By Bakers Journal
Ksenia Penkina’s Mirror Cakes are, as the kids say, “internet famous.” Images of Penkina’s highly glossy, reflective cakes have gone viral on the internet, garnering over 400, 000 followers online and attention from celebrities such as George Takei to non-Hollywood cake lovers.
But what of the pastry chef herself? Bakers Journal interviewed Penkina, to get a sense of her inspiration and what she brings to the classroom when she teaches her mirror cakes courses. Penkina talks about the “inside world,” of pastry, which refers both to the chemistry of her cakes fillings, as well as what fires her imagination.
BJ: What inspired you to learn about patisserie?
Ksenia Penkina: “Since I was a child I never stopped creating. I have gone through limitless amount of arts and hobbies until I found my passion in patisserie. My passion for patisserie and specifically entremets began when I saw a work of my sister – who is a pastry chef.
“I was impressed with a beauty of her desserts at first, how flawless it was on the outside. Then I realized how smart and challenging the inside world is. Its like you meet a perfect partner, who is not only handsome, but also intelligent. And that is how I met my partner in crime – the work that I love.”
Penkina earned her BBA from Switzerland, where she was introduced to the challenges and the regulations of a professional kitchen for the first time. She says she feels “moved to learn and constantly develop” herself and her skills.
“Even today I don’t stop learning and striving to develop herself, constantly educating my palette, skills and techniques. Mainly focusing on the inside world of the dessert, understanding of the chemistry behind it, and a process of product integration.”
She derives her inspiration from technological innovations, such as Tesla cars, describing her cakes as having a similar “sensual purity” to its lines and delivery.
“When I see something outstanding that we’ve never seen before, I get the feeling of how much more we can do, how much more we can learn. Some things seemed impossible few years ago and today it’s a part of every day life. It gives me an absolute belief that everything is possible and anyone can do it. Why not me? Why not you? “Just do it” as they say, or at least try.
“By looking at each of my projects I try my hardest to make it different. Sometimes it works, and sometimes I should try harder. This way I grow personally and professionally. Some of the desserts I see on the web are truly inspirational, I even have goosebumps. It moves me to create “goosebumps” for someone else.”
Penkina admits that her fame is derived from her glossy, colourful glazing style. Her attention to creating a mirror-like seen has earned praise from pastry chefs to laymen alike. However, she remains steady in the belief that her cakes do not require further embellishment, preferring to leave the glaze as her signature homage to “sensual purity.” Despite the telegenic qualities of her cakes, Penkina believes that taste is the deciding factor in her cakes’ success.
“The inside world of my dessert should be simple and clear. I feel most people prefer something they can understand, something they know and are familiar with. Having three or four flavours in the cake is enough to understand and recognize what’s on your spoon.
Something significant I implement to each of my desserts is balance in textures: light and soft mousse, creamy layer, crunch, biscuit and a bright insert. Altogether is it built into classical shapes: pastry rings or round moulds.”
Penkina’s courses are both online and in hands-on courses. “In online classes, I am highly focused on teaching students with no or little experience. I believe that everyone should have an opportunity to create something special, something that used to be available only to professionals. I am providing basics in a way so they can start generating and embracing their own ideas. My goal is to make them powerful by having the knowledge and using it individually, because each person is unique and talented in their own way.
“For my hands-on classes, many of my students have little experience in making Entremets and they don’t know yet how deep and interesting this subject is. My social networks are filled with beautiful pictures of glazed cakes and that is what leads them to my class.
“I am glad to shift their perspective and work on something more important and meaningful than this. We actually dedicate 90 per cent of our time to theory, basics, textures, temperatures and techniques of making the cake itself: layer, mousse and biscuit. At the end of the class, most of the appreciation and hugs I get because of that information. But we also have some magical moments and it comes with the glazing time, at the very end.”
We all create magic together and this is the happiest moments of my class. This is when my students realize that all the hard work behind it.”
BJ: You have over 400,000 followers on Instagram and Facebook: What do you attribute this success to? What advice do you have for other bakers to win followers over on social media – any tips for bakers too busy to create or maintain a profile?
PENKINA: “I am highly focused on the content of my pages by analyzing what people would like to see. When I understand the needs of my followers, I present them with what they value the most, while attracting more visitors at the same time.
“If you have one dessert in a bakery which never sells, it is logical to remove it from the menu. It is simple marketing and a lot of hard mental and physical work. This is what every business needs, in order to be successful. “
It doesn’t hurt that Penkina is as skilled with a camera as she is with a pastry bag. The young chef adds that it’s not enough for the modern chef to be able to create unique flavours, textures and balance in their dessert, but they must be able to design an eye-catching online image.
“It should impress your online viewer. It could be your follower, your customer or another professional chef. Many people are still trying to go against it, and don’t see the value of a good content. Well, unfortunately, this is today’s world. You either go with the flow, learn new skills and develop, or you are flowing backwards letting the new generation get ahead.”
Penkina travels to Spain, Italy, Portugal, UAE, Qatar, Thailand, India, Mexico, Russia, Romania and other places to teach her entremets and glazing techniques when invited to other schools and studios.
“Eventually, my team grew bigger and this year we began to host master classes in Vancouver,” adds Penkina. “It is an amazing experience to organize it yourself: preparation, tools, equipment, ingredients, student communication is made on the top level. As Napoleon once said: “If you want a thing done well, do it yourself”. With that thought, I am planning to have my master classes hosted only in Vancouver.
With the support of my students and chefs who travel from different countries to attend the class here, I feel more powerful in building bigger future opportunities by teaching in my beautiful city.
The future looks for the Swiss-trained chef. She’s already launched a line of silicone cake moulds and food colouring, as well as continuing further master classes in September. When asked where she thinks the future of patisserie will be in a few years, her response is playful. “On Instagram.”