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Sunday Vibes

Graduate sisters turn to baking during the pandemic and hit the sweet spot!

THERE'S something utterly engaging about the two smiling young women on the screen of my laptop. "Hiiii!" they chorus together, their grins wide. From the moment sisters Puravina and Loshinie Periasamy appear online, to the moment they enter a mind-melded comedy state, two and a half minutes have elapsed. There's barely time for hellos and niceties before they were regaling me with anecdotes about growing up together and mock fighting in front of me.

"Could you type your names and ages on the chat box?" I try to slide my instructions in between the giggling. First things first: I've got to get their names right. Loshinie starts typing almost immediately while Puravina looks over her shoulder.

"You're spelling my name wrong!" points out Puravina suddenly, before wailing: "Loshinieeee, you don't know how to spell my name or what?!" Then comes the giggling again. Ah, sisters. "Who's older?" I ask curiously. Puravina raises her hand. "By just one year!" she points out blithely.

The girls aren't entirely unfamiliar to me. Those toothy wide grins are inherited from their mum, who used to be a schoolmate of mine a lifetime ago. We lost touch over the years, but eventually found each other once again, thanks in some measure to Facebook.

"My daughters have started their own home-based business," wrote their mother on a women entrepreneurs networking platform one day. With the normal barriers to starting a business gone and the usual pressures of the marketplace scrambled, a wonderful, desperate creativity has flourished in her daughters' kitchen.

Interest in baking surged during the Covid-19 pandemic, in part because it's a comforting activity that one can do alone without leaving the house. And as millions of young people found themselves marooned inside and at home, the sisters' newfound interest inevitably culminated into a homegrown business called Second Scoop Desserts.

Whether furloughed, experiencing redundancy, working from home or simply re-evaluating career choices, Puravina and Loshinie decided this was the time to take the plunge.

After all, their mother's faith in them was rock solid. "Their cheesecakes are really delicious," the older woman gushes. She's their biggest cheerleader, staunchest supporter, and fervent marketeer on social media.

"I'd like to interview your daughters," I had dropped Subathra (their mother) a message on Facebook. That was all it took. I soon began fielding a barrage of questions from their (very anxious) mother.

What would you be interested in writing about? she'd asked me. Their business journey? How they evolved from being graduates to bakers? How they sustain their business? "Just leave it to me!" I replied a little tersely, half-amused and half-exasperated at the same time.

Where's your mother? I ask the girls later during our Zoom call. "Oh, she's here! Hiding in the corner! Maaaa! Come here!" Puravina calls out, laughing uproariously. My sheepish looking friend emerges from the corner, smiling and waving.

"She's been so stressed for our sakes!" explains Puravina, shaking her head. The girls chortle again. Mothers. They just can't help themselves, I observe wryly. We break into another round of hearty laughter.

SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS

Mum has been their biggest support, they acknowledge. She believed in them from the get-go, and didn't bat an eyelid when they finally decided to throw themselves into baking to make ends meet. Like legions of others around the world stuck in coronavirus lockdown, the Sentul natives began baking several months ago to escape unrelenting boredom.

The sisters had big dreams pre-pandemic. Puravina, a law graduate, was well on her way to sit for her Certificate of Legal Practice (CLP) examination while Loshinie, who had just successfully completed her degree in Chemical Engineering, was hoping to secure a good job.

The coronavirus threw a spanner in their plans indefinitely. With the postponement of the CLP qualifying exams to 2022, Puravina found herself on an unusually long hiatus.

In the meantime, the job market had gotten worse as closures and cancellations ripple across the economy. "I felt stuck," she confesses, before adding: "I couldn't move forward with my plans and couldn't get a job either."

For Loshinie, the disappointment of experiencing an abrupt ending to her studies was keenly felt. "I never got to have a convocation ceremony or wear the regalia," she says wistfully.

"We had plans and all of them upended," she continues, adding: "I had a loose idea of what I was going to be doing in a few months. And now I find myself looking into the void."

Baking was initially an escape. Loshinie confides that it has helped her feel productive and deal with stress. "It was a good exercise in mindfulness and a distraction from thinking about the world. So, in those ways it certainly eased some anxiety," she shares.

But the lull didn't last long. "I mean, we had bills to pay!" exclaims Puravina, shrugging her shoulders. The two sisters had moved out of their mother's condominium into their own home recently.

"Of course, we can't stay too far away as much as we would've liked to!" she adds tongue-in-cheek, throwing a mischievous glance at her mother, who's quietly sitting out of the camera's view. "Mum lives on a different floor with my grandmother, so she's here most of the time to keep an eye on us!"

Why move then? The sisters glance at each other sheepishly. "We wanted our independence," replies Loshinie finally. "… and space! AND to not be driven up the wall by my mother and grandmother!" chimes in Puravina, grinning.

It came with a price of course. The young women would have to find a source of income to help with the rent and the bills. "We figured, why not try our hand at baking?" she adds.

After all, setting up a small food business wasn't a new idea. Puravina had started a small catering business with a friend back when she was studying law in Wales. "Our profits went towards our summer trip that year," she tells me gleefully.

They had a new oven, albeit a small one, which may not have been the ideal gadget for starting a full-fledged business. But this is a pandemic and everyone is doing their best with what they have.

As it happened, they turned out to be very good at it.

TRIAL AND ERROR

"Oh no, we didn't become experts all at once!" says Loshinie dismissively. "I mean, I taught myself the rudiments of baking a burnt cheesecake through YouTube videos." Most of their recipes had been sourced that way, they tell me.

This also inevitably led to some disasters in the kitchen. A common feature of YouTube cooking videos is their specificity: they often tackle a single technique, rather than a whole dish.

You have to cobble together your own recipe from a number of separate tutorials. "We realised that after a several failed attempts at making whipped cream," admits Loshinie with a chuckle.

They couldn't understand why the recipe wasn't working. "The first time we made it was a total failure. It split so badly and turned into this watery mess with clumps of curdled cream," she recalls, shaking her head. "I had followed the recipe so closely but I was well and truly whipped when it came to the whipped cream!"

Several different tutorials and some googling later, they finally found a method that worked. "We realised that we had to tweak the recipes if we wanted to make them work. We were following tutorials from temperate countries with different temperatures and climates that would affect the outcome of the baking. We found we had to do our own research as well," says Loshinie.

"The key was to just keep trying and trying until we had it figured out!" chips in Puravina, chuckling. Eventually they found their sweet spot. Their first product was the Burnt Basque cheesecake.

At first glance, Burnt Basque cheesecake almost looks like a savoury raclette or a scorched Portuguese tart. But cut through the scorched, blackened top layer to reveal a gooey centre of cream cheese, sugar, eggs and cream that oozes out like slow-moving molten lava. With a solid recipe in hand, the girls decided to put their new-found plan to action.

"We figured that it was time to stop talking about getting into business and to simply start it anyway. Our first customers were our family members, of course!" recalls Loshinie, and the response was encouraging.

The cheesecakes were a hit with family and close friends. Yet not everyone took their business venture seriously. Mum was the quintessential Pollyanna. "She told us, 'Go for it!'. That's mum for you. She's the eternal, sunshiny optimist who wants us to be happy. But Appa on the other hand…" Her voice trails off, as she shakes her head.

"Dad still thinks it's a hobby," she continues wryly. "I'm very sure that in his mind, he thinks it's a phase we're going through until we get 'real' jobs that we spent years studying for!"

The irony is that, adds Puravina with a wide grin, they had inherited their father's entrepreneurial spirit. "He left his well-paying job as an IT manager to do business. He started a textile shop in Sungai Petani and eventually opened another branch in Nibong Tebal. He literally had zero experience in business but decided to take the plunge anyway. Fast forward many years later and we're doing the same thing!" The 26-year-old throws her head back and laughs heartily.

OF PASSION AND FRIENDSHIP

"Do you girls consider this a hobby?" I ask them. Loshinie, 25, is aghast at that thought. "A hobby shouldn't require this much work," she sputters before adding: "This IS hard work and it's tiring! It shouldn't stress you out and make you doubt yourself. Is the customer happy? Will they give you a good review?"

No, she reiterates, it's NOT a hobby. "It also helps pay the bills. A hobby can't do that!" chips in Puravina grinning. They're here for the long haul, insist the girls. Of course, this also means that the sisters would have to work closely together.

It's not a problem now, they say, but it hadn't always been the case growing up. "We could never get along as children," confesses Puravina. "That's putting it mildly," murmurs Loshinie, eyes rolling.

Their childhood was idyllic but their relationship was — well — wasn't.

Angry footsteps upstairs. Screams. "I hate you!" Slam. Fists, on a bedroom door. Then, inevitably, the unified shriek: "MAAAA!" That was the soundtrack of the years when they were growing up, shared a bedroom and fought like caged tigers. "We'd ignore each other at school. We were forever at loggerheads right up to our university days!" recalls Loshinie, adding: "We fought about everything — clothes, food, even shoes!"

Their teachers at school never knew they were siblings, reveals Puravina. Pointing at her younger sister, she continues: "My sister was the nerd, the teacher's pet. I was the exact opposite! We had our own friends and we gave each other a wide berth."

Loshinie grins in response, replying: "At least we get along now, thank goodness!"

What has changed now? I ask. "Well, we grew up!" replies Puravina with a laugh. "We had a lot of ups and downs. But if it's a chart, we are constantly moving up, even though there are dips along the way," she continues, adding: "The longer we've been together the better things have gotten. We're lucky because we've grown with each other. We are not the same people we were five or 10 years ago."

The mostly online business works for them because they get along well now. "I don't think we'd have gone far if it wasn't for the fact that we were a lot closer to each other," admits Loshinie, smiling.

From cheesecakes, cheese platters to mousse jars, their products are slowly garnering a small but steady stream of clientele. "We're constantly researching on what's new out there and what's trending, and based on that, we try to come up with a new recipe!" explains Loshinie.

The sisters take turns to do the baking with Puravina overseeing the production during the weekdays, and Loshinie taking over on weekends. The latter had recently got a job as a chemist in Klang.

There's no looking back for the duo. Their seat-of-the-pants operation is nimble, adaptable, highly creative and tiny. And that's been their biggest selling point so far. "We're always ready to innovate and we're open to suggestions," remarks Loshinie. Even when it comes from interfering but well-meaning mums? I tease, and they break into laughter again.

"Mum has given some pretty good suggestions!" points out Loshinie. When there was a glut of seasonal fruits like cempedak, Subathra suggested that the bakers come up with a cempedak Burnt Basque cheesecake.

"That experiment turned out so well that we included this flavour in our menu!" she adds, eyes sparkling. "Mum has been so supportive and inspirational. She's never short of ideas and suggestions!"

They plan to grow the business eventually. According to the girls, they are hoping to supply their baked goods to small cafes and bakeries in due course. "Eventually, we want to open our own cafe," shares Puravina dreamily. Big plans, indeed.

If they've learnt anything in the pandemic, it's the fact that there's a growing audience is out there, eager to try whatever they dream up next. "What we've seen over the past 10 months or so is there's obviously a demand for dessert," says Loshinie.

Continuing, she admits with a contented smile: "I've never been able to be this creative in my life. I feel really proud of myself that I've stepped out of my comfort zone."

And they have their parents to thank for that. "We've got the best of both worlds," continues Puravina, adding: "We have our father's love of business and our mum's never say die attitude. It has given us this second wind to chase after our dreams while doing something we love. What more can we ask for?"

Well, I'd like a second scoop of that!

SECOND SCOOP DESSERTS

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