Richard McComb meets a home baker who has turned a culinary hobby into a thriving business.
Caroline Smith knew it was time to consider a career in cakes when she got two orders for weddings in the same month.
Until this point, the 36-year-old Birmingham database administrator had turned out beautifully decorated home-baking in her spare time, helping friends and work colleagues with special celebrations.
But word about Caroline’s fantastic designs and tasty sponges kept spreading and in the end something had to give.
Caroline now works part-time for Cancer Research UK’s clinical trials unit, based at Birmingham University. The rest of the week you will find her in her self-styled cake studio – “Actually, it’s my kitchen,” she says – working wonders with icing, sponge, delicate hand-made flowers and terrifyingly moreish chocolate “mud.”
“I always made Christmas cakes and family birthday cakes,” says Caroline, who is chatting to me in the sitting room of her home in Harborne.
On a tray in front of me is a selection of chocolate and vanilla cupcakes, topped with butter cream. I’ve held out for a good five minutes but resistance breaks down and I plunge in for a chocolate special. Caroline continues to talk but my reporter’s notebook remains devoid of script for some time. It’s rude, I know, and highly unprofessional, but cakes need eating, not looking at.
Caroline’s love of cake-making was transformed by a decorating class she took at University College Birmingham, then known as the College of Food.
“I became hooked,” she said. “I ended up doing three years of evening classes.”
She completed levels I, II and III and, like a fledgling sportswoman, turned pro in August 2008, launching Caroline’s Cake Company. At first, she baked and decorated at weekends and during the evening, but the orders kept flying in and she decided to go part-time in her “proper job” in January 2009.
Business spread through word of mouth and the internet. Caroline started writing a blog and picked up new contacts through microblogging site Twitter (follow her @CarolinesCakeCo).
She has created a social network of friends and professional advisors: “If you have questions or queries, there is always someone out there who can help you. Because the people are all round the country and all round the world, there is not a competitive thing.”
She is indebted to Sydney-based baking supremo Planet Cake for its recipe for chocolate mud, her second most popular cake variety after a classic sponge. Planet Cake has variously made goodies for Nicole Kidman (wedding) and Celine Dion (40th birthday) and although Caroline has yet to pick up a celebrity client it’s only a matter of time. Her bespoke designs are fabulously eye-catching and showcase very fine detail.
As a request for a 60th birthday cake, she was asked to make a Jaguar car with a double garage.
The preparation – and the finished article – was meticulously delivered. Caroline downloaded the blueprints for the classic XK150S Coupe from the internet. She then sculpted the shape of the car out of a chocolate mud, decorating it in dark blue icing for the “bodywork.”
The garage was made from fruit cake, covered in marzipan and brick textured icing while the gravel driveway was replicated with chopped walnuts. For authenticity, she made tyre marks in the gravel. The cake took pride of place at the party at Simpsons restaurant.
For a small wedding at Hotel du Vin, Caroline created a fun Scrabble-themed cake. The happy couple were fans of the word game and the bride requested the design as a surprise for her husband.
Other surprise commissions have included an Aston Villa cake for a Villain’s 40th birthday, complete with a giant football, claret and blue scarf and “Up The Villa” banner.
The work, and such diverse requests, mean there needs to be plenty of planning. “I always try to be ahead of myself but sometimes it gets a bit close to the wire,” says Caroline.
“Once I was making a wedding cake with hand-piped flowers on three tiers. I miscalculated and ran out of flowers. I had to make another batch and finally finished at 8pm on the night before the wedding. In theory, you can always work through the night and it can be stressful. But when you see the finished product it is worth it.”
She loves the creative work and would one day love to be a full-time cake designer with her own cake studio.
Caroline says: “It is lovely to see people’s reaction when they collect their cake and it is great getting their feedback. People generally want cakes for happy occasions and there is a nice buzz about it. You feed on the happiness.”
Her husband David, an IT trainer for a legal publisher, reckons Caroline is a good cook but she insists she is cake-maker at heart.
“I don’t really enjoy cooking meals because I find it quite stressful getting everything to come together. I prefer it when David cooks. I prefer to bake. I am a sweet person, not a savoury person,” she says.
The nation’s reinvigorated hunger for cupcakes shows no sign in abating. Caroline’s start from £1.50 per cake, with a minimum order of 20, and she can do anything. Well almost.
She is determined to make the definitive lemon curd cupcake but early attempts have seen the curd “explode” during baking. Caroline is now looking at injecting the lemon into a cavity inside the cupcake, post-baking.
Still, the idea of lemon volcanoes is hugely appealing, and practice, as they say, makes perfect.