Busy? I didn't sleep for 3 days

It is the peak period for cookie-maker Olivia Lim.

These days, she can expect little sleep as she pulls all-nighters in the kitchen to churn out orders which run into the thousands.

The longest she has gone without sleep is 72 hours.

"It was the last Chinese New Year. I didn't go home for three days. Instead, I survived on 10-minute naps here and there," says the 37-year-old with a chuckle.

Madam Lim, who owns her own bakery, My Lovebites, on Joo Chiat Road, uses between 75kg and 100kg of butter on average every month. One batch of 12 trays usually requires 1.5kg of butter.

This doubles when festive seasons like Christmas and Chinese New Year roll around.

Aside from her mother, who helps her on a full-time basis, Madam Lim employs a pool of part-time helpers who work on a rotation basis.

But the high volume of orders means that the workload is still heavy.

People who can do the job and don't mind its long hours are few and far between, she points out.

"There seems to be a lack of apprenticeship in the culture here," she laments, adding that many see the glamorous side of baking, but not the grunt work that goes into the preparation.

Many of those who apply for the job are interested in the recipe, but not how to truly master it and understand the principles behind it.

"It takes practice. Even something as seemingly easy as creaming the butter requires proper technique," she says.

The local mindset about baking being a low-end job is something she has to contend with.

"I managed to find someone who was a perfect fit for the job and who attended culinary school, but lost her when her grandmother told her that she was better off going to school to get a degree," she says.

Madam Lim insists her standards are not that stringent, but admits to a long process of trial and error before she perfected all 24 flavours of her cookies.

When the batches did not meet the mark, she gave them to family members and friends.

"They were still edible, but perhaps not good enough in terms of texture, sweetness level, or the amount of punch it packed," she explains.

Madam Lim, who is self-taught, first became exposed to baking in Melbourne, where she was studying for her graduate diploma in journalism some 13 years ago.

Before she opened her own shop, she ran a marketing consultancy with her husband.

"My husband and I are partial to sweet things, so whenever we ate out and I came across a dessert we enjoyed, it would inspire me to re-create it in my baking," she explains.

She began baking from home for a small pool of clients in 2008, before setting up shop in December 2011.

To ensure the freshness of her cookies, she never freezes the dough, but takes the time-consuming and arduous route of making it in small batches.

Body aches and pains which come from standing for 18 hours a day, coupled with dry hands, are par for the course, but they are sacrifices she does not mind.

"When I can do them (the cookies) faster and they look better, that's what motivates me."

There are also job hazards of course, such as smelling like baked goods.

"I get comments from curious taxi uncles when I take a cab home. It isn't an unpleasant smell by any means, but I make sure to take a shower before a night out with my girlfriends," she says with a laugh.

Her efforts are paying off. She has a strong base of loyal customers who do not mind shelling out between $16 and $24 for a 180g pack of cookies.

Bestsellers include salted caramel butter and panjava brulee, which features pandan and organic coconut sugar from Indonesia.

It is all worth it when she hears of customers who order the goodies so that they can send it to friends and family living in the US, UK and Shanghai, among others.

Madam Lim offers a sample bar at her shop, where customers can taste the cookies before buying a bag.

But when they decide to buy new flavours she has launched without trying them first, she is especially gratified.

She seldom has to deal with difficult customers, but her husband does not mince his words when it comes to critiquing her cookies.

"Sometimes he will say that the cookies lack that oomph, or punch. I just take the feedback and tweak or improve it," she says wryly.

Secrets of the trade

1 Ensure that there is a strong supply of coffee close by whenever you need to pull an all-nighter. Siew mais are fast and hands-free, they are great when you don't have time to eat proper meals.

2 A tube of hand moisturiser can also come in handy since you will be doing copious amounts of washing.

3 While you bake, keep tasting at every step of the way. This way, the final product won't be a nasty surprise.


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