The Wonder of Bespoke Baking
Often, when I offer up a baked good to family or friends, I am met with puzzled, albeit hungry eyes, and bemused expressions. I watch them tentatively accept their allotted portion, and bring it to their mouths slowly, ever suspicious. They take a bite; peace ensues. All trace of hesitance dissipates as the bake, be it butter rich, densely chocolatey or sticky sweet, melts on their tongue. The reservations active in their minds are stilled and replaced with accepting surrender. They linger in this state for a few moments, before blinking their eyes open and re-grounding. The silence is broken with an almost accusatory, ’How do you think of that?’. I smile.
The truth of the matter is quite simple, in so far as I do just think of my bakery recipes. The process of thinking is however multifaceted. Firstly, when baking for myself or loved ones, I combine flavours that I enjoy, and pair them with other complimentary ones, layering contrasting flavour notes, textures and aromas to arrive at a robustly tasty final product. For example, if I'm working with dark chocolate I would instinctively think of flaky sea salt, perhaps something sharp like morello cherry to create complexity, and toasted almond for extra bite and buttery undertones. In all honesty, these flavour marriages occur in moments as my mind has a tendency to work frenziedly where food is concerned; my experience in eating vast amounts of cake is here a significant aid. I use this natural affinity for flavour when designing all of my bespoke cake recipes too, however in these instances I also seek to emulate the preferences of my recipient. Certainly, I take pride in my bespoke offer; I do not limit my clients to a basic choice of vanilla, chocolate or carrot cake and simply pop on a cake topper with their name to crown it theirs. No, I take the time to ask each client about their favourite flavours, their fondest food memories and their preferred style of decor. If they are working to a colour scheme, I will demonstrate natural ways to achieve it, uniting flavour and flourish so their bespoke bake is both wholesome and beautiful. A client who might love both chocolate brownie and cheesecake dearly must not be forced to choose (we don’t choose our favourite children after all, which as a non-parent I consider a valid comparison!) So I would create a hybrid, unique to them - think intense chocolate sponge with berry cream cheese frosting and biscuit crumb garnish. It is this effort, and compassion for both client and cake, that makes bespoke baking so wonderful.
Indeed, when I walk through the supermarket and see the stacks of luminous, ludicrous sponge cakes in line, held in their garish, plastic packaging and boasting a four year expiry date, my heart sinks and blood chills. I see science projects, test tube ingredients and lab coats. There is a sterility in this image that is so far removed from the warmth and affection that we wish to demonstrate when presenting a loved one with a cake. It’s cake heartbreak for a baker.
With a bespoke cake, so much time, thought and energy is poured into its creation by the baker that it is perceivable in the finished product. When the cake is cut, you may have to move aside a flower or chocolate truffle adornment that a bespoke baker has placed there by hand. As the knife drops through the two, three or even four layers of sponge, it is probably forgotten but a baker has trimmed each sponge, stacked them in perfect symmetry and also layered them with piped creams or curds, fillings which they will have also made from scratch. When you have finished the cake and place the leftovers back in a cake box, the baker will have sourced this box to fit your cakes' exact dimensions, built it for you and more often than not, carried it all the way from their home kitchen to arrive safely in yours. The consideration, the skill and the vigilance cannot be underestimated.
I fear that there is a misconception with bespoke cakes, and that is that they are inaccessible or overpriced. Ultimately yes, they do cost more than a shop-bought alternative (though I prefer not to group them into the same category). I sincerely hope however that even over the course of this short blog post, it is evident that a bespoke cake is more than a mere concoction of ingredients. It’s design, development, communication, sourcing, expertise, attention, compassion and significantly it’s a love of the baking process which in turn yields edible magic. Moreover, I at least consider it a privilege to work on any bespoke project, from a box of six cupcakes to a three tier wedding extravaganza, and thus budgets are always accommodated.
I remember moments of my childhood on an ad hoc basis, some clear and others muted by the limitations of new experience. The moments I do remember however are those huddled around a birthday cake, candles aglow with the promise of pending birthday wishes and paper plates stacked in anticipation for feasting. That feeling of sheer joy is what I wish to harness in all of my creations as a bespoke baker - to be loved, to love and to eat cake.