It doesn’t take too much to please us here at UncommonGoods. Give us a creative handmade good or a heartwarming story and we’re more or less set. Throw in a unicorn or a sweet treat and we’re even better than set—we’re stoked. So perhaps it’s little wonder that pastry chef Jillian Donaldson and her Unicorn Cupcake Kit so readily caught our attention. I mean, vegan-friendly fondant alicorns, anyone? It’s hard to say no to something so cute… and so tasty.
If Jillian’s—a.k.a. Jill’s—sparkling sprinkles haven’t enchanted you yet, we don’t know what will. If they have, sit tight, ’cause you’re in for a treat. For the latest installment in our This Just In-spiration series, we spoke with Jill about family, the joy of baking, and sturdy mixers that double as special trinkets. Read on for more.
You’re the real deal—a trained pastry chef. How’d you get your start crafting tasty treats?
Food is extremely important in my Lebanese family, and has been used throughout my life to communicate love. Significant events are marked with special food, and celebrations are never complete without something sweet as a grand finale! So for me, being the bearer of cake always brings the most joy, and blesses me more than anyone. I’ve loved being in the kitchen for as long as I can remember and have worked in restaurants since I was a teenager, so I’ve always known that the food industry was it for me! I received a wonderful education at the School of Business at the University of Miami, and also L’Academie de Cuisine for Pastry Arts, but my real education came at the hands of the amazingly talented chefs and bakers I’ve worked with over the years. Some James Beard Award winners, most outstanding artists in their own right, and all relentlessly hard workers. I’ll always be grateful for their instruction.
Describe a typical day at work in the kitchen, assuming such a thing exists.
Days vary from one to the next: doing baking demos at events, sourcing our sometimes hard-to-find ingredients, etc…. but I do spend a lot of time developing and testing recipes in the kitchen for our baking mixes and kits. It’s a challenge to take traditional recipes that I’ve been working with for years and deconstruct them into a baking mix. The goal is to make a foolproof, high-quality, all-natural mix where anyone can simply pour in their favorite type of milk and oil and have amazing results in minutes! So I like to play around a lot with trying different types of vegetable oils like coconut, avocado, safflower, and different types of “milks” like hemp, almond, soy, etc., so that our mixes can work for anyone.
What was the most exciting thing about launching your business? What about the toughest thing?
The most exciting thing was actually seeing the business come to life after so many years of brainstorming and dreaming! I grew up in a family of business owners, and I had the coolest major ever in college: entrepreneurship! So the business was a long time coming. The toughest thing is having to sometimes let go of ideas or products that you love, but that aren’t a fit for the brand or don’t end up appealing to your customer base like you thought they would; basically, balancing your passions with practicality!
Your Unicorn Cupcake Kit features one of our favorite mythical creatures. How do you come up with new ways to spice up your baked goods?
The Unicorn in particular is so fascinating; it’s been around since the Bronze Age, and is somehow still trending! Now that’s magical! Inspiration can come from anywhere; a food trend, a social movement, a piece of art… you just never know what’s going to resonate! Most importantly, everything has to work in harmony with our values of delicious all-natural products that are joyful, colorful, inclusive, celebratory, and just plain fun!
Is there a special trinket or talisman you keep nearby while you work? If so, what is it and what does it mean to you?
My grandmother’s old KitchenAid stand mixer, which actually still works and means the world to me! Some of my fondest childhood memories are of baking with Sito, which is Arabic for “grandmother.” She made an amazing (and somewhat tricky!) yogurt cake, the best chocolate buttercream frosting, corn muffins… such lovely treats were always around when we’d go to visit! I always admired her white KitchenAid stand mixer, and today I’m honored to have it sit in my kitchen. It’s a daily reminder off the joy of baking and cooking with loved ones.
If you gave one of your dressed-up treats to a kindergartner, what do you think they would say?
I love teaching kids about pastry and healthier ingredient alternatives! Even the young ones surprise me with how knowledgeable they already are from watching Tasty videos online, cooking shows on TV, or from being in the kitchen with Mom or Dad! There’s a real movement to get kids and families in the kitchen together and eating together… and what better way to get a kid in the kitchen than with unicorns, sprinkles, and dough?! I’ve loved being able to teach kids locally here in Richmond public schools, kids with diabetes, and kids with substance abuse issues about baking techniques, but more importantly about being aware of what they’re putting in their bodies and where their food is coming from. We talk about things like bleached flours, sugars processed with animal bone char, baking powders containing aluminum, sprinkles colored with synthetic dyes, and what great alternatives they can look for instead.
Finally, what quote or mantra keeps you motivated?
I’ve always loved the quote, “Bake the world a better place.” There’s so much hardship and sadness in this world, but with faith there’s a lot of joy and beauty to be found as well. If we can bring someone just a small bit of happiness or a smile by offering a yummy homemade pastry, and if I can help people to do that easily with trustworthy ingredients, I feel like I’m trying to do my part in spreading love.