Maliha Khaku of Richmond, B.C., is a talented baking student, professional baker and cake artist who has picked up a prestigious award on her journey toward creative expression through baking.
The Vancouver Community College student took the cake at Dawn Foods’ Mother’s Day Celebration Student Cake-Decorating Competition at Bakery Showcase in May. She also took home $1,000 toward her education, a voucher toward journey baker certification and a handful of cake orders.
Celebrated pastry chef Bruno Feldeisen of the Great Canadian Baking Show, Dalana Fleming of The Cake and the Giraffe cake shop in Vancouver and Dawn’s talented technical chef Austin D’Souza served as judges.
Khaku’s cake stood out visually and in terms of theme, organization and technique.
On a base of pretty, pastel suitcases sit a globe, a scrabble game with favourite trips spelled out with tiles and other souvenirs, together forming a spectacular tower marking family adventures and a daughter’s love for her mom.
The eye-catching cake showcased painting, molding, embossing, debossing, airbrushing and stencilling techniques.
“The cake highlights the importance of cherishing memories created with loved ones,” Khaku wrote in her description.
When she entered the competition, in which VCC and Vancouver Island University students competed individually or in teams of two, she planned to do a variation on an idea she saw online. Two weeks before the competition, she decided to do something original and personal.
Khaku and her family spent a nervous evening wondering if the cake would fit into their car, but a neighbour with a minivan saved the day. “I sat in the back with the cake, holding it,” she says. “I brought it in three pieces and put it together at the convention centre.”
What adventures inspired the winning cake?
“We were just in Philippines and Bali, where we were able to swim with whale sharks and experience the culture. It’s very different from here. In Bali there were temples and offerings everywhere.”
She and her parents took the trip in December. “Every December we try and go somewhere as a family,” she says.
By good fortune, Khaku’s grandmother on her mother’s side, Kaniz Somji, was in Vancouver on a visit from London, England, and at the Showcase along with mom Shaheena, to support the young cake artist and celebrate her big win.
We caught up with the busy young baker, who this spring completed levels 1 and 2 in the baking and pastry program and is working hard to get enough hours to achieve level 3 and take the Red Seal exam, which she hopes to do by March.
Khaku is working at the newly opened Daan Go Cake Lab in Richmond, B.C., as head cake decorator. Founded by MasterChef Canada champions Christopher Siu and business partner David Jorge. Daan go is known for its character macarons, exotic cakes and fancy croissants.
She is enjoying creating macarons with personality and especially looks forward to decorating the signature cakes alongside a team of about 20 bakers.
The ambitious Khaku also operates her own baking business, @JustWhiskItbyM found on Instagram, which has grown significantly since she started baking for family and friends in 2016. For the past year and a half, she has been fulfilling an average of two orders a week. Many of her orders come through word of mouth by the Muslim and Indian communities, and hopes to spread further.
Since her appearance at Showcase, where she took a handful of orders, business has picked up. “I have four cakes this week,” she reports.
She rhymes off an order she has going out the next day for a two-tier cake, cake pops and cheesecake pops, and a lion cake she made recently for a preschool.
She has a 16-quart mixer and recently purchased her own custom boxes. In the past she used a four-quart mixer and is finding the new equipment a labour saver.
Khaku, who has a cheeky sense of humour, says the business name is a deliberate play on the word “risk.” She takes the long hours in stride. No stranger to challenges, Khaku has lived with a very rare kidney disease since she was born. She also has struggled to focus and learned strategies to help her block out distractions.
“As a child, I liked sculpting and playing with clay, which is similar to fondant” Khaku says. “With my learning disorder, we discovered it helped me focus.” Later, she was assigned to a quiet classroom where she could sit and do her homework.
She tries to pinpoint her love of baking. “I like the precision. I like that it’s a science. I also did a culinary course first (level 1), but I just preferred baking. I’ve always liked baking. When I was young my mum would never buy cakes. We used to make our own.”
The Bakery Showcase competition was her first major victory. She has done a few small competitions in the local mosque. Working with her mother, she earned first place for a cake simulating a hamburger using buttercream when she was four. Wanting to experiment, she made another burger cake using fondant instead and won first place in the next competition. For a school competition she made – you guessed it – a burger cake. “I don’t know what it is about burgers,” she says with a chuckle. “I think I like challenging myself to see if I can make it better.”
Khaku is the first person in her family to bake professionally and she wants to encourage others: “I have a younger cousin in Toronto, graduating high school, who just started baking this year. She had her first bake sale to celebrate Eid. I think she is influenced by me: if she has any questions, she’ll call me.”
Khaku knew she wanted to do cake-decorating as soon as she finished high school and pursued her passion even when others around her were less sure. She offers solid advice for a career in baking and for life: Don’t be afraid to take a risk. “I think no matter how much you struggle, things will always come up in your way. But sometimes those things are meant to be. You just have to try your best and go for it. Just follow your heart.”