Baking for a Cause
By Mei Qi
Monique Pham on her Passion for Desserts and Social Justice
If there’s one thing I love to follow on Instagram, it’s beautiful food — particularly, mouthwatering baked goods that look like works of art and taste even better. @momobakescake is a local Houstonian baker who not only fills my Instagram feed with droolworthy photos of cakes, she’s used her baking skills to raise money for causes she’s passionate about. Having bought delicious treats from her bake sales for great causes, I wanted to learn more about the baker behind the goods and what’s shaped and driven her passion not only for kitchen creations but social justice.
Can you tell us a little bit about the baker behind @momobakescake?
I graduated from Houston Baptist University with a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Accounting. I spent over a year in tax compliance (i.e. tax returns) before making the switch and going into more of a tax consulting role. I’m currently a Senior Associate in my firm’s Research & Development Tax Credit Group where I help manage and execute R&D Tax Credit Studies.
When and how did you first get interested in baking?
I remember being fascinated with cooking shows, and I was always down to watch some Martha Stewart growing up. Like most Asian kids, I grew up eating baked goods from Asian bakeries. For me, that was Le Duc Gourmet Bakery in Alief (Southwest Houston), where I grew up. I remember absolutely loving the combination of sponge cake and coffee buttercream, admiring the buttercream roses and swirls on the cakes. They also had savory meat pastries (pâté chaud or bánh patê sô) my mom would buy bagfuls of for me and my sister to snack on.
The first memory I had of baking where I thought, “huh, this is something I could possibly be good at” was when I baked cream puffs, and made pastry cream from scratch. I brought them to school and they didn’t even last through the first period. Friends, classmates, and teachers all seemed to like them. It gave me a huge boost of self-confidence, and during high school, there’s not much of that around. I wasn’t going to be the best violinist, or be a walking calculator who could ace all the tests, so to me, I had this thing that I could call my own, and at that age it meant the world to me, and also it meant so much that I could bring joy to someone with something I created with my own two hands.
What led you to create Momo Bakes Cake? Is it your full-time business or something you do on the side?
I continued to bake throughout college, and during college, Instagram had just launched and was a fairly new thing. I didn’t know what my user name would be, so I just put the obvious. My nickname in high school was Momo, and that nickname carried through to college. I bake cakes. So, hence @momobakescake was created. It was definitely not meant to be a business. I went into college thinking I was going to go to med school. Obviously, that didn’t happen. Even though baking was a passion of mine, I was raised to be realistic and I would need to graduate with a “professional” degree and get a good paying job. I couldn’t possibly set my sights on baking as a career until I was able to get a job and save enough money to support that business on my own. And that way, if baking failed, I had a degree and skills to fall back on. Currently, it’s my side hustle and one of my creative outlets.
Many of your cakes feature gorgeous buttercream flowers or unique flavors like hojicha (roasted green tea). Where do you get your inspiration for flavor combos or designs?
I draw inspiration from several things. My grandmother has a green thumb and could make almost any branch or cutting grow. I grew up watching her tend to fruit trees and flowers. I’m also a big art fan and used to spend a lot of time roaming art galleries and museums. Impressionist art is one of my favorites and I love the plays on light, color, and texture. I also love learning from all the talented bakers and cake artists that I come across online.
For flavors, I draw my inspiration from the flavors I grew up with. Alief is a wonderfully diverse neighborhood and so naturally there were many flavors and cuisines that I was luckily able to experience, in addition to the Vietnamese-American flavors I was exposed to growing up. One of my first jobs was at Central Market, and working there, I was exposed to so many different types of food. Even now, I always can gather ideas from my friends and family, as well as special meals that I’ve had, places I’ve traveled to, and places I want to travel to. I want to try to capture that nostalgia and happiness from that particular meal or memory through different flavor combinations. I also love to shop for different ingredients and incorporate them in different ways to highlight the ingredients’ flavors and textures.
What is your favorite thing to bake? What is the hardest?
I go through phases where I have a favorite thing to bake. I went through a sourdough bread phase (way before COVID quarantine, haha), rediscovered cream puffs and eclairs and baked those for a while, I was really into tarts at one point as well. I was also obsessed with baking milk bread earlier this year. I love using the ingredients that I have that are local or in season, or creating something amazing out of some leftover ingredients.
The hardest things for me to bake would be macarons and crepe cakes. Getting the taste and the texture just right to the point where I would enjoy eating it, and my friends would enjoy eating it requires constant trial and error. I’ve been keeping notes on different macaron trials where I keep note of all the different variables and constants to determine the ideal conditions for the perfect macaron.
There were several baking failures that always replay in my mind and always push me to do better. Some wedding cakes that have gone awry, an unsatisfied customer returning a cake, or even just friends and family just not liking what I’ve made. I think one of the hardest things about baking as a career, is catering to so many different taste preferences and finding the one cake that could appease multiple palates. This takes a lot of time, effort, and money. People have different perceptions of what a beautiful cake should look like too.
Some of the things that take longer in preparing a dessert or a cake than what people might expect would be the ones that require multiple flavors and layers. It can sometimes be a multi-day process depending on the dessert or cake. There are various factors to consider, such as time and temperature, preparing the cake or dessert for transport, etc. For example, I would bake cake layers and fillings on one day, ice and fill on another day, because the fillings may need time to set, the cakes need to cool and firm up. Decorations are a whole other set of layers that require rest time, additional preparation, and planning.
Through your baking, you’ve been very involved in fundraising for causes that are important to you. Can you talk about Bakers Against Racism and what made you decide to participate?
I’ve been involved in volunteering and community organizations for a while, even before I started baking. I am grateful that I am able to combine both of these passions to speak out about different causes.
When the Black Lives Matter movement was first gaining traction, I kept trying to think of ways to help and be involved, but I wanted to do it right. How would I do this the right way so that I am amplifying the message? How could I do this with the resources that I have? How could I do this efficiently and effectively?
George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were turning points in the movement and it began to dawn on me that I couldn’t just sit and do nothing. I had friends who were scared for their lives and their families, just for not being white. I just decided to go for it and start a virtual bake sale. I saw through Instagram that Bakers Against Racism was being organized and in the works, but that the dates weren’t set yet. I went ahead and posted the information for the fundraiser I was doing, and joined the Bakers Against Racism initiative once the details were out for that. I held the fundraiser for the Houston Black Lives Matter for the entire month of June and was able to raise $1500.
In the months after, I decided to focus on local organizations that were working hard to help the Black community in Houston. This included SHAPE Community Center and the Re-Education Project.
As a fellow Asian American, I particularly appreciate the call-ins that we as a community can and should be doing more in solidarity with Black, Latinx, and Native communities, and I love that you’ve found a way to leverage your baking into a form of activism and raising awareness. Do you have plans to continue your bake sales?
I think as Asian-Americans, while we do face discrimination, we have certain privileges that others do not. We need to come to terms with it and admit to ourselves that culturally, there is a superiority complex within the Asian community that we must be aware of and work to eliminate. It’s colorism at work, and the model minority myth only serves to pit us against each other and other people who are just trying to do the same thing we are: live a better life for ourselves and our families; to just survive and have an equal chance at prosperity. We all would not be here without the work and hardship that the Black, Latinx, and Native communities had to put in and experience, and still experience, to this day. It is the very least that we in the Asian community can do to help them in their battle against systemic racism.
I do have plans to continue my bake sales to support local causes and organizations that need support.
What are your future plans for Momo Bakes Cake in general? Is a full-time business or storefront part of the dream?
My short-term plans are to continue refining recipes and testing out ways to incorporate different flavors and textures into my baking. I would like to host some more pop-ups in the future once we are able to see past COVID. My goal and long-term plan would include having a storefront/cake studio/cafe of sorts.
What is your number one recommendation if someone were to order baked goods from you?
Chocolate or vanilla cake with salted caramel and strawberries or a tart fruit, that way you have sweet, a little savory, a little acidity, as well as different textures from the fruit and the cream and salted caramel for a balanced bite.
Finally, let’s put desserts aside. What is your favorite food that isn’t a baked good?
This is a hard question for me because I love food, but I can never say no to sushi. One of my favorite places to get sushi is Izakaya Wa; get the Wa Fu Futomaki roll, Beef Udon, and the Katsu Curry.