Anyone who has attended a few parties in and around north west London over the past few years is sure to have noticed some pretty distinctive looking cakes.
Danielle O’Toole is the woman behind the intricate icing character cakes that have graced many a birthday celebration, as well as extremely elegant styles for weddings, christenings and communions.
Having returned home from travelling four years ago the 28-year-old got an itching for baking and now fits her cake-making business around a full time team leader role for a local housing association.
Originally schooled in Willesden, but now based in Watford, Danielle’s parents hail from Cork and Waterford and her father believes his skills as a carpenter have influenced the steady hand of his daughter.
“It takes up so much time and I just think it suits my personality. I’m just very meticulous and wouldn’t notice spending hours upon hours making something look right whereas another person might be driven mad and give up!,” she says.
“My dad says that I get it from him because being a carpenter he’s good with his hands and has that same patience in sticking with something until it looks right.”
For what started as a hobby, Danielle’s business has picked up massively over the past two years through word of mouth and through social media photos.
“I’m really busy considering I don’t really advertise, I do at least one to two that are delivered every weekend at the moment. That’s about all I can manage while working full time so I haven’t really advertised since then.
“I can’t really remember how it all came about. When I was younger me and my brother were really into baking, and Mum used to give out to us that we’d be making the kitchen such a mess! I wasn’t ever particularly into food tech or art at school but I just all of a sudden developed a passion for cakes.
“I couldn’t keep affording that so I began to teach myself from cookery books and YouTube. Those videos online are amazing – you learn so much.
“Then it was a friend’s birthday so I brought some as a present, and another girl there asked me to do some for a party she was having soon and it just went from there!”
The community around north west London is what has allowed her business to grow, and has provided ample opportunity for her to expand her business.
“When we were younger having 18th and 21st birthday parties, there’s only really one bakery that everyone would go to. Their stuff is nice, but not amazing and really really expensive, and with the amount of parties and church events in the Irish community around here I have definitely seen that there is a gap in the market for cake-making.
“There’s nowhere else for people to go really.
“I’ve spoken to quite a few bakers and most people now work from home, because the overheads far outweigh how much money you would be making. Whereas if you do it from home you cut costs and as well as making it more convenient for people as I will call to them it also gives it a nicer, more personal touch.”
And not only do the intricate cakes get the thumbs up visually, the taste has also ensured that Danielle gets more and more calls from happy customers and their friends.
“Every time I drop off a cake I get such a buzz from their reaction once they’ve seen it. It’s weird as when I first talk about what they want I picture the idea in my head immediately so it’s nice that they can see the finished product as how I visualised it.
“But then again the feedback on the taste is what keeps customers coming back. Sometimes cakes look amazing but the taste doesn’t match and it’s great when people tells me it tastes as good as it looks.
“People are always like, ‘oh it’s so moist, it’s lovely’. I don’t get it though, it’s very hard to make a dry cake!”
Her baking skills also mean she has been a bigger part of some life events of her friends.
“I was at a baby shower a couple of weeks ago and my present was the cakes which is handy for me, but also handy for the person involved as they don’t have to worry about it. Then I make cake gifts for my Mum to give out at work, but the best was when one of my best friends got married.
“She just had complete confidence in me to do what she wanted, and it’s one of my favourite cakes that I ever done because I done it to represent what I thought she would like. It is definitely one of the nicer aspects that you can be so involved in what is a huge thing for a friend and a bride!
“Sometimes people question price but they don’t understand the amount of extra work that goes into spending time on producing a quote. Taking time to visit and talk with the client. Then I’m baking and cutting up and decorating every evening. Sourcing bits and pieces and travelling to the cake shop and supermarkets. Then there’s tidying up the kitchen each evening and delivering it!
“You’ve got to love it, if it’s something you want to do you have to be prepared that you may not have much of a social life as it takes so much dedication.
“I would never ever present something I wasn’t 100 per cent happy with even if it means having to stay up all night perfecting it. I think that’s how you get a good reputation as people can see I’ve given it my all rather than just a slap dash thing I decided to do on a Wednesday evening.”
And what about the future?
“I would love to be doing it full time but it’s something we’ll just have to see how it goes. At some point I’m going to have to make a decision as I won’t be able to fit it in anymore with work and that, and I hope to buy my own flat soon so that will make things easier.
“But ultimately it is my dream to have it as my main job. To be your own boss would be a massive responsibility as you really are in charge of your income and life. It may sound bad but if you can’t be bothered at work, you’re still going to get paid before they eventually tell you to leave! You have to push yourself when you’re in charge and hopefully that’s where I’m heading.
“My friends are always saying that they are going to enter me into the Great British Bake Off too! But I would be no good whatsoever at the bread or savoury rounds. I love watching the cake and sweet bits but then I get bored when they start making pies and stuff!”
And what advice would Danielle give to any budding bakers?
“It’s not hard, you just have the confidence to have a go and practice. I’ve made everything so many times now I might be a bit more slap dash with the measures as I know what I’m doing.
“But stay away from cake mixes – they are terrible! I tried one once as they had a massive Victoria bag in Macro and thought I’d give it a go. I can’t describe what it tasted like, but it was definitely nothing like a Victoria sponge!
“You can get all these little boxes in the supermarket for carrot cake and whatnot, but it is so easy and more rewarding to just get a recipe, measure it and make it from scratch!”
To see more of Danielle’s cakes check out our gallery below, or see her Facebook page: Dotty D’s Cakes