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The San Diego Union-Tribune

 
Playing with flour a rising obsession

NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

June 20, 2007


MARISSA ROTH / The New York Times
Candace Nelson's Sprinkles cupcakes have attracted high-profile fans.
LOS ANGELES – As Hollywood apprentices go, Amy Berman had it pretty good as a production assistant on “Will & Grace.” She met guest stars like Madonna and Jennifer Lopez, hung out in the writers' room and often had drinks with producers after the Tuesday-night tapings.

It was a plum Hollywood primer, letting her explore whether writing, directing or producing might be right for her.

After a year and a half of shuttling scripts, she figured it out: What she really wanted to do was bake. She left the entertainment industry for pastry school, and in 2005 began delivering bite-size cupcakes to the sets of TV shows like “The Office.” Now she has opened the Vanilla Bake Shop, a little place with cotton-candy-color walls in Santa Monica.

“I'm still working 15 hours a day,” said Berman, 29, “but it's my passion.”

Inspired by the allure of the quaint, the glamorization of the food industry and the success of places like Sprinkles Cupcakes in Beverly Hills, which brought the let's-wait-in-long-lines-for-a-cupcake trend to the West Coast, a number of white-collar professionals in Los Angeles have traded corporate jobs for lives as flour-coated entrepreneurs.

In the past year, about a dozen boutique bakeries serving expensive versions of all-American desserts like banana pudding and $3 red velvet cupcakes have popped up around the city, many run by second-act bakers.

Kirk Rossberg, who owns the 23-year-old Torrance Bakery in the South Bay, said he is swamped with intern applicants.

“Until last year, I never had people asking to work for free,” said Rossberg, who is also president of the California Retail Bakers Association. He estimated that of the 30 interns he used this year, 90 percent were leaving professional careers to pursue a dream of opening a bakery.

Blame it on a culture where the BlackBerry-obsessed run around like overcaffeinated track stars, but there is a tremendous craving for comfort, particularly in fast-paced cities like Los Angeles, said Grant McCracken, the author of the book “Culture and Consumption II: Markets, Meaning and Brand Management.”

For many people, he said, “Baking represents that. It harks back to a simpler time.” Comfort food, it seems, has become a comfort career.

Lesley Balla, the editor of the foodie blog Eater LA, said: “Do we really need another bakery? Probably not. But Angelenos have been starving for sugar and carbs for so long that the bakeries seem like a breath of fresh air.”

Besides, she said, “if it's the hot new thing, everyone's going to really want it in L.A, because that's what we do.”

And, perhaps, overdo. Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic for L.A. Weekly, said hardly a week goes by without a box of cookies or cupcakes landing on his desk from a new place he has never heard of. “And they're not just cupcakes,” he said. “They're cupcakes with publicists.”

Still, Gold understands why the city might inspire a craving for jobs with tangible fruits.

“In a town where people say 'no' to you all the time and you rarely have the simple satisfaction of getting something made, being able to make a sweet, simple thing that makes people happy is really compelling.”

Late bloomers

Rebecca Marrs, the director of career services at the California School of Culinary Arts in Pasadena, has seen a noticeable rise in the number of older career-shifters, as opposed to 20-somethings hoping to break in after high school or college.

Enrollment in the baking program increased 31 percent last year, she said, and the school recently added its first evening and weekend patisserie program to accommodate demand from working professionals looking to switch acts.

Not all late-blooming bakers cultivate the craft at pastry school. Many simply rely on recipes and skills they picked up in Grandma's kitchen, with their own ovens and hand mixers playing supporting roles.

Take Charles and Candace Nelson, the team behind the Los Angeles-based cupcake chain Sprinkles, who bid farewell to six-figure investment banking salaries in 2002 to start a dessert-catering business out of their kitchen.

“It was a crazy time to be opening a bakery,” Candace Nelson said. “The 'South Beach Diet Cookbook' was a best seller.” She vividly remembers wedding-shower guests refusing to try her cupcakes for fear of exceeding their carb allotment.

Nationwide, it was a difficult time for sweets. According to MarketResearch.com, after a four-year no-carb slump, the baked goods business started bouncing back in 2005.

Now, even the sveltest of women can't seem to stop wiping butter cream from their lips.

When the first Sprinkles location opened in April 2005, the couple sold 2,000 cupcakes the first week and attracted high-profile fans such as Oprah Winfrey and Katie Holmes. People have been lining up ever since, and now the Nelsons have stores in Dallas and Orange County, with plans to open six more across the country next year.

Despite their business success, their new life isn't necessarily easier.

“I found the one job where the hours are worse than investment banking,” Candace Nelson said. “We're on call essentially 24/7.” She is due to have the couple's first baby soon and plans to take only a two-week maternity leave.

Not that they, or others who have made the trade-off, regret it. Genevieve Ostrander, who opened Delilah's Bakery in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles five months ago, said her former job as a beauty publicist was “soul-sucking.” Now, she specializes in making Southern-inspired desserts.

“I'm the poorest girl in all of L.A. I don't eat out, I don't shop, I even had to cancel my cable,” said Ostrander, 34. “But I love it.”

Lisa Ritter and Mary Odson, the partners behind the new bakery Big Sugar in the Studio City neighborhood (whose doughnut muffins have a big fan in Marc Cherry, the creator of “Desperate Housewives”), were stay-at-home mothers with corporate pasts looking for a flexible way back into the work force. Now, their children have a place to come after school.

“The quality of life is fantastic,” Ritter said. “We get to see our kids so much more.”

Of course, turning a baking hobby into a business isn't just a Los Angeles trend. Warren Brown, the lawyer who opened CakeLove in Washington in 2002, is now the host of the Food Network show “Sugar Rush.” Then there's Jennifer Appel, the clinical psychologist who, with Allysa Torey, opened Magnolia Bakery in New York in 1996, which many credit with starting the cupcake obsession.

Success doesn't always come easy. The failure rate in the baking business is significant, said Abbye Williams, a consultant who is helping a former teacher open a gluten-free bakery in Culver City.

“I think she's crazy, to tell you the truth,” Williams said. “She doesn't have any experience, and a brick-and-mortar bakery is a ton of work.”

Which is why Clare Crespo, a former music producer, skipped the storefront, and with two partners rolled out Treat Street, a roving bakery stand, last September. Inspired by Lucy's psychiatry kiosk in the “Peanuts” comic strip, the pink polka-dot stand pops up in the bohemian Silver Lake neighborhood on random Saturdays.

“The idea is like a rave,” said Crespo, who posts pink signs to direct customers to the secret location. “We set up when people are least expecting it. If someone gave me a ton of money, maybe I would open my own place, but it's still so much pressure and work – waking up early and making the same thing every day.

“This is more like playing bakery.”

Black Bottom Cupcakes

Makes 1 1/2 dozen cupcakes

CREAM CHEESE FILLING

3/4 pound (one and a half 8-ounce packages) cream cheese (not softened)

1/2 cup sugar

1 large egg, at room temperature

1/3 cup miniature semisweet chocolate chips

CUPCAKES

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

3/4 cup unsweetened Dutch process cocoa

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup vegetable oil (preferably canola)

1 cup sugar

1 cup buttermilk

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two 12-cup muffin tins with 18 cupcake liners.

To make the cream cheese filling: In a medium-size bowl, beat the cream cheese and sugar until smooth. Add the egg and beat well. Stir in the chocolate chips. Set aside.

To make the cupcakes: In a small bowl, combine the flour, cocoa, baking soda and salt. Set aside. In a large bowl, on the medium speed of an electric mixer, beat together the oil and sugar. Add the dry ingredients in two parts, alternating with the buttermilk and vanilla, and making sure all ingredients are well blended.

Carefully spoon the cupcake batter into the cupcake liners, filling them about two-thirds full. Drop a small scoop (about 11/2 tablespoons) of the cream cheese filling on top of each cupcake. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted in the center of the cupcake comes out clean.

Cool the cupcakes in the tins for 30 minutes. Remove from the tins and cool completely on a wire rack.

(From “More From Magnolia” by Allysa Torey, Simon & Schuster)

Dark Chocolate Frosting

Frosts 2 dozen cupcakes

10 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped

1 pound unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 1/2 pounds powdered sugar

1/8 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1/2 cup sour cream

Melt chocolate and cool until just slightly warm. With an electric mixer, beat butter until light and fluffy. Don't over-whip and add too much air into the frosting.

With mixer on low speed, gradually add powdered sugar. Add salt, vanilla and sour cream and mix until very smooth. Add chocolate and mix until just incorporated.

(From Candace Nelson of Sprinkles Cupcakes)

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