The living room of Agnes D’Souza’s cosy house in Juhu was strewn with trays filled with painted fondant figurines, neat stacks of bakery boxes and a centerpiece of three white cakes adorned with gradient colours of electric blue and yellow. “This house is my home and my workshop and when there are orders, it is in a total mess,” D’Souza said, pointing to the cakes in the room. “In fact this isn’t a total mess, it has just been cleared up.”

From weddings and birthdays to communions and christenings, D’Souza – who is called Yvette by her friends – has been baking cakes for over nine years now in the same residence. A full-time employee with a publishing company by day, she said that she bakes at night only because of her passion for it – “Everybody in my neighborhood knows that Yvette’s light is on till 2 or 3 in the night and that she is awake.”

Date-walnut cakes with fondant. Image credit: Sruthi Ganapathy Raman.

Something for everyone

Assisted by just one person, Henrietta, who helps her with cake-mixing, colouring, icing and flower making, D’Souza single-handedly bakes cakes for all occasions all year round. While she acknowledged that the Christmas season was the busiest, D’Souza revealed that she was already getting orders for subsequent festivities like the carnival festival and Fat Sundays. She takes pride in the fact that her passion for baking came from home and not from any culinary school. With the basics taught by her mother-in-law, she picked up the techniques through excessive reading and practice. For this season, regular Christmas treats like milk cream, date rolls and nankhatais apart, D’Souza’s spread will include fruit cakes, coconut cakes and pineapple cakes.

While some orders require D’Souza to design the cakes herself according to the theme, most of her clients give her reference images from the internet. “In the beginning, it was only royal icing and any scribbling would do – it was good enough [because there was a lot of] outside decorations and filigree,” D’Souza explained. “But now, people want everything that they see on the internet. For example, in those days, the christening cakes just used to have ‘God Bless’ or something like that written on them. But now everything comes from the internet. The technique also varies. First, we used to do the colouring with our hands, but now we use spray guns.”

Image credit: Agnes D'Souza.

With more and more people wanting big cakes, D’Souza revealed that the latest fad in the business is the dummy cake. The term is fairly self-explanatory, she said. “Everybody wants big cakes, but they want the main cake to be only four or five kilos. So dummy cakes are in now. Only the base is real and the other tiers are dummies made out of thermocol. Many ask me why I make these cakes but people cannot usually afford a huge cake. I am able to make huge-looking cakes for an affordable price. The decorations are made in such a way that you won’t even come to know that it is a dummy.”

Basket cake. Image credit: Agnes D'Souza.

Keeping up with the trends

Desiree Attari is another gourmet baker from Bandra, who, too, has tapped into the formula of staying on track with changing demands over the years. “The trend now is very different – it is all geometry and Aztec designs,” Attari said. “Before we used to use stands in conventional cakes. But now no stands are used – cakes are all just piled on each other. More importance is given to the design and the look. People want classy cakes. Earlier, cakes used to be very ornately dressed. But now it is all about the simplicity of the cake.”

Attari, who started out as a home baker in 1991, extended her business by setting up the Desiree Cake Studio, 12 years ago. What started out as a growing fondness for children, soon turned into a hobby of baking children’s birthday cakes. “In almost a few months, I named the company Desiree because an ad agency told me that my name sells it all,” she said.

Some of her hot-selling variants include chocolate cakes, carrot cakes, pineapple cakes, fresh-fruit cakes and marzipan fruits and chocolates. “In terms of colour, before there used to be a lot of white cakes,” Attari explained. “Now we have pink, yellow, mauve and lavender. Black cakes were never ordered for occasions, but they are in demand now. You can depict whatever you want on the cakes. Now you have these photo machines, so you can put a picture of the person on the cake. Secondly, the themes such as depiction of one’s hobbies and interests are done through sugar craft on the cake.”

Game of Thrones-themed cake. Image credit: Desiree Attari.

Tradition is king

But not everyone swears by contemporary designs. Valerie Bahuguna from Treats and Treacles is one of them. The 58-year-old home baker in Bandra prefers to stick with the traditional fare of treats and sweet dishes. “I don’t think many people want to deviate from the traditional Christmas cakes,” Bahuguna said. “At least 90% of them want to continue with the tradition of milk cream and marzipan. It is maybe the younger generation who wants different themes.”

Milk cream, marzipan, chocolate fudge, coconut logs, pista grand sweet, milk toffees, cashew toffees, walnut toffees, guava cheese and kulkuls are some of Bahuguna’s regular offerings. Apart from baking, she also runs a tiffin service. “You need to be consistent and you should never compromise on quality, no matter what. If you say it is rum, it has to be rum. Some people mix sugar syrup with rum or put essence. We have our cases [of rum] lying there. Our fruits are soaked for a year for the cake.”

Valerie's cupcake toppers. Image credit: Sruthi Ganapathy Raman.

Bahuguna started the business in 2002, when she was looking for work to do from home after the death of her husband. “The journey has been quite a difficult one,” Bahuguna said. “My son was in his tenth standard and he took [his father’s death] pretty badly, so I wanted to do something from home. I first started off with cakes and then I realised that it was not very viable to manage. That is how I branched out into food also. Everything is sold word of mouth.”

Most of Bahuguna’s menu for the season comprises of conventional treats like cherry nut cake, carrot raisin cakes, coconut cakes, date roles, guava cheese and rikejo, an East Indian treat. “My kind of clientele is still the traditional one. Fortunately or unfortunately, I haven’t had any experiences with trying quirky cakes. For wedding cakes, I still stick to traditional ones. The styles are mostly florets, carnations, roses, lilies and orchids. I have never gone into the details of the new types like the crystallised stones. But I do intend to try my hand at it.”

Valerie Bahuguna. Image credit: Sruthi Ganapathy Raman.

While Bahuguna is happy with the number of cakes she has sold this year, she admitted that the business in 2017 was slow-moving. “In the last few years, the business has slowed down a wee bit,” she said. “The costing and the pricing has gone up. Especially because of demonetisation, last year there was a setback. Otherwise every household needs Christmas sweets. So instead of taking a kilogram, they would take half a kilogram. But there is always a demand for good quality Christmas sweets.”

Attari, on the other hand, noted that the demand for cakes had only grown. “Previously people were not so acquainted with cakes,” she said. “They were ordered only for birthdays. Now they have a cake for any occasion. Now even if someone is ill, people send cakes. They are no longer just used only for birthdays and festivals like Christmas. Even for Diwali, people gift cakes. It used to be an acquired taste, which it is not anymore.”

Valerie's Christmas spread. Image credit: Sruthi Ganapathy Raman.