Sunday, January 31, 2010

Newcomer on Columbia Street: Nine Cakes

Betsy Thorleifson recently set up her shop on Columbia street. As we are always delighted to meet and welcome new businesses in the neighborhood, we asked Betsy if we could interview her. She graciously agreed and here it is. Introducing Cakes on the Waterfront!

WoCS: How did you decide to do cakes?

I was making my friend’s birthday cake, and had given notice at my job so I was trying to figure out what I was going to do next. I knew it had to be something that was my own thing, something creative, something I could make. And another friend who was a personal chef and in the kitchen with me while I was putting the birthday cake together suggested I start a cake business. It seemed like a crazy idea at the time and I don’t remember now how I ever thought it would work—but I just jumped right in and haven’t stopped moving since. It’s been a great rollercoaster whirlwind, and the best part was discovering that a cake business isn’t just about baking cakes, so I’m constantly challenging myself in learning all the aspects of running a small business.

WoCS: Do you have a background in pastry?

Nope. I have a degree in musical performance (piano, harpsichord, pipe organ) and then ended up working with kids in various childcare and teaching positions. I’ve always loved baking, and would always find a reason to bake something. Birthday cakes, scones and muffins for brunch, pies, tartlets for baby showers. Baking was always something I enjoyed doing, and always loved to explore. I’ve always “studied” cookbooks (there’s often a stack by my bedside) and loved all things pastry, if there was something I hadn’t baked before, I’d just read through recipes and figure it out. One summer I made a list of 20 different pies I wanted to make so I could perfect my pie crust. It was a delicious summer.

WoCS: Why "nine" cakes?

When I first started, I came up with a list of cakes I wanted to offer. I was sitting around brainstorming business names with friends. We came up with all sorts of ridiculous names, and then someone asked how many cakes I had. It turned out to be nine. My Dad is a math teacher, so numbers are comforting and intriguing on some level, and I love the mix of chemistry/math and alchemy/creativity I find in baking (and music for that matter). When I did a google search to make sure the name wasn’t already being used, a Lewis Carroll puzzle came up. He had written a children’s book of philosophy puzzles, and there was one about Alice needing to figure out how to arrange nine cakes in some particular order. And so it was settled: Nine Cakes. Sometimes people tell me nine is a very auspicious number.

WoCS: Why this neighborhood?

It was affordable. I wouldn’t have been able to do what I’m doing anywhere else. I’ve been growing the business a little at a time: sell some cakes buy some pans, sell some more cakes, sign a lease. The space also allows me to grow at my own pace and on my own terms; making small, intentional (often serendipitous) steps has been really good for me.

WoCS: What kind of events do you bake for most?

Right now I’m scheduling a lot of weddings, and making lots of birthday cakes, special occasion cakes, cupcakes for office parties, lots of kid birthdays. It’s fun. And now that I’m going on my second year, I’m getting orders for the same birthdays as last year—it’s very sweet.


WoCS: Which is your most popular cake?

I change the menu seasonally, so every season there’s a new favorite. This winter I’d say it’s the chocolate caramel fleur de sel, the chocolate chile, or the almond rosewater. Last summer it was the Strawberry Lemonade cake. Sometimes people won’t be able to choose just one flavor, so order cupcakes instead.

WoCS: Which is your favorite cake?

My problem is too many favorites. I just made a cake sample for a Valentine’s Day wedding, so now it’s my new wintery favorite: a dark chocolate cake with a chile-cherry filling and a dark chocolate cinnamon buttercream. It’s warming and decadent. Can you imagine a more romantic wintery cake? In the spring I love all the tea flavors and floral waters mixed into cakes and buttercreams. In the summer lemon raspberry, in the fall apple or pumpkin, with maple buttercream.

Up close

WoCS: What is the craziest request you've ever had for a cake or an event?

I don’t often receive requests for crazy cakes, my style is definitely more homespun with a little twist. Though I have done a laser tag cake, and a VW Bus for Brooklyn Based’s Lost party, and a cake that was supposed to be a military jeep but ended up looking like an English cab. Those cakes taught me I prefer making cakes that look like cakes.

WoCS: Do you watch Ace of Cakes? If so, do you like it?

I don’t have a tv, but I’ve seen it a couple times online. It’s completely mesmerizing and fun to watch, their kitchen is absolutely incredible. They make amazing sculptures… I always wonder how those crazy sculpted cakes taste though. Definitely seems like a fun show.
WoCS: Will you be opening the storefront?

For the time being, probably not. For now I feel like I’ve got the perfect set up, and opening a storefront seems like it would be a whole new venture. Though I do love it when people come in and see if I have any extra cake around. I like getting to know the neighbors, and the block has charm and a gritty sweetness. I love the view from out on the sidewalk. I’d love to have some benches out front in the spring and pots of flowers. And then I might as well make a pot of coffee and some little cakes to offer. Hmmm, sounds a little storefronty. Other ideas I’d love to make happen in the kitchen space: baking and cake decorating lessons, cupcake decorating parties for kids’ birthdays... Never short on dreams around here.
WoCS: Do you have a favorite hang out in the neighborhood?

Starting a business has limited my hang out time in any neighborhood. There are plenty of places I would love to hang out in, I really love the neighborhood… I’ve stopped in Sugar Lounge for burgers and drinks, and I LOVE Calexico for lunch (dinner if I’m working late!!). The lady who has the Union Max shop on the corner is so sweet and I love her little shop. I love the gorgeous window displays at Winkworth. And I’m a huge fan of Brooklyn General. Freebird bookstore is on my list of places to stop by, and there’s a hot dog place on Degraw I want to try, too. There are so many gems around, tucked away in little pockets of the neighborhood, I look forward to finding them over time

Nine Cakes is located at 155 Columbia street (between Kane and Degraw streets), and you can reach Betsy at (347) 907-9632.

Nine Cakes shares the space with Early Bird Foods,where Nekisia Davis makes "amazing granola gathered in Brooklyn".

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Glad to read about this new sweet spot in the neighborhood, and since I'm set to drive by within the hour.. I cannot wait to walk by with my 9 year old daughter (who is ALL over the Ace of Cakes show, for their creations - as she likens cake design to jewelry design). Maybe this applies to another artist, art form moving in? Inspiring story of following what you love to do, and certainly -- all icing on the cake.