A personalised message in loopy, cursive letters is framed by iridescent pink pearls in the shape of a heart. Above this is a lilac-toned bow and beneath are layers of scalloped borders in a sea green shade redolent of a mermaid’s scales, finished off with a whimsical touch of pearls.
You’d think I’m describing an antique jewellery box or heirloom antique, but it is in fact a cake – one of the many decadent designs by cake artist Talla Al-Khafaji of Baby Palm Cakes.
“I've been obsessed with vintage and retro cakes since I was a teenager. I would draw the cakes and have a baker execute my vision, as I could never find them in bakeries,” Al-Khafaji tells The National.
She started posting images of her decorative cakes on Instagram last year during the pandemic, and her quirky, customised creations quickly found a fan following among the UAE’s sweet-toothed social media users.
But Al-Khafaji isn’t the only one turning her cake-decorating hobby into a full-fledged business. While some of us indulged in the banana bread trend during last year’s stay-at-home measures, more serious baking aficionados were setting their sights higher and coming up with compelling plans to cater to the local cake-loving community.
Farah Hassan, executive chef and co-founder of Flour Girl bakery, had just moved back to Dubai from Houston when the lockdown hit last year.
“Not having much to do and not being able to stay away from the kitchen too long, I decided to start baking and creating new things from home,” she says. “My friends and family were my tasters, and they motivated me to start selling.”
One of Hassan’s hits is the cruffin: a hybrid between a croissant and muffin, in flavours such as lotus and lemon meringue. She also makes birthday-cake-flavoured croissants, which can be packaged with a candle inside a mini takeaway box.
Lunch box cakes
A cake silhouette that both Al-Khafaji and Hassan are experimenting with is the lunch box cake – one of the world’s most buzzy bakery trends at the moment. Originating from Korean cafes and bakeries, the concept was first brought to Dubai by Jumeirah’s Cake Bloom, and features sized-down decorative cakes within three and five-inch diameters.
Hassan calls them “fast burger box cakes”, and says Flour Girl’s versions can be ready and delivered within half an hour. “I felt like getting a cake always required so much thought and time, especially if you wanted to celebrate something on the day and didn’t have time to plan ahead,” she says, also telling that customers can request their fast burger box cakes to be made with vegan ingredients.
“The same creativity and flavours apply to our vegan ranges; they are sweetened with coconut sugar as well, which makes them healthier and pretty guilt-free.”
Little Casper Bakes is another home-grown concept in Dubai that’s specialising in mini cakes. Its founder, Ayiah, says the bigger-than-cupcakes cakes are ideal for intimate occasions as they can feed one or two people, be it a couple-only birthday celebration or casual picnic.
“They’re a hit because they satisfy the craving of having cake without having to buy a big cake,” she says.
Where the artistry really comes in, is in the decoration. A clock face of luxury watch brand Audemars Piguet features on a cake by Little Casper Bakes, while detailed drawings of pencils and textbooks adorn a back-to-school-themed lunch box cake by Abu Dhabi’s All of Us Sweets.
Farah Sheik Al Sagha, founder of Rise Bakehouse, points out that sustainability may be a factor fuelling the popularity of lunch box cakes.
“People are more conscious of their waste and mini cakes are a great way to make sure there isn't any,” she explains.
All about the aesthetics
Paramount to the success of these pioneering cake makers has been their unique aesthetic, combined with great taste and presentation. Al-Khafaji says her distinctive retro themes are inspired by anime cartoons and toys such as Barbie, Polly Pocket, Hello Kitty and Care Bears, and that her signature finishing touches are pearls, hearts, bows and cherries.
Dubai’s Gato Cake Studio has a similar more-is-more aesthetic, selling its Korean cube cakes iced with colourful kawaii-themed designs packed in cutesy boxes.
While kitschy, eclectic and over-adorned looks have been popular of late, there are also plenty of local cake makers whose creations are scaled-back yet still strikingly artistic.
Melange is one such cakery, which opened its brick-and-mortar branch during the pandemic, and Al Sagha’s Rise Bakehouse is another. Architecture, furniture and natural materials such as concrete, stones and marble are among Al Sagha’s inspirations, and the resulting cakes are abstract and utterly decadent.
“I love studying different elements and finding ways to create that same look and feeling into something edible with my cake designs. Besides coming up with the perfect recipe, I always try to make a cake look more like an edible art structure,” she says. “I don't usually offer designs that are ‘trending’ in the cake world, but always try to introduce new elements by taking inspiration from what is around us.”
Sweet but saturated?
Suffice to say, ordering a cake in the UAE has never been a more enjoyable experience. Once limited to swanky boutique bakeries, options are now aplenty through social media apps like Instagram and powered by platforms such as Chatfood that enable bakers to sell their creations to their followers.
“There used to be many cake shops doing the same thing and you just chose your favourite, but now there are a lot of varieties and each one brings its own creativity and flavours,” says Hassan.
While the market may be saturated, this new crop of cake makers believes there’s enough demand in the community for local cake artists to all reap success.
“Bakeries are always going to be relevant because celebrations are a great time to treat yourself and loved ones,” says Al Sagha. And when it comes to sweets – particularly those that speak to our stomachs through our smartphone screens, the temptation is often too much to resist.