Chris How will you remember 2020? I’ll remember it as the year of staying home. Working from home, teaching from home. No overseas travel. Fewer visits to friends’ homes. Less eating out. More TV, more time rearranging the furniture, and definitely more home cooking. I will also remember 2020 as the year of shortages, including toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and cup noodles. But the shortage I’ll remember most was baking essentials: flour, sugar, butter, yeast. Items on the shopping list from the Little House on the Prairie general store in the 19th century were flying off the shelves in the 21st century.
Why? The cake shops were closed.
When Singapore’s Circuit Breaker began on April 7th, Singapore’s cake shops were among the businesses considered non-essential. And when they closed, my friends nearly lost their minds! Some people seemed less concerned with how to avoid a life-threatening virus than with how to survive without chocolate cake. Until that moment I had not realized just how vital to the economy, and to people’s personal well-being, cake was! Indeed, that moment made a lot of people ask, how can cake be called non-essential? This unique 2020 recipe — more time at home, mixed with closed cake shops — led to a boom in home baking and a shortage of flour, sugar, butter, and yeast.
In this special Covid episode of Home on the Dot, we look back at home baking in 2020 through three stories. In Part 1, producer Shaun talks to Umairah, a Japanese Studies major at NUS who helps her parents with their home-based business. She shares what baking means to her family and how the Circuit Breaker impacted their cookie sales before Hari Raya Puasa. In Part 2, Shriya talks to her former classmate, Lim Han, who used her extra time at home to test recipes and open a home-based business, cleverly called KneadedbyHan. Finally, I talk to Riz, a first-year student who also started a home-based business in the last year.
Ok listeners, get your sweet tooth ready and stay tuned!
Part 1 – Broken Circuits
Chris When the Circuit Breaker started in April 2020 brick and mortar cake shops closed, but so did Home-Based Businesses, or HBB, which made food like cakes, cookies, and bread.
In Singapore, everyone seems to have a neighbor or an aunt who sells pineapple tarts or cupcakes from their home kitchen. A few years ago a student brought this to my attention with a research project on her aunt’s hand mixer. Her aunt’s cakes were so delicious that her friends ordered them for their birthdays, earning the aunt some money on the side. Indeed, much like the sewing machine we featured in season one of Home on the Dot, hand mixers, ovens, and other kitchen tools keep many women economically and socially connected to the community beyond their front doors, while supporting the family budget.
Now I see signs of home-based bakers everywhere. For instance, in the current lead-up to Chinese New Year, empty clear plastic jars with red lids have suddenly appeared in the grocery stores. Soon they’ll be filled with pineapple tarts and almond cookies, before showing up — without any labels or list of ingredients — in office pantries for everyone to enjoy. Ask where you can buy these cookies, and you’re sure to get a convoluted story about a church member or a neighbor who only makes these sweet treats in her kitchen at certain times of the year.
As you can imagine, the Circuit Breaker was a terrible blow to many home-based businesses, since they were shut down for an entire month last April. One of those affected belongs to the parents of Umairah, a fourth-year Japanese Studies major at NUS. As she explains to our producer Shaun, this home-based business is a family affair. Unfortunately, the Circuit Breaker broke many of the normal circuits of exchange that make such businesses both enjoyable and profitable.
Shaun I’ve known Umairah for 3 years, since we took Approaches to Japanese Studies together in our first year. From time to time, she would indulge me and my classmates with stories about her family and share treats her mom baked for us. As the Covid situation developed last year, conversations within our circles gradually revolved around the ongoing pandemic. It was then that I learned that her family runs a home-based baking business. A few months ago I called Umairah to learn more about her family’s business and to ask how Covid and the Circuit Breaker had affected it.
Shaun So Umairah, what type of treats does your mom make?
Umairah So, she makes things butter cakes, marble cakes, banana cakes, cashew nut cookies, chocolate chip cookies and I remember these really fondly, definitely around like Hari Raya and we are preparing lots of cookies for the visitors and things like that.
Shaun Does your dad help when it comes to baking?
Umairah So for my dad, he actually bakes bread. He actually really likes country loaves, sourdough loaves. And those can get pretty expensive in Singapore, so he actually tried to sort of cut that cost and start making them himself. Nowadays, he’s baking about once a week, and he’s even part of this little international Facebook group where he shares his baking ideas with the rest of the Facebook members and he gets lots of ideas from them as well, yeah. And I can safely say, I’ve not bought bread for maybe like two years, I think? Yeah…
Shaun Oh wow, so both your parents actually bake different types of treats! Does your family mainly bake for themselves or do you actually sell them?
Umairah Yeah, I think it really started out as something that we did for ourselves. Something that we enjoyed and maybe other people, at most our extended family, when they came over they got to enjoy these things. But in recent years, maybe last three years, four years, my parents are also involved in like a home based business. They’ve been baking things at home and selling them often to people we don’t know or for my mother, she prefers to sell it to her friends from university. She still keeps in contact with them and selling cookies and cakes is actually one of the main ways she sort of keeps in contact with them.
So whenever, maybe Hari Raya or a holiday rolls around and there’s a chance to sell some treats, she says, oh I’m open to bake some cookies. And I really vividly remember one Hari Raya where my aunt actually bought some bottles of cookies and let her neighbors and friends taste them and then she collated orders from them to actually support my mom and that really added up to a lot. I probably remember like, for one flavor of cookie alone, like these chocolate chip. We have these chocolate chip cookies, I think with like cornflakes and almonds, I think those alone, we baked about 20 bottles of those and delivered that to my aunt’s house. That was a really big order.
Shaun So, what is your part in this whole process of baking?
Umairah What is my role? I’m not one of the people who is mainly involved in making the food. My job often involves packing the cookies, washing up afterwards. All of our bottles, they have a little label which has my mother’s contact details on it, and that’s my job. I make the label.
Shaun I understand that Covid and the new restrictions caused a ripple effect for some home-based businesses. How did Covid affect yours?
Umairah We had much lesser orders and were selling basically only to people, immediate family, my parents’ closer friends. Well, partly these strangers, the ones that my aunt was helping us sell to were from Malaysia. Malaysia closed its borders much earlier than Singapore so some of them went home, some of them didn’t have jobs, so they didn’t have that extra money to spend on some cookies or treats. So buying cookies was sort of out of the question for them.
Shaun It seems like very much a family process because all of you are helping each other out. Did Covid affect your family relationships as well?
Umairah It made things a little more boring as a whole I suppose. Because baking is a hobby and kind of a business at the same time, it allows us to all converge on one thing and help each other out. There’s this process where we’re all engaged and we’re all involved in this goal of fulfilling that order. Because baking for us is not a livelihood. We’re not too worried about our orders are low, so we have less income this month. We’re not worried about that. It’s kind of like when you have a hobby and it sort of gets taken away from you. You get sad, but nothing that you worry too much about, I would say.
Shaun Thank you so much, Umairah. It definitely feels like the family bonds that were created by your home based business are still going strong! Plus, the circuit breaker made life I guess a little bit less interesting, but at least you still got to eat some great homemade snacks, I hope!
Umairah Yeah, life is pretty good when you have bakers at home making all these nice treats for you to eat.
Chris Dear Umairah’s parents, if you are listening… are you adopting? I’m happy to join the family and help test all those cookie and bread recipes. According to Shaun, Umairah is currently packaging cookies for the upcoming lunar new year while working on her degree. As for Shaun, he has had a hand in most episodes of the past year. He was featured last in the episode called Home in a Rot, about his exchange to Japan that was cut short after only two weeks.
Next up, how to start a business during a pandemic. One woman makes lemon cookies out of lemons.
Part 2 – Just What I Kneaded
Chris Our next story comes from Shriya, whose voice will be familiar to Home on the Dot listeners. Shriya told us about her grandma’s chapattis in Season 2’s “Handmade Tale” and her dramatic escape from France in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic in the first episode of Season 3: called “The Shock of Coming Home Too Soon.” Here, she talks to an old friend who made the most of Covid-19 and Singapore’s Circuit Breaker. With all that time stuck at home, she started a home-baking business.
Shriya During the Covid lockdown period, I remember seeing a rising trend on social media. Everyone was baking — banana bread — daily. Home bakers from every corner of the country appeared in my social media feeds promoting their bake sales. One of those talents was my secondary school friend, Lim Han, who had amassed a strong following for her business “KneadedbyHan”, a pun on her name, Han. I watched in awe as this final year student from Nanyang Technological University dished out mouthwatering snapshots of her bakes, and I was even more surprised by how quickly they were selling out! I was intrigued by her passion for baking and how it evolved from a hobby to a home business, and I wanted to know how Covid and the Circuit Breaker had impacted her.
Shriya So Lim Han what does baking mean to you?
Lim Han Okay, at first, baking started out as like a hobby, so something that I just did like, for fun when I’m free or when I wanted to give stuff to friends. But I feel like it has kind of like changed and evolved during the Covid period.. like, it’s become like a creative expression. A place where my creativity can like, just explode and like can explore different things about food as well, yeah.
Shriya You seem very passionate about baking, like what inspires this passion in you?
Lim Han I feel like part of it comes from the fact that like there’s this sense of accomplishment you get when you envision something . That vision becomes like reality, like you can actually see it and you can actually eat it. And it looks pretty! So, it’s like wow like, like I made that, you know, and the desire to create. I feel like baking just gives me something, like in a way, productive to do with my time. It’s not only something that you create and then you have for yourself but something that you can like share with others. So it’s like the joy that comes from giving people what you make and seeing them enjoy as well, yeah. I feel like, that really helps to spur on this baking thing, yeah.
Shriya That’s great! And when I see your Instagram page “KneadedbyHan”. Like, I’ve talked to you about this already, it looks so professional.
Lim Han Thanks!
Shriya So I just want you to tell the listeners who are listening to this podcast a bit more about this business “KneadedbyHan”?
Lim Han OK, It started out as just… as just a baking log. I’ll just pose photos of what I baked and I just wanted it to be like a compilation, you know, like nothing fancy or whatever. And then I guess I was really inspired by other baking accounts. Being so amazed at all of what I was seeing … How good all the bakes look and the whole styling of it and I was like “damn, I want to do that too”, you know. And people like, people started to request, like for me to start selling my bakes… At the start I was like, nah, I’m not gonna do that, you know. I just wasn’t confident enough but I guess one day, I was just like “but if not now then when”, you know, so might as well try and go for it, so…
Shriya Yeah, like you said it’s hard to take that first step when you’re filled with self-doubt and you’re not confident if your bakes are good enough to even be sold in the first place. So was there any particular thing that pushed you to take that first step? Did Covid in any way kind of motivate you to finally start doing this?
Lim Han Actually, yeah, yeah. Okay, so I think Covid played a big part because. I mean for one, Covid just made us all bored at home right. I mean if not we’ll be doing nothing and we have so much time. So I feel like if Covid didn’t happen I really would not have done like gone into this business because yeah I would really have no time. I’ll be going out with my friends or having internship[s] or maybe like working part-time somewhere. So I guess it’s like a silver lining, in a way?
Shriya Yeah, you would definitely have been preoccupied with something else. So in some ways you could say that Covid was like a blessing in disguise. And now that the lockdown is no longer there and the country is opening up in different phases, how do you think you’ll be able to sustain this venture that you have started?
Lim Han To be honest. I don’t know if this… I feel like I may have to take a hiatus. Because like with Uni happening, I’m definitely not going to have the same amount of time. I feel like if I’m still going to continue this it’ll be very much only on the weekends. I really do foresee like a short break or like a semi-hiatus happening yeah, which I’m quite sad about because I really…
Yeah, I mean I am considering going to it full time but then there’s a whole, like concern about like, you know, will it do well? Like my income and like, you know, this like Uni degree. I feel like with Covid, the home business market has become so much more saturated like there’s so many more people becoming like home-bakers online and stuff so the competition is real and I feel like…yeah that that is gonna affect whether I’m going to go full-time or not as well.
Shriya Yeah, exactly when I was looking at the quality of the Instagram feed of your account, I was wondering like, this could definitely turn into a full-time business because of how professional it looked in terms of like the photo qualities. How do you upload these kind of fantastic photos. Do you hire a photographer to do like all these amazing shots of your bakes?
Lim Han Yeah, so I actually pay this like Nat Geo photographer from Britain.
Shriya [Laughs] Are you kidding?
Lim Han I’m kidding [laughter]. No, oh my gosh, like this is all… I do it alone but I feel like I, I definitely have to credit it to like different videos that I’ve watched. Like there are so many like, like tutorials out there teaching you skills on like photoshop and lightroom and photography. Like knowing where’s like the place for the best lighting, knowing what to put with the food, what colors go and like, you know the whole like background foreground kind of thing. Because like if you want a food to be the focus right then the background can’t be too distracting, yeah.
Shriya Really interesting. It’s great. Thank you Lim Han, for coming and sharing your story. It’s really great. It’s really interesting to hear how you started this small venture, KneadedbyHan. Amazing!
Shriya The lockdown provided Lim Han with the time and resources to commercialise a longstanding hobby. And though starting and sustaining a home baking business wasn’t easy, her passion for baking and sharing it with others keeps her going. I am inspired by the time and effort she puts into her bake sales and can only hope to taste these treats sometime before they sell out.
Part 3 – “Chocolate Chipping In”
Chris While some University students played video games or watched ALL of Netflix in 2020, Lim Han started “KneadedbyHan.” She’s not the only one. Riz, also started a business, and she started university, which makes her one of the most ambitious people I know. Back in October I mentioned in class that I was curious about home-based businesses, and Riz stuck around after our Zoom session to tell me about hers, called Bakeriz. Riz the Baker – Bakeriz. Clever, right?! In the midst of a weird and stressful online semester, our chat reminded me how amazing my students are and how much fun it is to learn more about them.
Chris Okay Riz, thanks for talking to me today. So can you tell me what do you bake at home?
Riz Okay, so I bake quite a number of things but I tend to focus on homey kind of, not those really intricate kinds of dessert.
Riz Just like home-made bread, cinnamon rolls are one of the favorites at home and brownie cookies, I call them bookies and…
Riz Bookies, yes.
Chris I never heard of brownie cookies, okay.
Riz Yeah, red velvet cupcakes, egg tarts, like Portuguese egg tarts.
Chris Why did you get interested in baking?
Riz I got interested in baking when I was younger. It was like a time to bond with my mom.
Chris Mmhmm. Like what age? Younger means? I mean, you’re already younger than I am!
Riz [Laughter] True true. Actually quite young, maybe 10? Like I would help my mom. She would bake quite a lot and then just slowly develop from there. Like when I was 13 I started baking on my own and then, just my passion grew and that led me to join a culinary course in Poly.
Chris Is it like short term or?
Riz It’s a culinary science course actually, so it was in Poly and so it’s three years and then I got…
Chris Three years…
Riz Yeah, and then I got a diploma afterwards.
Chris Have you ever worked in a professional bakery?
Riz Not in a professional bakery but I have helped out in like events where I worked in a professional kitchen like… I’m not sure if you know the event but the “Great Food Festival”? At Resorts World [Sentosa]
Chris I’ve heard of it.
Riz Oh okay, by Resorts World Sentosa, my course gave us an opportunity to help out in those events, yeah.
Chris Okay, so you say you earn some money by doing this. Do you want to plug your place?
Riz Oh [laughs], okay it’s called Bakeriz so…
Riz Yeah… So it’s B A K E R I Z.
Riz So it’s kind of a word play on my name and bakeries as in like the plural form of bakery.
Chris Right right right.
Riz Yeah, so…
Chris So bake riz, Bakeriz. It’s like bakeries, I get it.
Riz [Laughs] Yeah.
Chris So during the Circuit Breaker, how did that impact your baking?
Riz Actually I officially started, like Bakeriz after Circuit Breaker.
Riz So during Circuit Breaker, I was actually doing the product development. Basically making the products that I wanted to sell and seeing which was the best recipe for it, yeah. I mean actually before that when I was in the course, I was selling stuff. There wasn’t a Bakeriz, there’s just…
Riz It was just “Oh, oh do you guys want like?”. Like friends of friends, do you guys want red velvet cupcakes? I’m like “I sell them for like 12 for like 12 pieces”, yeah. So only after Circuit Breaker did it really… I made all the advertisement materials and all that and like, yeah, the product development.
Chris Did you have any trouble getting products during that time? Like I heard people have trouble getting flour or butter or?
Riz Yes, yes there is… I have to go to multiple like grocery stores, yeah. There’s… There’s a lot of… And cream cheese! Everybody was making like this Basque burnt cheesecake, it was like a fad and like and bananas. Banana bread, oh everybody made…
Chris Everybody was making but yeah, so there was a run on bananas, okay.
Riz Yeah yeah, it was really funny.
Chris And basque burnt cream? What was it?
Riz Basque burnt cheesecake.
Chris Oh man, I’ve never heard of that.
Riz Oh okay, you should…
Chris Oh no, that’s not true. I have a friend who made that a couple months ago! That’s… That’s what that was! Okay because it was… She said it’s cheesecake but it looks so different from any cheesecake.
Riz Yeah, it’s a very special kind of cheesecake.
Chris And you made it?
Riz Yeah I made it before once. It was kind of nice but I didn’t… It was really rich so…
Chris It is really rich. So what’s your biggest seller?
Riz My biggest seller, probably at the moment would be the bookies, the brownie cookies.
Chris The bookies. Okay.
Chris Okay, and how many do you think you sell in a week or is this all insider information you can’t tell me.
Riz Oh no no no, I can but I usually do bake sales. I don’t really have like orders per week.
Riz Only during that bake sale date.
Chris So that means what, you’re just waiting to have some free time and then you bake a bunch.
Riz Yeah, like that.
Chris And then you post online and say like – I have all these things available.
Riz I mean, I post online first and then I’ll say like, oh like I’ll see my schedule and then see when I have like time to bake and then I’ll be like… Then I’ll create all the materials and I’ll advertise like always on this date, you can buy the baked goods and whatever the baked goods are.
Chris Yeah, so you would only make them now if someone ordered them. Or are you gonna make them no matter what?
Riz It would depend on my free time, yeah. But actually just recently during Teachers Day, because my brother is a teacher in an autism school so I baked like 230 pieces of Bookies for… As like a Teacher’s Day gift.
Chris Okay thanks for answering my questions!
Riz Yeah, no problem.
Chris Good luck with the company! And when you are super wealthy someday, remember me and then you know, if I ask you for donations for the university you can chip in here. You can chocolate chip in! [Laughter] Okay take care, bye bye!
Riz Okay, thank you!
Chris After last year’s Circuit Breaker, I don’t think anyone will again claim that cakes and cookies are not essential. These days, Singapore’s cake shops are again open, but we all know that the tastiest treats are made at home. So, in this new year I look forward to trying out some of the sweet treats made in the kitchens of my students, including the three fabulous bakers featured here.
This three-course meal of an episode was written and produced by Shaun, Shriya, and me. Johann Tan was our sound engineer, with assistance from David Chew. Thanks again to Umairah, Lim Han, and Riz for sharing their stories, if not their recipes.
Some sweet updates before we go. Umairah reports that her mom is currently making cashew nut cookies, chocolate chip cookies, and cranberry oatmeal cookies for the upcoming Chinese New Year. Lim Han appears to be on hiatus as she finishes her last year of university. And Riz, the Communications and New Media major, made over 250 cookies in December and sold out! Over the break she was also invited by NTU’s Student Integration Committee to conduct baking workshops for their international students. And she’s been trying some new recipes, like pineapple tarts for Chinese New Year. She says she feels very grateful for the opportunities she’s received through Bakeriz and she’s happy to have spread a little happiness to others.
This week I want to give a shout out to some faithful listeners, including Stan, who always remarks on each episode, and Premi, who baked that Basque burnt cheesecake I mentioned in my interview with Riz. I know it was difficult to track down the cream cheese, but it was worth it!
We have links to all these exciting home-based businesses, as well as news links about the Circuit Breaker and its impact on such businesses on our homepage: tinyurl.com/homeonthedot
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