Michelle Sohan: the accidental baker | Cookup

Baking wasn’t always a passion for Michelle Sohan — but this “accidental” career has won her international kudos

  • Photo courtesy Michelle Sohan
  • Photo courtesy Michelle Sohan

Dessert lovers, take note: the creator of the “Best Tasting Cake in the World,” as adjudicated at the 2017 World Cake Designers Championship in Italy, comes from the Caribbean. Trinidadian Michelle Sohan, proprietor of Bakery Treatz, is at the slicing edge of the pastry world, but baking wasn’t always her passion. As she tells Shelly-Ann Inniss, a lab accident pushed her in the direction of this sweet career, which recently saw her win the Caribbean Cake and Pastry Designer of the Year title at the Caribbean Wedding Industry Awards in Jamaica

Has baking always been a passion of yours?

I never liked cooking or baking. My home economics teacher used to say, “Ms. Sohan, the kitchen is not for you.” My passion was always quality control and lab work. I love testing things. 

So how did you get started in baking?

In 2001, I was doing my master’s degree in food technology. I fell down in the lab, cracked a bone in my neck, and broke my wrist. It was really bad. When I returned to school, we had a bake sale, and I took a fruitcake. People from all over campus asked if I took cake orders, and I said yes.

What happened next? 

I started at home, baking two cakes at a time in my mother’s oven. I was self-taught, learning from trial and error. The Internet was a new thing back then, and we didn’t have YouTube. I used to go to the local bookstore, and literally three books focused on cakes and desserts. I couldn’t afford them, so I hid them behind other books. When I sold the cakes, I went back to buy them. 

When did you decide to make a career of this?

One of my food technology classmates requested my fruitcakes for a Christmas promotion. I had just bought a computer, and he emailed the order — ten thousand fruitcakes in two weeks! I had just bought my first stove, and the lady who used to clean for us helped out with her friends. They worked in the day and I worked in the night. With that money, I reinvested and started supplying several restaurants in south Trinidad. Eventually my sister suggested I open a bakery.

Around that time, Lange Park [near Chaguanas in central Trinidad] needed a bakery. My father took a mortgage without my mother knowing, and in three months I opened a gourmet store. Everyone watched Cake Boss on cable TV, and people would come in asking whether I could do this or that. Everything they asked, my answer was yes. I started learning about it.

Have your customers’ tastes in cakes and desserts changed in recent years?

Trinidadians’ tastes have changed drastically, due to social media. People want you to try new flavours. We recently did a coconut cake with blueberry compote and lemon mascarpone. It was such a hit. I’m doing all these fresh flavours and combinations.

Do you have customers with special dietary needs?

When I started the bakery, I had two aims. One was to supply the Muslim market and the second was to cater to vegetarians. A lot of my friends are Muslim, and complain that when people say things are halal, they really aren’t. I have no pork products, as all meats are bought halal. All my essences are specifically ordered with a non-alcohol base. And for vegetarians, it’s very hard to get eggless items. At Bakery Treatz, there are only four items containing eggs at any point in time — Swiss rolls, macaroons, sweetbread, and banana bread.

What’s one of your most memorable moments in this journey?

I met Chef Norman Davis, a multiple award-winning chocolatier and pastry chef, at my first international competition in 2014. Two weeks later, he invited me to participate in a Food Network challenge. It was a dream for me. Only Americans could enter the competition. He told me, don’t worry, I’ll be partnering with an American. I was in his studio and around me was everyone I’m accustomed to seeing on television. It was so surreal. I was the only Caribbean person. We won that competition. 

What are some of your seasonal specialties, as Divali and Christmas get closer?

For Divali, our dessert cakes are in high demand, as Hindu families celebrate this event with their loved ones. Christmas is our biggest time of the year. We have many company requests for individual Christmas-themed cakes to be given as gifts to employees and customers. On Christmas Eve, we sell all the goodies for a great Christmas morning breakfast, including croissants, bread, pone, sweetbread, and mini tarts.

Is there a special Christmas dessert recipe you’d like to share with Caribbean Beat readers?

Here’s my recipe for sorrel cupcakes with ginger mascarpone.

Ingredients

For the cakes:
2 cups sifted cake flour

1 cup brown sugar
3 eggs (for an eggless version: 6 tsp baking soda plus 4 tbs vinegar)
1 cup sorrel purée (see below)
½ tsp vanilla bean paste
1 tbs fresh grated ginger
1 stick margarine
½ tsp ground nutmeg
1½ tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp salt
Red food colouring (optional, depending on the colour when mixed into batter) 

For the filling:
16 oz mascarpone

½ cup white sugar
2 tbs fresh grated ginger
1 cup whipped cream

Method

To make the sorrel purée: bring 2 cups of water and 1 cup sugar to the boil, and stir until there’s a light thickened consistency. Add 400 g cleaned sorrel fruit and 1 tbsp grated ginger and lower heat to simmer for 10 minutes. Let cool slightly, and purée with a hand blender.

To make the ginger mascarpone filling: whisk mascarpone with white sugar and then add grated ginger — the mix will look a bit grainy. Fold in whipped cream. Keep refrigerated. 

To make the cakes: mix all the dry ingredients together — sifted flour, nutmeg, cinnamon, salt, baking soda. Cream the butter and sugar, add the eggs (or substitute vinegar mixture) and vanilla bean paste (or vanilla extract), then slowly add the dry ingredient mix, a third at a time, and completely blend together. Add the sorrel purée and fold in with a spatula. If the colour is not bright red, you can add a bit of food colouring. 

Pour into cupcake liners and bake for 30 minutes at 350ºC.

When cooled, cut cupcakes in half, layer with additional purée and ginger mascarpone, and top off with whipped cream.