Monthly Archives: October 2010

Sweet Life Patisserie, Eugene, OR

 

Two sisters live the sweet life making treats to moan for, including a cake whose name some hesitate to say aloudChocolate Orgasm.

by Bakery Boy — photos by Becky Luigart Stayner

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Catherine (left) with Chocolate Orgasm Cake, Cheryl with Organic Blackberry Custard Tart.

“Women will come in and say they want that… you know… that chocolate cake with the… you know… and then they’ll raise their eyebrows up and down because they don’t want to say the word.” That’s baker Catherine Reinhart of Sweet Life Patisserie describing how some customers have a hard time asking outright for the popular Chocolate Orgasm Cake.

It’s a fantastic cake, though maybe not quite literally up to its stimulating name. The anecdote helps define the playful attitude at this splendid desserts shop run by Catherine and her sister, Cheryl, in the free-spirited Whiteaker Community a few blocks west of downtown Eugene, Oregon.

Organic Blackberry Custard Tart

“We have fun making up new desserts to please people,” Catherine says. “That one gets a lot of attention because of the name. We also make Love Truffles, mixing in herbs and spices that are known aphrodisiacs, such as sarsaparilla, ginger, cinnamon, cayenne, kava-kava, and something called horny goat weed. Don’t get me wrong—we’re not just that kind of bakery. We make all kinds of cakes, pies, cheesecakes, tarts, and pastries beyond the two that raise eyebrows.”

So what’s in a Chocolate (you know) Cake? “It’s a layer of chocolate fudge cake drizzled with orange syrup, a layer of vanilla custard, a layer of chocolate mousse, a layer of blood orange and white chocolate butter cream frosting on top, and chocolate ganache spread on the side,” says Catherine, who holds one of the delights in a photo here.

 

Sweet Life is a popular neighborhood hangout.

BONA FIDE GOOD I first heard about and Sweet Life from Randi Bjornstad, a longtime reporter and former food columnist for Eugene’s daily newspaper, The Register Guard. “They make some of the most incredible desserts and some of the most beautiful and rich confections in Eugene or maybe anywhere,” she tells me. “The cakes are especially good, but so are the breakfast pastries, cheesecakes, pies, cookies, brownies, gelato, and sorbet. They also sell vegan and health-oriented goodies. The place is totally an institution around here.”

 

 

Catherine drizzles chocolate ganache on a caramel shortbread tart.

SISTERS STORY The Reinhart siblings grew up in Ohio baking and cooking with their mother. “Ever since we got an Easy Bake Oven as little girls, I tended to bake sweets and Cheryl took more to the savory side,” Catherine says. “We later worked in some restaurants together. We went to college in Massachusetts and New York—she studied government, I studied French—and ended up with degrees we didn’t use. But spending time in France, I discovered the true passion people there have for baking high quality desserts at wonderful little patisseries that are on almost every corner. The experience led me to what I do at Sweet Life.”

Not right away, though. “We bounced around some,” Catherine says. “We worked as cooks on a fishing boat in Alaska. It was crazy, being tossed around in a narrow little galley. After four month at sea, we took all of our earnings, plus a few thousand more dollars invested by our parents, and in 1993 started a little cake business.”

Great options make choosing a (pleasant) challenge.

They remodeled a garage at Catherine’s and Cheryl’s modest home in Eugene into a commercial kitchen. From making just a few cakes at a time to an increasingly busy schedule of crafting elaborate wedding cakes after word got around about how good the sisters were, Sweet Life lasted six years there. In 1999 they moved into the current retail location a few blocks away, in 2004 they added a production facility across the street, and they gradually added staff to reach today’s workforce of 60.

Chocolate Ganache Silk

FROM SCRATCH “We only use the best ingredients,” Catherine insists. “Our desserts are made from scratch, inspired by the French. We might make our éclairs and sweet rolls bigger—that’s the American way—but they’re done right. That’s what distinguishes us.”

Everything is gorgeous too: Carrot Cakes loaded with walnuts and raisins. Strawberry Champagne Chiffon Cakes filled with strawberry mouse and drizzled with champagne syrup. Cheesecakes perched on graham cracker or chocolate cookie crusts. Fruit tarts featuring a base of almond or hazelnut frangipane or spread with smooth custard and covered with raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, cherries, pears, or figs. Prim petit fours. Ham-and-cheese filled croissants. Merrily iced cutout cookies. Creations called “Booze Balls” and “Nipples of Venus” (hmm, do people have trouble asking for those by name too?)

Coconut Cream Pie

“For me the best thing about baking is being creative,” Catherine says. “Whether I’m coming up with new pastries, decorating cakes, arranging a display case, or deciding to put raspberries on top the coconut cream pies, being creative keeps me going.”

All smiles at Sweet Life Patisserie

MEETING SPECIAL NEEDS Sweet Life caters to just about every special dietary need imaginable. “In Eugene everyone seems to have a special interest in eating healthy,” Catherine says. “They’ll say they need gluten-free or dairy-free for allergies, or sugar-free for diabetes, or animal-product-free for vegans, and I’ll say, ‘We have that!’ We make a lot of desserts without eggs, dairy, or animal products. We make wheat-free cakes. We make gluten-free fillings and frosting (except for custards). We use hormone-free dairy, natural flavorings, expeller-pressed oil, fair-trade and pesticide-free vanilla, trans-fat-free organic palm shortening, and some organic and locally grown produce. Basically we like making things people will love to eat.”

Everyone likes a cookie.

One category Sweet Life doesn’t cover is bread. “I realized early on that bread-making takes a whole different set of skills and equipment, and I decided to stick with cakes and pastries,” she says. “If you want fantastic bread in Eugene, get it from Hideaway Bakery behind Mazzi’s Restaurant, where they really know what they’re doing.” (Note to self: Must check out Hideaway Bakery at the next opportunity for another Bakery Boy Blog post.)

LOVE THY NEIGHBORHOOD Sweet Life has become a popular hangout where customers linger over decadent sweets and healthy variations while sipping earth-friendly organically grown coffees and teas. “I love this neighborhood,” Catherine says. “The Whiteaker Community is so funky and bohemian. You see all kinds of people—hippies, grandmas, little kids, artists, University of Oregon students, and everyone else—mixing together. Plus I can walk three blocks from home and be here, which is hard to beat.”

If her positive attitude ever flags and she needs a little pick-me-up, there’s always a slice of—go ahead, say the name aloud—Chocolate Orgasm Cake!

______________________________

WHERE Sweet Life Patisserie, 755 Monroe Street, Eugene, OR 97402

WHEN Monday-Friday 7 a.m.-11 p.m., Saturday-Sunday 8 a.m.-11 p.m.

 

INFO www.sweetlifedesserts.com or 541-683-5676

______________________________

Fig Hazelnut Frangipane Tart

Photography by Becky Luigart Stayner of Sunny House Studio.

 

Recipe alert: Sweet Life Patisserie graciously agreed to share its recipe for Fig Hazelnut Frangipane Tart (seen at right) with readers of the Bakery Boy Blog. Click here for the recipe.

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Simple Kneads, Greensboro, NC

Gorgeous loaves

Duck down an alley, step through a screen door, and feast your senses on simply beautiful breads and pastries.

story & photos by Bakery Boy

[UPDATE: Sadly, Simple Kneads closed on August 19, 2011, the victim of a sluggish economy. It will be missed. The Bakery Boy Blog and its readers wish owner Bill Snider and his staff the best for whatever their future holds.]

A narrow courtyard leads to Simple Kneads.

Technically it’s not an alley but a courtyard you duck down to find Simple Kneads. The narrow passage squeezes between two buildings, lending a sense of secrecy to this artisan bakery tucked just off South Elm Street in downtown Greensboro, North Carolina. Come to think of it, the artistic metal gate you pass through, a couple of small tables and chairs for lingering, some over-sized planters, and brick walls peeking from under chipped plaster create a certain “hidden European café” ambiance even before you reach the actual bakeshop.

Well-stocked bread shelves at Simple Kneads inspire awe among bread lovers. Photos by Bakery Boy.

BREATH IT IN Once inside Simple Kneads the full impact hits you—the steamy atmosphere and yeasty aroma of slow-developing Old World-style breads. A tall display case of crusty brown loaves behind the counter catches your eyes. Hefty round portions of Cranberry Walnut, Harvest Curry, and Parmesan Walnut. Football-shaped Asiago Peppercorn, Five Seed, and Olive. Squared-off Ciabatta. Braided Challah. Flat Focaccia. Slender Baguettes poking vertically from wicker baskets. If your timing is right, you’ll also find Garlic Rosemary, Russian Black, Cinnamon Raisin, Jewish Rye, Rustic Farm, and even a bread called Spelt, which hardly anyone makes anymore from a somewhat rare but healthy-for-you strain of wheat. Almost all the breads are priced at or just under $5.

Employee Laura Bauer transfers some fresh Challah.

SWEETS TOO Pull your eyes away from that amazing collection of breads to find the sweeter side of Simple Kneads in a pair of glass showcases. Muffins, scones, almond horns, croissants, strudel, turnovers, Danish, brownies, granola bars, cookies, éclairs, lemon bars, and the day’s quiche compete for shelf space during late-morning prime time, then gradually thin out as the day wears on and the goodies disappear.

FIND YOUR NICHE Vegan desserts such as gooey raspberry brownies or chocolate chip cookies made with ground flax seeds—plus gluten-free treats for people allergic to wheat—attract devoted niche audiences. Organic ingredients and recipes declared trans-fat-free and preservative-free draw health-conscious regulars. A preference for eggs and dairy products bought directly from nearby farms satisfies backers of the buy-local school of thought. All these traits—along with the generally laid-back attitude of nearly everyone working there and much of the clientele—make Simple Kneads a to-go spot for in-the-know Greensboro residents. Lucky visitors either hear about it word-of-mouth or stumble upon it by following their noses.

MANNING THE OVEN Ohio-born owner Bill Snider—once a college classmate of Barack Obama, for years a journalist covering education issues while based in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, and an editor for The George Lucas Education Foundation started by the creator of Star Wars—knew he was ready for a career change when, as he says, “I learned to bake partly as a way to procrastinate from writing.” With his now-former wife Ann, a fashion apparel engineer, he moved to North Carolina from California’s Bay Area. “Out there you find great bread available everywhere from bakeries like Acme Bread Company, Semifreddi’s Bakery, and Grace Baking,” he says. “Here we found nothing like that. So I bought the best bread-making book available at the time, Daniel Leader’s Bread Alone: Bold Fresh Loaves From Your Own Hands, and kept baking until I started making breads I liked.”

He sold his homemade bread at a local farmer’s market, where chefs discovered his loaves and soon served them in their restaurants. A small rented workspace, minimal equipment bought on eBay, and initial ingredients funded by a friend’s loan got Simple Kneads started. Today Bill oversees a bigger and better facility and additional staffers who produce a much-expanded menu that has grown beyond his early devotion to breads.

“Simple Kneads lets me give back to my community on a much more ‘micro’ level than journalism did,” Bill says. “We provide simple, healthy food made from scratch and using as many local and/or organic ingredients as possible. We offer a fulfilling workplace. And we make people happy. So, life is good.”

Being slightly hidden makes Simple Kneads even more of a "find" for bakery fans.

ALL AROUND TOWN Simple Kneads itself might be a little hard to find (hidden behind Mary Contrary, a home-and-garden accessories shop, three blocks south of City Center Park at the heart of downtown at 227-B South Elm Street) but its baked goods reach a variety of outlets in and around Greensboro, including:

Greensboro Farmers’ Curb Market Saturday mornings at 501 Yanceyville Street, Greensboro

The Green Bean coffeehouse at 341 South Elm Street, Greensboro

Bert’s Seafood Grille restaurant at 4608 West Market Street, Greensboro

Deep Roots Market natural foods cooperative at 3728 Spring Garden Street, Greensboro

Bestway Grocery at 2113 Walker Avenue, Greensboro

Krankies Coffee at 211 East Third Street, Winston-Salem

Reynolda Farm Market at 1206 Reynolda Road, Winston Salem

WHERE Simple Kneads, 227-B South Elm Street, Greensboro, NC 27403 (three blocks south of the heart of downtown)

WHEN Store hours Monday-Friday 7:30 a.m.-7 p.m., Saturday 7:30 a.m.-5 p.m.

MORE INFO

Simple Kneads: Click here for the Simple Kneads Facebook Page; 336-370-4446

Greensboro area: Greensboro Convention & Visitors Bureau, www.greenboronc.com; (336) 274-2282  or toll free 800-344-2282

Downtown Greensboro: Downtown Greensboro Inc., www.downtowngreensboro.net; 336-379-0060

Winston-Salem: Winston-Salem Visitor Center, www.visitwinstonsalem.com; 336.728.4200 or toll free 866.728.4200

North Carolina: Visit North Carolina, www.visitnc.com; 800-VISITNC

Blueberry Pie in Maine

Love blueberry pie? Find pie nirvana at the Quietside Cafe in Southwest Harbor, Maine.

by Bakery Boy

Blueberry pie in Maine stands tall, like this piece from the Quietside Cafe in Southwest Harbor.

Like many people, I went to coastal Maine to eat lobster and didn’t know until I got there that I’d also entered blueberry-pie-lovers’ heaven. And like a hungry bear that wanders into town, I gorged on both delicacies during a blissful summer visit several years ago. The memory still lingers. My personal benchmark for terrific lobster and transcendent blueberry pie remains Mount Desert Island, home of the rugged Acadia National Park, the famous port town of Bar Harbor, and the lesser-known fishing village of Southwest Harbor, where I believe I achieved pie nirvana.

The art of pie-making extends to sign-making at the Quietside Cafe.

More recently (this summer) my friend Teresa vacationed in Maine with her husband and son and confirmed that it remains a sort of Paradise, Elysian Fields, Valhalla, Shangri-La, Avalon, and Kingdom Come of pie. A loyal follower of the Bakery Boy Blog, Teresa returned home to Alabama raving about those pies.

Though small, the Quietside Cafe can pack in a huge pie-loving crowd.

“At the Quietside Café in Southwest Harbor we ate terrific blueberry pie that was at least four inches high in the center,” she said. “I’ve never seen a fruit pie that huge! They had a good-looking chocolate pie and some other pies too, but we were on a blueberry pie quest and didn’t try anything else, though now I wish we had. At another restaurant, The Captains Galley at Beal’s Lobster Pier, we found blueberry pie made from the same small but really sweet berries that grow in Maine. The crusts at both were slightly sweet and insanely flaky. Those two places—less than a mile apart—serve two of the best pies I’ve ever eaten. They really know how to make ’em up there!”

Now I know two things: One, Maine still holds a deservedly pie-and-mighty place in the universe of pie. Two, I should get back there as soon as possible. Make that three: I have a fresh excuse to call Downeast Maine pie makers and chat.

Piemaker Frances Reed and her daughter Marlena.

FRANCES REED, PIE QUEEN After just three rings I got an answer and asked, May I speak to whoever makes those great blueberry pies at the Quietside Café please?

 

“That’s me,” said Frances Reed, the perky Pie Queen of Downeast Maine, in an accent that recalls her West African roots rather than her husband Ralph Reed’s hometown of Tremont, a hamlet a few miles down the road from the café they own together.”

It’s a pleasure to meet you Frances. What is it about your pies that makes people rave about them?

“The berries have a lot to do with it,” Frances said. “Blueberries grown here in Maine are small but very sweet. They’re loaded with natural sugar so you don’t have to add much processed sugar. You can really taste the difference. We order berries from local growers about four times a week to keep a fresh supply coming.”

And the impressive height of your pies, how do you achieve that?

A whole blueberry pie at Quietside Cafe goes for $27.

“For one thing, I use a lot of filling, at least seven cups of blueberries in each 10-inch pie. To keep it from spilling out as it bakes, the crust has to be pinched tight along the edge.”

A good crust is key to any successful pie. What’s your secret?

“It’s just that—a secret! I’ll tell you this, I make it fresh every day. Pastry dough for pie has to be fresh to work right.”

Blueberry Pie a la Mode.

But the price is no secret, right?

“A slice is $5.75. Served with ice cream, $6.75. A whole pie, $27. About two year ago we started shipping pies all over the country to people who just had to have them, even though the mailing cost is $138 to send two pies overnight in a refrigerated box!”

What other pies to you make?

In fall, Quietside Cafe pies include pumpkin, sweet potato, and chocolate espresso pecan.

“Apple pie is another big seller in summer, the busy season here. In fall we make pecan, pumpkin, and sweet potato pies too. We also bake brownies and cookies. We’re closed from partway through November to partway through April, when it’s cold and rainy here and fewer people visit.”

You don’t sound like you’re from Maine.

“I was born in Ghana in West Africa and grew up there, went to school in London, and lived in Germany for many years. I married Ralph 25 years ago—it’s our anniversary this month—while he was in the U.S. Army. He was in the service for 25 years and then we moved here to his home area. We’ve owned Quietside Café for 14 years.”

What else does the Quietside serve?

“Lobster, crab, pizza, burgers, chowder, soups, sandwiches, salads, ice cream. It’s a small place with six tables and a counter inside, plus five picnic tables and a row of stools outside. In summer the line to get in is pretty long. Just about everyone finishes with pie. I probably make 50 to 60 pies every day.”

Are you having fun?

Frances, Marlena, Ebony, and Ralph Reed at their Quietside Cafe.

“Oh yes! We work hard, but we have a great time. Ralph is here with me and our two daughters practically grew up in the café. Ebony is now an Airman Second Class in the U.S. Air Force, working in logistics, and Marlena is an Army ROTC Cadet.”

What do they want most when they come home?

“Pie, of course!”

 

Great pie...and much more.

WHERE Quietside Café, 360 Main Street, Southwest Harbor, ME 04679 (14 miles southwest of Bar Harbor through the scenic Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island)

 

 

WHEN Open most days 11 a.m.-10 p.m. from late April through mid-November (all subject to change)

INFO Call 207-244-9444 or click here for the Quietside Café’s Facebook Page

 

Lobster boats dot the Maine coast.

AREA INFO Get more from National Park Acadia (a commercial site maintained by Downeast Directions, not the actual National Park’s site); from Captain D’s Ports Downeast; and from the Maine Office of Tourism (call 1-888-624-6345)

 

Beal's Lobster Pier in Southwest Harbor.

HONORABLE MENTION According to my pie-questing pal Teresa, the blueberry pie at The Captains Galley at Beal’s Lobster Pier, three-quarters of a mile from Quietside Café, is also among the best on pie-intensive Mount Desert Island, which we’ve taken to calling Mount Dessert Island for good reason. I missed reaching the owners because they’d already closed and headed south for the winter. My suggestion: Try pie at both places—and any others you find in the area—then decide for yourself.

SHARE YOUR FAVORITE PIE? If you’ve found nirvana-inducing pie in Maine or anywhere else, leave a comment below and share the details with the Bakery Boy Blog.

Brick Street Cafe, Greenville, SC

“Even I don’t know the secret recipe for my sweet potato pie and sweet potato cake,” says ukulele-strumming restaurateur and baker Sara Wilson.

story & photos by Bakery Boy

Sara Wilson serenades a sweet potato pie at her Brick Street Cafe. Photos by Bakery Boy.

Some of the best sweet potato pie and sweet potato cake you’ll ever taste comes from Brick Street Café, an adventuresome restaurant with a bakery in its basement in Greenville, South Carolina. Just don’t ask owner Sara Wilson for the recipe, because it’s so secret even she doesn’t know it. “I know absolutely everything about everything else in my restaurant and my bakery,” Sara says firmly, adding as an aside that the two-level brick structure with squeaky wooden floors in the West End Historic District was originally a belt factory. “But I don’t know the secret mixture used in the two desserts we’re best known for.”

This historic-district building once held a belt factory.

Here’s why, a story that has become a running joke for family members and Brick Street Café employees alike. Sara tells it while lounging on a garden-like back porch that serves as a waiting area, a break room, and her de facto office as she strums a ukulele and smiles, carefree clues that she’s not particularly bothered by being left out of this well-guarded secret.

"The sweet potato cake has practically an entire sweet potato pie mixed into it," Sara says.

“My husband Jim, who is a cabinet builder, got a recipe for sweet potato pie filling from one of his aunts,” Sara explains. “He comes here about three times a week to whip up big batches of the basic mixture. I’ve tried and tried to get him to tell me what all’s in it, so I can make it myself. But he always says—tongue in cheek, I think—‘No way! If you had that, you wouldn’t need me around anymore!’ ” So keeping the mixture mysterious is a form of husband-job-security for Jim. “The funny thing is,” she says, “for 15 years I’ve been taking all the credit for our most popular desserts, even though I couldn’t make them without Jim and his aunt’s recipe.”

Try a slice of each, for good measure.

CAKE TOO She certainly knows how the cake version came into being, since that was her idea. “I make a coconut cake that I learned from my neighbor more than 30 years ago,” Sara says. “One day in the kitchen, Jim was making his sweet potato pie mixture over where I couldn’t watch very closely, and I started to wonder what would happen if I added some of it to the yellow cake batter I use for coconut cake and then put some cream cheese icing on it. I tried it, and the results turned out to be very popular with our clientele.”

A festive mishmash of styles brightens Brick Street Café.

OTHER TREATS Besides sweet potato pie ($18.95/whole pie, $3.95/slice) and sweet potato cake ($37.95/large, $29.95/medium, $21.95/small, $4.25/slice), Brick Street Café also makes pineapple cake, 4-layer German chocolate cake, carrot cake, peanut butter cake, and more—all sold in-house by the slice and most available to go in several sizes. Also worth trying: blueberry pie and no-sugar-added apple pie. Although the bakery at Brick Street Café fits the “life is short, eat dessert first” school of thought, traditionalists might want to eat lunch or dinner before rewarding themselves. The eclectic menu ranges from fresh fruit plates, fried green tomatoes, and grilled salmon on mixed greens salad with roasted corn salsa, to roasted turkey hero or oyster po’ boy sandwiches, filet mignon with crab cake, sautéed shrimp and Andouille sausage on creamy grits, or vegetarian lasagna featuring spinach, zucchini, mushrooms, cheese, and marinara sauce. Hungry yet?

MUSIC NEXT DOOR The latest venture for Sara and Jim Wilson is Stella’s Music Emporium, located adjacent to their bustling restaurant and bakery. “Stella’s focuses on vintage stringed instruments, something that attracts the musician in me and the woodworker in Jim,” Sara says, still strumming her ukulele. “We hold live music happening, offer music lessons, stock vintage clothing and jewelry, and sell artwork that involves musical instruments in one way or another.”

WHERE Brick Street Café, 315 Augusta Street, Greenville, SC 29615

WHEN 11 a.m. – 2:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 5:30 – 9:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday

MORE INFO

Brick Street Café at www.brickstreetcafe.com or 864-421-0111

Stella’s Music Emporium at www.stellasme.com or 864-232-5221

Greenville Visitors Center at www.greenvillecvb.com or 864-233-0461 (for more about the city)

Discover Upcountry Carolina Association at www.theupcountry.com or 864-233-2690 or 800-849-4766 (for more about the northwest corner of South Carolina)

Cake Knife Tips

“Psst! Hey, Joe, bring your knife, it’s almost time to sing.” Why I always keep a cake knife handy at the office.

story & photos by Bakery Boy

At every office I’ve worked in, I’ve been the go-to guy for cutting cakes. Whenever there’s a birthday, promotion, engagement, newborn, retirement, or just Friday to celebrate, one co-worker or another swings by my desk, tells me in a stage whisper of a party about to happen, and says to grab my knife and come along.

Known for being raised in a bakery, I’ve gotten used to this. It’s a good reputation to have because I get to eat cake often. So I always keep a cake knife in my top drawer.

My training was entirely informal, the result of growing up surrounded by cakes at every stage of their life-cycle, from batter to slices. Ever since I can remember I pitched in at my family’s bakeshop to mix, pour, bake, cool, stack, frost, decorate, and even deliver cakes, plus I helped cut and serve cakes at home or at wedding, anniversaries, ribbon-cuttings, and other events we catered. I know a few tricks, yes, but for this essay I decided to seek an expert’s opinion.

No actual cake is necessary for knife wizard Susan Green to show how to cut thinner layers using a turntable and a pair of knives she has had since 1981.

PROFESSIONAL HELP So I contacted Susan Green, owner of Birmingham Bake and Cook Company. Susan loves knives and teaches a monthly kitchen knife skills class. A Culinary Institute of America graduate with 35 years of experience in the food industry—including purchasing equipment for countless restaurants from Boston to San Francisco to Manhattan—she knows all about cake knives.

Susan invited me to her kitchen-supplies store, where she and various guest chefs teach two culinary classes each week. She had new knives still in their wrappers to show me plus a venerable pair she’s been using since 1981. “They’ve held up well,” she said.

Susan focuses more on preparation (slicing layers horizontally before frosting them) than on serving (my forté), but she spoke confidently about both. Here are some of her tips:

New knives (left) and a pair Susan had wielded for three decades.

• “There are two kinds of cake knives—serrated and not. Use the serrated knife for less-dense cakes with textures softer inside and harder outside, like birthday and wedding cakes, and for angel food or Bundt cakes with more of a crumb factor. Use the non-serrated knife for denser cakes where there’s less difference between inside and outside textures, like nut-bread or cheesecake.”

• “Choose a knife that’s a couple of inches longer than the cake is wide. A 14-inch blade will handle rounds up to 12 inches or a full sheet; a 10-inch blade works for layers less than 10 inches or a half sheet.”

You want a good scalloped edge.

• “Pick a serrated knife with good scallops, each little curve coming to a point.”

• “You want a thin and flexible blade, not thick or rigid like a chef’s knife.”

• “You don’t want a curved blade for cake. Straight blades cut straighter with less sawing.”

• “You don’t need a sharp tip at the end because you don’t poke into a cake. Let the long edge, serrated or not, do the cutting. Save tipped knives for carving details if you’re creating unusual shapes.”

• “A turntable lets you rotate the cake and not reach out awkwardly. Keep your elbow close to your side, maintain a firm grip, and hold the blade horizontally to get layers of even thickness.”

• “Because you eat with your eyes, uniform thickness is key for good-looking cake layers. It’s not like a chicken, where every piece is different and you need different techniques to cut them.”

CAKE TIME Okay, your co-workers have gathered in an office or conference room, you’ve sung Happy Birthday, and you’re ready to eat. It’s your turn to slice and serve. Here are tips—some Susan’s, some mine—to help you cut cake like a pro.

• Top tip: Be the person with the cake knife, so you always get invited.

• Hot water is vital. If there’s a sink, run the blade under hot water and wipe it with a clean kitchen towel between each cut. Paper towels or napkins will suffice, but they get messy quickly, so keep reaching for new ones.

• No sink? Bring a pitcher of hot water, dip the blade in between cuts, and wipe with a towel. No pitcher? Do your best by wiping the blade each time.

• Never breathe on the blade to warm or polish it. Don’t lick your fingers while serving.

For a more stable grip, place your thumb and index finger firmly on the sides of the blade itself, carefully avoiding the sharp edge.

• Don’t saw through frosting, which will just smear. Press straight down for a nice clean cut.

• Work quickly to get through layers while the knife is warm. This keeps frosting between layers neat instead of smeared.

• On a round cake make the first cut all the way across at the center. Poking a knife tip into the middle first and pulling toward the outer edge is asking for trouble.

• Wash your hands before starting and avoid touching your hair, nose, or anything else. Don’t be that person whose hygiene leaves people wondering if they really want to eat cake after all.

• Avoid touching cake slices. Let wedges fall over if necessary and then slide the wide flat knife under to lift them onto plates. A fork in your other hand helps.

Susan bought these Victorinox cake knives while studying at the Culinary Institute of American in 1981 and she still uses them regularly.

• To really impress, bring a fresh pair of rubber gloves. Keeping an apron handy, well that takes the role too far. You want to be the helpful office-mate, not the one who secretly longs for a different career entirely!

BRAND CONSCIOUS Susan’s store stocks cake knives from Ateco of New York; R.H. Forschner – Victorinox of Switzerland (which makes Swiss Army Knives too); Kuhn Rikon of Switzerland; Messermeister of Germany; Wusthof of Germany; and Shun of Japan—all worth consideration. Prices vary widely, but for the new Ateco knives shown here expect to pay about $17 for the 10-inch or $27 for the 14-inch.

Through know-how, patience, and the right equipment, Susan leads cooks at all levels to better culinary skills.

DON’T BE AFRAID “People are intimidated by knives,” Susan says. “Knife skills are where many home cooks have the least training, and yet it’s the one area that will most improve their experience in the kitchen. That’s why I teach my knife classes once a month. Even those who come again and again learn something new.”

TURN, TURN, TURN About the turntable recommended for preparing cake layers: “Don’t call it a Lazy Susan,” says Susan sternly. I guess no Susan likes that term. And what, I’m going to object while she’s holding a big knife? “I sell a Fat Daddio’s 12-inch plastic turntable with ball-bearing swivel for $12.95,” she says, “and an Ateco 12-inch aluminum cake stand with non-slip pad, ball-bearing revolution system, polished finish, and a 200-pound capacity for $67.95.” See, I told you she knows her stuff.

GOTTA DASH Someone just dropped by and told me to grab my cake knife and come along to a surprise office party for several co-workers who’ve been laid off. It’s not a great cause for celebration, but hey, there’s cake! Now I’m wondering: What song do we sing for people at a layoff party?

INFO Learn more, sign up for classes, or order knives from Susan Green at Birmingham Bake and Cook Company, 5291 Valleydale Road, Birmingham, AL 35242; www.bakeandcookco.com; call 205-980-3661; email info@bakeandcookco.com.