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  • Writer's pictureMaxine

Real talk: the business of cake

You might want to make some tea: this is a long 'un.

Before I started baking for business, I really couldn't understand why anyone would pay more than twenty quid for a cake. My experience of cake making was essentially mixing eggs, flour, sugar, oil and some mashed banana in a bowl with a spoon, chucking it in a pan and waiting for a couple of hours while the oven did its thing. Then boom, there be cake. No big deal.

But then, I used to feel that way about food in general: bargain = better. And then I got pregnant. My husband suddenly got very interested in buying directly from butchers and fishmongers. I started actually reading food labels. He became a bit obsessed with our local farmers' market in Queens' Park. I became suspicious instead of excited about whole chickens that cost £3. We also listened to the foodie friends (yes, Raph & Marisa, I mean YOU) that had been telling us for years that buying high quality food didn't have to break the bank. As our children arrived, we've continued to economise in other areas (pre-loved kids clothes are our thing) and seek out fresher, less-travelled food. We've learned that a few extra pounds on meat and fish could also translate to real bargains on fruit and veg at market stalls.

When I set out to make my first ever occasion cake - that Christmas Eve, rustic pear & ginger number pictured up there - it was therefore with a very different attitude to the banana cupcakes, gateaux au yaourt and apple cakes I used to stick to. Those cupcakes had been for fellow students or office teammates who just wanted a free, sweet treat - whether it was a Mars bar or a cupcake, same difference. There would be families at this festive occasion, a bunch of real food lovers who choose quality over quantity, have seasoned tastebuds and only really eat cake on special occasions. People I love very much, even despite their poor commitment to cake consumption. So I bought and grated organic pears, which I seasoned and cooked for the cake batter, and squeezed out and mixed raw into the buttercream. I used organic double cream and high quality chocolate for the ganache and salted caramel. The eggs, butter, sugar and flour were all organic, with free range egg whites for the macs and meringue kisses. I experimented with the honeycomb recipe so as to bring down the sugar content in favour of organic agave syrup. It came together so well I was shocked, and I promised myself that if I was going to give this baking business thing a whirl, I would only use ingredients I'd feel comfortable serving to both to the foodie people I know and love and to my own children.

It's why I make everything I can from scratch - I want to know what's in my food, and I want to be able to look my customers in the eye, knowing that I've served each one with the same quality ingredients I use in my own home. After all, that's one of the reasons that you buy from a homebaker, isn't it? And honouring a social contract like that means an investment in my ingredients, in my skills and in my time.

I'll give you an example. Let's say I'm making you a magical unicorn cake (nice choice, by the way).

The first thing I'll do is make my own fondant - I don't keep it for more than a month. I'll melt marshmallows, mix and knead in icing sugar, then smother it in coconut oil before putting it away in the fridge to rest for 24 hours. That process takes 45 mins to an hour.

Then I'll sculpt and paint the golden horn, ears, eyelashes and stars, which is about another 30 mins.

I'll make the simple syrup I use to keep the cakes extra moist - 20 mins.

I'll make two vanilla cakes, so let's say that's about 30 mins including lining the pans with baking paper, and while they're baking, crack on with the fresh homemade berry compote, using fresh fruit I've bought in season and frozen - 20 mins.

Compote's cooling, so let's make and flavour a large batch of vanilla buttercream, 30 mins, then mix the right colours for the design, about another 30-40 mins.

Check on those cakes, and if they're ready, get them out to cool.

Ok, now I'll spend 15 mins prepping the multicoloured buttercream for application, fitting piping nozzles and piping bags and leave them to one side.

Cut and level the cool cakes, and get to work stacking and filling the layers with buttercream and compote, before adding a thin, even layer of buttercream all over - 30 mins - and refrigerating the cake for an hour while I clean up the kitchen.

Then on goes the final coat of buttercream, and when that's perfect and chilled, it's time to place the unicorn's fondant features and, of course, piping on that gorgeous multicoloured mane - let's say 60 - 80 mins including refrigeration time.

4.5 hours, then, minimum, without the pre, during and final kitchen clean up operations. The national minimum wage is £7.50 an hour, so let's say that cake should earn me £33.75, before tax. If I calculate using the London Living Wage at £9.75/hr, I should be earning £43.87. I charge £60 for a 6" unicorn cake, so once you factor in cost of the ingredients and overheads like electricity, gas and water, you'll appreciate how skinny a markup we're really talking about.

So why am I committing all this to a blog post?

I suppose it's to remind myself and any other homebaker of something fundamental. Yes, I love to bake. Yes, I live for that look of joy and that "mmmm!" of pleasure when someone sees then tastes the bake I've made for them. Yes, if I wasn't running a homebaking business, I'd still bake.

But I AM running a business. And it does mean time not spent with my kids, my husband, my friends, or just sleeping. It means hours and hours of finding inspiration online, in nature, in my brain, and plotting, testing, re-testing recipes.

My time is of value. My skills are of value. Even if my financial responsibilities didn't demand it, I should want to be valued for my work. We all should.

And I guess it's just helpful to start with that, sometimes.


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