Let’s talk about ingredients.
To be honest with you, the actual baking is not my strongest point. I’m sure you have cake recipes that you like, that work for you. But when you’re trying to scale up to actually run a business, you have to think about which ingredients to choose. What ingredients we choose to make our cakes has a huge impact on cost and quality. It’s a balance, right? In the end it’s very much about efficiency – how can I save money and time, so I can save my customer money, and still compensate myself?
In the north, it’s no secret that food is very expensive, and often choices are limited. So I’m going to talk about what ingredients I choose when I’m baking. If you are a rural or northern baker, which do you choose?
Flour: When I read “serious” baking recipes, they all tell me to use cake flour. As far as I know, I cannot get cake flour locally, but I haven’t looked very hard. I looked into buying cake flour online, and it would be prohibitively expensive. So honestly, I just buy the cheapest all-purpose flour. Maybe my cakes are not as light and fluffy as cake flour would allow, but it would add 5-10$ to the cost of every cake. Some people locally have a strong preference about what all-purpose flours they use, but I do not. What do you like?
Milks: We sealift plant-based milks for our family. We are not 100% dairy-free, but we do try to limit our dairy; I honestly just find it really convenient to have shelf-stable milk all the time. When we lived in Iqaluit, sealifting plant-based milk was cheaper than buying dairy milk at the store. In Rankin, prices are cheaper, and using dairy milk would be about the same price. I buy all my other dairy ingredients at co-op.
Butter: Man, I could do a whole post about butter. Butter is my single biggest expense in making cake. I prefer to use unsalted butter, especially in buttercream. Unfortunately the Co-op is the only place in our town that sells unsalted butter, and they run out sometimes (especially now, when everyone is doing holiday baking)! I’ve tried a couple of brands of salted butter in buttercream, just leaving the salt out of the recipe, and I think it makes it taste too salty. They are okay in baking.
The one alternative I have found that is okay is the above: it’s a half-butter, half-margarine substitute. They sell it at Northern. It’s salted, but doesn’t make buttercream taste too salty. It’s actually a little more expensive than real unsalted butter at Co-op, so I only buy it when Co-op is out. It’s also nice because even in the dead of winter, it will soften at room temperature. I’ll talk more about softening when we get to recipes.
What to sealift?: We’ve done a sealift every year since we moved to the north in 2015. That makes 8 sealift orders. In Iqaluit it made a lot of sense. Here in Rankin, food prices are generally a little bit lower. I know that not everyone can afford to do a sealift, and not everyone is going to make enough cake for sealifting ingredients to make sense. For me, I am trying to save my customers as much money as I can, so I have done the research to find out which items it makes sense to sealift. This is my list: sugar*, icing sugar, chocolate chips, canola oil, spray canola oil, vanilla, plant milks (see above), marshmallows, and lard (these last two things are used to make fondant). I also sealift all the consumables I can, such as parchment paper, and plastic wrap.
What to just get at the store?: Ordinary non-shelf-stable stuff you have to get locally, like eggs, buttermilk, sour cream, heavy cream and butter (see above). Co-op almost always has the best prices on these items. I get my flour in the largest bags, wherever it is cheapest, often at Northern. I go to EPLS or Northern for egg whites (which co-op doesn’t have) and 20-kilo bags of sugar (which is weirdly expensive at co-op). Northern tends to have the best sprinkles; I just try to keep a good collection on hand. When more unusual things come up, like dark cherries for a black forest cake, or oreos or oreo crumbs, I’ll just buy those too. They don’t come up frequently enough to bother buying in bulk or online.
What to order online?: There are a few things that are only available online. You can pick them up at a store if you do your own sealift, but we don’t always now. I go to Amazon for fondant (only as a base to make my own) and Yupik-brand jimmies in bulk, though most of my sprinkles I have bought at Northern. I also go to Amazon for many of my cake-specific consumables, like piping bags, cupcake boxes, and parchment rounds. I order my gel food colouring from a specialty store, and I go to ebay for bulk orders on cake boxes and cake rounds. I also go to Amazon for most of my tools. I’ll do separate post later on consumables and tools.
I don’t often use box mixes, but sometimes a customer will ask for a specific box-mix flavor, so I’ll use that and doctor it up a bit to make it more stable. I just buy it from whichever local store I can find it; I haven’t tried to find any online. If you use box mixes, where do you like to get them?
That is pretty much what I use in baking as far as actual edible ingredients. What ingredients have I missed, or do you use that I don’t? Do you have any tricks you use?
*Very unfortunately, the company we used for sealift this year did not believe me when I requested six 20-kilo bags of sugar. They only sent one. It’s already gone. Sugar is my second biggest expense for ingredients when I buy it locally!