(This article appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
Vancouver- based pastry chef Ksenia Penkina is known in pastry circles as the ‘Glazing Queen’, owing to her talent for creating exceptionally beautiful glazed cakes in vivid colors and patterns. Each of her cakes is a work of art, a dazzling presentation that is photo-ready and ideal for sharing with Penkina’s legion of Instagram followers. But her skills are not limited to the artistic elements of her creations – balancing textures and flavors is as important to Penkina as the shiny wrappings of any cake. We spoke to her recently about her work and her various projects, from online classes to designing cake molds to creating a new line of signature food colors, and what she regards as the secrets to her success in her pastry career and business.
When did your passion for pastry begin?
Ever since I was a child, I’ve never stopped creating. I have gone through limitless types of art and hobbies until I found my passion in patisserie. Starting from simple knitting and painting projects, writing and acting, video production and editing, photography and design, website development and marketing – all of my hobbies during my teenage years, when I was trying to define myself. My passion for patisserie and, specifically, entremets, began when I saw the work of my sister, who is a pastry chef. I was impressed with the beauty of her desserts at first, how flawless they were on the outside. Then I realized how smart and challenging the inside world is. It’s 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. Receiving my degree in Switzerland, I was introduced to an extensive kitchen and all of the basic ingredients, tools and equipment, rules and regulations for the first time. The kitchen became limitless – it is free, challenging and creative. It moves me to learn and constantly develop myself and my skills. To enhance my skills and knowledge, I travelled around the world and learned from some of the best pastry chefs, including Frank Haasnoot, Jordi Bordas, Karim Bourgi, Amaury Guichon, and others. Even today I don’t stop learning and striving to develop myself, constantly educating my palate, skills and techniques, mainly focusing on the inside world of the dessert, understanding the chemistry behind it, and the process of product integration.
What’s the secret to an exceptional cake and a really shiny glaze?
Proper ingredients and technique. You can get a recipe and ingredients from any chef, but without the correct techniques and temperatures, you will not have the same result.
For the cake as a whole, I am committed to using only natural ingredients: real cream or milk, 100% fruits and berries, and the highest quality chocolate. This allows me to create one of the most unique textures and flavor balance in my desserts. When you have a bite of the cake, this experience is hardly forgettable: a soft and light mousse, an intense and bright layer with fruits or berries, a second creamy layer, a premium sponge, and an unforgettable crunch. All in one bite. It is amazing!
In 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. [In my classes] we actually dedicate 90% 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 are because of that information. But we also have some magical moments, and it comes with the glazing time at the very end – showing different techniques and effects that can be done with the glaze, using various tools. We also talk about defects that most people struggle with, and how to manage them. When everybody start glazing, right away I have a room full of children with their favorite toys. Jumping around cakes with pure joy and lots of selfies (of course). We all create magic together and this is the happiest moment of my class. This is when my students realize the joy of the result, and that all the hard work behind it was worthwhile. You can get a recipe and ingredients from any chef, but without the correct techniques and temperatures, you will not have the same result.
What inspires your new creations?
I am highly inspired by innovations, and not only in a pastry world. At the moment when I thought to myself that the Mercedes car design had the most classical lines and curves representing the philosophy of “sensual purity”, as they call it, and said, “That’s it – there is nothing more outstanding that can be done with classical luxury,” well, here comes Tesla. In my opinion, Tesla not only outdid the design with its smooth and sinuous luxury, but their electricity innovations were just breathtaking. When I see that something outstanding like this is created, something 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 a few years ago, and today they are part of everyday 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. One day this idea comes to you: a new design, a new flavor, a new project. Most of the time it is based on some experience, but sometimes your creation is exceptional. This is what moves us forward. By looking at each of my projects, I try my hardest to make it different. Sometimes it works, sometimes I should try harder. This way I grow personally and professionally. Some of the desserts I see on the web are truly inspirational, they give me goose bumps. It moves me to create ‘goose bumps’ for someone else.
Do you generally choose your glaze colors based on the flavors of the cake?
People who know me for my glazing style know that I am highly attentive to it. I prefer to leave my desserts with very limited decoration. My cake already consists of several glaze or velvet colors, so adding additional weight to it is unnecessary. I must say, glazing is my favorite part. However, the most important part is the cake itself. 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 to four flavors in the cake is enough to understand and recognize what’s on your spoon. Something significant I implement to each of my desserts is a balance of textures: light and soft mousse, creamy layer, crunch, biscuit and a bright insert. Altogether is it built into classical shapes: pastry rings or round molds. My work is accurate and precise, classy and elegant. Just like me.
You have over 357,000 followers on Instagram. Was that something that you worked on, or did it just kind of happen? Were you surprised by how popular your work is?
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, 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. I do the same with my pictures, texts and content in social networks, understanding “what, when and how” I should or should not make a post. It is simple marketing, and a lot of hard thought and physical work. This is what every business needs in order to be successful. Also, I am good at photography and video making. Growing web madness also comes with a “beautiful picture” must-have. Not only can your dessert be tasty, but also attractive to the eye. Nowadays, bakers must not only create unique texture, flavor and balance in their dessert, but also create a design that will 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 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 move ahead.
How did you get started teaching your techniques online?
The idea of doing online classes came to me from my followers, along with all the rest of the ideas and projects that I do. I always listen to the feedback of the people who follow my page, and if suggestions and comments begin to repeat, I pay attention and act on them. At the moment when I released the first online class, I already had some of my followers waiting for it. At that time my Instagram page was already filled with beautiful pictures of the cakes I was making, and people were asking if there was a way to learn my techniques. The success was instant, because the project was needed even before I started to plan it. It was a big pleasure to share my experience for the first time with people who love baking.
What’s the level of students who take your online classes?
For 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 students 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.
You also have an Instagram account devoted to your students’ work — what a great idea! Has this inspired others to take your classes?
It absolutely did! Seeing the direct links to real people and their creations after taking my class can make it possible to imagine what can be done, even if person doesn’t have any experience in baking. With this page – @by.students – I am following all my student profiles around the world, and it allows me to put it all together and easily find their work. It also makes me happy that my students are now proud of that page, so they strive to do their best just to be featured. And they see other students and follow them; it’s a little family. They trust me and I trust them.
Your cakes are so incredibly popular — have you ever considered opening up a retail bakery?
The world is turning faster than we can imagine, and it is important to turn with it, otherwise you may get stuck behind. I am always looking at the current or upcoming trends. There are so many opportunities for me to create and develop with my team: projects, collaborations, teaching, writing – it is all today’s world. While those opportunities come to me and I can see it is new, fun and exciting, I go with it. It keeps my work and myself fresh and constantly motivated.
If you look at the concept of having a bakery 100 years ago or today, nothing has changed, and in 50 years it will be the same. When I have had all my fun with current trends and decide to settle down for a bakery, I will be more than happy to do so.
Tell us about Haute [ōt] by Ksenia Penkina, your line of food coloring and molds.
This year I have released my signature silicone cake molds GEMMA and MINI GEMMA with the best company in the field, “Silikomart” from Italy. Rapidly they became best sellers worldwide, and I look forward to more projects in that field.
Recently we launched my signature, one of a kind, food coloring, Haute [ōt] by Ksenia Penkina. We have developed the colors, shades and intensity, promising the highest quality on the market. These powdered food colors are the most intense, which allows you save on quantity and health, because you only have to use a small pinch to achieve a bright, intense shade. There is also a wide range of unique color combinations available so that you can create a most desired dessert in any production.
Last year we also launched an online pastry shop under the same brand, Haute [ōt]. It features ingredients, tools, and equipment for professional and home kitchens. We also present Haute [ōt] colors and our own production of silicone and chocolate molds, with the possibility of customizing your own shape and mass production for hotels and bakeries.
What’s your best piece of advice for someone just getting started in the pastry business?
If we are not just talking about pastry passion, but pastry business, I will have to point out the World Wide Web. While building your style and passion in pastry, at the same time make an effort to learn and develop your communication channels, such as Instagram, Facebook, your website and other media. Nowadays, social networks are not only for fun, but they are a must for a successful business. By the time you are developed as a pastry professional, you will have a base channel to spread your talent and get attention for your work. With that base, you can easily open a bakery, create online classes and make sales, because you would already have people who follow and support you as clients or customers.
*Photo Credits: Silvija Crnjak, Ksenia Penkina