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Shannon Nocos's pandemic project infuses Filipino culture into artfully detailed cakes and tarts
Shannon Nocos never set out to start a cake business.
In fact, in her first semester of culinary school she remembers distinctly saying she would never enroll in pastry classes.
“The pastry program was on the other side of the hall and I would say I’d never do it because it’s super tedious, there’s too much measuring involved, everything has to be super precise,” she says. “And here I am: [baking] is my entire life.”
Now she runs up and down the stairs between her kitchen and her basement studio 50 times a day, bringing her baked creations to life for her business, Kwento.
The fridge in her living room is filled with tarts and cakes (her family members know it’s off limits). Business is going so well she had to close orders for both January and February because she was receiving so many requests.
The cakes are striking and artful. They make you stop your mindless Instagram scrolling to take a second look.
She ices the cakes as if the piping bag were a paintbrush, creating checkered designs that mimic pointillism or 3D fringe designs that look like an explosion. She adorns her tarts and cakes with edible flowers from her garden. She puts her graphic design background to use, implementing design principles like colour theory and composition when creating.
Beneath her canvases are cake flavours like ube macapuno, mango float, vanilla cardamom and more. When she started Kwento she wanted to focus on Filipino flavours and her original cakes were all ube macapuno.
“I’m always trying to explore new things with Filipino desserts.”
Nocos wanted to pay homage to a traditional cake that uses ube sweet potatoes and macapuno coconuts. She uses ube halaya (jam) in her cake batter and layers macapuno strings over it. Macapuno is used for its distinct taste and texture. It’s genetically different from other coconuts and is filled with a gelatinous substance instead of coconut water.
After making that flavour consistently she branched out to more western flavours like vanilla and chocolate, but also added mango float, inspired by a treat she ate on the hot days in Manila. Graham crackers are layered with condensed milk and fresh mango, and it’s refrigerated so the milk congeals.
She started Kwento originally as a meal delivery service but like many pandemic side projects, it took on a life of its own.
“It’s been very overwhelming, but at the end of the day, I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”
Before going to culinary school in 2019, Nocos worked in retail for 10 years. Then the pandemic hit halfway through her French culinary program in Manila and she had to return to Toronto. Kwento was supposed to be an interim project while she waited to complete her classes later in the year.
“I didn’t want to start work again coming from Asia because I didn’t know when I was going back. I didn’t want to start a job and then leave two months later.”
By September she came to terms with the fact that things were only getting worse and it was unlikely she could go back. She enrolled in a virtual food and media program at George Brown College and devoted the rest of her time to Kwento and freelance design and styling work.
The name Kwento comes from a phrase she learned at school in Manila. Her friends would say things like, “let’s make kwento after school” or “let’s go to Starbucks and make kwento.”
“From a Tagalog perspective, it makes sense to call it gossiping, but there’s no direct translation for the phrase, other than to share a story. We were all strangers telling each other the stories of our lives and how we grew up.”
The stories Nocos is telling with her pastries (and earlier on with her prepared meals) are all about connecting through food.
Her first customers back in June were two doctors with children who wanted to lessen their interactions with the public and were wary of going from their clinic to the grocery store. Nocos created a weekly meal kit and that was the beginning of Kwento.
But prepared food quickly became cumbersome and difficult to store. “I work out of my own kitchen and it wasn’t really feasible. I live with my family and they were getting so annoyed with all the dishes, all the different things cooking, all the things marinating.”
“Having to drive to Ajax for a delivery of six cookies was getting ridiculous. I’m working solo on all of this, from marketing to research and development to packaging to social media to deliveries. It wasn’t really working or making sense logistically.”
She decided to level up to bigger baked goods like tarts and eventually cakes, and that’s where things really took off.
Adding edible flowers to tarts and cakes was a no-brainer since she’s an avid gardener and has a backyard garden. “Flowers are beautiful. I can’t really go wrong with them,” she says. “It’s figuring out the right composition and filling up the space the right way.”
In August she started working on a new idea: A fringe cake for her partner’s birthday with multi-coloured “strings” made of icing coming out of everywhere.
“It took me a few weeks to get the method down and then I posted it – and out of nowhere everyone wanted cakes. Everyone was over tarts,” she laughs.
What she calls “carpal tunnel cakes” came next, as a natural extension of the fringe cakes. The long icing strings make the cakes extra fragile and hard to maneuver so she decided to do shorter fringes. Eventually those became dots.
Some of her dot cakes have intricate, woven-looking patterns, some look like gemstones, some have wavy hearts but they all take incredible patience and steady hands. She methodically lays out each dot, one at a time until the cake is covered.
“The carpal tunnel has sorted itself out because I’ve made so many.’”
Although the cakes get a lot of attention, Nocos is still interested in experimenting with more traditional Philippine desserts. She is collaborating with Filipino restaurants like Tala and Bar’kada and pop-ups like Kusinera with chef Keanu Francisco.
For a recent pop-up with Kusinera, she made her rendition of sapin-sapin, a rice-based dessert popular throughout Southeast Asia, made with layers of ube, mango, pandan and coconut cheesecake on a latik crust.
In November she worked with Tala to make Balikbayan boxes, which symbolize “the diaspora’s search for prosperity overseas, while maintaining a longing for their family and relatives.” The boxes are often shipped back home for special occasions like Christmas. Nocos created an ice-less version of halo-halo, a typically cold dessert made with crushed ice and topped with condensed milk and various fruits. Her halo-halo were made of a white chocolate and ube shell, stuffed with coconut mousse, saba banana, leche flan, ube halaya, condensed milk and coconut jelly.
“I love doing these collabs and getting Kwento’s exposure that way. I would really love to set up my own shop.”
With work as precarious as ever and uncertainty rampant, Nocos wants to ride things out organically and see how Kwento grows, rather than moving too fast, too soon.
“I’m really happy with the pace that it’s going right now, she says. “It’s a nice, steady and comfortable pace, which is something that I haven’t had before.”