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The Cakery’s Shirley Kwok on how to make gluten-free baking taste good

Not being able to eat wheat or dairy can put a giant damper on anyone’s diet, but living with such restrictions doesn’t mean having to deprive oneself of delicious sweets according to The Cakery‘s founder, Shirley Kwok. In fact, one of her main goals in founding the gluten-free bakery in Hong Kong was to make sure everyone got the “opportunity to celebrate with a cake,” regardless of allergies, gluten intolerance or other special dietary needs.

Since founding The Cakery in 2016 — first as a pop-up and later graduating to a brick-and-mortar location — Kwok has banished the bad rap of gluten-free goodies, as many of her customers (including the LSA team) will attest to the fact that her scrumptious treats are every bit as delicious as their calorie-dense counterparts, with many times the nutrition factor. Committed to nourishing others with the same care as her family and 6-year-old daughter, Kwok started experimenting at home with healthy baking components, ridding her creations of everything from refined sugar to artificial colourings, and heralding a new range of baked goods that were organic, sugar-free, gluten-free and vegan-friendly.

Shirley Kwok

Two things that Kwok hasn’t sacrificed in her quest for wholesome baking are taste and flavour: Her signature cupcakes include irresistible combinations from salted caramel popcorn to pistachio with honey coconut butter, chia seed chocolate with vanilla frosting and the ‘Men in Black’, a black sesame cupcake with sesame paste and dairy-free sesame cream. Celebration cakes are even more indulgent, with dreamy multi-layered creations including Kwok’s signature ‘naked’ cakes, where minimal frosting is used to showcase the lush layers of the cake itself, topped with all manners of fresh fruit and whimsical decorations.

As The Cakery has expanded to two permanent shops in Lee Gardens Two and The Landmark, so has the bakery’s product range, which now includes cake pops, breads, cookies, homemade granola, chocolates and even dehydrated fruit snacks. Below, we chat with the finance-guru-turned-baker about what spurred her love for baking, and where she finds inspiration for her dazzling desserts.

Tell us how the concept for The Cakery came about?

I had an online cake shop when I was working at a bank. People were asking me about gluten-free, sugar-free options, etc. I was starting to get bored of my banking job, starting to feel there wasn’t really a purpose to what I was doing. I wanted to try something new. Therefore, I decided to start a cake shop. However, I didn’t want it to be just a regular cake shop as there are many competitors out there — I wanted to provide an option for people who were conscious of what they put into their mouths.

Have you always been interested in nutrition and healthy eating?

I was a chubby girl when I was younger, so I was always conscious of what I put in my mouth. Back then I only cared more about the calories and fat. But now, I look at the overall picture as good fat is actually good for your body.

Tell us a bit about how you started The Cakery from the ground up, and how you progressed from a pop-up store to retail shops.

I started off renting out a kitchen to produce my products, as I wasn’t sure if the concept would really work. I was lucky we received a lot of attention immediately as what we were doing was pretty much right on trend. There was definitely a demand and people nowadays are getting more sophisticated in terms of their diet. We then decided to expand.

What is the nutrition and baking philosophy behind The Cakery?

We believe ‘you are what you eat’. The Cakery caters to today’s health-conscious consumers. We know that you want to be good to your body, and sometimes that’s not easy — so we bake our cupcakes with only natural, nutrient-rich ingredients, and offer a wide range of baked goods to suit every customer’s needs. Whether you only eat organic, are giving that paleo diet regime a go, or require gluten-, wheat- or dairy-free recipes, we’ve got a sweet treat for you.

Why was it important for you to create gluten-free, guilt-less treats?

After I got into the business, I realised there are many people with food allergies. Many people don’t get to eat what most people can eat. Some haven’t even had a birthday cake in their life! I believe everyone deserves to have a piece of cake on their birthday.

What are your favourite natural ingredients to work with in your treats?

I love using dates as a natural sweetener. They make a great healthy substitute for white sugar in recipes due to the nutrients, fibre and antioxidants that they provide. I also love using apple sauce. We can substitute it for fats in baked goods to keep them tender. It also contains fibre and vitamin C.

How difficult is it to make completely gluten-free and vegan cakes? What are the biggest myths people have about consuming dairy-free, etc.?

It is DIFFICULT! And especially difficult to make them taste good. Many people think gluten-free cakes don’t taste good, and it’s true there are many that don’t. But I care about the flavour of the cake a lot. We want to make cakes that everyone loves. We always get people who do not have any food allergy to try our products and make sure they like it. If they like it, we have a winner!

People constantly ask us what we use if we don’t use milk or eggs to make a cake. It is difficult for some people to grasp this concept. It takes time to educate our customers.

What are your best-sellers on the menu? Any new items?

Our best-sellers are Day Dreamer, a gluten-free and vegan chocolate cake; and Apple Crumble — a vegan apple crumble cupcake filled with diced cinnamon apple.

Our new kids collection features a range of chiffon cakes in the shape of adorable animals. They are light in texture and a great size for little ones.

Where do you get your inspiration these days? Tell us a bit about your recipe development process.

Everywhere! Could be from online, my kids, my friends, my dog and of course my customers! It’s all about trial and error. I love making things that are a bit different. I love trying new ingredients and exploring new ideas.

What do you love most about your job?

I love to be able to put a smile on people’s face. I feel that there is a mission: being able to give back to society or do something to make a change.

Any other upcoming projects in the works?

We have a new pop up coming to IFC on 15 April in front of IFC’s office lobby. We are very excited about that!

The Cakery’s signature organic and gluten-free treats are available online here or at Shop 303, Landmark, 15 Queen’s Road Central, Hong Kong, +852 6683 3833

Leslie Yeh
Editor in Chief
Having worked as a lifestyle editor for almost 10 years, Leslie is thrilled to be writing about the topic she loves most: wining and dining. When she's not out pounding the pavement for the latest new restaurant opening or tracking food trends, Leslie can be found at home whipping up a plate of rigatoni vodka and binge-watching Netflix with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc in hand.
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