By Brittany King / Photo by Jen Tilley

On Valentine’s Day in 2011, Zainab Mansaray-Storms ’09 set out to bake a cake for her fiancé. The doctoral student in neuroscience was looking to relieve some stress and surprise her partner. Unfortunately, what started as a sweet gesture for a loved one, ended in disaster. She had overfilled the baking pan. “The cake exploded and there was red food coloring everywhere,” she recalls.

Mansaray-Storms didn’t let the mess she made deter her. Instead, she took a baking class, then a cake-decorating class, and once she’d learned the basics, she decided to give baking another try. Not everything she baked was a success, but as a student in a challenging neuroscience program at Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, N.Y., she was looking for a hobby that engaged a different part of her brain.

She began documenting her baking attempts on her blog, A Classic Twist ( showing what recipes worked well and which fell flat (or exploded). The site is filled with recipes that are familiar and easy to follow, often including step-by-step pictures. “I was sharing my life and newfound love for baking, and it became a community of people who loved baking or who were also learning to bake,” she says. “It made me feel like I wasn’t alone.” Twelve years later, she has plenty of company: A Classic Twist draws 200,000 monthly visitors, and Mansaray-Storms has turned it into a business. She monetizes the blog through ads on her site and partnerships with food and kitchen brands like King Arthur, KitchenAid and Bob’s Red Mill.

A native of Sierra Leone in western Africa, she didn’t grow up baking. She got curious about it at Macalester when she noticed that her peers would regularly receive care packages from home, something she didn’t receive often as an international student. She remembers her classmates opening their packages together and sharing what was inside. “Those boxes always had baked goods from home—chocolate-chip cookies and other comfort food—and I started to realize baked goods are integral to American culture and society.”

Mansaray-Storms arrived at Macalester with her heart set on becoming a doctor, but classes with biology professors Lin Aanonsen and Paul Overvoorde shifted her interest to scientific research.

“They had a passion for what they were teaching and gave me a good idea of what type of path I could take with science beyond going to medical school,” she says. “They encouraged me to go to grad school versus med school because of the opportunities I’d have as an immigrant studying in America. I could go the academic route or do scientific research for drugs. I picked this path because it was closer to the patient.”

After earning her PhD, she began her pharmaceutical career, making medicines and submitting them to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Now, she’s on the other side of the industry as a regulatory scientist for the FDA. For the past two years, she has reviewed biologics license applications submitted to the FDA for different drugs. She thinks of that shift as a way to live the values she cultivated at Macalester.

“I wanted to do something that would make an impact on people,” she says. “I know people don’t always think of big pharmaceutical as having a positive impact, but working in this way allows me to be closer to patients, bringing lifesaving medicine to those who need it.”

There’s not much crossover between her day job and her work as a content creator—and she likes it that way. The jobs allow her to tap into different skills and fulfill her in different ways.

“If you’re not getting that creative outlet or passion from your job, you must find it outside of that job; it’ll make you a more well-rounded person,” she says. “It makes you a better employee because you have these other things that drive you and keep you going.”

Most seasoned bakers will tell you baking is a science, but Mansaray-Storms pushes back on that. For her, the “science” of baking isn’t about precise measurements, it’s about experimenting with new flavors, incorporating traditional African flavors she grew up with like coconut, mango, hibiscus, and passionfruit into quintessential American dishes. Like her coconut banana cream pie recipe that takes a beloved classic and adds unexpected coconut sweetness to the crust and filling. It’s that kind of adventurousness that has become integral to her brand.

“I always start by making the recipe as written, then I begin to experiment adding or changing one or two ingredients and building from there,” she says of her recipe creation process. She takes inspiration from cookbooks and magazines as well as “OG” baking influencers and recipe bloggers like Joy the Baker and Smitten Kitchen. “I like experimenting, so I guess that’s the scientific connection. It doesn’t always work, but I like trying.”

When Mansaray-Storms first started A Classic Twist, she did it all: photography, food styling, writing blog posts and social media captions. Now the neuroscientist and mother of two has a team of people behind her 140,000 (and counting) followers on social media.

“I keep going because I want to teach my kids. I want to ensure they experience these milestones that are hallmarks in American culture,” she says. “It’s crazy to think this all unexpectedly started at Macalester. I’ll always be grateful for that.”

Brittany King is a Chicago-based writer and independent journalist.

May 17 2024

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