Sliced strawberries in various shades of pink sit symmetrically on the base of strawberry sloffen, a Dutch cake-like cookie with almond paste and topped with buttercream, fresh strawberry and vanilla glaze. Boterkoek, butter cake, is another Dutch confection that Sarah Lisa, who with her husband Vibin Varghese, runs Zera Noya, a Dutch Bakery out of their home in Kadavanthra.
Since the first lockdown was lifted in Kerala last year, the couple has been baking these and other typically Dutch goodies. A lockdown business, Sarah confesses to not being confident when they started out. “I looked around and there are many home bakers in Kochi. My baking is very different, which made me wonder if there would be takers for what I had to offer. I decided to experiment and see what works. I thought I would start by baking a couple of days a week and take it from there. Slowly word spread and orders started pouring in, now we are baking five days a week.” The feedback from her initial customers helped her streamline what works and what does not.
She had, however, decided she would not bake custom cakes with fondant since there were many others doing it in the city. She preferred sticking to natural, rustic confections. The result is a menu of varieties of baked cheesecakes with topping such as fresh fruit, blueberries, strawberries besides chocolate truffles, apple pie and cupcakes. Of these cheesecakes, boterkoek and strawberry sloffen are the bestsellers.
The couple works out of their home at Kadavanthara. They toyed with the idea of a commercial space but have shelved the plan for now as they are expecting their first child early next year. “Customers decide what is available,” she says of how she plans her menu. She custom bakes orders and puts what is left on sale which she announces on their Instagram handle. On weekends she bakes extras that are sold out within minutes of her announcing it.
“I am not a home baker, I was a professional baker who has been baking since I was 16 years old,” she says. She has a degree in baking, “where, as part of my training, I baked five days a week. We never made one apple pie but a 100. As part of the course, one had to work under a senior baker in a bakery who taught you everything.” Sarah, from Dan Belder in the Netherlands, was volunteering on a ship where she met Vibin. She also helped her two American friends set up two cafes in China, where not only did she consult on the setting up of these but also trained employees.
One of the first things that she baked for friends and family was bundt cake for Christmas 2019 which everyone liked. Married in 2018, they moved to the city from Bengaluru the next year. Vibin, a marine engineer, was working with a company in Kakkanad in 2020. He quit the job around the time lockdown was announced. They announced their bakery when lockdown lifted and orders began pouring in. For them this was a new beginning so Sarah called their business Zera Noya (a combination of two Hebrew words, meaning ‘a beautiful beginning’), Dutch Home Bakery.
Her Instagram feed suggests that she has her hands full. She does all the baking herself, Vibin, who has no background in it, chips in how he can. “I have taught him a few things — cream cheese and a some other things. Initially, we were a little stressed, but now we have worked out a system of working together. Those days we were taking orders every day, but we have now scaled down and are able to take a couple of days off. I am okay with the baking it is the communicating and packing that I find hard.”
Her cupcakes topped with bright orange carrots are popular. “It is made of the very Dutch marzipan which I find popular here also. It is made of almond flour, sugar and rose essence. It is also sold as it is back home in the Netherlands. My customers tell me it tastes like the cashew-based kaju katli …”
Did she ever imagine that she would be baking in India of all places when she set out to be a baker? “Not India but I did dream of going to China and I lived there for three years too!” she says laughing.