CAKE-maker Lee Mahjen-Todd can’t remember a time before she could cook – although the perfect Yorkshire pudding still eludes her.

The daughter of a Geordie mother and Croatian father, Lee set up her cake-designing business, Fondant and Apron Strings, in 2014, after a varied career which saw her take on roles such as counsellor and lecturer.

The mother-of-two, who lives with her family in Weardale, explains: “All my life I’ve been able to cook, or so it seems. Both my parents were great cooks, although no matter how much my mother tried, she could not - no matter the recipe - make scones. This was something I made sure I perfected early on in my cooking career, although the art of fully risen Yorkshire puddings is still something that I work hard to achieve.”

Food was part of Lee’s life from a young age, evoking memories from her own parents’ childhoods and forming an integral part of her own.

“With a working mother who learnt to cook and bake at her mother’s knee, and

a coal-mining father, who spent part of his youth in a German concentration camp where food meant survival, plus three older sisters, it seemed perfectly reasonable that we all knew how to cook,” she recalls. “I can honestly say that necessity and my parents were my first inspirations. It was either cook everything from scratch or go hungry.

“It seems to me that I’ve always been cooking for others, but my first cooking memory was with my mother; she would spend all day on Sundays, baking pies, quiche and rice pudding – and, of course, the pastry was always made from scratch.”

Indeed, it was her mother’s leftovers that provided Lee with her first baking attempts, using the spare pastry to come up with her own creations.

“There’s always a little bit left at the end,” she explains. “I call this the ‘nobbly bit’ and it’s a treasured titbit that I give to the lovely Mr G - my endlessly understanding husband and chief taster. When I was little, the ‘nobbly bit’ was always mine, and I’d use it to practise my early baking skills, before giving the results to my long-suffering father.”

However, despite the major part food played in her formative years, Lee didn’t immediately consider it as a career choice.

“Right now, I make my living as a cake designer, recipe developer, blog writer and small business owner, but this wasn’t always the case,” she says. “I’m a believer in having many career lives while on this planet, and my career life has been eventful, fun and certainly interesting. I’ve worked as a counsellor, a lecturer, and a business coach teaching body language skills to executives; my career has taken me all around the world.”

While baking for a living sounds like the stuff of fairy tales, Lee is the first to admit it can be tough.

“It’s definitely lots of fun, but any business is hard work, and as any small business person will tell you, it’s definitely not a nine-to-five job,” she says. “The constant deadlines and the high expectations of anxious brides can be a recipe for disaster. I can’t have an off-day, as people’s celebrations depend on me; every cake is a deadline that I simply can’t – and don’t want to - miss. It’s such a privilege to be a part of someone’s big day, and seeing a happy client makes all the stress worth it.”

Perhaps understandably, Lee likens her career success to baking a cake: “If you have your own business, it’s easy to get stuck in your ways. A phrase that makes me take a sharp intake of breath is, ‘It’s always been done like that’. This mentality is a recipe for disaster. It’s like baking a cake with a recipe that doesn’t work the first time, but instead of changing it to make it work, you keep using the same recipe and wondering why the cake isn’t rising.

“It’s this lesson that has led me to want to move more into food writing. It’s something I’ve always done, for myself, for newspapers, or even websites - developing recipes, writing blogs, it’s all part of my transition to the next stage of my career. I believe that we should all have several career lives over a lifetime. So why not eat it up and enjoy every bite?”