Feature There is a growing number of chefs committed to satisfying Abu Dhabi's sweet tooth. Hallie Engel meets three women who started baking as a hobby and now run successful businesses custom-designing treats from their homes.
Crumbs of comfort
There is a growing number of chefs committed to satisfying Abu Dhabi's sweet tooth. Hallie Engel meets three women who started baking as a hobby and now run successful businesses custom-designing treats from their homes. The story goes that Marie Antoinette lost her head for uttering the immortal words "let them eat cake", but had she been referring to the delectable creations of Abu Dhabi's independent bakers, she might have been spared. Answering the call to sate the city's collective sweet tooth, a handful of resourceful women are firing up their ovens and donning aprons with pride. By sidestepping prefab mixes and working from scratch, they're providing a hungry public with a long-overdue alternative to the bland sweets churned out en masse at supermarkets.
While studying international relations at Mount Holyoke College in the United States, Izmeen Adeel encountered an array of baked goods rarely seen in her native Pakistan. After marrying and returning to Punjab, she craved the cakes and treats of her student days and tried recreating them with ingredients available in local markets. The pickings were slim, though, and she lacked everything from cake tins to icing.
"In Lahore, I didn't have the proper things to work with, so I was trying to improvise, jerry-rigging pans and trying to carve cakes into the proper shapes. Even the kitchen was hard to work with: we got a brand new stove, but two weeks later part of the door came off in my hand." Determined to continue, she purchased items on trips to the West and mastered the art of substitution, but admits with a laugh that some of her early attempts bordered on "traumatising". After refining her skills through trial and error, she began taking requests from friends, and finally, strangers, who sought her out after seeing her creations at parties. "I like cakes to be fun," she says, rolling pin in hand. "I like them to tell a story. That's part of the excitement; to turn a cake around and see something different on each side - especially for the kids. There's a sense of wonder there."
She moved to Abu Dhabi in 2008, when her husband, a lawyer, was offered a position at a local firm. They set up home in Khalifa City and Izmeen found people hungry for custom cakes, so she set about turning her hobby into a small business. Armed with a good oven and the ingredients she had lacked in Lahore, Izmeen created a website and began taking orders as word spread through the local expat community. She now handles between eight and 12 requests a month.
On a dinosaur cake made for her son's fifth birthday, intricate details pop out from every angle: the green lizard perched on top has beady yellow eyes, pointy white fangs, a spiked tail, and looks ready to devour Tokyo. The creature is sculpted from fondant, which Izmeen describes as "similar to Play-Doh" because it is easy to mould. "It's made from icing sugar, glucose, glycerine and egg whites. Marzipan is made from almonds, so if you're allergic to nuts, it's no good - this is safer for kids," she adds.
On the other end of the table is her latest creation, a chocolate cake made for an avid gardener. Iced with short strands of butter-cream icing, it resembles a grassy lawn. Izmeen's hands work quickly, moulding brown sheets of fondant into flowerpots. She places them on top of the cake before filling them with brown cake crumbs in place of soil; a fondant hose and a few drops of icing "water" are the final touch. Scraping icing from a bowl, she explains: "Everything is made from scratch if I can get the ingredients; you have to wonder about something that has a shelf life of for ever." Her dedication to fresh and homemade is captured in the flavour of her red velvet cake. Rich, moist and smooth - it's proof her creations taste as good as they look.
In the heart of Khalidiya, another woman is whipping up sweet treats of her own. Sarah El-Shahat, a student at the local campus of the Sorbonne studying graphic design, French and German, grew up in Abu Dhabi baking alongside her mother. "It started early with my mom," she says. Her mother was originally from Connecticut and converted to Islam when she married her father, who practises medicine in Abu Dhabi. "My mom grew up with all of the Christian holidays, and when she missed them, made a lot of Christmassy treats to celebrate her new Islamic ones."
After transferring from the American University of Sharjah, Sarah found herself with time to spare, a beckoning kitchen and hungry classmates. "I began making things and taking them to university to hand out to my friends," she explains, "and I'd get up at four or five in the morning to bake just so things were as fresh as possible." Sarah garnered inspiration from a weathered Betty Crocker cookery book, the internet and even films, explaining how she watched Chocolat, in which the baker puts chilli in her hot chocolate. "I tried it with brownies, but I put way too much in by accident. When people took a bite, it was OK, but a few seconds later they didn't know what had happened." After she exchanged peppers for more traditional ingredients such as cinnamon and vanilla, her treats were a hit among friends, until one day they suggested she start selling them. "People here can be reluctant to buy anything that isn't wrapped, stamped and made in a restaurant," she says with a shrug, "so I wasn't sure if it would work out, but it went really well." Dubbing her operation Legendary Sweet, she began fielding orders and expanded her repertoire to include cookies, cakes, fudge and the occasional pie. Working from a cosy home kitchen, Sarah has encountered the challenges of cooking in a desert environment. "Because of the heat, food storage is different here. I was having problems with recipes not turning out right even though nothing was expired. They say 'store at room temperature', but room temperature here is more like an oven, so I have to be careful." Baking a batch of carrot cupcakes, Sarah works with a handful of fresh ingredients, including shredded carrot, grated coconut and walnuts she pulverises by hand. The final product is spicy and chewy, perfect for breakfast with a glass of milk and equally delicious with a smear of homemade cream-cheese icing for desert. Sarah believes in eating for pleasure. "A lot of people are on diets these days, asking how much sugar is in this, how much fat is in that, but if you're going to eat cupcakes, you shouldn't care." The local baking scene doesn't lack in variety, either. Taking a break from her table at the Abu Dhabi Mums Summer Fayre, Bekky Britton of Lillybakes (named after her daughter) explains that she has "always cooked", but her new career started one Christmas when a friend invited her to an art fair she was working at. "I didn't want to sit there and do nothing, so I decided to sell some Christmas puddings. A few months later, I was doing hampers with cakes and chutney, and it grew from there." Bekky was born in the UK but spent many years here as a child. She attended a British university before finding her way back here to run a sailing school in Dubai. Like Izmeen and Sarah, she works from home with an eye towards fresh, simple ingredients, and enjoys serving the local market, saying: "I love being able to provide something in Abu Dhabi, because it is so limited here." She recently moved to Dubai but still does the vast majority of her business in Abu Dhabi, selling her products through fairs, expat meetings and requests resulting from word of mouth, using her cravings as a guide in the kitchen. "I get new cookbooks and flip through them until something catches my eye," she says with a smile. "When I see something I like, I'll turn it into something I can sell. I go to the store to get this and that and when I get home, realise I've forgotten a few things, so it becomes different from how it started."
Her recipes lend themselves well to improvisation though, particularly her chewy muesli bars. Sweetened with nuts and bits of fruit, they're a world apart from the sugary, processed versions on supermarket shelves. Bekky likes to add another vital ingredient to her cooking as well, seasoning things with a pinch of environmental consciousness. "All my chutneys and puddings go in recycled jars; I get old ones from people and wash and steam them so they're sterilised. It keeps prices down as well because glass is expensive here, and makes everything a bit greener."
The mismatched jars with homemade labels encapsulate the DIY ethic of an independent business, but the quality of her puddings and fruity chutney is the result of hours spent in the kitchen, experimenting and perfecting, because as Bekky says, "it's always evolving". The same could be said of Abu Dhabi's baking scene. Whether improving upon classic recipes, transforming fondant into a fearsome monster or experimenting with a pinch of hot chilli, the city's independent bakers are a creative bunch, and as they find new inspiration in films, cookbooks and the rumbling tummies of friends and children, things can only get sweeter.