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Piece-A-Cake: Charlotte O’Toole, Home Sweet Home

David Blake chats with the head baker churning out a whole Polar Bears worth of cake a week

Written by . Published on April 4th 2014.


Piece-A-Cake: Charlotte O’Toole, Home Sweet Home
 

SINCE Mary Berry and her son/boyfriend Paul Hollywood invented baking back in 2010, people have gone ape for it. Nine million people tuned in to watch one off those Great British Bake Offs... nine… million.

So with the Cake & Bake show creeping up on us (tickets ‘ere by the way), it got us thinking… who slings together the finest cake in Manchester? Not just a good’un, not even a really good’un, but the best.

Once I came in the cakes took off, we were selling so many I went from working six hours to full-time in three weeks. It was all so quick.

We put it to the office.

Words were exchanged, pens became missiles, fingers were stapled together, some bastard even stamped on Accountant Dave’s new calculator. He cried into his abacus. But the argument was settled *drumroll*...

Home Sweet Home in Northern Quarter took the biscuit. The cake. For sheer eccentricity.

There was some stiff competition, mind. Teacup, Sugar Junction, Tea 42, Takk, Proper Tea, Patisserie Valerie… all were thrown into the mixer. But it was Home Sweet Home that came out (cherry) on top.

Home Sweet Home, Edge StreetHome Sweet Home, Edge Street

It’s not easy being the little sister of the Almost Famous/Lust, Luck, Liquor, Burn steam-rolling ‘up-yours-and-eat-it-pal’ party behemoth. They’re attention sponges. Meanwhile, tucked away on Edge Street, Home Sweet Home toils on, rarely slipping, rarely faltering, and as with most Beautiful Drinks operations, busier than a whore’s drawers at Armageddon.

They also hustle more cake by the kilo than any other café in the city. A whole Polar Bears worth a week.

So we tracked down the Master Baker (snigger) behind the operation, Charlotte O’Toole, and fired off some questions at her.

HSH cakeHSH cake

So Charlotte, what’s your role?

My role isn’t defined, I suppose you could say I’m the head pastry chef, so all the cakes, treats, desserts items come from my kitchen at HQ. Most of our time is spent in there baking for Home Sweet Home but we also have the savoury side, all the sauces for Almost Famous and Lust, Luck, Liquor, Burn. It’s a busy kitchen.

How big is the team?

I’ve got two full-time bakers and an apprentice. We’re going to need to take on two more apprentices actually. On the savoury side we have another two chefs. The operation keeps growing and growing. Dan’s my bread guy and Kate’s our resident American, she brings over family cake recipes and things like Nanaimo bars from North America.

Where did you train?

I’ve always baked from home but decided it was what I wanted to do full-time so went back to college in Liverpool as a mature student. I came out top of the class so they gave me a scholarship. I think being older you’re more focused to learn. But we’re always learning here and keeping an eye on trends.

How did you come to be at Home Sweet Home?

I was working in Chorlton for Sweet Tooth Cupcakery, when we closed a year or so ago I saw a baker position here for six hours a week. Once I came in the cakes took off, we were selling so many I went from working six hours to full-time in three weeks. It was all so quick. I was working from a small corner in the kitchen here but it became so big that Beau (owner) said he was going to build me a new kitchen especially. In that time we’ve gone from four cakes a week to ridiculous amounts.

HSH cakeHSH cake

So how many cakes are you selling?

Crazy amounts. People don’t just come in for one slice now, they’re taking two or three home because they can’t choose. Weekdays we probably sell eight to twelve a day, weekends around twenty five a day. We easily do 100 cakes a week. We sell out too. To not sell out I’d have to live in that kitchen.

Out of interest, how much does a cake weigh?

About 4kg, roughly.

So you’re serving out over 400kg of cake a week? That’s nearly half a tonne…

Wow. I’ve never thought of it like that. You’ve just melted my brain a little. That’s a lot of cake. That’s a whole skip full of cake.

Your suppliers must love you.

They do. We probably get through nearly 200kg of flour a week, chocolate is a big one, we order 70kg of dark chocolate a week. The thing is they’re all smaller family run businesses too, so all that money is pouring back into local communities.

400kg Polar Bear: 'They sell HOW MUCH cake?'400kg Polar Bear: 'They sell HOW MUCH cake?'

Why a baker and not a chef?

I am a good cook, but baking is so much more creative. We can get away with weird stuff here. It’s become an art form, that’s how we see it anyway. There’s no boundaries in our kitchen. We just go for it. The more creative, the more colour the better. My mum used to say my room looked like a clown had emptied his pockets. Shiny spinning stuff everywhere. Ok, some of our cakes are done in a way that’s slightly naff and tongue in cheek, but that’s all on purpose.

How come baking has suddenly taken off?

Obviously Great British Bake Off has a lot to do with it. People see the show and think ‘I could do that’. Twitter has certainly played its part. More people are baking and getting their products out there instantly, people see it, it gets passed around, before you know it you have a little business going. It's so versatile too, we've just put together a cheesecake... on a stick. Fancy that. Everyone in the office has been scoffing them. I'm such a feeder.

HSH cakeHSH cake

Are Home Sweet Home leading the way?

Well we won the MFDF award for best coffee shop so we must be. The last six months or so has gone nuts. It’s constantly busy, there’s no break in service. We do try to set ourselves apart, do crazy stuff, we don’t take ourselves too seriously. We do our research too, for example, I know which of our cakes, if I put them on the counter, will be gone in twenty minutes. That’s no exaggeration. They really will be gone.

What’s your best seller?

Rocky Road is our best seller. But the cake that disappears in a flash is the one with a cherry pie and apple pie baked into the middle. If you put it on twitter the night before then people will flock for a slice of that. We’re going to launch a small ‘best sellers’ menu with all the other more crazy and off-the-cuff stuff on top of that. We don’t like to pin ourselves down too much.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

At the end of the day, when we’ve been manically working from 7am, we line up all the cakes for the next day at Home Sweet Home and take a step back. It’s quite a spectacle. And you’re churning that out every day. I also like to see people staring into the counter open-mouthed and drooling.  I’ve got an amazing job.

And Least?

Everybody that bakes knows about ‘cake stress’. ‘Cake stress’ is hell. Unless you bake you won’t know. I suppose we do work long hours, I start early and finish about seven, so around twelve hours, but I’m a baker, that’s part of it and I love what I’m doing. You’ve got to love what you’re doing.

Baking... TV'dBaking... TV'ified

Would you go the TV route?

I did nearly apply once, but I’m too shy. I can’t now anyway because with most of these shows you have to be an amateur. I bake for a living and I’m trained. We float somewhere between the high-end stuff and the home bakers, but we’re not really interested in the fine dining, pastry stuff, that’s not what Beautiful Drinks is about. We give people what they want, or what they want but don’t know they want it yet. That’s what we’re great at.

What’s the best thing you’ve done?

Built up this bakery, a full bakery, in under a year. Apart from that, the best thing is that I’ve just been told we’re making nearly half a tonne of cake a week and people are eating all of it then coming back for more. That’s a lot of happy people. During the Northern Quarter street party last year we made a 6ft brownie that sold out in less than two hours. 300 portions of it.

MomofukuMomofuku

Where do you pull inspiration from?

Beau’s always sending me pictures from America, he’ll ask me something ridiculous and say ‘make it happy’. I love that. There’s a bakery in New York called Momofuku milk bar, their stuff is amazing. The more colourful, more indulgent, the better. We go around the sweet warehouse, fill our trollies and dive in. People like weird stuff. We’ve just done a crème egg and bacon donut. We make our own crème egg filling, our own pumpkin spiced donuts, cover it in dark chocolate with candied bacon on top.

Your lot love throwing bacon at everything. What next... A bacon cocktail? 

Think they’ve done one you know.

Course they have…

Home Sweet Home, 49-51 Edge Street, Northern Quarter, M4 1HW. 0161 833 1248.

Open: Mon-Thurs 9am-10pm, Fri-Sat 9am-11pm and Sun 9am-9pm.

@HomeSweetHomeNQ

HSH cakeHSH cake

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Latest Rants

Anonymous

The staff should wear clothes made out of corn flakes.

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Jonny

Dress the staff as Tony the Tiger and the honey monster, otherwise i'm just not interested. ;)

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Another Tim

Actually, it seems like this pricing model is designed to encourage eating fast and getting out of…

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Another Tim

I don't think it's a silly question at all. Possibly not in keeping with the spirit of the place.…

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