Remember cake? Before the cupcake took over the world, before cake balls, cake pops, cake truffles, and cakesicles, there was just plain cake. Honest-to-goodness cake. A cake meant something. A cake was a celebration. A cake helped commemorate birthdays, weddings, baby arrivals, anniversaries, job promotions, and graduations—the cake has played a pivotal role in the important life events for billions of people. A cake is a labor of love, a commitment in its preparation, not something impulsively created and devoured for a midday sugar high.
I’ve been fortunate to come across some wonderful cooks and bakers through my explorations within the Arkansas foodscape. But often, some of the greatest food I’ve encountered did not come from a commercial kitchen, it did not come from a celebrity chef with three Michelin stars behind his name, it did not come from the hands of an alumnus of the The French Culinary Institute. It came from home kitchens, from neighbors, from friends with a passion and talent for cooking. Recently, I’ve been able to get to know one a young woman with a brilliant aptitude for baking. Currently, she bakes at home, but it would be unfair to dismiss her as your average home cook, as her cakes and other baked goods are anything but average. Zara Abbasi could easily find herself in any of the best bakeries in the country; instead life has taken her in other directions. But recently, she’s begun showcasing her talents publicly and making her wares available to any looking for a truly exceptional cake. I was able to catch up with Zara and learn a bit about what makes her tick, and of course, cake was had…one of the finest cakes I’ve eaten in quite a while, in fact.
Zara wrote her first cake recipe at six years old, and was making family dinners by the age of seven. But for Zara, baking was always something that came naturally. Later in her life, her family opened Masala Grill and Teahouse in Little Rock, a Pakistani fusion restaurant and gourmet tea house. Zara made all the desserts for the restaurant and they held many successful events putting her skills to use: dessert pancake night and a cookies and tea bar, just to name a couple. Family issues forced the restaurant to close in early 2011, but Zara continued to bake and sell cakes privately. The work was sporadic, but as patrons began to discover her talent, she developed a regular clientele. Simultaneously, she had her sights on a career in the legal field, and completed a formal education at Bowen Law School. Life—as it is for most talented, intelligent people—became rather demanding. But somewhere between studying for the bar exam and whipping lemon meringue, Zara found time to refine and expand on her skills as a baker. As word about the talented girl’s cakes began to spread, she found herself taking more jobs and producing more elaborate products. She was driven by her success to experiment with new flavors, techniques, and products, never feeling satisfied with the plain and ordinary. She describes some failed flavor combinations (one being the ginger and soy sauce cake, which incidentally only required on bite to buy itself a ticket in the trash can). But she also developed a number of popular, successful cakes, many of which remain favorites of her customers today; these include a dark chocolate mocha crunch cake (dark chocolate cake with coffee buttercream and crushed chocolate cookie, topped with dark chocolate ganache or coffee buttercream), a strawberry lemonade cake (lemon sponge cake with fresh strawberries and vanilla buttercream), marzipan cake (a marzipan cornmeal cake filled with almond buttercream, topped with dark chocolate ganache), and a lemon rosemary cake (lemon-infused marzipan cake with rosemary and olive oil, drizzled with lemon icing).
At the onset of 2013, I wrote a brief piece on some of the current food trends sweeping the nation. I’ll admit, it was partially a selfish endeavor as I hoped it would spark some interest in the community and we’d hopefully be able to see some (if not all) of these trends come to pass. Not simply to create a city that’s hopping on every food bandwagon that comes rolling by, but because I felt they were some things that would go over quite well in central Arkansas, and were developments that would definitely add some spice to our local foodscape. None of these trends are as near and dear to me as donuts. I’ve confessed my love for the greasy, fried dough rings before…many times. But there are some really spectacular things going on in the donut world—the breakfast pastry is no longer relegated only to the quick and easy boardroom breakfast, or the late night stakeout staple. Donuts are finally getting a touch of refinement and class. So where do we sit in Arkansas? We’ve got a ways to go, but here are a few places that only recently have decided to boast a more elegant selection of donuts:
The Southern Gourmasian: And lastly, a truck that never ceases to amaze, The Southern Gourmasian continues to offer their uniquely Asian spin on classic Southern American treats. In this case, the ever-popular apple fritter gets tweaked just a bit on the food truck's breakfast menu. Justin and the boys are taking bits of doughnut batter and spiking them with sweetened, chopped apple and just a touch of spicy ginger. This is dipped in the hot fryer until the dough puffs up and crisps to a golden brown—the hot fried dough is finished with a drizzle on caramel infused with slightly salty Japanese miso. They may only be doing one doughnut at Gourmasian, but when its sole offering is this good, one is all you need.
Will we be seeing more upscale donuts in the near future? I sure hope so. I know there are some who are generally against the fancification of the traditionally simple, inexpensive foods we are used to. But I’m a proponent of the modern donut revolution—it’s a movement that I hope continues to swell within central Arkansas.
Mylo Coffee Co is making two introductions to their weekly menu for Valentine’s Day. First, dark chocolate and rosemary truffles will see their way on the table with hand-tempered chocolate and local rosemary from Little Rock Urban Farming. Secondly, they’ll be rolling out a peanut butter and jelly macaron “for two,” in other words, designed for sharing. Both will be available for purchase at the Hillcrest Farmers Market on Saturday the 9th & 16th from 8 am - noon (show up early for the best selection). They’re also available by special ordering throughout the week (orders must be placed 48 hrs in advance). Call them at (501) 580-3324 or email at email@example.com.My Treat, Little Rock’s only dedicated producer of fine, handmade chocolate truffles, produce a product that would be ideal for any romantic, star-crossed lover. They’re packaging their individually wrapped truffles in red and pink boxes which may include a personalized message on the inside (the boxes I’m getting for my wife will read “Save me a bite, Honey”). Truffles come in chocolate-mint and chocolate-peanut butter and are sold by the dozen at $30 a box. Free delivery is available in the Little Rock/NLR area. To order call (501) 786-0295 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cupcakes on Kavanaugh, the Little Rock legend among baking and buttercream, will be dishing out all their regular Valentine’s colored favorites such as red velvet, pink cloud, and strawberry which may be decorated with sweet candy messages. Additionally they’ll be taking orders for half-dozen and full dozen rose cupcakes, as well as the mammoth-sized ‘rose bouquet.’ They’ll also have cake balls, cake pops, and mini cakes for the cupcake-averse.
At Brown Sugar Bakeshop they’ll be offering chocolate dipped strawberries in traditional dark or white. They’ll also be serving up their “deluxe-dipped” versions, wherein they’ll be coating the chocolate in toppings such as toasted coconut, salted caramel, and chocolate chips. They’ll also be doing 8 inch round red velvet “LOVE” cakes, heart shaped brownies.
Sweet Love, who recently celebrated its first birthday, will be doing chocolate dipped strawberries, larger “sweet heart” cakes designed for two (key word: “designed”…this, by no means, prevents you from wolfing the entire thing yourself), cookie dough truffles, iced sugar cookies, and cake truffles.
(For the address and contact information of each bakery, please see the links posted above)
4430 Hwy 5 Ste. 8
In a perfect world I would be able to subsist entirely on a diet of cheeseburgers, tacos, and donuts every day of my life. Unfortunately, this would be in direct opposition with my plans to, you know, continue living past 45 years old. With that in mind, I try to remain fairly health conscious whenever possible. Old Mill Bakery has been a staple in our home for some time now due to their ability to provide exceptional whole-grain breads and rolls. Sure, you expect to pay more for a loaf of stone-ground honey whole wheat from Old Mill than you would for a bag of Wonder Bread from Wal-Mart, but the quality and nutritional benefits in the former always outweigh the price of the latter. I am fond of Old Mill bread for its density, earthy-whole grain flavor, and soft, chewy texture. The whole grain breads come in a variety of tantalizing flavors including raisin, cinnamon and walnut, sesame and sunflower seed, or cranberry with orange zest. If you are not in the mood for a hearty whole grain bread, Old Mill is churning out a large variety of savory and sweet breads to fit any palette. Many breads are on a rotating list of daily specials. I won’t bore you with a lengthy discussion of each, but one you will not want to miss is the tomato, Italian herb, and mozzarella cheese available on Thursdays. It’s a purchase that will likely last less than two days in your breadbox, I promise.
Somehow, I had never made it to Old Mill for breakfast until recently. But after hearing they made honorable breakfast sandwiches and other tasty breakfast morsels, I could not resist the call o’ the carbohydrate for long. As I walked through their doors soon shortly after opening, I was immediately greeted by the wafting aroma of freshly baked bread. A couple young bakers stood in full view, kneading and cutting dough for the days loaves, and a worker behind the counter toted large trays carrying many of the day’s goods for the display case. There are few better ways to begin a morning.
As I walked out of the theater at Breckenridge Village, after sitting through the longest 110 minutes of my life watching “Magic Mike” do cartwheels around a stage in his underwear, I thought to myself, “How did my life come to this? I need a pick-me-up.” As I raised my head, my eye beheld the key to my recovery…cupcakes. Oh sweet sugar, you save me once again. Eat your heart out, Channing Tatum. Who needs a six-pack anyways?
Tracy Cakes, a family-owned bakery, hidden away in the Breckenridge plaza, is difficult to see from any major roads in the area, but it may just be the first thing you see as you exit the theater. Tracy Cakes (alleged sister of Patty Cakes, mother of Baby Cakes) specializes in the omnipresent cupcake. The bakery offers around 10-12 different varieties daily. Some are the expected standards, chocolate, red velvet, vanilla, but some are a bit more unique without being ridiculous (i.e. no fried chicken, wasabi, or black-eyed peas).
It’s fairly easy, in my opinion, to evaluate cupcakes. It basically comes down to two things, the cake and the frosting. Too often I’ve sampled new cupcake shops and found one part to be excellent and the other to be weak. While I found Tracy Cakes tasty overall, the frosting definitely outshines the cake in this case. This is not to say the cake was awful, but it was a little too dense and dry for my tastes. The frostings, however, rescued the whole dessert, adding the right balance of richness and sweetness, without any hint of that terrible sugar graininess bad frosting can take on.
Among my favorites was the puckerrific lemon-curd cupcake. A dense lemon buttercream frosting sits atop a vanilla cake filled with a dollop of lemon curd. So much better than plain old chocolate without being too gaudy or flashy, just refreshing and tangy. The banana cake with whipped peanut butter frosting and chocolate drizzle was another honorable mention, but perhaps my favorite was a white wedding cake style cupcake with vanilla frosting and a thick layer of white chocolate shavings. It was simple in design but it’s the first time I’ve had this particular flavor. I’d definitely recommend picking up a couple of these little crowd-pleasers.
I’ll certainly stop by Tracy Cakes next time I am in the area, perhaps after my next visit to the nearby theater, only this time, I’m hoping its after exiting a movie with a bit more to offer than regret and shame…perhaps that excellent looking Katy Perry flick?
10301 Rodney Parham Ste E3
Don’t get me wrong, I love a good cupcake just as much as the next sugar junkie. But in the last few years, it seems that nearly every bakery in the country has jumped on the cupcake craze so fiercely, that some of the great American classics have taken a back seat. I would gladly trade in a few cupcake shops for a truly exceptional pie shop, perhaps a specialty cookie shop, a crème brulee food truck. Luckily, there are still many talented confectioners who can just as easily whip up a pecan pie as toss some buttercream on a cupcake, and Sweet Love Bakery is just such a place.
Sure, Sweet Love makes some tempting cupcakes, and I’m not too proud to refuse a beautiful bananas foster, spiced rum, or lemon/blueberry cupcake. But Sweet Love is doing so much more than cakes and frosting, and each time I’ve ventured outside the cupcake mold, I have been richly rewarded.
Like cookies? Of course you do. Do not miss the brown butter chocolate chip. Brown butter is simply butter cooked down to a lovely caramel color which acquires a slightly nutty, savory flavor. The rich butter plays nicely with the sweet chocolate and chewy cookie. The peanut butter cookies are among the best I’ve ever eaten, soft, buttery, full of peanutty goodness. I’m sure if the Cookie Monster were to make a visit, he would be crying big blue tears of joy.
Every Wednesday and Sunday, Boulevard Bread Co.'s cheesemaker Blair Graves preps a new batch of quark — a creamy yogurt-like pan cheese. Boulevard sells the stuff in its fridge cases at all its locations, alongside the house-made yogurt, for $4.95 for six-ounces, and for an additional $2 you can have it outfitted for breakfasting with cinnamon apple chunks and some homemade granola.
Graves said quark was a cafe staple during her time on the west coast, and she decided to provide it to the Little Rock community as a unique yogurt substitute. But, despite the chemical similarities, as she explains, quark is actually more versatile than your average yogurt cup.
First of all, quark is rich and opaque. If you're a consumer of the whole-milk varieties of organic yogurt (especially Stonyfield Farms and Brown Cow brands), then you might be familiar with the concept of the "cream top": an inches-thick layer of extra-dense smooth curd that is so rich having more than two spoonfuls feels decadent. Quark has a consistency identical to this, except a sourish taste more reminiscent of creme fraiche or sour cream. For this reason, it can be flavored with honey or maple syrup and served as a sweet snack, or used in a savory capacity as a sour cream or even a cream cheese substitute. Graves said she recently used a dollop of quark to complement a potato soup. She also says that it's been a popular item among Boulevard's Eastern European customers who often use it as cream cheese replacement in cheesecake recipes.
Don't be intimidated by the tartness — after all, plain, unsweetened yogurt itself is pretty tangy. Because the $4.95 portion is a bit large for one sitting, I used the remaining quark in a smoothie (just like I would yogurt) and it provided a thicker, smoother consistency — more like a hearty milkshake — definitely a delicious change of pace from the way yogurt too easily thins out and liquefies.
I was talking to Leah Greenfield about her new baking business, Pie in the Sky, when she told me about the Trinity Episcopal Cathedral Community Kitchen. Greenfield makes her tarts and pies in the church's commercial kitchen, which keeps her legal and her output higher, and sells them at Terry's Finer Foods. See the half-eaten chocolate ganache tart above — I devoured part before realizing I should take a picture of the densely chocolate yum for you. The ganache is as profound as fudge, the pastry flaky and light. But back to Trinity:
The church is offering, for a small fee, access to the kitchen for small start-ups that can't yet afford their own. Their other "partners" in the enterprise include Kent Walker, maker of artisanal cheeses; Sally Mengle and Rachel Boswell's Loblolly Creamery (on Facebook), which makes ice cream and syrups for the Green Corner Store downtown; Sharea Wheeler's Sharea Soup, which delivers soups and salads for delivery. The kitchen is also a distribution point for Farm 2 Work, which sells produce from local farmers.
Now back to Greenfield. Using, yes, her grandmother's recipes, she bakes dutch brownie pie, raspberry peach cobbler, bittersweet chocolate tarts, and more. Her cranberry walnut sold like hotcakes over the holidays, and you'll see why on her website. Greenfield bakes and sells her pies ($30) in glass pie plates; return the plate to be entered in a drawing for a free pie. She does home deliveries as well as distribute at Terry's.
By the way — the gold buttons on the cake are edible.
"'you're welcome to keep eating your greens and hoe cake while the rest of us…
Where is my popcorn?
though I have to say I did raise my eyebrows at the sour cream and…
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