Some like it sweet | Cookup

It used to be that sweet-toothed Caribbean people were satisfied with a good old-fashioned sponge cake. But, as Franka Philip explains, the profusion of delectable dessert images on Instagram in recent years has raised expectations, and more sophisticated tastes. Bakers and pastry chefs across the Caribbean are keeping up, with unexpected flavours and elaborate techniques

  • Illustration by Shalini Seereeram
  • Top left: Sundara Cake Studio: @sundaracakestudio, top right: Javon Cummins: @billionare_chefAbove left: The Academy of Baking and Pastry Arts: @thebakingacademytt, above right: The Cake Madame: @thecakemadame

I’m the first to admit I’ve spent more than enough time on the social networking platform Instagram looking at “food porn.” That isn’t some kind of bizarre fetish — it’s a term used to describe ridiculously amazing-looking food, food so gorgeous it makes you weak with desire.

And, undoubtedly, much of my lust is reserved for gorgeous desserts, especially incredibly ornate cakes and anything that screams chocolate decadence.

Social media — particularly Instagram, with its more than eight hundred million users — is the place where people with cameras who love food post everything from photos of their “best spicy doubles” to the high-end meal they just had at renowned restaurant The Cliff in Barbados.  But Instagram doesn’t just titillate foodies like me — it’s also been pushing chefs and restaurants to raise their game on the presentation front. 

“Most of us who document our meals online are amateurs, but there exists a sizeable, and hugely profitable, industry of professional food bloggers and Instagrammers, whose pristine food styling sets the tone for a whole aesthetic movement,” says British chef and food writer Ruby Tandoh in her UK Guardian food column. 

This “aesthetic movement” in social media has also driven a whole new class of culinary entrepreneurs: cake and pastry makers. A decade ago, most people were satisfied with a moist chocolate cake, cheesecake, or a hearty pound cake for special occasions, but now customers — largely driven by social media and food television — are asking for bespoke cakes with more complex designs and a more creative fusion of flavours. And these cakes are not cheap. Interestingly, in the Caribbean, although many countries are facing difficult economic times, the demand for cakes and desserts is as huge as ever.

In Trinidad, for example, brilliant cake designers can be found across the country. Sherikah Singh, the woman behind the Sundara Cake design studio in Central Trinidad, doesn’t have a storefront and conducts her business exclusively online. “I started building my business solely via word of mouth, so social media for business is a fairly recent choice for me. I’m still getting the hang of it, but so far it has been great,” she says. 

“I’m able to show more of what I can do to a wider audience. I’m garnering new followers every day, resulting in new clients for my business, with the majority of them staying with me long-term. People have almost instant access to me and my products, so the convenience for both myself and my clients is certainly an advantage.”

Singh, who has been baking professionally for about fifteen years, believes that social media is a big factor in the rising demand for specialty cakes. “Most times, we see something we like online, then we find someone who can recreate it. What’s popular online also seems to be directly related to what becomes popular here [in Trinidad]. For instance, the increase in elaborate dessert tables at events, and our newfound love of French macarons.”

Singh has developed a reputation for the innovative use of unexpected flavours in her cakes.  “I’m known for my curry cake with coconut buttercream, my masala chai carrot cake with cream cheese buttercream and scratch-made salted caramel, and my ponche de crème cake at Christmas.”

But the most popular cake among her clients is a classic rich chocolate mud cake with couverture chocolate ganache. “Can’t beat a good old-fashioned chocolate cake,” she notes. 

 

Meanwhile, award-winning Bajan pastry chef Javon Cummins has found that experiments with local products excite his clients. Cummins was awarded the title of Pastry Chef of the Year at the highly competitive Taste of the Caribbean event in 2017. He’s known as one of the most dynamic pastry chefs in the region. 

“There is a desire to push local desserts, but the thing is to elevate them while keeping that traditional flavour and taste,” he says. “For example, molasses is one of the ingredients in my smoked chocolate cake, and I’ve even used local sweet potato flour to make a decadent dark chocolate sweet potato brownie.”

Another challenge for chefs and bakers are the myriad dietary issues their clients face. Port of Spain cake maker Lisa-Marie Stewart — known as the Cake Madame — suffers from nut allergies. Because of this, she makes it a point to tell potential customers they must inform her of any allergies or dietary options so she can customise her recipes accordingly. She now makes a range of gluten-free, flourless, and eggless cakes. 

Not only are people buying more cakes and desserts, they are also eager to learn to make them at home. In the short time they’ve been around, the Academy of Baking and Pastry Arts in Port of Spain has taught hundreds of eager foodies to refine their technique. The Academy specialises in “artistry of patisserie, gateaux, and boulangerie” — or for those who don’t know much French, pastries, cakes, and bread-making.  According to Rayne Kirpalani, director of the academy, the dessert and baking courses tend to attract caterers who want to beef up their dessert-making skills, as well as passionate home bakers. 

She explains that courses on classic cakes, classic cheesecakes, and macarons do well, but an unexpected favourite is cupcakes.  “Wow, Trinis love a cupcake,” she says. “We do a course called Cupcakes Unlimited where we incorporate a lot of Caribbean flavours, incluing alcohol. So we have rum and Coca-Cola–flavoured cupcakes, Malibu pineapple and piña colada cakes. I find a lot of people are coming for new flavour creations, and to learn to master that technique.”

Kirpalani also notes that many clients are keen to get into the catering business. “When people come to us, they say, ‘I’m starting my own business and I want to perfect these skills’ — they want to learn the proper methods, and so they really ask the chefs for a lot of tips.”

As far as trends in desserts and baking go, Kirpalani believes people want to enjoy delicious desserts while keeping one eye on their health. “The gluten-free thing is still going very strong. Eggless desserts are as well.”

Sherikah Singh looks to fields like art and architecture, culture and nature for inspiration, but her cakes are largely based on what will keep her customers happy. “It’s more a reflection of my clients rather than my personal design aesthetic. I’m hoping to show more of myself in my work going forward.”

“I see a lot of highly textured cake designs, and more earth tones becoming a staple, as well as hand-painted designs,” Singh says. “We’re really looking at cakes as a blank canvas for expression.” 

For his part, Javon Cummins sees the classics as the basis for the new direction in cakes and desserts. “We are taking classic desserts and deconstructing them. We’re serving desserts in glasses, and mousse cakes are becoming much more popular.”

And on Instagram? When I last lusted — I mean, looked — I was drawn to the feed of Chef Jason Licker, one of my favourites, who prides himself on being ahead of the curve. Who’s up for chocolate and caramel passion cake served with Chinese five spice chocolate cream? I know I am!


Check out our chefs and bakers on Instagram

  • Sundara Cake Studio: @sundaracakestudio
  • Javon Cummins: @billionare_chef
  • The Cake Madame: @thecakemadame
  • The Academy of Baking and Pastry Arts: @thebakingacademytt