Hannah Earl, n0w 23, has been baking professionally since she was 16. Nowadays bouts in the kitchen aren’t interrupted by school or university, but are sandwiched between an afternoon au pairing gig.
The author supports Mosadie Gives Back, set up by Sea Point business owner Shanaaz Allie. Allie uses a portion of profits earned from her hair dressing salon to cook for and feed those in her home community. Read about it here.
There isn’t a baking request that Hannah Earl won’t take on. She’s been asked to make a cake that looks like a raw potato and one of an unravelling roll of toilet paper. One of her most challenging orders was for a photographer friend. “He puts this camera down and says, ‘Do you think you can make this out of cake?’”
A typical day sees Hannah mixing and measuring in the morning, au pairing in the afternoon for two young girls, and icing and decorating into the night. She lives with her mom, Fiona, and sister Gemma, a 20-year-old business science student at UCT.
“I can bake whenever I feel like it. I’m often baking until 2/3am so it’s useful to be living at home and have my kitchen right here.” Living at home has other business perks such as proximity to her mom, who used to decorate cakes for wedding, birthday and christening parties.
“My dad would often bake the cakes and he would do the covering with the fondant. He was very perfectionist – he’d get those really smooth edges – and my mom would do the piping and the detailing and she did sugar flowers. She actually did courses on that. In that sense I grew up around cakes as well.”
Above is a traditional wedding cake Hannah’s parents made for her dad’s brother in 1999. Below is a ‘naked’ wedding cake made by Hannah for a wedding in 2019 at Neethlingshof. She says this minimalist style of wedding cake has become popular as it’s a cheaper option but it still looks really elegant. (Photos: Fiona Earl, above; Coba Photography, below).
Fiona also made all of Hannah’s birthday cakes while Hannah’s “ouma”, her dad’s mother, brought up the rear with banana breads and biscuits. When Hannah and her sister bunked school one day to go and watch cake boss Buddy Valastro at the Good Food & Wine Show, Fiona’s mother took them.
“She used to watch Cake Boss religiously,” says Fiona, who is the head of life sciences at Bergvliet High School and, like her mother, has spent decades as a teacher.
Following her mother and grandmother into teaching is something that Hannah is strongly considering – either in maths and science in a high school environment, or by opening a baking school. She graduated with a bachelor of science in genetics, ecology and evolution from UCT in 2018, and is now in her third “gap” year. Apart from producing a steady procession of baked goods, she has spent that time tutoring maths and au pairing.
“Teachers get school holidays so if it were to be something that I go into, it would also, I feel, give me that time to do cakes as well. And it’s also marrying all of the things I kind of loved leaving high school: working with children, the sciences and nature – if I taught bio – and then also being able to make my cakes.”
The idea for opening a baking school was reinforced by an experience she had while picking up supplies in her local baking shop. There was a woman there looking for ingredients for her son’s first birthday cake, clearly stymied by the array of colours and glitters.
She got to chatting with Hannah and asked for advice to which Hannah gave her an icing recipe. “And then she was like, ‘Actually, do you want to come over and help me make it and give me a bit of a lesson at the same time?’” Hannah says.
“I know a lot of people in the baking industry, home bakers like me, and one of them said to me, ‘Han, you know the money in baking is actually in teaching. People want to learn.’”
Hannah learns mostly from watching YouTube videos and looking at Pinterest step-by-step picture tutorials. Otherwise she pops to her neighbour Sue Scott’s house. Sue used to bake professionally and taught her how to make a sugar flower. Hannah has made just the one, a rose: “It’s very time-consuming and tedious.”
Sue’s house is also where Hannah gets to salivate over her “baking room”: cupboards filled with cupcake holders, cookie cutters, colours. Hannah is making progress towards a baking room of her own. So far she has migrated her supplies from the kitchen to a container of baking drawers in her mom’s garage.
On a music scholarship to Herschel, in Grade 9 or 10, Hannah started on “the big cakes”. “My first cake was for my family friend’s 11th birthday. I tried to make a two-tier cake with fondant. I didn’t even know what fondant was. It looked like such a patch job but I was, like, oh this was kind of fun.”
In her final year of high school, she made the cupcakes for the matric tea for all of the teachers and students. Since leaving school she still bakes for Herschel. “We celebrate Pi Day which is the 14th of March, so 3.14. The maths department has always done pi on a cookie; it’s a Herschel thing.”
She funded her way through school and university with her baked goods, and also paid for a holiday to Australia at the end of her degree. “I’ve never asked my mom for pocket money or anything like that.” While studying for her exams in genetics, she was simultaneously making 2,400 diamond-shaped cookies for a jewellery company’s Christmas client gifts.
A regular feature of Hannah’s baking regimen is her holiday-related charity drives. In the first one she did, a portion of the cookies sold went to a children’s cancer charity. She likes the idea of going to children’s homes with cupcakes and piping bags, interacting with them and teaching them a bit about baking. During lockdown last year, she made a huge rectangular chocolate cake for the wrong date, so she used the edible printer she got for her 22nd birthday to decorate it with the logo of Miracle Kidz Safe House and dropped it off there.
“I get some people saying, ‘How much do you charge for a cake?’ and then other people will send a photo and they say, ‘How much would you charge for this cake?’, and others have ideas like, ‘I really want a pink and purple cake with butterflies but you can have free rein’, so it varies.”
She’s part of a Facebook group populated with local bakers who dispense costing advice and act as a general support forum. What they charge depends on how skilled they are, how much experience they have and what area they’re in.
“I suppose it’s always just been my little side hustle but I can see over the last two years as I’ve had time to be baking more that it has definitely grown. I’ve always loved the idea of having a bakery but I think because cakes have always been on the side, I don’t know if I would be ready to fully commit to just cakes. I’d want to still do a bit more soul-searching in between. Maybe one day, when I’m a bit older.” DM/TGIFood