Joanna: The Baking Lawyer

This is story 5 of 10 of LoveYourzStory’s Creatives Series. I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of getting to know 11 individuals who are passionate about creating. It was interesting to learn where each individual drew their inspiration from. I wanted to shift the attention on other Creatives and tell their stories on what motivates and excites them in their respective field. Thank you to everyone who participated in this series! – Marinelle Cabillo, LoveYourzStory

Joanna may be a lawyer by profession, but that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t get down in the kitchen. For the most part, she’s a self-taught baker who enjoys making baked goods for all the people around her. Baking is Joanna’s happy place. When she first meets people, she tells them that she bakes and they’ll usually reply with, “Oh, me too!” But Joanna makes it a point to clarify no, she “baaaaakesss.” She humbly admits that her baking skills are not quite up to par with professionals, but her improved skills throughout the years has put her baked goods well passed just good enough to eat. In other words, Joanna is not your regular-shmegular “I bake for fun” out of the store bought box baker.

Joanna’s introduction to baking started at a young age. She remembers being in the kitchen around 6 years old, helping her aunts bake bread for the family. Her Aunt Carmen and Aunt Lilia sparked Joanna’s baking curiosity since they were always baking and would try their best to incorporate Joanna in the process. Aunt Carmen baked traditional pastries like dinner rolls, chiffon cakes, and butter cookies. Aunt Lilia was more adventurous with her baking and took it upon herself to watch the Food Network channel and bought tons of cookbooks to switch it up. Joanna has fond memories of measuring out the flour for their recipes and playing with the dough right before they popped it into the oven to bake.

Joanna was about 8-9 years old when she baked by herself for the first time. Her cousin used to make lemon cupcakes with her sister and the whole family loved them. So Joanna was inspired to try out her own lemon cupcake recipe. In the end, the cupcakes were edible and “nothing too special.” But her parents wanted to encourage her to bake more, so they hyped her up and overexaggerated how good her lemon cupcakes were. She realizes now as an adult what her parents did, but at the time being 8-9 years old and baking solo for the first time, Joanna took the compliments proudly!

For the most part, Joanna considers herself a self-taught baker. The most education she has for baking and cooking were 3 years of summer classes. She attended these classes from around 9-12 years old during the summers. Joanna’s mom put her in a lot of extracurricular activities growing up, and baking is the one hobby that stuck with her. She continued on with baking even outside of the class, and it seemed to be her leisure activity by choice. Her fondest memories growing up wouldn’t be the act of baking or cooking, but watching her family and friends eat and see what she had made for them.

“Of all of the activities that my mom put me through when I was young, mind you, I was a nerd, I had piano, violin, art classes, extra classes for random subjects over summer, baking was the one that really stuck,” Joanna shared. “It was something I would want to do even if no one asked.”

When Joanna was young, she always wanted to bake, but she also always wanted to be a lawyer. When she graduated with her bachelor’s degree, she asked her mom for advice whether she should go to culinary school or to law school. Mom’s advice was to go for the profession that is more financially secure, and the obvious answer was to pursue law school. Joanna believes her mom’s advice was due to the Filipino-Chinese culture – thinking baking and cooking is a natural hobby that does not need formal education. Especially being from Cebu, Philippines, where the market is “thrifty” compared to Manila. So, Joanna took her mom’s advice and went on to law school.

Joanna wasn’t bummed that her mom encouraged her to go to law school because she always wanted to be a lawyer anyways. She knew that her other love, baking, would always be there and it just depended on her to make time for it. When Joanna first started law school, she didn’t have much time to bake since she had to read so many cases, books, laws, and study. But she would make it a point to make time to bake for special occasions like her parents’ birthdays. She’s the kind of person that likes to plan ahead, so she would throw her future self a bone and made sure she always had ingredients ready at home so whenever she would have free time, she could bake right away. Joanna graduated from law school in 2021, prepped for the bar exam, and now, she’s officially a lawyer!

“I didn’t have to sacrifice my time for school for baking because baking wasn’t something I had to do, it was more of something I could do during my free time,” Joanna said.

To get her to where she is today, Joanna would just kept tweaking a recipe until it was to her satisfaction. She usually follows recipes from online or cookbooks. What she usually tweaks is the sugar content, since she grew up baking for diabetics, and with time, makes the recipe her own. She will try a recipe 3 times, and after the third time, if she can’t crack the code, she respectfully throws in the towel on that recipe and admits that she can’t make it. This doesn’t happen too often because Joanna already knows her niche, cookies!

Joanna’s all time favorite thing to make are cookies! Cookies are her personal favorite, and tops her love for cakes and cupcakes. She jokes that there’s something about cookies that have a special hold on her that other baked goods will never have. Joanna believes it’s due to the fact that a cookie is already complete in itself – no need for extra icing or fillings, has the perfect amount of sweetness and flavor, and there’s no beating the texture of being crispy and chewy all at the same time.

Joanna is very particular when she’s motivated to bake. She literally has to set the mood for herself for the atmosphere to be just right. She needs it to be a calm place, and doesn’t want anyone to bother her. Joanna doesn’t like when people watch her or talk to her when she’s baking, so she prefers to be alone. She truly enjoys her calm, quiet, solitary time to herself. Joanna laughs that she will play music in the background, which is the only noise that is acceptable in her kitchen! And when she’s in the zone, she’s IN THE ZONEEE. So much so that she knows her favorite part about baking is the mixing process. To Joanna, there’s nothing more satisfying than watching the batter or dough transform into another texture – wet to dry, crumby to smooth, vice versa.

Joanna is known for different signature baked goods depending on who you’re talking to. Her friends adore her cookies, while her family and other relatives go crazy for her buko pie. “Buko” in Tagalog translates to coconut, but it’s a “young coconut,” meaning it is still green and not fully matured. Currently, Joanna is only taking orders from people she knows. Her friends have recommended her to other people for special cake projects, but she hasn’t accepted those kind of commissions just yet because 2 tiered cakes are a bit too complex for her, but she hopes to one day take them on. For now, she just showcases her work mainly on Instagram stories and the occasional post on her profile. She laughs that it’s probably better that way because her tiny oven can’t handle that many commissions at a time!

There are times when baking goes according to plan, and then there are times where everything that can go wrong, goes wrong. When she was younger and things didn’t turn out the way she wanted in the kitchen, she would end up crying. Now as an adult, she gets really mad, to the point where her whole day would feel ruined. She will avoid anyone that would ask or bring up the topic of her recent kitchen disaster. But when everything goes right on a recipe, Joanna has about 10 minutes of bliss and awe. But she admits that the bliss is very short lived, because after that, she’s back to scrutinizing everything she should’ve done to make it faster, more efficient, or overanalyzing every detail, looking for a “mistake.” It’s true that the biggest critic is sometimes yourself.

The pros to Joanna being so hard on herself, is that she always finds the best process, a new technique, and learns something new that will help her in the future, especially when it comes to decorating. She gets her inspiration from Instagram, Pinterest, and really enjoyed Christina Tosi’s Chef’s Table episode on Netflix because she was the most relatable – baking, cookies, nothing too fancy, and lots of colors. Her creativity is always tested when it comes to decorating because there’s so many possibilities that one can create. So to narrow it down, Joanna always tries to go into it with a goal of what to design – preparing a picture, watching YouTube videos to see how to make those designs, and everything else that comes with prep.

“When it comes to the actual recreating of the design, it’s really something else, so many other factors you have to consider – heat in the Philippines, stability of the icing, color palette, piping skills,” Joanna shared when it comes to decorating with a plan. “So I’d really have to think on my feet when things don’t go according to plan. I would just adjust and adjust until I would actually get the hang of it.”

The Philippines’ heat makes it very challenging to decorate. Joanna describes it as a nightmare for an at home baker. There’s so many things to consider when you’re baking and decorating in a really hot area. Not only do you have to work faster because the heat of the environment, but the baker radiates their own heat as well – the warmth of their hands when they’re holding the piping bags. The heat also effects laminating dough and takes a longer time. And a big issue with the heat is how fast some ingredients spoil from being in rooms without air-conditioning.

Joanna finds decorating pies to be the most challenging to decorate. Again, the heat in the Philippines factors into the result of the products. So for pies, it can really be a guessing game of how to get it right. It’s either the dough is too cold, which makes it difficult to roll out and work with, or it’s too soft and shrinks in the oven and considered “overworked dough” which then needs to be rested. Decorating has tested Joanna’s patience in every way, and the thing that she has learned while decorating in the Philippines is to have lots of patience and versatility.

With all those challenges and road blocks, Joanna still manages to push out beautiful pieces out of her kitchen. Her favorite edible creation she has ever made was a birthday cake she made for her grandma. She made a main cake and tons of cupcakes for everyone else with flower decorations. When they were all displayed together, it looked like a garden. Joanna was so proud of what she created, especially since it was the first time she did a flower arrangement cake and cupcake duo.

One day, Joanna hopes to open her own little baking spot, but the thought of it is still intimidating to her. She knows that going down that route will be a lot of investment and competition. A big part of her wants to have a small shop at home which would lessen the costs of having a storefront and would keep the investment to equipment and labor. Realistically, Joanna knows that having a bakery by just word of mouth means that the products have to be amazing to compensate for the fact that the products are not always readily available. She doesn’t think that that’s too far fetched given that her aunt has given her the best compliment that she has ever received to date. Her aunt always tells her that her pastries taste better than a friend’s, who is a professional baker and went to culinary school.

Joanna appreciates everyone that has supported her on her baking journey. Her aunts were her first teachers and introduced her to the baking life. They would encourage her to sell muffins to their employees for snack, and she would bake every Saturday. Her parents, relatives, and friends have been her faithful customers and consumers of everything she made. One of Joanna’s cousins used to have a restaurant and would buy cookies from her every weekend so she could sell it at her shop. This encouraged Joanna to keep doing what she loved.

Joanna laughs and says that baking has taught her how to be really good at math. She does pretty good at math and attributes it to her love of baking because of all the fractions and measurements that go into baking a simple recipe, but also the conversions if you want to make more than one batch or downsize. But of course, baking has taught her how to be patient. Joanna describes baking as a guessing game where you’re unsure if the product is good or not until the very end. Unlike cooking, you can’t really taste and flavor as you go.

Ironically, Joanna tends to shy away from making Filipino baked goods. She doesn’t know if it’s the technique or the ingredients, but she just can’t seem to get it down. There is one exception though – her buko pie! But other than her buko pie, Joanna admits that she’d rather buy Filipino baked goods because she humbly admits that her dupes can’t compete. However, she is super motivated to learn more about Japanese and French baking. She admires how Japanese baking is very complex presentation wise, but flavor wise is very subtle and complete, while French baking is very complex and full of butter!

Joanna mastered her signature baked goods with consistent practice and the drive to keep creating for leisure. Her advice to anyone out there trying to get into baking or is feeling discouraged after trying different recipes is this “It’s really a matter of practice. The first bakes are not necessarily the best unless you fall under the exception. There are moments of disappointments and tears but do not let them sway you from doing what you love.”