The Sweetest Gift

  • Photo by Photo by Meagan Mastriani for Seoulist

    Photo by Meagan Mastriani for Seoulist

  • Photo by Photo by Meagan Mastriani for Seoulist

    Photo by Meagan Mastriani for Seoulist

  • Photo by Photo by Meagan Mastriani for Seoulist

    Photo by Meagan Mastriani for Seoulist

Walk into my local Paris Baguette in Seongdong-gu, and you’ll likely see a gaggle of teenagers in striped shirts and aprons pulling buns out of the oven, making espresso, and scrambling to box up cakes for a long line of customers. Turn the corner, and you’ll see another, very different bakery. Inside Bonnie’s Kitchen, you’ll probably find just one woman in the back, carefully adding the finishing touches to a fondant-covered masterpiece. You won’t see her behind the counter frenetically ringing up the queue, because she probably won’t have any customers in the store at all. In a country where cake is a wildly popular purchase, why the disparity?

You first need to understand Korean cake culture. At ubiquitous bargain boulangeries like Paris Baguette and Tous Les Jours, fancy desserts are churned out by the dozens and served in convenient to-go cases. High demand has turned these special treats into fast food, with prices starting at 8,000 won or less. Cake has become a part of the pervasive bbali bbali culture of Seoul, the eternal rush that is physical, visual, audible, and now even edible.

You see, cakes aren’t just for birthdays in Korea. The transliterated “케이크” has become an integral part of Korean gift-giving tradition and is an appropriate present for all occasions, from anniversaries to formal business ceremonies. Holidays like Christmas and White Day would not be complete without cake. It’s a thoughtful gift, since it can be enjoyed by several people and puts no financial pressure on the recipient, who might feel obligated to return the courtesy with a token of equal value. And with 2,980 Paris Baguette and 1,409 Tous Les Jours locations in Korea, you’re never too far from a last-minute present, should you find yourself a block away from your mother-in-law’s house and suddenly remember her birthday. Since they can serve as an all-purpose gift and can easily be picked up at almost every street corner, it makes sense that cakes are flying off Korean bakery shelves.

One of the first forms of cake introduced to Korea was the castella, ironically imported from Russia around 1902 despite its Japanese heritage. At that time, cakes were called yang-gwaja (양과자), literally “Western cookies.” Now, however, there are a variety of distinctly Eastern cakes, much different from those encountered in the West. The most striking difference is that Korean cakes taste far less sweet. Koreans consider the high amounts of sugar in Western cakes to be overpowering and prefer gentler flavors. Cakes filled with sweet potato paste or cheddar cheese, topped with tomatoes, or curled into a roll are just some of the unique variations served at bakeries like Paris Baguette. It’s clear that cake has evolved to suit the lifestyle, budget, and palate of a modern Seoulite on the run.

Photo by Meagan Mastriani for SeoulistStill, there is evidence that a culinary renaissance could be brewing. Bakers like Seo-young, owner of Bonnie’s Kitchen, are advocating a more Western, anti-bbali-bbali approach to making and selling cakes. Unlike the average corner-shop cake, Seo-young’s Soho-inspired creations are handmade, expensive, and highly elaborate. It’s clear that these aren’t just everyday gifts, as one look at the price tags could make even the most fast-paced Seoulite stop short.

A basic cake at Bonnie’s Kitchen costs around 160,000 won, and the prices increase steadily with the addition of accessories such as toppers sculpted from sugar and cornstarch. If that number seems shocking to you, you’re not alone. Seo-young says these steep prices often baffle her Korean customers, who are unaccustomed to the idea of cake as a specialty item.

So why are Bonnie’s cakes so expensive? Seo-young says that the largest factor in her cakes’ cost is the ingredients she uses to make them. First of all, she explains, her cakes are about twice as dense as other cakes. Seo-young simply can’t bake spongy, light cakes because they wouldn’t support the thick layer of fondant she uses to decorate them. And for a cake to be twice as heavy, she has to use twice the ingredients.

Photo by Meagan Mastriani for SeoulistNot only does she use more ingredients to make her cakes, these ingredients are often imported and costly. While chain stores can purchase ingredients for wholesale prices, Seo-young must buy them at retail value. Her largest expenses are butter and the food coloring she orders from England. To create that perfect shade of robin’s egg blue, she may have to use a number of these foreign dyes, quickly running up the bill as more colors are added to the cake. Each layer of fondant has to be made and dyed by hand, as Seo-young is unable to purchase the pre-made sheets available in Western countries.

Perhaps the most important ingredient in one of Seo-young’s cakes is time (the nemesis of that ever-present bbali-bbali). As you can imagine, these handmade beauties require intensive labor, the second largest pricing factor. Seo-young estimates that she can make a “simple” cake in about three to four hours. Of course, many customers request extras, like toppers. A small model requires as little as half an hour of work, but large figurines such as cartoon characters or bride/groom pairs can take over five hours to complete. Seo-young has no pre-made molds or patterns—each cake topper is made-to-order and one-of-a-kind. Customers often choose not to eat the toppers and save them for years, as they harden after a few days and maintain their shape and color as long as they remain unexposed to sunlight. (Seo-young also frequently sells Styrofoam cake replicas iced with fondant for customers who want to remember their cakes forever.)

Photo by Meagan Mastriani for SeoulistFinally, since Bonnie’s Kitchen sells far fewer cakes than the average bakery, the upkeep of the shop is a significant portion of the cake’s cost, at an estimated 10%. According to a Korea Bakery Association survey, a typical franchise’s yearly revenue is about 570 million won, though an average privately-owned, non-franchise shop brings in only about 160 million won per year. When you understand just how much goes into these cakes, it’s easy to see why they’re priced as high as they are.

But in a country where cake is an inexpensive gift on the go, can bespoke sugarcraft cakes make an impression?

Seo-young says the market may still be fairly niche, but it’s growing. Bonnie’s Kitchen is just one of a handful of sugarcraft stores beginning to pop up around Seoul. Time will tell if these specialty shops can rise to the level of popularity gained by more accessible, less expensive chains. A newcomer like Bonnie’s Kitchen may not be able to compete with the convenience and familiarity of the sidewalk standard bakeries; they’re practically fixtures. If anything bodes well for Bonnie’s Kitchen, however, sugarcraft cakeshops do appeal to the Korean predilection for all things luxury and imported. And sugarcraft cakes might just be the answer to those times when you need a little more than an “all-purpose” gift. As tastes and trends continue to evolve, we may well see that the old guard and the new kids on the block are not in competition after all. One thing is certain: cake will not be going out of style any time soon. So whether it’s from Paris Baguette or Bonnie’s Kitchen, whether the occasion is big or small, for whatever you need to say: there’s no sweeter way to say it than with cake.

For those interested in learning more about the art of sugarcraft, Seo-young offers private baking lessons at Bonnie’s Kitchen. Contact her at 070-4135-0030 or for more information.

Meagan Mastriani

About Meagan Mastriani

Meagan is equal parts Texan and Georgian, though she currently resides in Korea. She spends her afternoons wandering through Seoul, exploring backstreets to find hidden treasures. Read about her culinary discoveries at her Honest Cooking column and follow her other adventures at her blog and @meaganmastriani.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.