Competition in the cake baking world is fierce these days, especially after The Great British Bake Off caused a home baking explosion. From wedding cakes to cupcakes the general public are demanding ever newer flavours and formats. One baker leading the field is Stuart Thornley of Dukinfield, cheshire.
Cooking has been Stuart's career since leaving school at 18 and for ten years he ran the kitchen of a local nursing home, whilst training as a chef. However, Stuart has a real creative streak and had originally hoped to study design at university. When Tameside College offered a free cake decorating course, he and his partner decided to go along and after four weeks he was hooked. Very soon friends and family started to ask Stuart for cakes and he decided to study his craft further and attended a two year patisserie course.
Crafting A New Challenge
At the end of the course Stuart had so many orders coming in that he had to decide whether or not to make cakes his full time career. With the complete support of his partner, Alistair and his family, he took the plunge in November 2011 and hasn't looked back. Stuart soon built up a list of regular customers including Sizzlers in Stalybridge and Bradley's Bakery in Ashton-under-Lyne. He also spends his weekends at wedding fairs, craft and farmer’s markets. He has been a regular at The Vintage Village in Stockport's historic Victorian market hall for the last three years and now has stalls at all of the region's top artisan markets.
With his business going from strength to strength what makes Stuart stand out from the baking crowd? One word. Innovation. When he started out the cupcake boom was in full swing and whilst they were a large part of his offering, the flavours he produced were certainly not the norm. For every month and every celebration of the year Stuart produces a set of four appropriate flavours. For instance, last Easter one of the flavours he made was a Hot Cross Bun cupcake, with spiced fruits, a marzipan cross, apricot glaze and an almond frosting. St Patrick's Day saw a Guinness cupcake. At Christmas there was a complete Christmas dinner. Commencing with a Tomato & Basil Soup cupcake with tomato frosting and finished with croutons. Then an All The Trimmings cupcake flavoured with sage and onion, cranberry, maple frosting and crunchy bacon bits. For dessert there was a Christmas Pudding cupcake with brandy frosting and to wash it down an orange spiced Mulled Wine cupcake.
Not Just Cupcakes
But it's not all about the cupcakes. For the last few years Stuart has been developing a line of products that would make even the Mad Hatter look twice. He makes savouries that look like cakes and cakes that look like savouries. For instance, pork pies, scotch eggs, sausage rolls and sandwiches that are so cleverly made, they look like the real thing but when one tastes them the sweet sensation is totally unexpected. Perfect for a mind bending tea party that will have your guests talking for weeks.
Of course Stuart also makes wedding cakes and celebration cakes and they are a large part of his business. I asked Stuart if the cupcake trend was coming to an end and if so what was replacing it?
Also what were the fashions in wedding cakes now? He said that cupcakes were still popular but when it comes to wedding cakes people are now going back to the time-honoured 3 tier option with intricate icing. He also said that more traditional bakes were making a comeback and his mini loaf cakes are always a sell out at the fairs he attends.
Late last year Stuart featured in the prestigious Cheshire Life magazine, in an article entitled 'The Best Bakers in Cheshire & Lancashire'. An honour indeed, I asked him how it came about. "They approached me out of the blue about it after seeing me on the artisan markets."
Award Winning Baking
His skills have not gone unrecognised by his peers either. At last year's International Cake Awards he received professional recognition for his talents collecting Silver and Bronze at for his wedding cake and cupcakes. This year he has done even better at the annual Event City event picking up two golds in the same categories. A beaming Stuart said, "The competitions have a lot of prestige to them and are renowned all over the world. It is backed by industry magazines and attended by various professionals. Also the two golds will give a boost to the business by confirming the quality of the cakes and show the skills that will be put into a cake made by me. Customers can buy with the confidence that they will be getting a product of a very high standard. To be able to promote the business by saying we make gold medal winning cakes is just fantastic!"
I asked Stuart what he had up his sleeve to tantalise his customers with next. He told me, "As always lots on the pipeline. The primary aim is to always seek out ways to increase quality further - no matter how high your standards are I always think you can constantly find improvements to make something the very best it can possibly be. Also I never stop with developing new products and evolving the business to meet the customer's needs. There are half a dozen new bakes being worked on right now which will be available very soon after some fine tuning."
From your perfect wedding cake to a tea party with a twist, Stuart is a baker who can make your dreams come true.
Words by Jo Cooksey, March 2015.