Saturday 21 September 2019

Meet the Irish bakers who ditched their careers for a sugar coated dream

The return of The Great British Bake Off to our screens this week has once again turned the spotlight on the delights of baking. Bairbre Power meets Irish enthusiasts, some of whom started out making birthday cakes for their kids and went on to win gold medals, while others have switched careers to follow their sugar-coated passion

Mary Toner of bakersandcakers.com
Mary Toner of bakersandcakers.com
Top tier: Deborah Guerin from Co Limerick only got into cake making five years ago and splits her time between breeding racehorses and running Cakes by Deborah. Photo: Don Moloney
Build your dreams: Former architect Izabella Sikora made a cake for her son's birthday and loved the creativity so much, she switched careers. She set up Funky Cakes by Architect in Cork, specialising in fantasy creations
Roll with it: Tanya Ross from Tubber, Co Westmeath, used to run an engineering company before getting into baking for her kids and then starting Novel-T Cakes
Life is sweet: Jen Rojas (above with her husband, Jay Vista) gave up her job as a neuro and surgical theatre nurse to run her burgeoning business, Cupcakes and Counting, in Swords
Life is rosy: Ann Geraghty of Cakes Glorious Cakes with a bespoke floral decorated wedding cake
Bairbre Power

Bairbre Power

Multi-award-winning baker Deborah Guerin's zeal for making cakes is contagious.

She talks buttercreams, pralines and sponge mixes with great enthusiasm. In fact, she loves making cakes so much, the culinary art has even found its way into her wardrobe. The mother-of-two dons a 1950s-style dress made up in a cupcakes fabric for our photoshoot at her home in Co Limerick. 

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Outside in the paddock are the thoroughbred racehorses she breeds with her husband.  In the summer months, Deborah is all about the cakes but come late winter, it will be horses, horses, horses and sometimes, the animal world invades her cake business, Cakes by Deborah, like the 'Udderly in Love' wedding cake (pictured above) complete with cows and wellies, the original of which she made for a farming couple who tied the knot last year.

The interest all started when, as an independent-minded young woman, she wanted to make her own wedding cake. "That was 25 years ago and when I got married, I gave up work to stay at home and have my two girls, Dearbhla and Clodagh. I've only gone back to making cakes in the last five years," she explains.

Deborah enjoys "every aspect of baking but the cakes have to taste amazing: that's the thing for me. They look spectacular but they also have to taste fabulous," she says, pointing me to her own favourite combination of hazelnut chocolate fudge with hazelnut praline and Swiss meringue buttercream.

"You meet a lot of people with different ideas about what they want. Every cake is individual and the venues are different. I could be in Kildare today, in Sneem tomorrow and Galway the day after. There's a lot of travel involved in my work and I set up all my own wedding cakes," says Deborah.

"My largest cake to date was made in September two years ago. It was over 10 tiers and it was for a Limerick native who is the executive pastry chef in 45 Park Lane in London. She came home to get married and I made her cake.

Now is the height of the wedding season, which is a good thing because the horses are out at this time of the year, but from November, I wouldn't be able to take on a huge amount of cakes because usually we would be prepping for horse sales. After Christmas, there's foaling and then there's the covering season so I would be involved in all that. I have a few yearling fillies here and we will probably retain one for racing next year so obviously, if I do that, she will have to have something cake-related as her name," says Deborah.

READ MORE: 'Don't hold your guests captive and forget the flowers' - meet Ireland's first wedding doula

One of the biggest trends in the cake business in the recent years has been the shift from run-of-the-mill, over-the-counter shop cakes to commissioned cakes for a variety of occasions and landmark events.

No more just the birthday and wedding, the themed, big-occasion cakes with equally big personalities cover everything from graduations and hen parties to house warmings, day-after-the-wedding cake to the very popular 'reveal' cakes in which the innards of the cake, where the colour of the sponge or the sweeties that cascade out, reveal the sex of the baby. To support the secret, parents are given the scan details in an envelope and hand it over to the baker, who knows the news before they do!

As the industry shifts up a gear and spreads it wings from straight-forward cáca milis sales into classes in sugarcraft for the home-baking enthusiast, tenacious mother-of-two, Jen Rojas is typical of a new generation of entrepreneurs responding to the cake love currently abounding around Ireland.

Just this month Jen officially resigned from her career as a neuro and surgical theatre nurse in Dublin in order to make cakes on a full time basis. She set up Cupcakes and Counting and now has a new studio in Swords where she meets clients. Jen's introduction to this niche of bespoke cakes had nothing to do with birthday celebrations. Quite the opposite in fact.

Reacting to Super Typhoon Yolanda which hit the Philippines in November 2013, Jen and her husband, Jay Vista, decided to do a fundraiser for Jay's relatives and friends living there, and they made cupcakes. The response was very positive and requests came in for more followed by one for a cake for a friend's daughter.

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Life is sweet: Jen Rojas (above with her husband, Jay Vista) gave up her job as a neuro and surgical theatre nurse to run her burgeoning business, Cupcakes and Counting, in Swords

"In 2015, I made my first wedding cake. It was a four-tier Guinness cake with salted caramel. Our most popular would be the chocolate-based cake with Guinness and a Baileys cream. We have a lot of couples coming from abroad to get married here, couples from America and Dubai so they want something that belongs to Ireland so we do Guinness with a Baileys frosting."

Jen explains how she "loved my work as a nurse, especially my colleagues, they are so supportive and nice" but making cakes is therapeutic, especially making sugar flowers," says Jen who can spend an hour on a single rose. The most time-consuming of all are peony roses and dahlias, due to all their petals. However, Jen has her own way to relax: she plays Disney music, something easy like Beauty and the Beast.

Fortunately, the entire family has all caught the baking bug. Jay, who works full time as a psychiatric nurse, helps Jen with the baking and their teenage daughters, Brittany and Julianne drop into the studio on holidays. In less than six years, Jen has taken her cupcakes skill and turned it into more than hobby. It's now a full-time business. She is in demand abroad to give classes on the delicate art of sugar flowers. This autumn she travels to the States to teach and she also gives private classes.

The idea of turning a hobby into a part-time job, even a full-time career must resonate with the millions of viewers addicted to watching The Great British Bake Off. The show, now it in 10th series, triggers a lot of 'watercooler' discussions in the days after transmission and it has unleashed a competitive streak in lots of workplaces around the country as Friday Bake Days become popular.

This week as the show returned to our screens, half the bakers competing were under 30 years of age, which speaks volumes about the popularity of cake making among millennials. Their grannies used to do it but how many of their time-poor parents whipped up cakes, or did they resort to the boxed, over-the-counter cakes?

Several former TGBBO winners have gone to develop full-time careers after tempting us with stunning creations. John Whaite, who won in 2012, opened his own cookery school on his family farm and Nadiya Hussain (2015) was chosen to bake a cake for Queen Elizabeth's 90th birthday.

As reviewers have noted, this show has "just the right consistency of mouthwatering morsels and good humour" but I will confess, I do miss the Queen of Hearts, Mary Berry.

The legendary baking queen Mary Berry would appreciate the fantasy cake work of mother-of three, Tanya Ross. She had an industrial engineering business in South Africa before she moved here with her Irish husband.

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Roll with it: Tanya Ross from Tubber, Co Westmeath, used to run an engineering company before getting into baking for her kids and then starting Novel-T Cakes

"I didn't start the cake making until I moved to Ireland and started making cakes for my own kids' birthday parties. After that people kept asking and it just sort of grew from there," she explains, and what a story it has been for her. Tanya has scooped more than 12 gold medals, including some at the Cake International Show in Birmingham, which is the biggest cake show in the world for her fantasy cakes, and she also won the Live Global Challenge for Ireland at America's Cake Fair in Orlando in 2017 with her team-mate from Cork.

Fantasy and sculptural carved cakes are her thing and while her castle with horse and carriage is very spectacular, my favourite is her Woman in Bath, which Tanya made for her mother but then wouldn't let them cut it so it has survived! Tanya made a life-sized stag cake for a charity and a life-sized Santa sitting in a chair for RTÉ's Late Late for the last show of the season.

Now running her business, Novel-T Cakes in Co Westmeath, she also gives classes in sugarcraft. "I absolutely love making carved cakes, making them look real, but they are actually cake.

"I love making wedding cakes and I also love the challenge of making novelty cakes. I love what I do - you get to play and call it work. What's not to love?"

In a straw poll of what lies beneath, it is clear that Irish people have a fondness for chocolate biscuit cakes, some infused with whiskey and sometimes even marshmallows and raisins, though the latter is consider a little controversial by hardcore biscuit makers.

Then there's the whole red velvet cake trend while others swear by a good Victoria sponge where the secret ingredient is homemade jam.

Into this mix of popular cake options you can add in the royal factor. Claire Ptak's famous lemon elderflower cake for Meghan and Harry's wedding naturally spawned lots of curiosity and orders.

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Life is rosy: Ann Geraghty of Cakes Glorious Cakes with a bespoke floral decorated wedding cake

Experienced wedding cake maker Ann Geraghty of Cakes Glorious Cakes, from Beauparc in Co Meath, has received requests for all sorts of cakes over the years and is never fazed by couples wanting to be different.

When she was asked for a cappuccino cake, she got cracking and presenting a slice to her experienced 'taste testers' - namely her husband and grown-up children, they all agreed... it was perfect. Ann says she started her business only a few years ago after a lot of persuasion from her friends. "I am self taught and love a challenge no matter how big or small."

Architect-turned-cake maker Izabella Sikora is living in Ireland 14 years. The Polish native moved here after working in Canada and Europe. She wanted more creativity in her life and set up Funky Cakes by Architect.

"I was really looking for something different and it just happened by accident that I decided to make a cake for my son, Luca (7), and that's actually how I got into it. I discovered the sugar artwork that I didn't even know existed before. I didn't even know you can make a cake that doesn't even look like a cake."

Izabella admits she had an advantage because of her artistic background. "I could paint and sculpt and even my architectural background in building 3D structures helps me to work on cakes from a completely different perspective. I make my own jams, curds and use fresh produce I find at farmers' markets. I try and source everything locally. Recently I went into macarons because in Cork, nobody really makes them," said Izabella, whose motto in business is 'I refuse to be ordinary'.

"I love fantasy cakes like my Antique Books and I've been asked to do buildings and a roller-skates cake. When I work on cakes, it takes me into a completely different world. Sometimes it can take two to three days to finish one cake, to decorate and use different techniques. I like going into that mystical world of decorating. If someone asks me for an easy cake, I say I don't understand what 'easy cakes' means. I don't make those."

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Mary Toner of bakersandcakers.com

Mary Toner did a business degree and then went to Ballymaloe Cookery School, after which she thought she might open her own restaurant. All changed went she went to work at Chapter One and she discovered she loved pastry. The irony is that she "never had a sweet tooth" but fell for the artistry involved in cakes.

"It was when I started making cakes that I really saw a big problem in Ireland both for the people making the cakes and for the customers trying to find them," says Mary. She recognised a gap in the market and set up the website BakersandCakers.com as an online business tool for the baked goods industry.

The mother-of-one is now effectively a digital mother hen to dozens of Irish bakers who contribute to her website. "Think 'Tinder' but for cakes," she says, explaining how the site provides a management suite of industry-specific business tools, e-commerce profiles and access to a custom marketplace, making it easy for customers and cakers to connect and buy the perfect cake for every occasion. It is estimated that the custom cake market in Ireland has a potential for over 500,000 cakes every year while the UK market has around four times that.

"One of the biggest drivers in the whole cake scene has been Instagram," Mary explains.

"It is not us putting up cakes on Instagram that's driving it - it's the parents and people wanting their 'Instagram moment'. Everybody wants their fabulous Instagram moment and what they want are really stunning cakes. I see enquiries coming into the website and they have gone from 'I'm looking for a birthday cake' to 'I'm looking for a birthday cake with the theme of a Chanel handbag or 'this person is really into Ironman and can you do a cake around that?' There have even been requests for divorce cakes."

Mary believes in reaching high in business terms - well, she is married to Leinster and Ireland's rugby second row, Devin Toner.

"Personalisation has become huge over the last 15 years and now it has trickled down into cakes. We are really lucky that we have a huge amount of talented artists in Ireland. Christening cakes and baby shower cakes are one of our biggest markets now.

"While landmark occasions are big for bakers, now other big birthdays have become huge. Another market I am fascinated by is the corporate side of things.

"Again this is driven by Instagram. Public relations firms and corporate companies want to send things out to their potential customers or influencers that will catch people's attentions and they are doing that with the like of cake pops or cookies or something that's really visual and takes a good photo. So much of it ties in but it's just getting the right business model and bringing along the cakers with it, getting them to charge correctly and run their businesses well." Sounds like a sweet plan to me.

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