Edible flowers, anyone? Filipina cake artist makes beautiful pastries
International cake artist Shirley Santos Yanga’s earliest memory of baking was right in the heart of the Spanish restaurant her grandmother used to own. Many summer vacations had been spent helping out in the kitchen of Azotea Diner, located in Quezon City, before it closed down several years ago, and where Yanga discovered her love for baking at the age of twelve.
There is something about baking cakes that Yanga just loves, one that allows her to have the best of both worlds in her passion for creating and decorating. Baking, after all and as she pointed out, is as much a science as it is an art, and she has found the sweet balance in both.
“What I love most about pastry is the decorating process. An example is how a simple dough of sugar can be transformed into beautiful edible art, like my sugar flowers or wafer paper flowers,” Yanga said. “One must be extremely organized in measuring ingredients, otherwise, the baked product is bound to fail. I love how my cakes can be translated into art.”
Yanga specializes in sugar flowers and a look at her handmade creations is enough to render one dumbstruck for the sheer meticulousness and precision applied in making them, almost as if they had been freshly plucked straight from a poinsettia pot. But do not be fooled: they are all edible, made with sugar paste and wafer paper.
“I must say that my flowers are meticulously done and I handcraft each petal to achieve a natural and realistic look,” she shared. “Making realistic flowers requires a lot of techniques and this is something that I’m focusing on because I love putting edible sculptures and arrangements on my custom cake projects.”
There is no formula, of course, except for years and years of experience and training from the best in the industry, both in the Philippines and abroad. But like many stories of success, the trajectory of Yanga’s journey into becoming the sugar flower artist she is today is anything but linear, and had its own fair sprinkling of failures.
Before pursuing her passion for pastry-making, Yanga briefly worked in a bank after graduating with a degree in business management from Miriam College in 1999. She eventually took to New York City where she had culinary studies and interned at the fine dining restaurant Eleven Madison Park and Cheryl Kleinman cakes. She then did corporate work for Vie de France, where she focused more on research than actual baking, being a research and development pastry chef there. At the same time, Yanga was managing her own business, Pastry Passion bakeshop, in Quezon City.
“I must admit that even though I graduated from culinary school, I still lack experience in running a business. Yes, I can bake and cook, but running a business and making sure you hit the sales quota, [that’s] tough,” explained Yang. “As a home baker before, these are the factors I did not foresee when starting a business. I had to learn the ropes of the business while it was being set up and operating.”
Pastry Passion has been operating for 16 years now, with Yanga’s carrot cake, tiramisu, chocolate explosion and chunky white chocolate cookies having made their mark as well-loved favorites among new and loyal customers.
But as the saying goes, when one chapter closes, another one also begins. Yanga shared that she will be closing the bakeshop soon to make room for her next venture: a lifestyle studio and gallery, where she will be teaching courses on baking, as well as classes on sugar flowers, candle and essential oils making, and flower arrangements, among others. This project is apart from the baking courses that Yanga already offers in Singapore where she resides. But as for her staple cakes, Yanga said these would eventually be made to order.
“I am also planning to invite local and hopefully, international teachers as guest chefs to teach different techniques in baking and advanced pastry techniques,” she said. “With the upcoming studio, my goal is to be able to teach all facets [of] baking.”
What sets Yanga apart from other Filipino pastry chefs, it seems, lies in the breadth and depth of her practical knowledge. Being an expat herself, Yanga is familiar with the constant packing and moving that such a life entails. She has lived in four different countries thus far: first in New York, then Vietnam, Hong Kong and today, Singapore with her little brood. These rich experiences allowed her not just to dabble on the surface, but to assimilate herself deeply into various food cultures and people from all walks of life.
“These posts have helped me in pursuing advanced and continuing education in pastry, which enabled me to innovate and master specific skill sets… It also taught me to work with different cultures and backgrounds, and because of this, I’ve developed a strong work ethic as well,” she said. “Being out of the Philippines made me realize that there are a lot more people who are better than me, so this also pushed me to improve my work.”
The pastry industry can be cutthroat and the competition fiercer than ever, but the seasoned Yanga is prepared for all of this, taking the realities facing bakeries today as a lesson and a reminder to always be on her toes.
“It is so easy to sell affordable and accessible pastries to someone within your 5-kilometer radius than going to the bakeshop with the best brownies. Hence, the baking and pastry industry has been more competitive than ever and there should be a balance between quality versus affordability,” she said.
The challenge today, said Yanga, is in the capacity to create and discover something new and exciting to offer to customers.
“You need to keep up with the trends,” she said. “I have been attending workshops to keep myself updated, and keep an eye on what’s new and hot, and I think this is what will create an edge to upcoming home bakers and cake artists.”
Strapped with years of diverse experiences, knowledge both practical and formal, and a lifetime of passion for the culinary arts, Yanga is still as much a learner today as she was when she was 12 years old, trying her hand then at baking in her grandmother’s kitchen. This is Yanga’s philosophy: lifelong learning. And she remains a student of life, ever-hungry for so much more. JB
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