Cayla Gallagher’s path to social media stardom didn’t start where you might think. The culinary influencer and purveyor of “edible cuteness” earned degrees in Asian Language & Culture and Interpreting & Translation before starting her own YouTube channel pankobunny. Her online cooking show features weekly tutorials that teach viewers how to turn everyday recipes into colorful, eye-catching treats. Today, Gallagher has more than 120,000 Instagram followers and 77,000-plus YouTube subscribers and she’s written five cookbooks—including the Halloween-focused Spooky Food.
Q: Given your non-traditional path into culinary arts, what inspired you to start a YouTube channel focused on cooking and baking?
I was living in Australia at the time and in my spare time was watching a lot of YouTube. Everybody seemed to be having so much fun and I really wanted to be a part of it. I thought about what I could contribute to the YouTube community, and I decided on cooking and baking, as it had been a hobby of mine for several years. I had initially planned on sharing Japanese recipes, with the goal of demystifying Japanese cuisine and introducing recipes beyond sushi, teriyaki, etc., with a Western audience. It then blossomed into what I call “edible cuteness,” which are delicious recipes with a cute twist!
Q: What’s the inspiration behind your cookbooks and their fun themes?
My first book was actually pitched to me by my publisher, Skyhorse Publishing. We wanted to capitalize on the rainbow trend that was dominating the food world at the time and landed on the cute and simple Unicorn Food title. We then decided to turn it into a series—which I love—and maintain the same title structure. Certain books, such as Mermaid Food, were also inspired by trends, while others were inspired by holidays, like Reindeer Food and Spooky Food. I feel like it adds a touch of whimsy to the holidays. I have a working list of cookbook ideas on my phone that I’m constantly adding to. Sometimes the inspiration is as simple as a holiday, or if I have a significant amount of recipe ideas that follow a particular theme, I note it down as a potential cookbook idea.
Q: What’s the process behind creating cakes in fun shapes?
I usually start with a concept in my mind and then work backwards. For example, when designing my Rose Gold Skull Cake (page 47 of Spooky Food), I knew that I wanted a giant metallic skull cake. I knew that the surface would have to be smooth, and I don’t like relying on fondant, so I decided to use chocolate and a skull-shaped cake mold. That would create the shape, but what would I do for the cake portion? There were two methods I could use: build a classic layer cake with frosting inside the skull or turn it into a giant cake pop! I decided on the cake pop method because I love the way they taste—and it would also be a much easier assembly for readers. When eating the cake, the chocolate shell could be broken into and the insides “scooped out.” I wanted a pale cake, so I chose my classic vanilla cake, but added some rose water and fresh raspberries to reflect the pink of the skull. I also wanted it to have a touch of glam, so I sprayed the entire skull with edible rose gold spray. And voila! I’m super happy with how it turned out and most importantly, it tasted exactly how I imagined it.
Q: As a creative in the kitchen, what are some items or ingredients you’re sure to always have at home?
My creative essentials are piping bags, toothpicks, (clean!) tweezers, food coloring, cooking spray and a bag of white candy melts. I’m not a huge fan of the flavor of candy melts, but they set at room temperature and can be colored with regular gel food coloring, which makes them far easier to work with than chocolate. Toothpicks are great for detail work or attaching arms/legs, and tweezers are so useful for strategically placing sprinkles or eyes. Cooking spray is something I never expected to rely on, but it is absolutely necessary when creating jumbo rice Krispie treat shapes. Generously spray your hands and you won’t have any marshmallow sticking to you!
Q: What’s your favorite dish or dessert to make and to eat?
My favorite dish to make is French toast. I love to use 2- to 3-inch-thick slices of bread for my French toast and stuff them with fruit, chocolate or cheese. But my favorite part is the cooking process! After I’ve cooked the French toast on both sides, I keep it in the pan, cover it with a lid and turn off the heat. I let the toast steam for about 5 minutes. This cooks any residual raw egg and makes the French toast so light and fluffy!
My favorite dish to eat is my classic chocolate cake recipe. My Blackest Black Cake (page 29 of Spooky Food) is a variation of this recipe. The cake is so moist and chocolatey while still being light, and the frosting is very rich and creamy. After making this cake for the first time, I just sat in my kitchen with a spoon and ate about a third of the entire cake!
Q: You have one whole book dedicated to treats just for dogs. Do you have a furry friend who taste-tested your “pup-approved” treats?
Yes! Both of my Pomeranians, Paddington and Treacle, were lucky enough to be my taste testers and also get featured in the cookbook and on the cover. Paddington has been my dog treat sous chef for years and now comes running whenever he hears my hand mixer turn on!
Q: What inspired you to create a cookbook full of Halloween-inspired treats?
I love the different avenues that you can explore with Halloween, and I felt it would make for a very well-rounded cookbook. There are the cute recipes like my Marshmallow Ghosts (page 107 of Spooky Food), and then the spookier side of Halloween with my Bleeding Heart Panna Cotta (page 115 of Spooky Food). In another lifetime I would be a doctor, so I love to lean into that side of me for Halloween. There is also the beautiful autumnal side of Halloween with all the pumpkin recipes, like my Pumpkin Spice Cupcakes (page 9 of Spooky Food). I’ve definitely come to enjoy Halloween more as my baking skills have developed. I now associate it more with food than with costumes. Christmas is still my favorite holiday, but Halloween is a close second.
Q: Do you have any spooky traditions at home?
My dogs really love pumpkin, so I love to carve pumpkins “with” them and then make them pumpkin treats. We also do spooky dog walks with the other dogs in my neighborhood, where Paddington and Treacle dress up and get a goody bag filled with Halloween “candy” (dog treats). I’m Canadian and Canadian Thanksgiving falls around the time when I’m baking Halloween treats for my YouTube channel, so my family unfortunately has to deal with a spooky Thanksgiving dessert spread every year!
Q: What’s next for you?
I’ve been seeing more and more food bloggers get creative with pasta—dyeing it different colors and shaping it into super creative shapes. I’d really love to try my hand at that! I’d also love to dive deeper into the dog treat/dog influencer space. Paddington is working on his own website and blog and will become a full-fledged “food blogger” soon. I have very exciting plans for Treacle in the fashion space and hope to launch her secret project sometime in late 2022/early 2023.