A cake is an integral part of any celebration. Anyone who has ever tried to bake the simplest cake will agree that it’s much easier to buy a ready-made one than cook it by yourself. Now try to imagine what creating a multi-tiered cake with complex decorations in tropical humidity and climate is like. Whereas, delivering it is another, no less fascinating, story.
We at Enlighten spoke to Lilia Zayarnaya, the confectioner who lives on Ko Samui (an island in Thailand), who cooperates with local wedding agencies and bakeries and delivers about 25 cakes a month.
How I became a confectioner
- I’ve always been good at drawing and liked to do things with my hands. Before I made the decision to work as a confectioner, I used to work as a nail artist. In 2013, we decided to change our life and moved to Thailand.
- The idea to start a confectionary business came to me after communicating with my neighbor. She has a small catering agency in Germany and she showed me some photos of the cakes they bake for their clients. Today, I understand those were quite simple cakes but at the time, they seemed incredible to me. I got an idea to do something similar. The desire was so strong that I could feel butterflies in my stomach.
- I was watching YouTube, reading blogs, and attending forums. I kept experimenting and took a baking course in Bangkok. I got an Instagram account and started to post photos of my cakes there.
- One of my first orders was to decorate desserts for a birthday. The girl who had a birthday was studying ballet which is why all the desserts were decorated with the figurines of ballerinas, ballet shoes, and other things of that nature. I was drawing the sketches and spent the whole night working, and in the end, the dessert table looked fabulous. I had barely taken a photo of the table before a bunch of kids rushed to the room and all my work was destroyed within several seconds! Frankly speaking, it took me some time to get used to the fact that hours of my painstaking work would be destroyed so fast.
- I remember one more instance: I was making a cake for a little girl’s birthday. I decorated it with a figurine of a princess in a magnificent dress on the top. It was 100% handmade. When I brought the cake, the guests were not there yet. Having seen the cake, the birthday girl showed an instant desire to try it but her mother said it was too early. The girl kept whirling around the cake. When the mother left, her dad came in saying, “It’s your day today!” He then lifted the girl, brought her to the cake, and she bit the princess’s head off.
Confectionery art in the tropics
- I quickly realized that classical cake recipes don’t take tropical heat and humidity into account. Both cream and dough would behave unexpectedly from time to time. I had wasted so many products before I realized that it’s a matter of temperature contrast that makes the process go wrong. After that, I started to work with an AC on and everything started to work better.
- I am lucky to work in a place that is full of tropical fruits all year around. The most popular tastes are mango, maracuja, and coconut. You can also buy fresh coconut milk at the market that is squeezed right in front of you.
- I like coconut and cane sugar since they give a special delicate caramel flavor. The cost of cane sugar doesn’t differ much from the usual price. Plus, coconut and cane sugars are much healthier and tastier than white. Customers are always happy if I suggest minimizing the “harmfulness” of the cake.
- Once I came into the kitchen to take out the macaroons from the oven and there was a snake on it. They often get inside houses in the tropics. It’s good that she wasn’t baked together with the dessert.
- I make about 25 cakes a month. If the cake is complicated, I can spend 2 days on it. I bake it on the first day and decorate it on the second. I start in the morning and sometimes finish late at night. I have an enormous amount of baking tools and my workplace is like an artist’s workshop, it just smells of fresh pastries and vanilla.
- The cost of a cake depends on the complexity of the decorations, not on its weight. The average price of a 3-tier wedding cake for 60 guests is about 7,000 — 12,000 Thai Baht ($200 — $400).
- The most expensive ingredient is culinary gold of 24 carats. The average price for the golden coating of a 3-tiered cake is about 6,000 — 8,000 Thai Baht ($200 — $250). This doesn’t include the cost of the cake itself. Golden cakes are trending these days.
- An option for those who want to save money is a trendy “bare” cake. It’s called this because it isn’t covered with mastic or cream on top, and the actual cake is visible. The most difficult thing is to make their edges even.
- Many confectioners are against using mastic. There is a popular opinion that considers it to be inedible. But if we’re talking about taste, it depends on the quality. Mastic’s main task is to decorate the confection. That’s why I’m not going to refuse to use mastic, otherwise, I might end up losing half of my clients and limit my creativity.
Making a cake is half the deal — it should also be delivered.
- My services include not only making cakes but also delivering them. It’s a bit more nerve-racking than working on the cake itself. The fact is, many popular hotels and villas are located in hard-to-reach places, and getting a cake there so that it doesn’t fall apart requires considerable effort. When a cake is big, it’s hard to hold it — it literally slips out of my hands on turns and bumps. Sometimes my cakes don’t fit in the car and I’ll have to carry it in the back of a pickup truck. The scariest thing is to open the box after such rides. We make about 3 to 4 deliveries a week during busy seasons and each delivery is a big load of stress for me. But all my worries stay behind when I see the smiles of newlyweds.
- During one of these deliveries, the cake cracked. Once we reached the hotel, I started a rescue operation: to decorate the cake with whipped cream. There was cream in the hotel but there was nothing to whip it with. Then my driver who lived nearby said that he had whipped cream at home. He brought it and I tried my best to fix it but, of course, it didn’t look like the original one. I approached the groom and the bride to apologize but since the wedding was on the full go, they didn’t understand what the issue was. They looked so happy and I was glad they didn’t get upset. Ever since that time, I’ve always carried an “emergency suitcase” with the necessary tools and whipped cream.
- Once I was asked to deliver a complex 5-tier cake to a hotel but they forgot to mention that the last part of my way would be covered by boat. So we come to the meeting point by the navigator, it’s dark and there’s a small boat waiting for us on the shore. The cake reached the destination safely but all my hair almost turned gray that evening.
A bit about clients
- I have clients from all over the world, so I had to study the national characteristics of weddings and other celebrations over my years of work, because Chinese, English, Russian, Indian, and French people can have completely different requirements depending on their culture.
- Sometimes wedding cakes are ordered 1 to 2 years prior to the wedding. Usually, those are huge, luxury weddings when they rent an entire hotel and the guests come from abroad. A couple of months won’t be enough to organize such a wedding. Sometimes brides want a cake to complement their dress. In this case, I’m brought samples of lace or fabric with patterns and I try to repeat the same look on the cake.
- Once, I got an order from a British couple. They said they wanted a classical British fruitcake and that they’d take the upper tier to England and eat it on their kid’s christening. At the same time, the bride didn’t look pregnant. At first, I thought, “What nonsense!” But I asked them more details and learned that Great Britain has a tradition to bake a fruitcake for a wedding — a biscuit with dried and candied fruits. After baking, it’s soaked with a special composition daily, for a month, so it can be stored for a long time. According to the tradition, a piece of a wedding cake is kept till the birth or christening of the first child.
- Sometimes I find it difficult to work with foreigners due to a difference in mentality — everyone needs their own personal approach and I have to learn it. For example, I offer several types of biscuits for my clients. As a rule, the Chinese don’t see any difference between them — their understanding of desserts is totally different. Moreover, my attempts to explain something usually fail due to a language barrier. That’s why I simply say to them, “Chocolate or vanilla?” Everyone is happy.
- Sometimes weddings don’t have many guests and a small cake is enough but they’ll still order extra layers made of styrofoam for beautiful photos and that “wow” effect. I cover the styrofoam with a buttery cream, then mastic, and decorate it. I try to replace butter with cheaper margarine (no one’s going to eat it anyway) but it’s quite inconvenient to work with it, so I decided to keep the high-quality ingredients. Therefore, everything that is located on the styrofoam is edible and tasty. At the same time, all the tiers look identical and it’s impossible to distinguish the real tiers from fake ones.
- The styrofoam tiers can be located anywhere in a cake — everything depends on how many portions the client needs. We always tell the newlyweds which tier is not real. But once there was a funny incident at a wedding. The newlyweds were taking photos with the cake and the groom decided to bite off a piece of cake and clutched his teeth upon biting into the styrofoam. Nothing scary happened, it was just very funny.
- I’m asked quite often to make 2 cakes for a wedding or for a birthday: a real one and a fake one. The fake cake goes out first, it’s actually called a smash-cake and it gets dropped. Clients stage many funny situations with it. The light goes dim, the spotlight turns on, the waiter carries out a huge multi-tiered wedding cake with the figure of a bride and groom and suddenly stumbles — the cake slips out of their hands and falls to the floor, and the guests are shocked. It was hard to believe that 2 days of my painstaking work were only needed to deliberately spread this beauty on the floor. When the guests calm down a bit, they bring out the real cake.
What being a confectioner means
- I have 2 “professional” nightmares. The first one is that clients come for the cake but it’s not ready, it’s not there, or I forgot about it completely. The second dream is quite strange: I see myself as chocolate that can’t get evenly spread on the cake. I literally feel this unevenness, physically.
- Most weddings on Samui take place in February, and this month is not easy for me — the burden of responsibility is simply enormous. Sometimes I get very tired and everything falls from my hands and I don’t have any inspiration. Perhaps that’s what professional burnout is. In this case, I try to take a break, go on a walk, or go to the sea and my tiredness disappears.
- I have a sweet tooth. In order to stay fit, I try not to make extra cakes for myself because if it’s there, I’ll eat it. Some confectioners don’t like sweets and it surprises me a bit. Because in order to create your exclusive menu, one needs to try everything themselves, especially at the beginning, to know the combination of various tastes.
- For example, chocolates for chocolate cakes have different tastes. It depends on the area where cocoa beans were grown and the crop year. Some varieties of chocolate are best used in combination with more acidic fruits or berries, and some will taste better if you add a little astringency, such as coffee or bergamot. I think that a real pastry chef should be a gourmet one.
- Many professional forums say that the pastry business requires big investments. Don’t believe them. I started to create cakes in a small bedroom because it was the only room with an AC. I used the simplest oven, mixer, and other pastry tools bought on AliExpress. After 7 years, I am cooperating with big-time wedding agencies. The main thing to remember is to follow your dreams.
What cakes do you like? What do you think is more important: a magnificent look or the cake’s taste? Please share your own baking masterpieces if you’re someone who loves baking.