Heba Badran offers local gourmets and market-goers a taste of the cosmopolitan with her dainty baklava and orange tea cakes.
On a recent morning at the Menlo Park Farmers Market, where Badran starting selling her desserts in 2008, Grace, a 10-year-old Palo Alto resident, sampled Badran's light, airy orange tea cake. A playful smile spread about her face as she complimented Badran: "When I grow up, I want to be a chef."
"I got into this because I like to bake," Badran replied warmly.
Starting the Stanford-based business 5KCuisine L.L.C. was not a forgone conclusion for Badran. Born in Egypt, she attended London secondary schools. For 10 years, she wielded her MBA as marketing executive with Proctor & Gamble in Egypt.
In a recent interview, Badran said that while she was inspired by a long family line of "fantastic cooks without a single cooking class to their names," she gives her natural, preservative-free desserts her own special touch.
"My mother taught me to make baklava when I was 10. Egyptian baklava is sweeter, and she mixes nuts, but I've taken a more purist approach," Badran said.
She offers four varieties of delicately sliced baklava at her farmers market stall and at several local gourmet groceries ($5 for six pieces, $7 for 12). Customers and colleagues say that its taste and texture have earned the tagline: "Better than baklava."
Three different nuts each provide a subtle riff on the lemon-infused pastry, made up of dozens of delicate sheets of phyllo dough sweetened with homemade sugar syrup and a rich, nutty base.
Walnuts provide a kick in one of her offerings, while the pistachio variety lets a sweeter nut be the star. A less traditional take, her almond baklava allows lemon, sugar, and pastry layers to shine through the lightly flavored nut base. She also serves up a nut-free variety.
Baklava can often be overly sweet or have too dry a mouthfeel, but Badran's recipes avoid both pitfalls.
"My specialty is a very light take on baklava, so that you can take in its taste, not just its sweetness," Badran explained.
A newcomer to the Happiness Within line is an orange tea cake ($3.25 for four miniature cakes, $5 for nine cakes). The recipe, Badran said, was inspired by her adolescence and later years in London.
Flavored with orange rind and freshly squeezed juice, the cakes contain whipped egg whites and are so airy and light that Badran's customers sometimes serve them as a continental breakfast.
"I can't trace my cakes to any specific part of my time in England, but as you know, they like their tea and cakes," Badran explained.
She first decided to make her hobby of cooking a professional endeavor when her she received positive feedback from guests as well as from her husband, an engineer, and her son, then 8 years old. Armed with samples, she approached the Menlo Park Farmers Market, only blocks away from her previous home, to try her luck selling the desserts.
Badran jumped a long waiting list of people looking to open a stall, farmers market manager Lori Hennings said.
"I wasn't really looking for a new addition, but there was just something about her entrepreneurial spirit," Hennings said.
Heba said that many customers approach her to hoping to start a craft or prepared food stall.
"Farmers markets seem more accessible as a place to start (in contrast to grocery stores), but in reality, they're not that accessible. Many people don't realize you can't just walk out of your kitchen with your product and take it to the market," Badran said.
Badran credits the Menlo Park Farmers Market organizers and stall-workers with giving her advice on how to start and run her business, from how to set up shop in a commercial kitchen to how to weigh down her awning on windy days.
As her sales grew -- they have almost tripled since the beginning of 5KCuisine -- Badran expanded her sights beyond the farmers market, contracting with an established baker to use her recipe exclusively. She sells her pastry at seven local gourmet groceries, including Crossroads World Market, Bianchini's, Sigona's, and Draeger's.
Bianchini's Pastry chef Amber Cid said Badran's baklava clearly stands out to customers when she provides samples in the San Carlos location.
"She puts a lot of heart into her product. Hers has a more traditional, homemade feel, and you can tell the pieces are hand-cut," Cid said.
Several stores' employees credited her not only for the excellence of her pastries but for her professionalism. Badran diligently takes responsibility for delivery, product demonstrations, and regular stock turnover, they said.
Getting her signature desserts into stores wasn't a simple task, Badran said.
"I would call, try to find out who is responsible for the bakery, write a presentation, and bring samples. I expected to present in an office, but sometimes I found myself giving a pitch at the check stand!"
Contracting with local businesses hasn't stopped Badran from keeping a stall at the market where she got her start. Noting that many customers give Happiness Within baklava as a gift, she experimented with gift sales this holiday season and will debut them on her website.
Happiness Within baklava and orange tea cake can be found at the Menlo Park Farmers Market every Sunday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., as well as at Sigona's, Bianchini's, Draeger's, Robert's, and Crossroads World Market.