It’s highly appropriate that we shine our spotlight on a cake maker during the festive season. After all, what’s a celebration without a great cake or confection to bring people together?
One of the best cake artists in Singapore has got to be the very unassuming Jenny Lie, aka Ten Butter Fingers. But Jenny isn’t a full-time baker. This accountant by training actually spends her days working as a corporate trainer and coach.
A self-described octopus, Jenny juggles her professional career, family (a loving husband and two teens: A 12-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter), volunteering with the Girls’ Brigade, and volunteering as a marriage mentor with her church, alongside running what is easily one of the country’s most popular IG-based cake shops.
I first tasted a Ten Butter Fingers cake when one was gifted to me and my wife. It was a Dressed Up Yuzu Chiffon With Edible Flowers and it was delicious. Since that first cake, I have been a loyal Ten Butter Fingers customer. My family likes that her cakes are made with fresh ingredients and aren’t overly sweet.
I also like the personal interaction and being able to communicate with Jenny, who is as gracious and helpful as she is talented. So, I am thrilled to be able to interview her for this column. And maybe, if you’re tempted, you’ll want to order a cake from her for your next family gathering or birthday.
Here, in CNA Lifestyle's series, where we speak with creatives making their mark in Singapore, Jenny discusses how passion becomes business.
HI JENNY, HOW DID YOU FIRST GET INTO BAKING?
I’m pretty sure it was for the love of my kids. I used to bake brownies as a teenager, but that was about it. In 2010, my son, who was four at the time, was really crazy about a ‘strawberry lovers’ cake and insisted I make one for him. It was a no-bake cheesecake with a layer of strawberry jelly on top.
At about the same time, my six-year old daughter was fascinated with baking shows such as Cake Boss. She wanted to bake her own strawberry shortcake, but her arms were barely long enough to put a cake pan in the oven or handle the mixer. So, I offered to be her arms and legs. As they say, the rest is history.
WHEN DID YOU DECIDE BAKING COULD BE MORE THAN JUST A HOBBY? HOW DID TEN BUTTER FINGERS GET STARTED?
I’m really not sure! I literally stumbled into it. Like all home bakers, we start out baking for our loved ones. As I started to post the cakes on social media, friends started asking for me to bake for their family’s parties. Then, it became friends of friends and so on. It’s still a hobby which has evolved into a home business.
We felt that we needed an identity because more people were asking how they could search for us online. So, in September 2015, Ten Butter Fingers (aka TBF) was born. My husband came up with the idea and I thought it was symbolic of my kids’ butter fingers because they have a hand in almost all my cakes.
My daughter, who’s 14 years old now, and I are baking buddies. I call her TBF Junior and she’s a real technical help because she has watched more YouTube videos of the experts at work than I have. She told me what tools I needed to get and also taught me how to crumb-coat, stack and create internal dowels for tiered cakes.
WHAT IS YOUR AVERAGE WEEK LIKE?
My work involves helping people manage their professional brands from the inside out. Training and coaching take up a couple of days a week, depending on my clients’ schedule. The best bit of my job is the flexibility. I get to work from home when I’m not training or coaching, and that allows me to balance work, family life and baking.
There really isn’t an average week for me. I take in orders as my schedule permits and I bake in the evenings. Wearing these multiple hats ticks all the boxes of what’s important to me. It also keeps my adrenaline pumping and makes every day an exciting one.
WHAT WAS THE FIRST CAKE THAT YOU SOLD?
I can’t remember! It might have been a strawberry shortcake or a passionfruit cheesecake.
WHAT IS THE CAKE YOU ARE PROUDEST OF SO FAR? AND THE HARDEST?
Proudest cake … I suppose it is a Peranakan-inspired cake that I created for a colleague’s grandmother celebrating her 101th centenarian birthday. I wanted to minimise the amount of fondant used as most Peranakan-dress cakes are already covered with fondant before any decorative detailing is added. Creating the lace effect for the Peranakan dress was something TBF Junior and I experimented with a couple of times before getting it right.
Hardest cake? A recent two-tier fresh cream cake for 100 people. That was simply crazy! Imagine trying to stack one really heavy, soft, fresh cream cake on top of another. The top tier must have been at least 5kg to 8kg. I literally couldn’t breathe when I was placing the top tier on the bottom tier. Fortunately, I had the help of TBF Junior because the top tier was way too heavy for me to balance it alone.
DO YOU THINK THIS IS SOMETHING YOU WOULD DO AS A FULL-TIME PROFESSION?
I doubt it. I really enjoy being a trainer and coach, which gives me the opportunity to help others develop a strong personal and professional brand. It also gives me the mental connection with a diverse group of clients who range from undergrads to senior leaders. I find that very stimulating and fulfilling, too. I guess I have an inside-out approach to life, and it applies to the work I do and the cakes I make. I aspire for people and things to be genuine and appealing both on the inside and out.
WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED IN RUNNING YOUR OWN BUSINESS?
It’s hard work that no one sees! No one is born knowing how to run a business. My three core lessons are:
1. Keep learning
Be open-minded, humble and adaptable. Don’t be afraid to make changes along the way. You are bound to make mistakes, but that’s the fastest way to learn if you’re humble and open. My first strawberry cake was a disaster. It looked nothing like what I’m making now. I have so much more to learn myself.
2. Don’t be ordinary, be outstanding
Focus on what you’re good at and make it extraordinary. Don’t try to do everything. Not only is it difficult to attain mastery, scheduling also becomes difficult. I have chosen to focus on light cakes, which are much less sweet than most cakes, and to make them delightful both in taste and in visual presentation.
3. Stay passionate
Keep your own passion levels up by knowing what inspires you and when you need to take a break. Drudgery is the easiest way to kill off any passion. In the creative line, customers are buying a piece of our passion. Make your passion come alive through your work. Learn to say no when it isn’t aligned with your passion, and connect with people who are passionate in what they do. Passion is quite contagious in that way.
HOW DO YOU FIND NEW FANS AND CUSTOMERS?
Believe me, I don’t actively do anything. I guess the cake is usually a showpiece at celebrations and that gets many people talking. Many of my customers tell me their relatives usually start off asking for a small piece but end up wanting a second serving.
I recently ran a cake blessing campaign because I just wanted to do something different. What I hadn’t expected was the overwhelming response to the campaign – people started to like, share and talk about it. Cakes are often associated with celebrations, but we also turn to sweet treats when we are stressed. After all, "desserts" is "stressed" spelt backwards!
I simply wanted to create a series of encouragement cakes and cupcakes that could be used to put a smile on people’s faces during their difficult moments. There were no strings attached to the campaign, and customers didn’t have to like my page or tag someone. I had a kind customer who offered to sponsor the next cake blessing. I’ve learnt that likeability and customer loyalty aren't things we can buy. We need to focus on building positive experiences in what we do, and the results will come later.
READ: Creative Capital: The Singaporean hip-hop and dancehall artist who has headlined festivals all over the world
WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR HERO PRODUCT SO FAR? WHY DO YOU THINK IT IS SO APPEALING?
It seems to be the yuzu chiffon! The popularity had me stumped, too. I think it’s the generosity and quality of ingredients, plus it’s a very light cake. Singaporeans seems to prefer lighter cakes as opposed to pound cakes, which are favoured by our Western counterparts.
It took quite a fair bit of experimentation to get the perfect balance of taste and texture. I cook my own yuzu jam for the cake and I think that makes a world of difference. The quality of the yuzu also plays a part – one whole Japanese yuzu goes into each cake. I eat what I bake, and I’ve got a sweet tooth, but I cut sugar drastically in my bakes so you taste the real stuff.