Profile: Shareeda Morrison, The Fugitive Baker
I made the trek to Bukit Panjang one especially sunny day to meet the lady behind The Fugitive Baker. She lives in a part of Singapore that I am altogether completely unfamiliar with much like my knowledge about the various dietary requirements of the customers that The Fugitive Baker caters for. The baking Goddess behind this one woman show is Shareeda Morrison. A lecturer in Advertising at Ngee Ann Polytechnic by profession, her name Shareeda means ‘Fugitive’ in Arabic, hence the clever moniker of The Fugitive Baker.
I’m visiting Shareeda in her cosy home-slash-baking studio that faces a lush wall of forested greenery. I was immediately taken by the massive wall of books (biographies, fiction, religious tomes, recipe books, local literature) and hard bounded periodicals that line the living room; this is a family of readers. This is also a family that dines together often as evidenced by the sizeable dining table where this interview was held. “We are a food family. When we were kids, our dining table was much bigger. My whole family is into food and cooking. I remember my mum used to bake all our birthday cakes.”
Shareeda is a baker with a niche. She has carved a name for herself as the go-to home baker for customers who require cakes and desserts that are either gluten-free, vegan, nut free, casein-free, halal or a combination of any of the options. But her baking career did not begin with this vocation of inclusivity.
“The Fugitive Baker started as a hobby in between careers after I left work in the Advertising industry," she explains. "It has always been an interest. Initially, when I first started it, it wasn’t catered to the vegan or gluten-free clientele. It was just normal colourful cupcakes with unique ingredients as fillings. It was only in 2015, that I started getting requests from mums who were looking for specific cakes for their kids who were allergic to dairy, eggs, or nuts, and couldn’t find a baker who could accede to their children’s dietary requirement.”
Not that there is a complete and utter void of baking establishments that cater to the various dietary requirements. But there is a cost pegged to providing such specialised services; a cost I would like to refer to as ‘The Inclusive Premium’. It makes much economical sense. Due to a high demand and an opposing supply, it comes as to no surprise why vegan cakes can cost almost double that of its normal counterpart. “A lot of vegan cake options in Singapore is overpriced,” Shareeda shared, “maybe they think that price is justified because it’s a specialised service but a lot of the ingredients that go into making these cakes can be found at your usual supermarkets; NTUC, Mustafa Centre. I felt I could fill in the gap and offer my bakes at reasonable prices that people are willing to pay for.”
Gluten is a divisive, naturally occurring protein composite found in grain. Wheat is the most well-known gluten source alongside rye, barley and spelt. Unless you are a sufferer of Celiac disease, consumption of Gluten is completely safe. However, for others, their bodies reject Gluten and induce inflammation and other digestive issues that throws their system off balance.
It’s hard to take people who say they’re Gluten sensitive seriously especially when, thrown in the mix of actual sufferers, are individuals whose Gluten-free lifestyle choice is just that: a choice. There’s also a pervasive glamorization for the alternative in a climate of celebrity idolization; if a Kardashian sister decides to go Keto, there will be a group of fans also adopting the Keto diet with barely an understanding of what it is. People who adopt a Gluten-free diet for anything other than medical, are directly putting the lives of a select population at risk when restaurants and chefs dismiss their dietary concerns for nothing more than a passing fancy.
Shareeda knows this. She knows her job is not just to create amazing cakes for a celebration. She understands the responsibilities that come with the role she plays in this niche industry of inclusive baking. But throughout this interview, it seems that nothing could faze her. Her cheery disposition and laugh lines are probably the two things that are keeping her focused and motivated even when inundated with a plethora of requests and specific ingredient substitutions.
Having tried my hands at baking, there are a lot of ingredients and precise measurements that go into the final product that defines (structurally or otherwise) its normal convention. Take away 10 grams from butter and the cake turns out vastly different than what it should be. Substitute brown sugar for cane sugar and your cookies literally change colour. Unfortunately, every single ingredient that goes into making a cake is an utter nightmare for those who are vegan or gluten intolerant.
“Milk is difficult,” Shareeda shares.
“A common substitution for dairy milk is Almond milk. But if the child has an allergy to nuts, then that won’t work and I would have to use other types of milk like Rice or Quinoa. I even have customers will ask me to send over a detailed ingredients list including the brands I use for their own peace of mind.”
She spoke very candidly about how some customers are particular about a certain brand she uses for butter, or that they prefer coconut sugar and not other types of artificial sweetener. “If they’re not comfortable with a particular brand, they will recommend another option. But I’m okay with doing that. Knowing that I could put somebody’s health at risk, I’m perfectly fine with accommodating to ingredients swap so long as the customer can eat it without any worry or concern.”
Non-bakers cannot even begin to understand how vexatious this can be. Bakers work with a set recipe that churns out the perfect cake each time. But for Shareeda, that recipe is merely a canvas with which she is free to improvise and change according to the dietary requirements she is catering to. Surely, that must take a lot of guts. “It makes me feel good,” she adds “because I’m making something people don’t know how to make, for a celebration that means a lot to them.”
Her baking experiences are not without its fair share of worry, failures and eventual learning: “There was a cake I did two weeks ago, and three times the cake collapsed in the oven. And this was using a recipe from an established online forum. It just wasn’t working. I had a deadline to meet, and I have a day job. So the night before, I was a complete wreck.
“Some home bakers, they will use a box mix and then use additional ingredients to strengthen the cake. Especially when you need a structured cake and you need the cake to be stronger. But I can’t fall back on that for vegan options, so I just have to pray that I have enough ingredients for backup.”
It’s easy to see how much joy baking brings to Shareeda and how much love she infuses into the creation of every cake that comes out of her oven. “I used to struggle with requests from customers for the cake to not be too sweet. To me, a cake is a dessert! It should be sweet!”, she exclaims with a rambunctious laugh.
For many, what Shareeda provides is an option other bakers eschew. In her mission to do something she truly loves, Shareeda stumbled upon a higher calling than what she originally intended. And if that can make a child’s birthday more festive (and safe), then that’s exactly what she would continue to do.