▲ Christine Miller bakes and sells an impressive range of edible treats through her Jeju Cakes by Christine home business. Photos by Tracie Barrett, left and bottom right, Lindsey Lynch, top right
Christine Miller’s home kitchen is one part artist’s studio, one part chemistry lab, with a dash of children’s playground and a hearty dusting of fun and creativity. Recently repainted a vivid blue “to match a post-it note,” Christine’s cupboards are covered in hand-written notes listing ingredients and recipes for some of her creations, and her shelves, fridge and freezer are filled with the tools of an inspired baker’s trade. If you’re lucky enough to visit on a baking day, you’ll be met by the irresistible smell of cakes cooking and will probably get to sample some of her sweet treats. You may even find yourself changing into a borrowed T-shirt and helping to sculpt babies out of fondant, as this writer did recently.
As an English teacher and PhD candidate at Jeju National University, one might think that Christine would have more than enough work to keep her days full. But she loves to bake and, with a little help from her friends, at the beginning of May turned her hobby into a small home bakery business – Jeju Cakes by Christine. The menu on her Facebook page has an impressive list of cakes, cupcakes, muffins, cookies, pies, brownies and bars, along with rave reviews from customers, most of whom keep coming back for more.
Christine came to Jeju in 2002, “before the World Cup,” and initially intended her visit to be a one-year sabbatical from studying law at South Texas College of Law in Houston. “When I was looking to go overseas, I thought ‘Korea looks nice and they have an island that looks nice,’” she said. She fully intended to return to Texas and her law degree but near the end of her first year went on a blind date arranged by her colleagues and met the man she has since married, Lee Bang Won (Joe). The couple lives in a small house in Ara-dong where Christine bakes and deco-rates her edible artworks, which she or Joe then delivers. Cooking was also a family affair in her hometown in the Rio Grande Valley. “My mother was a home economics teacher for 30- something years,” she said, “so I just grew up baking.”
Sourcing Western-style ingredients and cookware can be difficult in Korea, and even more so on Jeju Island. “It’s a matter of luck, vague online searches in Korean and friends finding places that are obscure and have a few things I need. But mainly online,” she said. She reads, writes and speaks Korean so is able to negotiate the Korean Web sites well, her favorite being yum.co.kr. And when she can’t get a particular ingredient, such as strawberry gelatin to make strawberry cake, she creates her own recipe to work with what is available.
She averages four or five baking orders most weeks, but that can fluctuate wildly. “This week is crazy,” she said in mid-July when interviewed. “This week I have …,” she paused, counting on her fingers, “I’m baking 15 cakes this week.” That number increased to 17 cakes and a pie when she was asked to do some last-minute orders for friends.
Robin Edmunds and her husband, Simon, have been purchasing from Christine since soon after she started the business and are ardent fans of both the cakes and the cook. Robin said they had been browsing the Web site and looking for an opportunity to order and decided the 6-month celebration for their daughter, Noa, was the ideal justification. For a party at Noa’s daycare, Robin ordered three dozen cupcakes in strawberry, vanilla and chocolate flavors, iced “in brilliant colors with flowers and butterflies.” Only three of the cupcakes made it back to the family’s home and they were almost the cause of “our first argument,” Robin said, as Simon thought she should have saved more.
She ordered a “Mama’s Secret Chocolate and Cheesecake Swirl Cake” for Simon for his first Father’s Day, and when they both celebrated birthdays within days of each other in July, a second “Mama’s Secret” for him and a “Deep-Dish Pumpkin Pie” for her were part of Christine’s big baking week.
Robin said Jeju Cakes by Christine fills a niche in the market perfectly as Korean baked goods are disappointing to many foreigners. Christine’s flexibility and knowledge of her product was impressive, Robin said. “She’s willing to work with you if you want to tweak her recipes a bit.”
Christine endeavors not to eat many sweets herself but practices new recipes before offering them to customers and tests all her creations. “You have to sample things you bake to be sure they taste good, and if something turns out bad I will not sell it,” she said.
The rapidly growing following her baking has on the island and further afield (the mother of an American working here ordered a cake for his birthday over the Internet) is proof that her high standards are appreciated by those fortunate enough to taste the results.
Jeju Cakes by Christine 010-6605-6288 www.facebook.com/jejucakes
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