Few desserts evoke such passion that they could supposedly fuel a revolution. When Marie-Antoinette was told in 1789 that her French subjects had run out of bread during a famine, she is said to have sniffed, “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche”. Whether fact or fiction, “let them eat cake” was then immortalised in history books as a symbol of decadence, and its contemporary expressions certainly uphold that notion.
Options these days are staggering, with a multitude of aesthetics and flavour profiles flaunted by home bakers and cake specialists alike. We sit down with Tao Bakes Cakes, Lachér Patisserie and Patisserie Rui to get to know the bakers behind the brands and the delectable treats that come out of their kitchens.
Real is as real does
Cheah Wen Tao is not going to pretend he was a baking prodigy. In fact, he is candid about his misadventures in the kitchen, including accidentally baking plastic bags — they seemed to him a logical substitute for parchment paper — into garlic bread on one occasion.
“I’m still notoriously bad at following recipes,” he admits. “I can’t resist the urge to tweak ingredients and quantities. This business has forced some discipline and consistency into my natural inclination for a freer and looser style of baking. That said, I am a firm believer in always baking with instincts and senses, rather than overly relying on the numbers on weighing scales or oven timers.”
Tao has decades of cake-eating experience guiding him. Among his favourite early memories is a fresh-from-the-oven cake baked by his mother. His recollection is a vivid, sensorial vignette: “Eaten while still way too hot, moist and open-crumbed; a lazy Sunday afternoon; buttery fingers; zero leftovers for Monday morning.” Although he enjoyed the act of eating, baking was always a distant second interest.
However, that does not show in the glorious cakes that cause mouths to water and diets to falter. Tao Bakes Cakes on Instagram is veritable dessert porn, featuring jewel-like berries and candied nuts tumbling across swathes of mascarpone or ganache. There is a deliberately untamed air to these rustic marvels that sing of abundance, generosity and joy, virtues Tao strives to realise with every creation.
“I always have this in mind when decorating — think the horn of plenty [the cornucopia in Greek mythology] overflowing with fresh produce, or a Flemish still life of bowls brimming with fruit,” he enthuses. “Despite having trained in the French pastry tradition, I feel like I’m now rebelling against that haute patisserie pursuit of a ‘perfect’, clean look. I don’t want my cakes to be perfect little uniform, mousse-y confections. I want a dense, toothsome cake that looks inviting, exudes joy and promises pleasure.”
The first cake Tao would truly call his own was a Persian-inspired dream, heady with pistachio, lemon, rose, yoghurt and figs. He wanted a pistachio treat with the syrup-soaked texture of Middle Eastern desserts, and cake became his canvas. Zingy citrus and a zesty yogurt topping cut through the rose syrup that drenched the pistachio cake base while locally grown figs were piled on top “like a generously laden Levantine mezze platter”. That flavour is still on the menu and is among his bestsellers, alongside the flourless Chocolate Cloud Cake with whipped mascarpone cream and Victoria “Open” Sandwich with rose mascarpone, strawberries and lychees.
Every cake is built on a bedrock of simplicity and classic flavour combinations, with just three components — cake base, frosting and fruit or nut topping — abundantly presented. Pantry staples the likes of French butter (“The fancy sort, with the ‘AOP’ protected designation of origin sticker on it”) and Maldon sea salt feature in each.
“The idea is to achieve the holy grail: the flavour trinity,” says Tao. “It should comprise of three flavour components that complement and reinforce each other so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts: dark chocolate, cream and sea salt; pistachio, lemon and rose; hazelnuts, milk chocolate and burnt butter.”
The last one is his personal favourite, a dreamy melange of ground hazelnuts, chocolate ganache and crunchy sea salt covered with praline pecans, blueberries and pears sautéed in butter. “It is redolent of that deep caramel scent of burnt butter and has a sweet-salty edge that imparts a somewhat ‘grown-up’ flavour,” he says. “It’s basically a zhuzhed-up, naughty, ‘adult’ Nutella.”
Tao spent a decade at Bank Negara Malaysia before obtaining a pastry diploma and working at a patisserie in Paris. He opened Tao Bakes Cakes as a one-man show in late 2017 but later expanded his team and business has grown steadily brisk.
Times may be tough right now, but Tao is no stranger to leaps of faith. Que sera, sera, while the world seems intent on going to hell in a handbasket, he is concentrating on baking his best.
“There is no such thing as perfection,” he says. “But when a cake is so inviting that a second (or third, or fourth!) slice beckons, you know you’ve come pretty darn close!”
French by name and nature
With limited capital to launch their business, the founders of Lachér Patisserie decided to forgo a storefront or café, and instead throw everything into production. The result was a small selection of divine cakes and tarts that could be purchased online and delivered to your doorstep.
Pastry chef Pang Yun Kian and web designer Lim Seng Kian were childhood friends from Segamat who joked about opening a bakery together someday. Enter Lim’s friend, Yins Tey, a personal shopper who fell in love with French pastries during frequent buying trips to Paris.
“The first time I had a macaron there, I felt as if I had never really tasted dessert before,” she laughs. “It was full of flavour and texture, nothing like the sugary desserts we have here. There was no turning back after that.”
Pang, whose résumé includes stints at Marina Bay Sands and Swissôtel The Stamford in Singapore, had trained in French pastry making and even emerged champion of the 2016 Asian Pastry Cup. With input from Lim, now operations manager, and marketing and branding director Tey, he began working on a line of predominantly mousse-based creations, using rigorous French techniques and first-grade ingredients. No preservatives or synthetic materials are involved; the fragrance of vanilla is from pods, rather than bottled extract, and even the nut pastes are homemade.
Chocolate connoisseurs will luxuriate in the sinful, yet not cloying, Valrhona Caraibe Hazelnut Praline (from RM105) — layers of caramel glaze, Valrhona Caraibe mousse, and dark chocolate sponge and cremeux on a bed of crunchy hazelnut praline feuilletine. Citrus fans may gravitate towards the Citron Tart (RM75), a firm, buttery almond tart shell filled with lemon curd and finished with lemon cream, mascarpone Chantilly cream, lemon peel and lemon thyme. Its counterpart is the tantalising Kochi Yuzu Mango Tart (RM110), in which the same base houses French almond cream and Kochi yuzu curd, topped with fluffy joconde sponge and Kochi yuzu mango curd, and ringed with dollops of mascarpone Chantilly cream. Each is an almost rapturous affair for the palate and soul.
“Few places here adhere to the French style of baking as strictly as we do,” says Tey. “We started out last year with our Lachér Delights, a series of desserts in jars, but these were quickly superseded by the cakes and tarts. Our strength lies in balancing flavours and textures, so that customers can enjoy the rich ingredients and complex combinations without being overwhelmed.”
There is an almost geometric precision to the decorations, with adornments such as dark chocolate shards, domes of curd and perfectly piped mascarpone. “I tend to lean towards seemingly simple but exacting designs that my staff can replicate,” says Pang. “The Valrhona Caraibe Hazelnut Praline, for instance, is all about the angle; they have to be very precise.”
Customers put in their orders on the brand’s website and can opt for delivery or store pick-up. Same-day delivery is available for certain items that can be quickly assembled and decorated.
“One of the challenges we face is that our desserts have to be kept chilled, so delivery is limited to a 50km radius from the store to ensure it reaches the recipient within an hour,” says Lim. “We serve mostly individuals. While we do take corporate orders, customisation options are somewhat limited.”
It took time to build their credibility, with misconceptions to overcome, but the trio believe they have succeeded as customers now greet new flavours with enthusiasm.
“People were used to mousse that is very sweet and creamy, rather than silky,” says Lim. “We also had customers complain that these aren’t really cakes because they don’t have the typical sponge or cake base. But now that we have established ourselves and customers trust us and know what to expect, reviews have been tremendously positive.”
As demand picks up — they sell an average of 30 items per day, with special occasions like Mother’s Day tipping orders over the 100 mark — expansion seems to be on the cards. Tey imagines a large factory to mass-produce these exquisite cakes, but only if the same standards can be upheld.
“We started by focusing purely on the products, and that is how we will grow too,” she says. “The cakes are everything.”
Chan Ruijing may cut a petite figure but woe betide those who underestimate her. Trained in the culinary arts in Switzerland (“It’s known for producing the best in the industry. Coincidentally, ‘rui’ in Mandarin means Switzerland!”), she worked at fine dining establishments in Europe before returning to Kuala Lumpur.
“It was the era of rising female chefs and I was lucky to be quickly promoted up the ranks to the meat station, grilling steaks and such,” she says. However, something about bakeries enchanted her and she decided to try her hand at baking.
“I had no experience, but I would follow recipes and make people try them, learning along the way,” she laughs. When a tiny store just off Jalan Gasing in Petaling Jaya became available, she took over the 100 sq ft lot and began selling two or three cake varieties a day. As business picked up over the year, a keen customer told her about an available space at Mont Kiara Meridin and she relocated Patisserie Rui to its current flagship outlet in 2009 (a new second location in Petaling Jaya serves coffee and pastries only).
Customers open the door to a warm aroma of baked goods and sugar. Temptations abound in the displays: Swiss rolls lined with cream and fresh fruit, mermaid-themed visions topped with macarons and berries, a white forest cake studded with cherry motifs. Cream, icing, ganache, fruit, nuts, butter cake, shortcake, cheesecake, pastels and bright colours alike, flavours such as Milo and Horlicks alongside raspberry and Red Velvet … if paradise were filled with cakes of every interpretation, apparently it would have a Mont Kiara address.
“I’m greatly influenced by Japanese baking styles. I even studied the language so I could read their books,” says the founder, who goes by Rui. “The French may have created core techniques and aesthetics, but the Japanese perfected them. They have a culture of meticulousness I admire, and if I could rename my bakery, I’d break away from the ‘patisserie’ influence. I think we have our own style. We’re selling to Malaysians, so why the need for something French?”
Some designs appear too pretty to eat, but even the most ethereal or whimsical of them are built on a solid base of culinary comprehension. The cascading creativity, however, is Rui’s.
“I believe in a strong foundation of knowledge and do a lot of research. I don’t stray too far from classic methods, but play with ideas or the use of ingredients. Mostly I just … wing it,” she laughs. “That sounds terrible, doesn’t it, like people are buying my random experiments. But I bake according to set principles and design according to my imagination. We are very spontaneous. Cake choices change every week, depending on what’s in season. Customers just have to browse our recent posts on Instagram to see what’s available. I imagine something and I make it. Hesitation is the killer of art. I ask myself, why are you hesitating? If you want to try something, try it. If it doesn’t turn out well, remake lor.”
That free-spirited take on cakes secures Patisserie Rui as a dream corporate partner, open to infinite customisation possibilities. Some of her more outrageous experiments include a cendol cake and its ais kacang contemporary, lavishly decorated to authentically recreate these Malaysian favourites. Of course, the prices and the complexity of the task correspond, with fondant cakes often the most expensive.
“I ask my staff about flavours they like and give them all a go. One suggested taro, which I’d never worked with before, but it turned out well. I like cakes that represent themselves; if it is a taro cake, it has to taste of taro more than anything else,” she says.
The going is not always easy, but Rui thrives under pressure, buoyed by the adrenaline that permeates any busy kitchen. “Burnout can break you but I love what I do, and for that, I am very privileged. This is my purpose in life. We do what we do as well as we can do it. Good cakes are like good wine, I think. They aren’t necessarily expensive, but they have to remind you of something. And the very best cakes taste like home.”
This article first appeared on Nov 23, 2020 in The Edge Malaysia.