You don't have to graduate from a culinary institute to be a successful baker. Belen Bailey, owner and baker of Sweets by Belen, proves that a love for a mother's sweets and treats, combined with a passion for baking, is more than enough to make a name for yourself in the Houston culinary world.
As a child, Bailey lived in Peru, and became accustomed to having sweets or desserts with just about every single meal.
"I started baking because back in Peru, my mom and my grandma always had some kind of treat -- something sweet, at home," Bailey says. "In Peru, the people have the main dish and then soup, but in my house it was the main dish and dessert. So, when I moved to Louisiana, I started looking for something sweet. After a while, I was missing my mom and my grandma's sweets."
Bailey didn't go to culinary school. Instead, she attended college in Peru, where she studied nutrition and biochemistry. When she moved to America, in 1997, she enrolled in Louisiana College, and soon became a Spanish teacher at a local school. As if that wasn't enough on her plate, she added baking after school was over for the day.
Soon she realized that baking was her true passion, despite her mother's previous apprehension about her having a career in baking.
"I remember my mom and my grandma baking on the weekends, especially Sundays, when it was like a family reunion, and so when my mom came and she saw that I already have people...that were calling me to order cakes and treats, she would start crying and she said, 'Why are you doing this when I always wanted you to go to school?' And I said, 'Mom, I went to school; I finished school; I did all of this, but this is what I really, really like to do.'"
It's Bailey's way of paying homage to her mother's and grandmother's baking.
"When it was my birthday or my sister's birthday, my mom made at least three or five different cakes in different flavors," Bailey says. "So, for my birthday I was used to having not only one cake, it was like three or four cakes when I was little, and tons of homemade treats for everybody. All of my friends loved coming to my house because they knew that my mom was going to have tons of sweets for them."
Bailey remembers having cakes filled with fruits, homemade jellies and dulce de leche, which is used to make her most popular product, alfajores. Customers can purchase these little powdered sugar butter cookies filled with dulce de leche either with or without pecans.
She sells her sweets and baked goods at several farmers' markets, restaurants and local grocery stores and through her food truck, or, as she likes to call it, the sweetmobile.
"I go to different farmers' markets and I start with the alfajores. They're the one that I sell the most, but during the summer, the popsicles are the ones I sell the most," Bailey says. "Here in this market [Rice Village Farmers Market], people know the strawberry and the mango, [but] the passion fruit, I start explaining and they like it and they come back for more, and the other tropical fruits, I just explain."
Bailey uses a variety of tropical fruits, such as cherimoya (which some describe as a custard apple), chicha morada (purple corn) and lucuma (which tastes of maple and sweet potato), to make her fruit ice pops.
"In Peru we use the purple corn to make a drink and that drink is what we freeze and we have as an ice pop," Bailey says. "But we also make a pudding, it's called mazamorra morada; it's like a pudding with fruit, apples and raisins and prunes, figs, you name it. It's really, really good and I like it warm."
Knowing that the chicha morada popsicle was made from purple corn, I was a little hesitant to take a bite, but was pleasantly surprised by the overall taste. You're hit with a punch of sweetness, but a few seconds after you swallow the first bite, you'll taste a hint of corn. Plus, your lips and tongue will turn bright blue.
Bailey explains that all of her popsicles are made with fruit and water, except the cherimoya; it is made with milk, giving it a creamy consistency, unlike the other icy flavors.
The seasons and the markets control what products Bailey sells, so puddings are usually sold in cooler months. Bailey also reserves a few exotic desserts, such as the puddings and some tropical fruit products not so popular in America, for Hispanic and Peruvian festivals. However, many of her products are catered to Americans, and she adds a Peruvian touch to introduce her customers to her homeland's traditional sweets.
"Everyone knows banana bread, and since we do Latin American style, we infuse raisins with pisco, and pisco is a Peruvian drink like tequila," Bailey says. "I think our niche is to do sweets, the sweets that you know, but with a different twist...we don't use any artificial flavorings in anything that we do, just like my grandmother and my mom used to make. Everything is from scratch."
You can definitely taste the pisco in the sticky banana bread -- but you don't see us complaining. Bailey also puts a spin on the classic tres leches cake by incorporating pisco and topping the entire cake with shaved chocolate.
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Now that she has been in the baking business for eight years and has been coming to Houston farmers' markets for more than a year, she is in the process of establishing her own brick-and-mortar.
"After I resigned as a teacher, I said, 'Well, I have a little bit of money saved; what can I do to start until I have my store?' which is what I really, really want, to have my store where people can go and I can have a variety of sweets the same way I used to," Bailey says. "Back in Peru you would just go to small bakeries and just have tea or coffee, or alfajores, banana bread, marble cake -- so this is what I really want. We are looking for a store, but we will see what happens."
While Bailey works on opening her own store, she will still be serving Peruvian sweets to the Houston community, whether it's at a food truck park, at a stand in one of the many farmers' markets or at a local festival. Even though she claims to not know what she is doing in the kitchen because she was never trained to be a baker, the authenticity and incredible flavor of all her products beg to differ.
Take Bailey's advice and just try her sweets; you won't be disappointed.