Why cakes? I’m often asked, “Why would you give up a promising career in law to bake cakes?” Some people kind of scratch their head when they think of what I have done. Others look at me like I’m crazy. Most totally understand what I’ve done—and smile. Here are a few reasons why I bake cakes from scratch.
Under Blue Plastic. I’m one of those people who believe everything happens for a reason. Sometimes that reason is clear. At other times you have to search a little harder for the purpose. What happened to show me that cakes make everyone excited was, without doubt, obvious.
On a beautiful, sunny morning in late September of 1999, I took a flight to JFK airport to meet some family members for a short weekend in NYC. The night before I left I baked a simple chocolate cake. This trip occurred before the first steps of my baking/business venture so I didn’t have a box or cake container to properly store the cake. Being resourceful, I put the cake on a white dinner plate and covered it with blue plastic wrap. I anticipated that people would give me a hard time about the color of the plastic wrap but I didn’t expect a reaction about the cake. I didn’t think it was that special and you could hardly see it under the layers of blue plastic. But the security guards, flight stewards, passengers, and other travelers all had something to say about this simple chocolate cake. I was very surprised. As I sat at the passenger pick-up waiting for my aunt Yvette and her friend Kim, I just stared into space thinking about what just happened. Why was everyone so excited? After a few moments, I realized that I was staring right at my future: scratch-made cake. Its strong appeal meant potential. Right then and there I decided that I would start a cake business.
4 am. One book helped me turn the corner to bake creatively and go in unconventional directions. It is the Art of the Cake written by Bruce Healy and Paul Bugat. It’s an excellent discourse on baking, covering everything from the theory and structure of cakes and methods of production to the history of traditional French cakes, a study on ingredients, and excellent recipes. I bought the book during one of my reconnaissance trips to NYC and read it from cover to cover in six weeks. I couldn’t put it down. I read it during my commute to work, during lunch, at breaks, at night, and in the morning. One day I woke up at 4 am and, since I couldn’t sleep, I read more. The book spoke to me and, like I said, I couldn’t put it down.
Green Line Train. Ask anyone who knows me well, and they’ll tell you that I am nearly obsessed with the science of baking. Understanding what is happening on a molecular level with taste and structure helps me bake better sweets. Plus, this understanding makes it possible for me to keep my products all-natural.
In an effort to know more about the properties of the ingredients I use, I often daydream and build recipes in my head. I think everyone does that with the work they love, no matter what line of work. One evening, when I worked as a lawyer by day and a baker by night, going home on the Green Line train Metro, I thought of a new way to make chocolate cake. Dry chocolate cake is a no-no not to be tolerated. So I thought of coming at it from a unconventional angle. I decided to not use butter and boiled water in the batter, but use cream instead to deliver hydration and fat to the cake simultaneously. I scribbled the hypothesis on a notepad, raced off the train, mixed and panned the batter within twenty minutes, and use the same recipe to this day. It’s the New German Chocolate cake, where cream and cocoa combine to make a dense chocolaty cake that is paired with a coconut & vanilla infused buttercream. “NGC” is my favorite to snack on in the shop.
Epiphany Moment. My moment of truth came very late on a Friday night when I was still practicing law. On this night, I was making a cake for one of the senior managers in my office and I was trying to make it look extra nice.The cake featured candied navel orange segments and crunchy orange rind in the buttercream frosting between layers of almond genoise and yellow butter cake. It’s one of my favorites. Anyway,I took some extra segments and put them on the top of the cake in a star-shaped pattern. To my surprise, I was overwhelmed with emotion. At once I realized that the pattern of the orange segments was identical to a pattern I used to draw over and over with oil pastels and colored chalk, years before when I lived in Los Angeles. It felt as if I just opened a door that solidly united my past with my future. Baking cakes gave me a method to practice my favorite art form (culinary), other people enjoyed it as much as me, and it showed promise to be a viable business. My own lingering doubts about whether baking was the right choice disappeared.
Exhaustion. I wore myself out early in the process of starting a business. In April of 2000 I pushed too hard in too short of a time span. In one week I had a multi-day work retreat, attended someone else’s bachelor party and wedding, baked cakes, worked my day job, and drove around town in an endless list of errands for the cake business. It was too much and on a seemingly random Tuesday in the very early morning, I lost the energy tokeep going. Alarmed, I called my parents and told them I couldn’t move my limbs. They would work if I really concentrated, but I could hardly focus on breathing. Confused, tired, and desperate, I called my wonderful neighbor, Karen, and asked her to drive me to the emergency room. She drove me to and from the ER and really helped me. At discharge from the ER, the doctor said to me, “You’re fine, but you’re not 15 anymore. You’re suffering from exhaustion. Slow down.”
How humbling. I didn’t think exhaustion could happen to me. But it did and I felt the effects of that episode for months. Fatigue would set in and tell me loud and clear to “stop, rest, and sleep.” But don’t worry, these days I’m much better about keeping a close eye on how I’m doing and I have plenty of help at the shop!
Physically Tired, Spiritually Amped. When I changed careers, I realized that baking is hard, messy work. The rigors of daily production are no joke and can’t be ignored lest the quality is sacrificed. But even though my bones and joints often ache and my mind becomes dizzyingly tired at the end of each day, baking lifts my spirits and rewards me in many ways. One of the best is seeing smiling faces that are happy to see, smell, and taste freshly baked sweets made from scratch. In living my passion, when I wake-up, I’m all go. I’m spiritually amped—ready & willing to dive into the satisfaction I get everyday from baking.