Following the recipe

Erin Hale

Baking has seen a cultural resurgence as people spend more time at home. Three CPAs tell Erin Hale how they started baking and how they have found more inspiration and enjoyment baking with friends and trying out new recipes

Opening her own bakery was a huge project for Sindy Li. The former auditor had always enjoyed baking as a way to relax from her busy work life and bring a little joy to the office in the form of freshly baked snacks, but this would be the next step. “I always used baking as a way to relax myself. Every time I brought baked snacks to the office, my colleagues would say ‘wow’ and were very encouraging, so I kept baking and improved,” says Li, a member of the Hong Kong Institute of CPAs. “I started six years ago making mainly cakes, for example chiffon or Swiss roll cakes because they are easier to carry to the office. You can bring many roll cakes at once and then serve the whole office.”

At the start, Li remembers wanting to learn how to bake bagels and baguettes, leading her to enrol herself at Le Cordon Bleu, a global French culinary academy, where she studied the art of baking and received a diploma in French baking. She took a second class at Le Cordon Bleu in January 2018 prior to opening her bakery Homing People the following month in a bid to take her baking skills to the professional level. “I took an intensive class at Le Cordon Bleu in Japan in January 2018. They have two diploma programmes – one focused on baking and one on making pastries. I wanted to make sure I knew how to make and bake pastries before opening my bakery,” Li says.

Sindy Li, Founder of Homing People, opened up the bakery in 2018. She is pictured here with a freshly-baked batch of bagels. Photography by Anthony Tung.

Li credits her accounting background, noting that it helped her prepare for the competitive business environment of Hong Kong, where even famous chefs and bakers may struggle despite their culinary skills. High rent, taxes, overhead expenses, Li notes, are some factors that can dampen most people’s enthusiasm to turn their hobby into a profession. “Because of my accounting background, I’m not afraid of figures. I’m always thinking about costs, profits, quantity and ingredients, so for me it’s easier,” Li says. But starting and running a bakery presented other challenges that could not be learned in the classroom or the office. “Because setting up a business has many different aspects, I had no idea about how to source suppliers, or which country had the best equipment. I had no idea in the beginning, so that was a challenge,” she says.

Photography by Anthony Tung.

“I always used baking as a way to relax myself. Every time I brough baked snacks to the office, my colleagues would say ‘wow’ and were very encouraging, so I kept baking and improved.”

Ensuring smooth operations of a bakery also requires knowing how to handle everyday hiccups. One particular challenge, Li remembers, was having their coffee machine suddenly stop functioning during peak business hour only a month after opening. “A lot of our customers come to our bakery for coffee but we couldn’t serve any. But luckily, they were understanding and happy with changing to Earl Grey tea just for a day,” she says.

These days, Li gets her inspiration from the culinary traditions found in major Asian cities like Hong Kong, Tokyo and Taipei by taking one recipe and making it her own by adding a little something extra. “Recently, I’ve been making bagels. I prefer them Japanese and Taiwanese style as they always have some filling inside,” she says. “Sometimes, I’ll put Chinese barbecued pork in a bagel or I’ll fill a Hong Kong pineapple bun with custard.”

Li adds that first time bakers may also try making roll cakes, which are based on a simple sponge cake filled with cream, while others may experiment with making cookies. “Get some satisfaction first as a beginner,” she says. “Baking really makes people relax and food always makes people happy – it’s also a great way to connect to people. When you’re baking, you can enjoy the process and taste the finished product.”

Esther Cho, Engagement Manager leading the Skills Guild Programme, Amazon Web Services Korea, enjoys baking cookies. Now based in South Korea, she is seen here with oatmeal cookies she just made.

Finding inspiration 

Esther Cho attributes her love for baking to a famous bakery she’d often visit during her years working in London. She was a frequent customer at Crumbs & Doilies, a bakery located in the heart of Soho opened by Jemma Wilson, a one time graphic design student known for her colourful cupcakes on Instagram and baking tutorials on YouTube. “I attended almost 20 classes at Le Cordon Bleu and London bakeries like Jemma’s to really learn diverse baking techniques. I started from learning how to bake bread, cookies and little baked goods. What really helped me, though, was baking together with my friends,” says Cho, who worked for two years at KPMG as a management consultant before returning to Asia. She is now an Engagement Manager leading a Skills Guild Programme at Amazon Web Services Korea and an Institute member. “When you bake with friends, you learn all these little tricks like how to clean up fast, how to deal with leftovers and how long you can leave ingredients in the freezer.”

Cho would hone her skills by baking at a friend’s house that offered enough space for multiple people to work together. Since returning to Asia, she kept up her passion in Hong Kong and now South Korea, where she relocated for work last year, although it has required a few adjustments.

“In the U.K., where it’s slightly colder, the icing on a cake wouldn’t melt as quickly. But that isn’t the same in Hong Kong, where it can be quite humid.”

One thing to note, Cho adds, is knowing how to compensate for temperature differences when baking at home, for example. “In the U.K., where it’s slightly colder, the icing on a cake wouldn’t melt as quickly. But that isn’t the same in Hong Kong, where it can be quite humid,” she explains. “So the recipe I use in Hong Kong compared to the U.K. or South Korea will always be different.”

Cho recommends novice bakers with prior experience to consider taking a few beginner classes before baking at home. Courses, she says, will help newcomers learn from more experienced bakers and provide an opportunity for them to experience baking with a full range of appliances. For example, she says learning to bake with a full size oven was easier and more intuitive, as this allowed her to eventually modify her recipes to be cooked in smaller batches or in a smaller oven in Hong Kong and South Korea. As for food, she suggests starting with a simple yet delicious option like scones. “Start with a recipe where you don’t need to buy too many ingredients or equipment. Jamie Oliver’s scone recipe, for example, can be made by hand. Oatmeal cookies don’t need a mixer,” she says. Avoid anything technical at first, such as madeleines, as you will struggle to mix them without a mixer,” advises Cho.

But to really improve, one needs to learn alongside someone more experienced. “A teacher is always there to give feedback,” Cho says, adding that as little as five lessons can provide a firm foundation. “By learning off YouTube, a teacher can’t stop and tell you that you are overmixing or if your bread is overbaked, for example. There is no one to tell if you have messed up.”

Fiona Wu, Assurance Principal at Moore, enjoys baking on weekends. Below, she is taking out a fresh assortment of ribbon-shaped buns made with flour, eggs, butter and topped with cheese.

Making time to bake

Fiona Wu has managed to compensate for Hong Kong’s lack of space and still bake with the help of space- and time-saving gadgets. Wu, who mainly enjoys making bread in her spare time and on weekends, swears by her multifunctional Bosch MUM 5 kitchen machine, which functions as a scale and multifunctional mixer capable of handling the large quantities of dough needed to make certain kinds of cakes and bread.

‘“There are different kinds of machines – like bread makers – where you put all the ingredients in, press the button, and the machines makes the bread for you. However, this machine helps you slice and make dough with the ingredients you put inside,” says Wu, Assurance Principal at Moore and an Institute member.

Like many Hong Kong students, Wu first learned how to bake in secondary school through home economics classes, but it wasn’t until several years later that it became a pastime that she could share with her friends and family. After taking a few cooking classes, Wu now mainly draws her inspiration from Facebook groups and YouTube tutorials to try out different baked goods, from red bean buns to buns baked with cheese.

Being a good baker requires patience and the ability to closely follow recipes and instructions, which Wu says is somewhat similar to being an auditor. “During the baking process, you have to be patient,” says Wu. “You also need to follow a lot of steps and maybe wait for the bread to leaven or rise, which may take a few hours,” she says.

Wu is also aware that for novices, baking may still seem intimidating, but says that there are many easy recipes that can be made with a simple toaster oven to test the waters. She suggests first time bakers to try their hand at easy snacks such as cheese sticks. “It’s so easy because you don’t need to prepare any dough. You can simply buy frozen puff pastry, drizzle oil over it, season it with salt and pepper and put some cheese on it. And you only need an oven so you don’t need to buy any kitchenware,” she says.

“Taking part in baking classes with friends is a lot more fun than simply meeting up for dinner after work.”

Baking classes, Wu adds, are indeed a great way to learn, make a few friends and bake in an environment free of stress. “I joined different cooking classes with my friends. We learned how to make cakes, sweet rolls, macaroons, puddings and bread. Taking part in baking classes with friends is a lot more fun than simply meeting up for dinner after work. Baking brought us closer and gave us more to talk about,” she notes.

For her next project, Wu plans to make a pizza with oatmeal – one of her favourite ingredients – baked deep into the crust. She has recently been making oatmeal cookies to share with her friends and family. Wu usually bakes on the weekends, but has been baking more than usual amid work from home arrangements. “During COVID-19 lockdowns, people want something fun to do at home, and baking is one thing that can be done alone or with your friends or family. It’s also a great way to get kids involved,” she says. But busy or not, Wu says that as long as one enjoys getting their hands messy and enjoying delicious treats, there will always be time to put on an apron and bake. “Never give up any of your hobbies, no matter how hard or busy life gets,” she adds. “Keep doing what you like.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed more people worldwide to bake at home. In the United States, for example, 46 percent of adults reported that they bake at home more, while 75 percent said they have become more confident in the kitchen, according to a report by media company Hunter Public Relations released in April 2020. It polled over a thousand Americans between the ages of 18 to 73.

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