Islamabad based baker Aisha Shaikh of Color My Plate talks to HELLO! about her journey and career in the baking field.
- When and how did you start baking? How long have you been doing what you do?
I started around 2009. I wasn’t consistent with it though. I think it was around 2011 that I actually started to experiment with it. I was going through a bit of a rough patch, but I forgot everything when I’d start baking. It became less of a hobby and more of a passion. When I couldn’t get enough of it, I used to look for excuses; anything that would mean I could bake and decorate a cake. I started my small home business in 2017 when I moved to Pakistan. I have an album of my old cake pictures that I go through from time to time, especially when I’m feeling down or second guessing myself. It makes me realise that I’ve come a long way in those 11 years, and the only way from here is up!
- How do you prioritise your time between baking and everyday life?
It’s a tricky line to walk, that one. I’m obsessive about my work, I can’t let a project go until I’ve completed it to perfection. It’s my restlessness to get the job done that bleeds into my daily life. I used to find it extremely difficult to build healthy boundaries but I’m slowly trying to. I’ve fixed working hours for myself and try my best to stick to the discipline. So every morning, I wake up at the same time as my husband and try to wrap up my work when he gets home and spend the rest of the time with the family. There are still days when I am working 18-hours a day though.
- Is there a time you completely messed up an order? If yes, how did you find your way out?
There was a time when I misread my calendar and mixed up order dates. I thought the order was due Saturday but the client had booked Friday. I remember the trembling panic I felt at that moment. One of my main goals is to try and provide my customers with flawless service, so when I realised my mistake, I got very worried because I didn’t want to disappoint my client. I decided the best way to resolve this was by being honest, so I called her up and explained the situation. I asked her if she could give me a couple of extra hours so I could get the order done to perfection and she was gracious enough to agree. Of course she was disappointed, but when she received her order she said that it was the prettiest thing and she forgot what had happened after she saw it. I was happy she liked it, but now I double-check my orders every time to avoid such an incident ever again!
- Which delicacy is a fab hit amongst your clients? Which one is your favourite to bake?
I’ve seen that customers usually love my truffles — I’ve received excellent feedback on those. But for me, my favourite to make is the one I initially struggled with the most: Macarons. I’d always wanted to make them, but when I started out, the first couple of batches were disastrous. Since the procedure is rather delicate, even the slightest mistake can cost you the whole batch. I remember being on the verge of tears when my macarons came out wrong even after several tries. Now, they’re my most favourite thing to bake! I love their texture and their flavor, especially the way they melt when they hit the tongue. But it’s also because every time a new batch comes out perfect, it reminds me how I overcame my struggle and how hard work is worth it.
- What kind of baked goods do you offer to your clients?
We’ve got a variety of products that we offer, cakes top the list. Then we have cupcakes, cookies, macarons, muffins, cake pops, cakesicles, tarts, brownies, donuts and the list goes on.
- Three pros and cons of having your own baking business?
The biggest pro is that I am my own boss! I manage my own time and projects, and as long as my clients have permission. But I think that the pros are also the cons when it comes to home based businesses. I manage my own time but it was a challenge to have a personal life before I set hours for myself. Even then, I sometimes have to work over time because customised cakes and desserts have a lot of detailing that people don’t realize is pretty time consuming. Another con is that it’s difficult to take days off because I’m usually swamped with work and I’m the only one who can do it. There are also financial technicalities. As a baker, I try to source the best material for my cakes, and sometimes the cost goes out of my own pocket. I usually face a lot of availability issues also. Sometimes finding a single ingredient can take up most of my time and is the most frustrating part of this job. It’s taxing, of course, but at the end of the day it’s my passion —I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
- Where do you get your inspiration and motivation from?
My main source of inspiration is Instagram. It has such a wide network of talented bakers and they all have unique styles. When I was a novice baker I used to recreate cakes and pastries that used to pop up on my Instagram explore feed because I was in awe at their talent. It was my goal to be able to do what they do. Even now, after developing my own style, I make it a point to explore different pages as they give me insight to different details. That’s why I love this art form — the more I expose myself to it, the more I’m inspired. I also love social media because it has helped me connect with so many amazing bakers and cake designers out there who support and cheer each other and help each other get better. These pages also serve as my motivation — a lot of bakers share their stories, and it helps me realize that I’m only at the beginning of mine.
- How do you set yourself apart from your competitors?
I never tried to intentionally set myself apart, to be honest. I’ve only ever wanted my creations to be precise in their details, clean and pristine. Most of my ideas are derived from my background and experience as an interior designer. I prefer to keep things light and airy, which explains my obsession with pastels and why I try not to overcrowd my cakes. Of course the theme and the look is per customer’s request, but I personally have a soft spot for minimal yet crafty designs, they seem more graceful to me.
9. Describe your style of baking in three words.
Simple, clean, and fresh.
- Tell us about a time you went above and beyond for a customer. What did they request?
I had a customer last year who was very particular about his order. He put great emphasis on ensuring the quality of the cake and the fresh flowers that I was going to decorate with. The cake was ready and I was waiting on the flowers, only to find out upon their arrival that they had wilted a little, the petals had lost a bit of their stiffness and the colours weren’t as vibrant as I had wanted. I was running out of time, the client was going to pick up his order soon. But I couldn’t decorate the cake with those flowers. I just couldn’t. So I called the customer and told him that I’d be delivering the cake to him myself. The order was from Islamabad, so I got into the car with my husband and we stopped at a few flower shops until I could find the perfect flowers that would do justice to the cake and the client’s request. I assembled the cake in the car on the way to the drop-off site. It was a tricky job, the car was jostling despite my husband’s slow and careful driving, but we managed to get the cake to the client in time and in the perfect condition — just like he wanted.