If it were not for a chance conversation with a friend, award-winning home baker Khoo Li Ying might never have realised her talents in the kitchen. During a chat one day, Khoo’s friend mentioned working with fondant, an edible icing used to decorate cakes.
“My friend said it was easy, like playing with Play-Doh,” Khoo recalls.
Khoo had always enjoyed working with her hands and creating art pieces, and the comment caught her attention.
When her daughter’s first birthday was approaching in 2009, she decided to give fondant a shot.
But she didn’t go all out: she made three simple figurines – one depicting each of her daughters – using just a handful of colours. “I didn’t want to spend too much money at that time,” she laughs.
Nearly a decade on, Khoo has an ever-expanding cupboard of tools and cake design materials, including everything from moulds to veiners presses.
It’s a testament to the success of Cakes! by Ying, which she set up in 2013 to take orders for her 3D cakes – jaw-dropping, custom-made designs that include intricate design features.
It took Khoo a few years to develop confidence in the business, she says, because at first she found it hard to believe that people would pay money for her cakes.
But pay they do: her cakes range from RM500 (SGD165) to RM2,000 (SGD660), depending on the intricacy of the design and materials required. The bases are usually made from decadent butter or mud cakes which are moist but sturdy enough to hold the structures on top.
Khoo says she never expected that her love for cake designs and baking would see her win competitions and be recognised as an expert in cake artistry.
“I enjoy myself when I am baking a cake,” she says. “I enjoyed art and craft and school and now I guess it’s art and craft with food.”
Like most home bakers, Khoo is self-taught. She feels thankful to TV chefs like Nigella Lawson and Jamie Oliver for making cooking more accessible. The internet is always an important resource for discovering new techniques and ideas.
When Khoo started to get serious about her creations, she also applied some knowledge from her job as a pharmacist to take her work to the next level. One pharmaceutical technique, in particular, has proven particularly useful. Known as trituration, it’s used to mix medicinal creams and ointments.
“Trituration teaches us to mix medicine well for an even application, so there are no specks of medicine at one area and not at the other,” Khoo says.
Although she downplays her skills and achievements, Khoo has made a name for herself as a leading amateur baker. Arguably her crowning glory came in January 2018, when she had a step-by-step tutorial featured in the UK-based Cake Masters Magazine.
The publication was so impressed with her ability to recreate a work by Brazilian artist Romero Britto that she has been asked to provide a second tutorial.
The 45-year-old has also been featured in Singapore on Toggle, MediaCorp’s online TV service. She’s made a cake for the retirement event of Nottingham University’s former vice-chancellor, Sir David Greenaway, that replicated the university’s iconic Trent Building.
She has some other personal favourites, such as her breathtaking depiction of the Hedwig, Harry Potter’s pet owl. The 45-centimetre tall (1.5 feet) cake took a week to complete. Due to its height and weight, Khoo had to resort to power tools to ensure stability, but she also painstakingly made the owl’s feathers one by one using materials like wafer paper and created its eyes from isomalt, a sugar substitute.
Khoo is also proud of an award-winning creation – the “nightingale cake” she made for Cake Challenge Malaysia in 2014 that won Best Theme in the Fairytale category. The cake was inspired by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “Nightingale”, and featured a music box and Nightingale from the story.
Khoo says she enjoys being challenged and pushed out of her comfort zone, as it forces her to learn new skills. Over the years she has adopted techniques from outside the baking world, drawing inspiration from Chinese Cloisonne and Steampunk art.
“The fact that I can deep dive into topics outside of the cake world makes it so enjoyable.”
Despite her passion for cake artistry, Khoo says baking does not run in her family. Her father, while a good cook, never got into baking – partly because the family lacked a good-quality oven.
Her family had an electric ovenette that did not work well with cakes. Like most Chinese families, they also favoured wok-based meals over Western-style roasts or baked dishes.
What Khoo says she has inherited from her father is being a fast learner. Her father was a paramedic at the Terendak army camp in Malacca, about 150 kilometres south of Kuala Lumpur.
“His car workshop was near a Chinese restaurant. When his mechanic worked on his car, my dad would watch the Chinese cooks and learn from there,” she explains.
It was through observation that her father picked up techniques and knowledge about Chinese dishes.
Family means everything to Khoo, and their support has been crucial for both making her cake business a success and providing inspiration and ideas.
But their help is not wanted in the kitchen. Khoo laughs as she explains that when she gets into the “artistic zone” she will fight off all other distractions to ensure her creation is perfected, sometimes staying up until 2 am to complete an order.
Khoo has never made a cake for herself but is sentimental about one she made for her late grandmother. The cake was inspired by her late grandmother’s Kebaya and sarong designs.
Khoo does not consider where her cake artistry might lead her, but she knows she is enjoying every minute of it.
There has been plenty of tears, frustration and challenges, but she’s prepared to take the business to another level. She continues to study online and also attends short workshops to improve her craft.
“A lot of times, talent is also a result of passion,” she says. “When you really like it, then you’re willing to work at it. You only get better when you work at it.”
Photos courtesy Cakes! by Ying