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Ask the Baker: Sarah Smallwood of Life is Sweet

JavaCupcake Note: This is the tenth post in the “Ask the Baker” series featuring interviews with bakers and bakery owners!   Click here to see the complete list of bakers being interviewed.  Check back every Tuesday for a new interview!

Please introduce yourself.  Tell us a little bit about what you do in the Cupcake world and how/when you got started.

Sarah Smallwood, Owner and Baker at Life is Sweet in Belfast, Northern Ireland, UK.!/pages/Belfast/Life-is-Sweet/198174293954?ref=ts

I grew up in the kitchen as my mom’s little helper and a passion for baking stuck with me.  Just about everything I know is through experience (trial and error) and research.  After attending a baking demo last summer, I couldn’t help but wonder why I wasn’t baking professionally.  It very quickly went from spontaneous idea to a business plan in the works (with endless support from my husband!).

Life is Sweet is a home-based baking company specializing in American desserts.  A large part of my business is cupcakes, but I also do whoopie pies, Hello, Dollies, cookies, brownies, cheesecakes, etc…and my menu is ever-growing.  As an American expat, I bring the wonders of the American baking tradition to those in Northern Ireland.

Bakery Start-Up Questions

What was the biggest challenge in starting your bakery/baking business?

Even without a rented space, there are a lot of start-up costs.  The list of things you need, things you would never have considered, takes on a life of its own.  Baking supplies, not just the ingredients but cake pans, fondant cutters, gum paste, glitter, it’s all quite expensive and it can be a long time before you start to earn all that back, and make a profit on top of it.   It can be quite daunting, and sometimes discouraging.

Any business tips you can share that has made your bakery a success?

My business is still so young and new, but from my current position, according to things I’ve already experienced in the field, I’d definitely say to always try to be distinctive. There are so many bakeries out there.  Of course offer the classics everybody loves, but be creative when devising flavours and designs.  Set yourself apart one way or another.

Also, relating to costs, don’t feel like you have to have a formal website, flashy logo, business cards, flyers, stickers, custom packaging, etc right off the bat.  It is very easy to get caught up, seeing what competitors have and trying to match them, thinking if you don’t have all of those resources up front you won’t succeed.  But I say determine what you think is absolutely essential and expand as needed.

Recipe/Ingredients & Baking Questions

What do you consider to be the perfect cupcake? What flavors and textures would it have?

Cupcake perfection for me means chocolate, salted caramel, and fresh fruit; cake that is moist with a compact crumb but is soft and not dense; slightly more (buttercream) icing than cake.

How many times do you have to “re-do” a recipe before you get it right?

There is no standard number of re-dos.  I find my recipes using fresh fruit in the batter require a lot more testing to get the right ratios to achieve both a delectable texture and distinctive flavour.

How much is made from scratch and how much is purchased pre-made?

I use as little packaged materials as possible.  Batter, mousses, curds, frostings, caramels,…it’s all made by me.  I do not use pre-made sugar flowers or figures.  Toppers of this sort are handmade in my kitchen.

How do you make the icing just the right sweetness?

Be patient.  If making quick/American buttercream, add the (sifted) confectioner’s sugar slowly and allow time for it to be absorbed by the butter and milk (or whatever liquids/flavouring you’re using).  Taste it through the process and stop adding sugar when it meets your taste.  If you’re afraid your frosting isn’t thick enough, a good trick is to whip it on high for a few minutes to incorporate air rather than adding more sugar.  The result is a light and fluffy buttercream, rather than an overly-sweet, gritty one.

How do you get great control of a pastry bag and make those mile high swirls of perfection on top of each cupcake?

Practice makes perfect.  You don’t need to make a batch of cupcakes to practice your technique.  Make a small batch of frosting, any kind, and pipe with various tips on a convenient surface.    You can add the icing back to the bags and reuse to test other techniques.  The more practice you have, the easier you’ll find it to keep your hand steady and get consistent swirls, flowers, etc.

Inspiration Questions

Did you always have a passion for baking?

These days, with the business, it’s becoming more of an obsession and compulsion rather than a simple passion, but definitely.  I’ve always loved seeing all the ingredients come together in the bowl.  My favourite part though is the decorating, it’s a great creative outlet, if sometimes frustrating and exhausting!

Where do you get new ideas for new cupcake and icing flavors?

Simply, I think of desserts or flavour combinations I enjoy elsewhere and try to translate them into cupcake form.  Right now, I’m working on Peach Green Tea and Spumoni cupcake ideas. Random designs, seasons, and even colours serve as inspiration sometimes as well.

Fun Questions

What’s your favorite part of cupcakes?

I’ll admit, I’m a bit of a frosting fiend, but I love when all components of a cupcake – moist cake, fluffy, creamy frosting, and maybe even a yummy surprise centre! – meld and you’re hit with an incredible taste and texture experience.

Do you ever get tired of the site or smell of cupcakes?

Yes!  When I’ve been on my feet all day and can’t fathom doing anything but putting my feet up and vegging out.

All photos courtesy of Sarah Smallwood.