In conversation with Fatema M. Dathi
Pharmacist turned Cake Artist and my journey to the sweeter side; counting the memories and not the calories.
No course will teach you how to be creative, that has to come from you.
What is your cooking/baking background?
I have always enjoyed baking from a young age and have fond memories of my first cake I made under the watchful eyes of my mum at the age of 14. It was for a cousin’s chatti and I remember how excited I was.
As a family, we have always made our cakes at home and there is always a homemade cake whenever an excuse presents itself. However very strangely, unlike baking, cooking is something I really have to work hard at. I find preparing meals quite a chore, especially if I have to think about what to make. Ask me to bake and I won’t even blink.
Sugarcrafting started off as a self-taught affair. Like many things, all one needs is Google. I picked up a lot of things via tutorials, blogs, articles and cake magazines, but deep down I knew I was a little rough around the edges. A year ago, I felt it was time to learn from the experts and went on courses. I must admit they have been invaluable in helping me master some of the more technical aspects of cake decorating, which I would have always struggled with otherwise. Courses are great. You learn a lot of things. However, one thing I took away was no course will teach you how to be creative, that has to come from you.
I was scared and just didn’t know where to start. Then one day, I was asked to bake a birthday cake for someone and I jumped at the opportunity.
A very unusual transition, pharmacist turned baker. How did it come about, and how was ‘Cakes by Fatema Dathi’ born?
Ah, a good question and one I get asked a lot. I am a bit of a worrier. Although I was enjoying practicing pharmacy and the interaction with patients, the hours were long and I used to stress a lot about the littlest thing. After three years, I really wanted a break. My husband didn’t mind me taking one, but he wasn’t keen on the idea of me being at home and not having anything meaningful to do so he kept pushing me to get into something. I was leaning towards baking and sewing, two hobbies I have always enjoyed. I was scared and just didn’t know where to start.
Then one day, I was asked to bake a birthday cake for someone and I jumped at the opportunity. That cake order is really what laid the foundation of what has now become ‘Cakes by Fatema Dathi’. Doing this full-time wasn’t part of the plan, but with the raza and dua mubarak of Aqa Moula TUS, it appears to be heading that way. I am enjoying the change and the opportunity of realising a dream of having something of my own and getting to do what I love every day.
Cake decorating is 1% inspiration and 99% hours and hours of work.
Tells us about the process, it must be arduous.
It is a process, one that requires some planning, efficiency and sometimes a tight schedule. You are creating a bespoke product and have to be happy about spending as long as it takes to do the best you can do. It is a continuous cycle of looking for inspiration, learning and perfecting different ingredients, tools and techniques.
It might sound silly, but I had to learn how to actually bake properly. It took a few months of recipe testing and refining before I was happy. The last thing you want is an under-baked or dry cake. It was important to me that the cake looked great and tasted great too. Even today, if I feel it is not quite right when I am putting it together, I re-bake (and out of the window goes my planned schedule).
Cake decorating is 1% inspiration and 99% hours and hours of work. You need a clear vision of the final product. I am terrible at knowing when to stop so I like having a sketch of the design before hand. It also helps with estimating the time and effort it will involve, otherwise, it is so easy to spend hours going into details without realising.
And then, of course, you have the home baker’s panic moments; like having to do an all nighter after underestimating the amount of work involved, realising you don’t have enough ingredients at midnight, things going wrong, etc, but, like any business it’s all worth it in the end.
It has been an exciting journey so far. I am lucky to have the support of my husband, who is very much involved in the background. He is my backbone; my marketing guy, my photographer, and also my toughest critic (the title he enjoys most). Because of his creative background, he expects perfection in everything I do. It is irritating at times, but it has definitely influenced the style and quality of things I produce.
I remember being frustrated. I was inexperienced and ill-equipped.
Do you still remember your very first order- how did it feel?
Oh yes, I will never forget it. It was a Willy Wonka cake and the first time I had used sugar paste/fondant. I remember being frustrated. I was inexperienced and ill-equipped. I had very nearly given up on the cake, but luckily my husband and sister were there to reduce the stress level and help me through it. I was ecstatic when I delivered it. The challenges were quickly forgotten, and we all have to start somewhere.
You try, fail, try again, repeat.
Your biggest mess up and how you overcame it- or not.
I have had a few. From the fondant on the cake tearing due to the buttercream melting underneath from the heat of a warm day to sugar models cracking from the vibration in the car during delivery. Thankfully, there is always time to correct things and it is all part of the learning process. There is a lot of support online amongst bakers and decorators who discuss their challenges and share their experiences, which helps a lot. You try, fail, try again, repeat.
If I had to pick one, it would be the 4-tier ivory and silver floral wedding cake.
Which would you say was your most memorable/cherished piece of work?
There are so many. Each cake tends to be different and sometimes requires me to learn a new technique or do something out of my comfort zone. If I had to pick one, it would be the 4-tier ivory and silver floral wedding cake. It was the biggest wedding cake I had been asked to do and the first time I made sugar peonies. To make things more complicated, the bride had chosen different flavours for each of the tiers. I started making the 60+ sugar flowers for one of the tiers a week in advance as they needed drying time. Then, a few days before delivery, it was onto the cakes; layering, crumb coating and finally the sugarpaste. Also, because of its size, it had to be assembled at the venue, which meant carrying with me everything I would possibly need to put it together. It felt like a very long week.
When I was in Pharmacy, I was in a constant battle to keep on top of things. Since going into cakes, I have been able to pursue other things on my ‘to-learn’ list
Who are you when not a baker?
A wife, daughter, sister, friend, and so my Whatsapp is always beeping! I am a girly girl with a weakness for handbags and mad about accessories. I really enjoy designing my own ridas with the fabrics I collect from my (unintentional) shopping sprees to Londons’ markets and spending time on my sewing machine. My idea of relaxation is being cuddled up under the blanket on the sofa watching American crime dramas and sitcoms.
When I was in Pharmacy, I was in a constant battle to keep on top of things. Since going into cakes, I have been able to pursue other things on my ‘to-learn’ list too. Last summer, I learned how to make churan (an East African mukhwas or mouth freshener) from my dadima, which I gave as silat in Sherullah. It was really well received and has now turned into a small side business, so I use the down time to prepare my next batch. Enterprising is becoming addictive!
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