L.E. Cafe Confectionery & Pastry has been drawing in crowds for decades by presenting nostalgic flavours in new forms.
Traditional pastry shops are a rare sight these days. For many, they signal nostalgia, reminding people of a time when treats like pastries, cakes, and a cup of coffee was a luxury and respite from the hardships of nation-building.
One such place is L.E. Cafe Confectionery & Pastry, a place known for their Chinese New Year goodies, old-school cakes, and a couple of unique inventions that continually draw in the crowds. Loyal customers, curious eaters, and even tourists flock to one of their three outlets—one each at Mackenzie, Veersamy, and Cambridge roads—for their soybean tarts, Chinese-style ‘moon pies’ (no relation to the marshmallow-and-chocolate American confection), and golf-ball sized pineapple tarts.
A brief history of pastry
Run by the Wee family, L.E. Cafe was first established in 1949, and started out as an eating house in David Elias Building, just a stone’s throw away from the location of their current flagship along Mackenzie road. Then, they served zichar-style Chinese food in addition to cakes, pastries and drinks. It wasn’t until 1975 that the Wees switched over to operating as a coffee house, focusing solely on baked goods. “Some of our offerings were buttercream cakes, swiss rolls, cream puffs, apple strudel, and chicken pies. Customers would come in to enjoy their cake and coffee,” shares Mei Ling, one of the third-generation owners who, along with her brother, help to support their parents in running the business.
The brand’s current iteration though, happened in the 90s, when Mei Ling’s father took the reins of the business and converted it into a takeaway-style shop. Two of their most popular items, the ‘golf ball’ pineapple tarts, and beancurd tarts were introduced in the following decades.
While they started out making the traditional open-faced pineapple tarts, Mei Ling reveals the inspiration for their current version: “Sometime in the 90s, my dad was inspired by our already popular moon pies (flaky crust pastries with a variety of fillings including lotus seed and chestnut paste). He believes that all things round symbolises unity, prosperity and fulfilment—hence the ball-shaped tart.”
The pineapple balls are an indulgent treat—not only does one get a larger-than-normal pastry, the wickedly buttery, tender crust and yields a delicious pineapple jam filling that has inspired fans both local and overseas. One of their other creations is the bean curd tart, a riff on the classic shortcrust egg tarts, which Mei Ling reveals that they sold up till the 1990s. In order to stand out from all the other bakeries selling egg tarts, they “decided to create something different yet familiar and healthier”.
With the soy bean curd tart, they had a chilled dessert that was healthier—soybeans contain no cholesterol, and are a good source of proteins and antioxidants. To achieve the silky-smooth and fragrant soy custard, L.E. Cafe Confectionery & Pastry grinds their own beans, and flavour the resulting soy milk with pandan leaves and almond extract. The main challenge though is the crust, which Mei Ling—who picked up the skills of the trade from her father, as well as the bakers that have been with them for years—reveals is a careful balance of “sweet and savoury, as well as firm and crunchy”, providing a buttery contrast with the soybean curd filling.
It’s a story told countless times, but it still holds true—technology has helped broaden the reach of traditional businesses. The brand is active both online, and on social media, which has helped spread the name of L.E. Cafe Confectionery & Pastry to a younger audience.
Wee shares that despite the mercurial nature of consumer trends and Singapore’s F&B industry, quality and consistency are what has kept them thriving. “We have been around for decades and have served generations of families. Our cakes have been a part of their important celebratory occasions…since the beginning, we have been producing quality cakes, pastries and confectionery for all occasions.”
Wee also feels that it’s their “wide spectrum” of products that sets them apart from other shops. Take a gander at their shop, or Instagram page, and you’ll see why—everything is possible for the versatile bakers. In addition to making their usual array of products, they produce themed confections and pastries for everything from da shou (60th birthday celebration in Chinese culture), to weddings, Chinese New Year, and Christmas.
Some things don’t change
Even with increasing demand, and the sheer number of items they do, the Wees still insist on keeping everything handmade. Mei Ling shares that the practice of making the pastries by hand started out of necessity because there were no machines to rely on in the early days. Today, this still continues, as the experienced hands of their bakers ensure the best quality—something they value over quantity. “Eventually, our popularity and branding centered on this concept of having ‘uniquely handmade products’, she says. They’ve been around for 70 years, having grown from one eating house into a household name with three outlets. New flavours, and various treats have been created in that time, with easily more to come. It’s Mei Ling’s wish for the brand to remain an iconic confectionery and pastry shop, declaring: “After all, we are one of the oldest cake shops in Singapore.”
This article was first published in Wine & Dine May/June 2019: Game-Changing Innovations.