When Sylvia Lee first dabbled in baking, she didn’t anticipate that her hobby will turn into a full-time business.
The mother of two tried her hand at baking 15 years ago mainly because she found cakes from bakeries were getting more expensive, and she was concerned about the ingredients that went into them.
“I thought to myself, maybe I can try making these cakes myself. I tried to recall my home science days,” she says, referring to a class once taught in secondary school where students learned the basics of sewing, cooking and baking. “[I] looked at these old skills I learnt [in school], and thought, hey, they made sense.”
By making her own cakes, Lee could control the ingredients that went into them. She bought good quality butter, flour and eggs, so her family could enjoy wholesome treats.
To brush up on her home science skills she referred to a variety of cookbooks and also asked friends and colleagues for tips.
Lee, 50, also got support from her 81-year-old mother-in-law, who had set up her own home baking business years earlier.
She treasures the Kenwood mixers that her mother-in-law handed down to her and is now following in her footsteps and pursuing her baking more seriously.
Giving up her day job
Lee’s baking began as a hobby when she was lecturing mathematics at two different colleges. She was finding her day job challenging and unsatisfying, had lost the desire to work full time, and wanted to spend more time with her family. So she quit her jobs and focused on baking. Given her preference for simple and tasty products, she called her new business Simple Delights by Sylvia.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing at the start, Lee recalls. “My first cake was a plain butter cake and it did go terribly wrong,” she laughs.
She remembers mixing the butter straight from the refrigerator without going through the vital step of ensuring it had softened to room temperature.
Frozen butter leads to a poor batter; the cake ended up sinking instead of rising. The oven temperature was too high, so the top was burnt as well.
“Oh, it was a disaster,” she says.
But that first failed cake didn’t deter Lee, and she pressed on with her baking experiments.
“Practice makes perfect,” she says. “As you do it, you get to learn from your mistakes and you improve, it gets better as time goes by.”
Her meticulous nature as a mathematics teacher has been an advantage, as it encouraged her to study various strategies on how to make her venture work.
Her first idea was to be a cake supplier for cafes and restaurants, which she thought would be the most obvious route to a consistent income. She sent out feelers to gauge what the market was like but had second thoughts.
“The problem, I thought, is that you’re at their mercy because you had to supply a regular number of cakes and you can’t go on holiday or have time to yourself,” she explains.
Lee was worried that the routine baking would affect her creativity as well. “Baking may not be fun anymore.”
So she opted instead to take orders – first from friends, then friends of friends, and then from a wider market.
Her Facebook page has garnered a steady following for 1-kilogram cakes priced between RM100 to RM120. Prices vary for customised cakes.
On average, Simple Delights by Sylvia gets close to 10 orders a month, providing a handy supplementary income for her family. She hopes order numbers will grow as she improves and fine-tunes her craft.
Bringing maths to baking
Lee graduated in chemistry from the Universiti of Malaya before working as a mathematics teacher but never expected her higher education or teaching experience would come in handy for baking.
Turns out she was wrong. Despite leaving teaching, she has not forgotten her maths skills and puts them to use making precise calculations for her recipes and customised cakes.
She also picks up new techniques from YouTube, where her favourite baker is Cupcake Jemma, whom Lee enjoys watching because of the chef’s zany designs and personality.
This energy is what Lee attempts to inject into her creations. As a self-taught baker, she’s always online looking for recipes that work and understanding different cake trends to fulfil her customer’s orders.
Lee’s recent offering is fondant cake, made into customised orders from handbags to pianos, and also quirky designs on cupcakes. She understands the value of learning, so is open to improving her techniques, having attended workshops on cake decorations and Oreo cheesecakes.
She relishes difficult cake orders, from making vegan cakes that taste and look good to coming up with recipes for children who are allergic to dairy and eggs.
The more challenging, the more fun because you are testing yourself,” she says.
“Once I had to make a vegan cake for a Hindu customer who was celebrating his daughter’s first birthday in a temple.”
Lee replaced the butter with vegetable oil and used vinegar as a raising agent. Other dairy-free substitutes include soya milk and non-dairy whipping cream.
Despite having steady orders, Lee says that business can be inconsistent. Competition is stiff with a wide choice of baking businesses available in the market.
She credits her network of colleagues and ex-schoolmates for being her regular clients.
“It was a trade-off, when I decided not to supply regularly to bakeries or restaurants. But I am very happy.
“I think the most important thing is that I found the right balance of work and time at home and this way I get to control my own hours, and get to spend time at church when there is a need to … I am very satisfied.”
Photos courtesy of Simple Delights by Sylvia