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Jamaican heritage and Prue Leith inspire Kennington cake queen to yet more awards

by Marnie Searchwell

I couldn’t have been more proud when another of my cakes won a Great Taste award this summer from the Guild of Fine Food – the top industry body for artisan food producers and a signpost to great flavour. The judges described my Chocolate & Olive Oil Cake (gluten- and dairy-free) as “beautifully baked and presented”.

I was thrilled to get two more stars! And they made me pause to think about how I got here.

It’s been more than 30 years since I came to live in Lambeth. A long journey in more ways than one, as I built my business, moved into gluten-free flavours and picked up tips from the likes of Prue Leith – when she was famous for her revered restaurant and cookery school, but not yet the TV star she now is through Great British Bake-Off.

And it reminded me of how the support and loyalty of people in Kennington helped me to turn my passion into a small business. I love the fact that so many of my customers are nearby – and it makes delivering large cakes a lot easier!

This latest accolade means my cakes have won 11 awards from the Guild and the FreeFrom Food Awards since 2011, when my Luxury Jamaica Christmas Cake won me my first two Great Taste stars.

I certainly didn’t imagine this when I first came to London from Jamaica in the 1970s to study art. Along with my portfolio and pencils, I brought with me a rich Jamaican heritage of fruit puddings and cakes, and the fabulous nutmeg and pimento flavours of my Mum’s cooking.

I trained as a graphic designer up the road at the London College of Printing before beginning my first career, in publishing. It was when I worked with Prue on the first edition of Leith’s Cookery School that I was inspired to become more serious about baking. Later, having kids reinforced my determination to make delicious and healthy dishes, including treats, for us all to eat.

I started my cake business bulk-baking fruit cakes aimed at the Christmas trade. But I learned quickly that there is no good business model in trying to produce standard cakes to compete with supermarket prices. My cakes aren’t cheap. Customers come back to me for quality ingredients and of course, great taste.

Now I prefer to concentrate on bespoke cake-making and design for weddings, birthdays and anniversaries. As a designer, the creativity appeals to me.

And my customers are usually ordering a cake for a special occasion, so they want the best. Quality ingredients are key – I use organic wherever I can.

The internet has been a boon for artisan producers. Changing tastes and customer demands have had a big impact too. Sweet treats free of gluten were seen as a tiny niche product when I started making them 15 years ago, when my husband worked out he was gluten intolerant. I experimented with mixing different flours, such as brown rice and buckwheat, and developed my own special blend of gluten-free flours.

Since then, food producers and supermarkets have woken up to the fact that lots of customers are looking for free-from foods, either because of serious allergies or simply because they want to cut back on the amount of wheat they eat.

My mission is to make cakes that are so moist and tasty you wouldn’t know they’re gluten-free. And you can’t have failed to notice the recent craze for vegan cakes – my new Peanut Butter and Banana Blondie has been a big hit. Dairy-free treats are popular now, too. You can use fantastic oils – from olive and coconut to rapeseed – instead of butter.

Creating cakes is an art. But baking is a science. You have to weigh and measure ingredients carefully, and get your oven temperature right. Otherwise it just won’t work.

That’s my advice to anyone tempted to have a go at cake-making. Then – just to go for it! Try new things. If your bake doesn’t turn out right first time, your family or friends will be happy to eat it up.

My favourite cake? I’m very proud of my Reine de Saba, made with ground almonds and Appleton Jamaica rum. It’s named after the legendary African Queen of Sheba – dark, brown and beautiful – and it’s my best-seller: a real grown-up chocolate cake.

See more of Marnie’s cake creations and all her award-winning cakes at www.marniesearchwell.com.

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