When times are hard, bake some cake

By Joseph L. Garcia Reporter

THE COMMUNITY quarantine has left us all to bake: we’ve all been under pressure and heat either to rise, fall, or settle. Two twenty-somethings have taken up the challenge and instead of being baked themselves, went on to bake cake.

The name Miro Capili would ring a bell in literary and development circles: Before she turned 18, Ms. Capili already had three Palanca Awards under her belt. Today, she works from home as a Data and Analytics Manager for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva — also, she bakes. Ms. Capili is behind Done Well Bakery (@donewell.ph on Facebook), a home-based operation specializing in those trendy Burnt Basque Cheesecakes.

When one says something is trendy, it’s easy to dismiss the product as one of many; mindlessly following another that has come before. Not quite the case for this one. BusinessWorld ordered the Dark Chocolate Chip Burnt Cheesecake (6″ for P975) — and it was worth every penny, and then some. For starters, we asked Ms. Capili how long it would last in the fridge, and she said that it would last about a week, and doubts that it would not all be eaten long before that. We proved her wrong on both counts: the cake was so dense that a slice a day proved more than sufficient, and it lasted in the fridge beyond a week (though for safety concerns, we would not recommend this). However, Ms. Capili did say that the cake would turn better as it would age. “Pfah,” this reporter would say, but this time, it was her turn to put egg (or in this case, cake) on our face.

On the first day after receiving the cake, Ms. Capili told us to eat a slice. Rich enough, and the cheese portion, we thought, lacked drive, and was easily subsumed by the dark chocolate chips. By the third day, following her advice — well, the cheese portion had come into its own, becoming more than a backdrop for the chocolate, and becoming its true partner. In transferring their flavors to each other with maturity, it achieved a taste both foreign and familiar, one I would liken to a cup of warm Ovaltine, a familiar childhood flavor given sophistication and a new texture. This was a cake that one should get to know, approach with some care, and one that rewards for the effort of waiting.

“I guess that’s a happy accident, that our cheesecake gets better as it ages in the fridge. We only have chemistry to thank for that. Especially with our dark chocolate chip version, the flavors and textures develop over a week. The cake peaks after four or five days. There are so many factors you can’t control with baking, and in this case, that’s to our advantage. But who knows, maybe there is a parallel to be drawn here with work, skill, and craftsmanship. It certainly helps to start with a great product, but incubation gives rise to texture, new ideas, and the discipline to know when to stop. Experience is the currency of skill,” she said in an e-mail after we raved about the product to her.

Pressure builds character, and the conditions under which Ms. Capili’s cake was made might prove this. “‘Beaten up, is a good way to put it, in the sense that making a Basque burnt cheesecake is more forgiving to make than a classic baked cheesecake,” she said in an e-mail. “No water bath needed, and you can throw everything into a smoothie blender (though I don’t recommend it). I think a burnt cheesecake is the tangible expression of my personality and approach to baking. I’m a sucker for classics and things that work — things that appear, at first glance, to be unimprovable. Chocolate chip cookies, focaccia, laing, kulawo. And I’m also pensive, introspective to the point of neurosis. I take one bite and think, how can we rework this without messing with the blueprint? Marginally, of course, I’m not looking to reinvent the wheel. So you take something that has worked for decades — a baked cheesecake — and make it less cloying, then nearly burn the top to introduce caramelization and flavor compounds that can only come from high temperatures. You get an entirely new cake that’s easy to understand but thoughtfully layered, complex. The logic of the blueprint is intact but the condition of possibility is alive and throbbing. It’s a nearly perfect invention.”

The chocolate chips that Ms. Capili uses are sourced locally, from Auro, a homegrown brand. Explaining her choice, she said, “The Philippines has some of the best chocolate in the world, and I’m glad more people are noticing. I choose local ingredients and packaging materials whenever I can to support local businesses during this tough time. But even if it weren’t from a local brand, I’d still use the single origin chocolate we use. It’s so good it makes me dizzy. The toasty, winey notes introduce a heady depth to the burnt top that I didn’t even think was necessary. It was a quick favorite among customers, so the advantage was clear taste-wise. But most importantly, I believe in this local company’s business model. They upskill farmers and cooperatives in chocolate production and provide a sustainable market for their products. We’re also developing a line specifically using local flavors, so I’m very excited about that.”

During the quarantine, people took up gardening, or else cooking, or sewing. Asked why she chose to bake, she said, “Baking cheesecakes wasn’t a conscious decision just as starting a business wasn’t a conscious decision. I have a full-time job and was preoccupied. I baked my tita (aunt) a burnt cheesecake for her birthday and posted it on Instagram stories. Then my best friend asked how much I’d charge for a cheesecake for her boyfriend’s birthday, and I posted again, and more people asked. I focused on these cheesecakes because this is my favorite type of cheesecake, and I got obsessed with getting it right. It was an intellectually satisfying process but also an excuse to eat my favorite thing over and over,” she said.

“I started this business at a point in my life where I’m quite secure about who I am, what I want to contribute, and whether any of it matters. I think that’s important in business, knowing what you want. It certainly enabled me to stand by my product, choosing which constructive comments to implement and which parts were nonnegotiable. My work in the development sector also taught me to be creative with solutions and constantly innovating, which is useful to weather setbacks in business especially when ingredients aren’t available due to the lockdowns. And growing up, I loved experimenting with flavors, but based on a certain blueprint of how certain flavors and chemical interactions work with each other. It couldn’t be like ketchup and mustard ice cream — it still had to have some internal logic to it. I also disliked following recipes, opting instead to understand the general proportions of ingredients and why they were mixed in a certain arrangement. All of this to say, it took me all but 27 years to develop the creativity, maturity, and sensibility that I (hope to) bring to Done Well now,” she continued.

For many who have been affected by the pandemic, life freezes. One might find it hard to slog through the days because of a death of a loved one, or the death of a way of life. As a consequence, a lot of people picked up new skills or polished old ones. “I’m amazed by how resilient and enterprising people have been. This could be our generation’s Great Depression,” said Ms. Capili. “Only this time, you have social media as a digital marketplace and a closely-knit network of relationships as a market. I’m not saying it’s easier to succeed in business in this climate, but there are certain advantages given where we are in mainstream technology. People my age have been filling their homes with plants, knitting, baking for fun or profit, selling all sorts of things. There’s a lot of hopelessness around, but we have insisted on hope.”

Ms. Capili could have chosen to do a million other things to do during quarantine, but she chose to bake. “Baking gave me a sense of control during an intractable situation. COVID is our new leviathan and it crippled me, the mental load. My job requires me to handle global operations data on humanitarian aid. A few months ago, there was an outbreak in a refugee camp in Bangladesh. One million people I had to worry about in addition to the problems we had in our country. That night, I lay in bed, paralyzed by the growing sense that nothing could be done. A friend said it’s fine to feel that way, it means you’re human, but also don’t run your life into the ground over something you can’t control. Well, what could I control? My work, though I’m sure we help many, didn’t feel enough. Donating to frontliners and the needy didn’t feel enough. I realized what I needed wasn’t something to do, but an alternate headspace. Baking gave me that. I could disappear for hours in the realm of heat and salt and sweet, standing over my mixer and tweaking the batter. It appealed to a primal zone of the body, all that tasting, but also required a lot of thinking, or no thinking at all. The stakes were close to zero.”

Asked what baking did for her, she said, “It was the little piece of earth that was mine.”

With a glossy surface that promised so much, it was easy to fall in love with the chocolate cake from Fluffed (P550 for an 8″x8″ square). It was easy to understand: just a quick chocolate ganache over some dark chocolate cake. The dark chocolate ganache made one’s tongue move forward in anticipation, due to that rich, smoky cocoa taste. The friend who recommended Fluffed to me said it would take about three days to finish the cake — it’s been about a week, but there are still two slices in my fridge. The chocolate crinkles meanwhile, were aggressive. Dusted in powdered sugar, a bite bled beautifully dark gooey chocolate, a pleasant and messy surprise that makes one smile.

“The ingredients are pretty straightforward as for chocolate cakes. It really does not differ much, so we have to leverage on the quality of the ingredients used. We use Dutch processed cocoa powder and 100% dark Belgian chocolate. We chose these ingredients because it delivers the kind of rich flavor we are looking for,” said Gail Royeca in an e-mail interview with BusinessWorld. Asked why she concentrated on chocolate-based products, she said, “It started as a craving and most of the time when I buy myself chocolate cakes, it is often too sweet for my liking. So I decided to bake my own as I can control the kind and the amount of sugar I put.”

Of course, her’s isn’t the only chocolate cake on the market, and one can name several dozen at the drop of a hat. What sets her’s apart is the flavor. “Our goal is to make sure consumers enjoy the rich chocolate flavor in less sugar and less guilt. We believe that despite the larger market and competition, it is what makes us stand out. Although we will not stop with chocolates, we are exploring more options for sophisticated flavors that can also be our staple.”

We asked Ms. Royeca how the pandemic has changed hers, but also how an old life influenced the new: “I was a Business Consultant, and the nature of my job was to assess business concerns and offer solutions, primarily streamlining business operations. I finished my contract just few days ago, but I would say that it has been incredibly fulfilling and insightful. With this, I have a better understanding on SME business operations which I can apply to implement initiatives and activities to make our business better.”

As with Ms. Capili, we also asked Ms. Royeca about her thoughts about young people like her improving on old skills, or picking up new ones. “Before the pandemic struck, I have been giving myself a lot of excuses as to why I [could not] develop or practice new skills even if I wanted to, and [had] the most popular excuses of all: ‘I have no time’ or ‘I am too busy.’ When the pandemic prompted a lockdown, I realized the amount of time in my hands. I remember asking myself, ‘So what’s your excuse now?’ It’s when I decided to take advantage of it to develop and acquire new skills.”

She added, “I would like to emphasize that time is the most valuable commodity. Decide to use it well and decide not to waste it. Every single day is a decision whether we will slouch on the couch or get up and do something significant that can make up for our goals, dreams and future.”

Order from Done Well Bakery at https://web.facebook.com/donewell.ph/ on Facebook, and from Fluffed at https://web.facebook.com/Fluffeddesserts.ph/.

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