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Bake bosses: fondant queens take the cake

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Some are adorned with the delicate lace, glistening pearls, and relief cameos of a baroque boudoir; others uphold a gallery of watercolour Peter Rabbits in petite. In one, the entire history of Cape Jewish life is rendered in mini-marvels, while in another, an edible garden of Namaqualand succulents and aloes blooms.

Indeed, there’s no telling what portal you have opened when lifting the lid of another of Vivienne Basckin’s boxes of cupcake compositions. Yet the real wonderland lives inside the imagination extraordinaire of this Cape Town-based cupcake artist.

“I enjoy the challenge of taking it out the box – if someone says, ‘Could you…?’ There’s no limit to what one can do when you explore and play.”

Entirely self-taught, Basckin says that while she used to enjoy making cakes for her children and even came up with a koi fish one for her husband “using the salmon mould everyone uses for Pesach”, she discovered her cupcake artistry in 2015 when she was invited to a friend’s 60th birthday and felt stuck for a gift idea, “So I made 60 cupcakes and from then, the whole thing started. It’s a hobby gone mad.”

Although she has always loved the flamboyance of the baroque and rococo periods, she had never found an artistic medium for this fascination – until, surprising, she found fondant. “When I started to work with it, I realised that this little piece of fondant afforded me every single opportunity to do colour and form. I wanted to do something that’s a bit more edgy.”

Through trial, error, and zany experimentation, Basckin is now renowned not just for this striking antique style – but a wide range of designs.

One of Vivienne Basckin’s cupcake compositions

Beyond the kitchen, Zimbabwean-born Basckin has globe-trotted with her husband and now-grown-up children. Her son was born while they were in Amsterdam, and her daughter in Hong Kong. She worked for more than 40 years as a teacher and lecturer in institutions as diverse as Harold Cressy High School and Herzlia, the University of Amsterdam, and the Professional Communications Unit of the University of Cape Town’s engineering faculty. Today, she also works as a guide at the Cape Town Holocaust Centre.

When it comes to non-edible art, she is also an accomplished painter. Twenty of her watercolour renderings of Western Cape synagogues are displayed at the South African Jewish Museum. Now, Basckin has even translated her talent onto the cupcake as canvasses, painting with edible watercolours onto dainty slates of fondant. She has also become a sculptor of note – albeit on a Lilliputian scale – of figurines of any fancy.

Basckin’s cupcakes are made in sets. Each individual mini-cake is a unique design, making up an overall artistic arrangement within a specific colour palette and artistic theme. “I can’t go to bed at night until I have actually got the composition right.”

Most recently, she has been creating baked biographies for birthdays in which she designs a set of cupcakes, each one depicting an individual aspect of the person’s life and likes. For example, one customer had their dog’s portrait painted on one, and their beloved Bentley immortalised on another. A rich maroon theatre curtain is folded over the top of another with golden drama masks, while a tiny bowl and chopsticks adorned another to show off a love of Chinese food.

The actual cupcakes are all classic vanilla with a butter icing underneath the design. “All the excitement is on the top!” she quips. Basckin is able to make kosher orders, partnering to use the premises of a kosher caterer. Although she has investigated the possibility of deliveries to other cities or overseas, the fragility of the creations makes it impossible.

However, her acclaim has travelled so far, a friend in Austria contacted her saying there was a woman there who wanted Basckin’s cupcakes for her son’s wedding.

When Basckin explained that it wasn’t possible to send them over, they paid for Basckin to come to the country for a week to make her masterpieces for the happy occasion.

Ultimately, says Basckin, the best part of the work, is the connection with people and their celebrations. “The loveliest has been going on a journey with a family, from making their engagement cupcakes to their wedding ones, and now for their child’s fifth birthday!”

She says her husband jokes that she loves the “instant gratification – the joy when they gasp, and I just know it hits the spot!”

The Egoli empresses of edibles

Esti Cohen of Esti’s Boutique Baking Studio, Kerry Halfon of Sugar Bear Bakery, Sharit Shapiro of Biscuit by Design, and Natasha Seef-Bear of Ma Baker love bringing a bit of sweetness to Joburgers’ lives all year round.

Although they come from backgrounds as diverse as the fashion design, psychology, marketing, and documentary filmmaking, they all share a love of creative expression and a passion for people.

“I’ve always been artistic. Even when I was two years old, I would draw the Smurf village on the wall,” recalls Cohen, who was born in Israel but lives with her husband and three children in Johannesburg.

For her, baking also started as a hobby, but has evolved into a professional craft whereby she has so many culinary fans, that she gets calls at night for those craving her carrot cake. “Customers become so dedicated to a cake, be it the carrot, lemon meringue, or coffee. They will buy three or four at a time!”

Her highly decorated birthday cakes come in perfected classics like chocolate and vanilla, as well as marble, and indeed, for Cohen, the balance is always between delicious flavour and beautiful appearance. ”First you eat with your eyes, and then it must be a joy to taste,” she says.

Most of her recipes are family secrets that are worked and reworked according to their approval. “A lot of my recipes go way, way back. We will take a recipe and do it over and over until everyone in the family agrees – because they are the ones who will be blunt with you. When we are happy with it, we launch it into the world!”

She has also enjoyed teaching workshops, especially to children, in various creative pursuits, and views her business as “always evolving”. She works in a studio in Sandringham, and is kosher under the Beth Din. During COVID-19, Cohen began making a Shabbat menu, which has been very successful.

She says that even after 15 years, every time she get a compliment, it fills her with happiness. “I love the whole process, from when the client contacts me and is excited about their simcha. This is what G-d blessed me with: they feeling that I can be a part of happy things.”

Halfon of Sugar Bear Bakery also believes there is no better feeling that a satisfied customer. When a little birthday boy or girl “doesn’t want to cut their cake” because they love it so much, she knows she’s managed to bake magic into the mix.

She says the trends for girls are all about Candyland and glitter fantasy figures like unicorns, mermaids, and Frozen characters. Many boys are into gaming at the moment like Roblox and Fortnite. Paw Patrol seems to close the gender gap.

Halfon also enjoys the “entrepreneurial aspect of the work”, and her business has grown to the point that she’s able to oversee much of the running of it, a perfect blending of her previous experience in marketing for a food magazine.

Seef-Bear of Ma Baker started her journey by making her children’s birthday cakes and realising how much she enjoyed it. She started making for friends, then advertised on social media until it became a full-time pursuit, one built around being able to have quality time with her children.

“I sit up at night when the kids go to bed and just create things,” she says about her love of sculpting figurines and challenging herself to try new designs.

Her business, which is kosher but not under the Beth Din, has allowed her to gain in confidence as she has taught herself a variety of skills. Right now, fidget pops in fondant is a popular choice for celebration cakes, as are Disney options.

Yet, like Shapiro of Biscuit by Design, she has had her share of wackier requests. Both have been asked to forge intimate appendages in dough form for racier occasions – the former in cake and the latter in biscuit bites.

But beyond this bit of the bawdy, Shapiro’s repertoire is indeed refined, crafting the most elegant of floral wedding sets, to bright and bold pop-culture compositions.

Like Seef-Bear, Shapiro is self-taught – “You can learn anything on the internet!” – and first discovered her passion for baking making her children’s birthday treats.

As a child, while she “liked being in the kitchen because my mother was always there”, Shapiro says she has never considered herself artistic and therefore was surprised to discover her creative side.

As life comes full-circle, her mother now works with her in the running of things, with Shapiro declaring, “She’s the force behind the business, actually.”

She also offers unique products that allow people to decorate or paint different biscuit designs, with one range offering an edible version of a “colouring-in-page” for children. Kosher under the Beth Din, they have also launched a build your-own-sukkah biscuit kit alongside their existing gingerbread house ones.

And as for her tips for the year ahead, “It’s definitely have a cookie a day!”

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