Wilton resident Natasha Babchak, who launched 22 Candles, her custom cake business, this past winter, credits the Easy Bake Oven for igniting her passion for baking.
“When I was six years old, I received an Easy Bake Oven for Christmas, and from that day on, I haven’t stopped baking,” Natasha laughs. “Even in the summer, when everyone else was outside on a beautiful sunny day, I’d be inside, wearing my child-sized chef’s apron and hat, whipping up little cakes and cupcakes.” She’d then carry them out on a tray and serve them to family and friends.
Because everyone who knew her knew she loved to bake, she often received cookbooks and subscriptions to cooking magazines, and cooking supplies and utensils, as gifts. While her peers were playing video games, watching Friends or pouring through fashion magazines, Natasha was reading cookbooks, watching the Food Network, collecting recipes and testing out her own. Whenever family members or friends had birthdays, she could be counted on to whip up a fabulous custom cake or cupcakes.
During high school, her attention shifted to rowing on a competitive crew team, academics and college applications, but she never lost her passion for baking. “I knew that I wanted to eventually go to cooking school and build a career in the food industry, but I decided that I would first go to college and get a degree in business,” Natasha explains.
She enrolled in University of North Carolina’s business program, but took a sabbatical during the spring of her sophomore year. “I wanted to take the time to carve out a game plan for myself. One of my favorite quotes to live by is, ‘measure twice, cut once’. In taking a sabbatical, I was investing in myself and figuring out my next steps, ‘measuring’ before ‘cutting’.”
During this time, she took a cooking class at Norwalk Community College, taught by a respected and accomplished pastry chef who owns a cake decorating business in Greenwich.
“I learned so much about the chemistry behind baking. Sometimes, we would make a recipe seven or eight different ways, each time leaving out a key ingredient. In doing so, I began to understand the important role of science in baking and how specific ingredients, in varied amounts, could greatly affect the outcome.”
When she returned to UNC, she applied to and was accepted into the university’s Entrepreneurship program for her junior and senior years. As someone raised in a family of entrepreneurs, and who has always admired people who have launched their own businesses, Natasha has always known that she someday wanted to start her own company. Through the Entrepreneurship program, she had the opportunity to work for start-up company based in New York City, and although it was not a food-related venture, her experience there taught her valuable lessons about the financial, marketing and management aspects of starting a business.
After graduating from UNC in 2014, family and friends continued to ask her to create custom cakes for them. They also encouraged her to build a website to showcase her creations. Natasha designed and built her own site, and the week it went live, it received more than 1,000 views. Inquiries and orders for her custom cakes started coming in.
“The business really took off. You know, I’m big on referencing quotes that inspire me. In Paris, they stick fortunes inside of chocolate bars and to this day, I still have one that I received many years ago. It read, ‘If you want your dreams to come true, don’t sleep’. Well, in those first few weeks after launching my website, I was baking non-stop and I didn’t get much sleep, but it was well worth it.”
Before Natasha creates a custom cake, she schedules a consultation with her customer in person or via phone. “We typically sit down and discuss flavor options, event details, and design concepts.” Natasha bakes all of her cakes from scratch using the highest quality ingredients, and makes her own buttercream frosting. “I even make my own fondant from scratch.”
Creating her custom cakes is very time consuming; the process usually takes her two days. “Usually, I’ll bake a cake on ‘day one’ and decorate it on ‘day two’. This actually improves the cake’s taste, allowing the flavors to meld.”
Many of her custom cakes involve crafting intricate shapes with fondant.
“One of my favorite projects was a cake that I made in the shape of a champagne bottle submerged in an ice bucket. I made the entire bottle from cake and then covered it in fondant; the cake was presented to the birthday girl with sparklers spewing from the top of the bottle.” For another customer, she created a cake topped with a delicate, yet realistic teapot made with fondant. “In high school, I loved ceramics, and modeling with clay. Now, I model pieces using fondant and sugar,” Natasha laughs.
For now, she is concentrating on creating cakes, custom cakes, ice cream cakes, cupcakes and cake pops. She is considering making pies, but says at this point, she has no plans to make cookies.
Most of her customers live in the New York Metro area. “I’ve spent a lot of time talking to UPS and FedEx about shipping my cakes, but the issue is temperature control. The cakes need to be kept at a constant temperature, which is just not feasible if they are shipped.” However, word of her business continues to spread and she recently received an inquiry from the American Music Association about becoming one of the official sponsors for the next AMA music awards. While she isn’t sure she is ready to take that step, she was flattered to be asked.
Natasha chose “22 Candles” as her company’s name because she wanted to incorporate the idea of celebrations in it. “I’m generally a very optimistic person, and I love celebrations. I think candles are intrinsic to celebrations, and I was 22 years old when I launched my business.”
While baking is clearly her passion, Natasha also loves everything about the business of food, from food photography to food marketing to writing about food. She cites Rachel Ray, Martha Stewart, Mario Batali and Bobby Flay (who apparently also got his start with an Easy Bake oven) as some of the people who have inspired her most. “They have taught me that cooking is not just about food on a plate; it’s about tradition, culture, conversation, community and history.”
As gutsy as she is creative, Natasha is not afraid to reach out to those in the food industry who she admires. “I think it’s important for young adults to learn from mentors whom they respect. I am constantly seeking out and talking to accomplished individuals and entrepreneurs who work in my areas of interest. If you never stop questioning, you never stop learning; and if you never stop learning, you never stop growing.”
Given her passion, creativity and drive, it’s clear that Natasha may just be able to have her cake and eat it too. She hopes to continue to expand her business and eventually branch out into other areas of the food industry. But for now, she says, “I love making custom cakes because they make people happy; they make people smile. Creating a custom cake for someone is like creating a piece of edible art. People can appreciate the art and the taste.”
She admits it can be hard to watch her cakes being eaten after she has spent hours making them, but adds, “People are so excited and surprised to receive a cake crafted just for them, and sometimes it’s even hard for them to cut into it. But once its cut, people are often just as surprised to discover how great it tastes. Watching people enjoy my creations makes it all worthwhile.”