitable for the venue. For example, a customer requested a full buttercream-tiered cake, and the cake was to be placed at outdoor for (long hours) photo session. (Just in case you don’t get it, it’s hot and humid weather here; there are limitations of cakes that can be placed in outdoor for long hours, can melt wan)
c) Budget given is too low.
Thanks again Quin for the awesome-mosem cake, and for bringing such a huge joy to my mom on her special day. Heart you long, long time.
If you like her works, Quin can be reached at email@example.com. Do drop me a message if you want her contact number.