by Anita Oommen, Eskom, South Africa
I am what would be termed an amateur cake artist, not having taken any sort of lessons on the subject.
My name is Anita Oommen. I am an electrical engineer working for the national power utility of South Africa, Eskom. They say it is good to have something that takes one’s mind off work that totally engages the mind and brings out other strengths and abilities that one may have. What do I do when I am not working with power system protection engineers, trying to figure out the best way to protect the power grid?
Whilst I always had an analytic mind as a child, always wanting to figure things out, I also enjoyed the creative art forms like sketching and painting. Cakes were always a thing in my home during my childhood days. My mum baked birthday cakes, my dad attempted to decorate them with a layer of icing, some piped rosettes and a ‘Happy Birthday’ plus a name! I developed an interest in baking in my high school days and found cake decorating quite fascinating.
In December one year, I figured I could give decorating the family Christmas cake a go.
Well, as they say, the rest is history!
I am what would be termed an amateur cake artist, not having taken any sort of lessons on the subject. In the days before the internet and Google, my prized possession was a cake decorating book gifted to me by my dad. I dabbled with a few things, but largely I found them too complex and intricate for my abilities. (Figure 2a).
I baked occasionally whilst in university, but I continued to be drawn to cake decorating, and figured that one day when I could source the right tools and ingredients and spend hours practicing, I would be able to attempt some of the incredible cakes I saw in books and magazines. (Figure 2b).
As my oldest son was turning one, I decided to plan his birthday cake. I found out that I could rent cake pans, so this was perfect, as I did not envisage repeating each character cake more than once! The cake pans had a little illustrative picture that showed how one could complete the decorating work. It would be piped rosettes of buttercream filling the entirety of the cake.
I bought essential tools and supplies that would be needed and began on my little project. It was quite satisfying to see the character come to life with every bit of color and piping. The cake was a success, and I was quite pleased with the result. So began a series of cakes for every birthday for each of my children. (Figure 4a).
Word spread, and soon it became a tradition for me to do cakes for all family members. I loved figuring out what I would do next, planning and just losing myself in the work, even though I could only do this after hours, so a project would mean at least one or two sleepless nights. The satisfaction of the finished product was entirely worth the lost sleep though!
I loved the expression of pleasure on the faces of recipients of these cakes. (Figure 5).
As I was working with these cakes, I had seen a number of cakes decorated with fondant, and they started to draw my attention. Fondant was incredibly more versatile to work with, but I had had one experience working with it which was a disastrous flop and I had sort of decided that it was too time consuming and beyond my capabilities. However, as I continued to look at cake designs and ideas, the possibilities seemed infinite, and slowly the urge to prove that I could do this kind of cake decorating began to tickle my mind.
When one of my children who is an avid drummer turned thirteen, I decided this was the opportunity to attempt a drum set cake in fondant icing. It was a success, although a rather crude looking set! (Figure 4b).
In working with the material, I realized that it was significantly less time consuming to work with, and infinitely more forgiving of flaws. Major confidence boost for a novice decorator! Needless to say, my interest in attempting other work was piqued, and I began looking for my next project.
That was the start of a series of cakes that I absolutely loved doing. The world was my cake art oyster, so to speak, and I was constantly banking new cake art ideas, and looking for opportunities to test them out. I was up for just about any challenge! The internet was now my infinite source of ideas and how to go about them! (Figures 7 and 9).
Somewhere along the line, a cousin of mine asked me why I wasn’t charging for the cakes I made, considering the time, effort and cost that went into them. That set me thinking, as it was quite true. I do consider myself a connoisseur baker, even though amateur cake artist. I do not compromise on taste, and therefore on ingredients. Every mouthful must be a slice of heaven in my opinion. My cakes are flavorful and moist and made with high quality ingredients. (see Figure 6).
I realized that I did not have a clue how to price a cake. Ingredients were sort of easy to price, but how did one account for one’s time, utility costs, etc. I did some research and found out that there were free cake making pricing tools available on the internet. This was very exciting, and I was able to price a cake. Generally, many cake artists are conservative and struggle to price cakes adequately, as it seems difficult to allocate value to one’s time spent, but the reality is that many hours go into each masterpiece.
I found that my own estimations of cost prior to using a pricing tool were significantly lower! I now felt more confident in providing potential clients with quotations. I played around with quotations for various types of cakes just to get a feel of what various cake types would cost. With that, I did a few quotations, and here and there started to do a few cake orders. This is a form of art that is very much in demand and I began to get many requests for orders.
I went through a phase of many different types of cakes and design, and I had great fun doing each one of them. (Figure 3).
A friend brought the pressure straight on by asking me if I would do her son’s wedding cake! I agreed, and in the months that followed, kept asking myself what had possessed me to do so, but agreed I had, and fulfill I would!
In my day job, I work with schedules and plans. I was able to utilize the same to plan what I needed to do. Multiple spreadsheets broke down activities into detailed tasks, cake batter amounts, wedding cake serving slice calculations etc.
This paced my activities well and reduced my stress. Cakes were baked and frozen in advance, and the day before the wedding was a mammoth decorating effort.
The results were quite pleasing. I have since done a few.
A particularly interesting cake I did had a two-faced theme. On the one side, it was a regular wedding cake, whilst on the other side it was a Batman theme, depicting Gotham. Clients have such varying ideas, the key is trying to meet their requirements and helping to make their special day memorable. (Figure 8).
Whilst there is a niche market to be tapped for high end cake orders, with the orders that I have done, I came to realize that orders come with their own price.
There is pressure and I did not enjoy what I was doing, as much as when I was doing it just for the fun of it. I therefore now balance a bit of both and try to keep it mainly a hobby with the odd order here and there.
Anita Oommen is of Indian origin, living and working in South Africa. She is an electrical engineer by profession and work for the electric power utility of South Africa, Eskom. She has been with Eskom for the last 24 years, working with the Transmission System Operator, overseeing the operations regarding power system protection. She is involved in setting protective devices, as well as doing root cause analysis of power system events where protective devices are suspected to have mal-operated. She also represents South Africa as the Regular Member on CIGRE, SCB5.
Anita is married and has two sons and a daughter. Her oldest son is married, and they have a baby girl almost a year old. Cake making and cake art is a hobby she has been involved in for many years.