Thursday, 28 November 2013

Nine Cakes, Brooklyn: Not just a pretty cake

The shop front in Brooklyn
Betsy Thorleifson is the owner of Brooklyn based cake studio Nine Cakes. Her seasonal flavour pairings and handmade decorations have earned her praise from the likes of Martha Stewart, Brides magazine and Design Sponge. On a recent trip to New York I caught up with Betsy to find out how she developed her company and where she gets her culinary inspiration from.

The Nine Cakes studio is tucked away on Columbia Street in Brooklyn not too far from Smith Street with its trendy cafes and boutiques and just across the water from downtown Manhattan. Betsy is in good company with so many other young food businesses in the neighbourhood “There’s a little coffee shop that I love called Cafe Pedlar and a really yummy foodie shop called Stinky Brooklyn filled with all sorts of cheeses”. 
Betsy's team create beautiful hand made sugar decorations
Sketched designs waiting to be made up
In an industry once dominated by formal fondant covered wedding cakes and more recently, the cupcake, Nine Cakes offers a modern aesthetic. Betsy takes her favourite flavours of the season and translates them into nine (of course) signature cakes “I love pumpkin in the fall and one of my favourites is the almond pear cake. In the spring I like doing lots of raspberries and strawberries and then summery things.” For the icing, Betsy uses Swiss meringue buttercream instead of its sweeter and heavier butter and sugar cousin. Each cake tier has four layers and is finished with graphic style piped borders and sugar decorations that are coloured to reflect the cake flavour beneath the icing. Betsy describes the look as “Cake that looks like cake”. 

The inspiration for naming her business came from the cakes themselves. “When I first started, I came up with a list of my favourite cakes. I was sitting around with a group of friends and we were trying to figure out some name ideas. Someone said, ‘well, how many cakes do you have?’” There is also link to Betsy’s fondness for numbers (her dad was a maths teacher). “I came across this book of logic puzzles for kids. Lewis Carroll’s Alice character is tasked with arranging nine cakes in a specific order so I thought, yeah, it’s going to be Nine Cakes!”
Vintage scales in the cake studio
After settling on a name and starting to develop the idea, it didn’t take long for the business to outgrow her apartment. “I very first started in my apartment and then pretty quickly realised that I needed more space. I was making 200 little cupcakes and they were on cooling racks all over”. Shared kitchen space found on the website Craig’s List offered a low risk solution to expanding the business. “It was somebody else’s kitchen and they were looking to rent space to someone. Eventually I took over the space and the lease and it’s been perfect – I was able to start doing my thing and it’s just grown by word of mouth”.

On starting a cake business Betsy says “just jump right in”. Thinking back to her first year she says “It felt like raising a kid in a way. It takes a lot of your attention and as it gets older each year there’s a real difference. By the second year I realised it was better to offer a range of signature flavours for each season. By the third year it felt more like a working machine. I wish I would have known to hire people sooner – there were times where I literally worked around the clock.” 

On delegating she says that it’s best to prioritise. “Find what you want to do and make that happen instead of thinking that you’re going to do everything - in that first year I quickly realised that I have a business, I’m not just a baker anymore.”

It’s too difficult to choose just one of Betsy’s cake flavours so I head back to our friend’s Manhattan apartment via a Smith Street coffee with two single tier six inch cakes from her fall menu – one Pumpkin Walnut and one Chocolate Caramel Cloud. 

Nine Cakes
155 Columbia Street Brooklyn 11231

Pumpkin walnut cake
The studio
Ghost pumpkin display in the shop front
Simple paper decoration in the shop front display
The studio


Anonymous said...

I loved this, completely agree with her comment about cake looking like cake. I use Italian meringue buttercream to cover cakes for exactly that reason. Her designs are wonderful, so fresh.

April Carter said...

Thanks LB - I love this philosophy too!


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