Thursday, January 28, 2016

Warren Brown, Cake Artisan, Tells His Story

I feel at ease in the kitchen. I like just about every aspect of being in there. Whether cooking, cleaning, setting up my work or taking a rest sitting at the table, I enjoy what I get out of it. There is a beginning, an end, and the moments in between that change me and my understanding of what I work with. Discovering the meat in the middle is the heart of my curiosity and that drives me.

Baking was not my first love in the kitchen. It was BBQ sauce. Kansas City-style (tomato based), sweet, sticky, smoky on the grill, easily charred. I was inspired by the “Rib-Off” at Mall C in Cleveland back in the early 1980s. Tasting my way through a sea of vendors I began to understand the edge you can get with either better ingredients, more creativity or what seemed like more care put into the product. I was a hungry adolescent. It was the perfect time to start experimenting.

I let my cravings dominate my decisions. But I fence off certain foods so I dont feel tempted—I don’t like guilt over food. That doesn’t mean I dont eat “bad” food, its more about what time of day, how much, and whether or not Im feeling a little too much like blubber on the insides. To me, food is “good” when its a positive experience all of the way. It tastes good and theres no food hangover – no bloating, no cramps, nothing undesired. I like to search for combinations on the plate that pair well and are pleasing to the eye and the tummy.

I think I enjoy baking cakes to indulge the kid in me, but not just the typical cravings for sugar and frosting.  Refined sugar was off limits. My father is a huge inspiration for my method of preparing recipes from scratch, but he limited access to white sugar. I suppose the logic was to restrict sugar from the table to reduce our overall intake. The problem in that era was that sugar was everywhere so unless the meal was made totally from scratch, sugar found its way onto our table. Many meals at home were from scratch, but over time convenience won out, and three decades later diabetes claimed my fathers life.

The first indulgence I discovered about baking is the meticulous work it demands at every stage to create a work of art with many layers, literal and figurative. There is the sponge: what type of batter, prep of the batter for the sponge, perfecting the bake off, cooling and releasing from the pan without loss of volume. There is the filling, my favorite part: custard, caramel, citrus curd, fresh berries, or something else entirely? Then theres buttercream. Early on a good friend of mine got my wheels spinning when she said “theres nothing like a good homemade buttercream” to which I just grunted “yeah” and had no idea what she meant. Here I was an adult, a foodie, and I didnt even know the term. But it told me that the New Years resolution I had made—to start baking in order to learn more about food—was proving beneficial. I found myself immersed in buttercream recipes, stunned at their taste, flavor and deliberate gluttonous nature.

I am compelled to share what I make in the kitchen. I cant possibly eat everything that Im driven to make because that would be simply too much food. I am blessed to be able to share my creations with my family and through my work. Its not all cake and icing at home of course, I save that for work where I can spread out the sharing a little bit more. But the time in the kitchen, the process of creation and discovery of triumphs and tragedies, feeds my soul in the same way. Im grateful to have found this well of inspiration.

Strawberry Shortcake – This cake kind of says it all for my style. Big, irreverent and pushing the boundaries of standard convention. The cake is a vanilla pound cake I called LCD (lower common denominator) since its kinda of accepted that the pound cake is the favorite, the most beloved, the baseline cake in America. I also cannot stand biscuits for strawberry shortcake. The cream here is Italian Meringue Buttercream which will always be one of my favorite recipes. And the berries are simply cut, sprinkled with sugar and briefly chilled in the fridge –that was my grandmas secret. When put together and taken as one bite this all combines in a desire to stuff-yo-face with more. Now this isnt a discreet way to describe it, but there really isnt another way to say it plainly.

Ginger Pecan Scones – Scones are one of the best products we ever made at CakeLove. I got a base recipe from a good friend who grew up in Holland eating her mothers rendition on the classic pastry. Generally speaking, weve butchered them in the U.S. by stripping out the copious amounts of butter and cream called for in a proper scone. But where cost and qualms over the cardiac impact dont win out, theyre simply divine. The crisp flavors of ginger pair well with pecans while the nuts help develop contrast in texture with the soft, velvetiness of the buttery-cream with each bite.

Breakfast Lasagna – As with all things, this was inspired by need. I was deep into the photo sessions for my book CakeLove in the Morning and I realized that I needed a strong, center of the table dish. The books focus I brunch so we already had a lot of to-be-expected stars like pancakes, French toast, frittatas and quiche. Ive always loved lasagna and I get a kick out of turning a dish on its head , so I thought why not take one of my favorite formats for serving dinner and recreate it for the morning. The only overlap with a traditional lasagna are the noodles, but thats enough!

Colors excite me. I get a lot out of just staring at swatches and thinking about the moods they put me in. One of the things I like the most about my latest project are the different bands of color I got to select for each flavor of CakeLove in a Jar. I know it's sounds simple and off point of what's inside, but I really fixate on the collection of colors.  

What is important to me about our jars is that I found a way to fall in love again with my work. It's a line of business that's really different than what I did before, meaning a ton for me to learn. That's refreshing. Sometimes tiring. But overall it's an absorbing challenge that allows me to get knee deep in detailed work, which I love to do. 

To see more of Warren's scrumptious creations, please connect with him on the following links:

This is Week 3 of 52 Artists in 52 Weeks. Thank you for reading and sharing Warren's story today!