Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Learning to say No

My fledging baking business is gaining a solid reputation among our circle of friends. On the occasions I baked for La Familia, they enjoyed my cakes despite them being very different from the tastes they are accustomed to.
The idea of my one person cottage industry sprung from Guillermo. Once we settled into our apartment and my real kitchen, we started entertaining frequently. He was most surprised by my baking. In London, I used to make him the odd half dozen of blueberry muffins or an apple crumble but never a proper cake. There were only two of us; a generous slice of cake I love but neither of us had the appetite for half a round each.

So when I started making cakes for our tea parties or for family occasions, Guillermo discovered that brownies could be very gooey or chocolate cake could taste intensely of chocolate. He also encountered, for the very first time, almond meal in place of flour in a cake.

My idea is to provide baked goods using good quality ingredients such as dark chocolate with high percentage of cocoa solids (70% or more), nuts, organic sugar and free range eggs in generous quantity. More importantly, my goal is to fill the gap in the local market with choices that are not found. My flourless chocolate cake, gluten free almond & orange blossom cake and the Connaught's carrot cake have since become huge hits.

I love the smile a simple slice of good cake can put on a person's face. Good food is a cause of joy but a special cake is a real celebration so I am responsive to my clients' tastes and needs. Besides, I reckon if I put myself out there as a baker, it is my responsibility to satisfy my clients.

My orders are usually for birthdays when a special treat befits the occasion. So far, I have only had happy clients and I never had to say no to anyone's request. I didn't think that situation would arise because those who come to me for their cakes come knowing my creations are different from the typical offerings in this city. However, one lives to learn never to say "never".

When Guillermo's sister and her family arrived from Mexico couple of weeks ago, they were determined to make up for all their birthday celebrations which they spent away from their family here. We had an asado lunch to celebrate hers and her husband's birthdays passed. They then planned another party for the kids whose birthdays were in May and August.

They had heard about the cakes I make and based on everyone's enthusiastic feedback, they decided they would like a flourless chocolate cake topped with whipped cream for the older boy and a chiffon cake for the younger.

The chocolate cake is one of my most popular so I just described the look and they OK-ed it. The chiffon cake is a little trickier. My signature chiffon is an Earl Grey scented cake which I leave plain. Other times, I bake it with orange zest and orange blossom water. That one, I usually decorate with a simple drizzle icing.

I know my subtle chiffon cakes wouldn't be to their liking, given my sister-in-law and her husband are both very Argentine in their tastes. Of course, she told me to add some dulce de leche and meringue, maybe some strawberries and cream too...I sensed immediately that they were looking for the typical Argentine Merengue de Frutilla which comes with all of the mentioned components.

It is not what I normally do but I agreed to it, suggesting that I sandwich the cake with dulce de leche, cover the entire top with whole strawberries and the cream and meringue pieces could go around the side. They approved the design and I was game to take on the typical Argentine offering.

The party will be this Saturday and they decided they would pick-up the cakes on Friday. We agreed all the details and I went about ordering the ingredients. Tuesday morning, I was surprised when my husband told me of an email he received, with photo attachments, from his sister on the design of the cakes.

Both of us were shocked by the photos of Barney, almost a foot in height, and his friends plus other bits and pieces, all to feature on top of the strawberry chiffon cake. The other one was a bunch of cartoon cars (modelled after a recent cartoon movie) intended for the cream topped flourless chocolate cake.

I burst out laughing; if I were elsewhere I would have thought she was pulling my leg. She could only be joking. However, I suspected that she meant business when I saw Guillermo shaking his head at the tacky figures with gravity. My suspicion was confirmed when he apologetically told me he had forgotten about their earnest liking for kitsch.

I overcame the initial shock and hot-headed impulse to say "I work with ingredients not toys". I started thinking about the technical possibilities of plonking all these frills on top of their cakes.

The flourless cake is essentially a soufflé. The middle sinks upon cooling creating a cavity perfect for dollops of cream. A fine dust of cocoa powder then goes on top. The disc supporting the cartoon motors would sink into the cake and the texture is not sturdy enough to support the tall stick holding a glittering hat and a big number "3"

Needless to say, the strawberries on top of the other cake leave no space for Barney and his friends. However, there is a possibility of another tall stick with the same glitters and number "1" staying in place.

I tried explaining the situation to my sister-in-law. This is a woman used to getting her way, so I had to enlist my husband's persuasive power. It was futile; she told me to serve the cream on the side of the chocolate cake to make room for the cartoon cars and put some dulce de leche and a fondant icing on top of the chiffon instead so a whole zoo could sit on top of the other cake.

I do what I do because I know what I do is good; I can't promise to do well what I don't do and I don't do fondant icing. It is edible play-dough made almost entirely of icing sugar. Further, I am now being told how to make a cake by someone who made a cement-disc of a brownie topped with a jar of dulce de leche and Italian meringue which looked as appetising as shaving foam. I am in uncharted territory.

I feel I have to say no. I am positive that they will find exactly what they are looking for at their neighbourhood bakery and they could stick cartoon characters on top to their hearts' content. It is their kids' party; I would like all of them to be satisfied customers, by another baker, if that is more appropriate.

This is what I think but convincing her it is her decision to drop me as her baker may take a lot more work. Fingers crossed.

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