Winter Pruning

31 Jan

During my year in culinary school in Saint Helena, my family and I ended up living in a 1940’s tract house in Calistoga.  Around the backyard, we found lots of overgrown vegetation – some of it identifiable as fruit trees and then lots of mystery plants.  We weren’t expert gardeners, but, during my house-painting phase,  we decided to trim back this mass of vines that had been twined around a drainage pipe.  The leaves we pruned, back to the stalk.

Here we were, thinking that we were helping the plant to get rid of the excess so that it would rejuvenate in the coming season.  Then as the season changed, I could only wonder, did we cut too much?  Did we murder the vine? Seeing those bare stalks really made us nervous.  Getting rid of the dead weight seems so important, but it takes time to know whether you’ve killed or saved the patient. For the vine, the change proved positive, with picture-perfect leaves and even petite white grapes as the payoff.

Well, the past month has been an effort in pruning of another sort.  At the bakery, we’ve assessed and reassessed what we do well, what is enjoyable, what is profitable and what needs to be changed.  Our efforts to trim the business may be “cutting too much” or may be “just what the plant needs” to reach optimum health and growth.  Unfortunately we won’t know which way the verdict will fall until later – months from now.

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At what point do you ask yourself, am I doing something because I actually want to or because momentum is carrying me on?  Usually this applies to major life decision – did I marry the right person?  did I choose the best career? – not to “did I decorate this cake properly?”.  It may seem piffle to other people, but critical to me.  The cultural swing over the last several years toward more elaborate desserts manifested itself in shows such as “The Cake Boss”, “Ace of Cakes”, “Super Sweet 16” and “Top This Party”, just to name a few.  And being owner of a small business, I found myself playing in to this to please our customers.

Now I don’t think that I’m alone in the belief that stress is the enemy of goodness.  Any chef or home cook knows that the key to excellent cuisine is allowing naturally excellent ingredients to express their true essence.  Our work then is to remember that no matter how much you sculpt food into towers or cover plates with pithy painterly sayings for the sake of kitsch, that unless the food is allowed to express its true nature, it can fall flat.

We are applying that attitude to cake and where our talents lie.  As much as we’ve come to be known as a bakery that churns out wacky, complex sculpted cakes, in 2011, we are opting to minimize food color, fondant, stress and cost by adopting a new cake structure.

If you’ve seen our website recently, you will notice a big difference in relation to the custom cakes.  Gone are the pictures of fondant-laden airplanes, dinosaurs and presents.  Instead we are choosing to re-embrace our logo and the motto “flavor will prevail” by offering perky 2-tier and 3-tier cakes with streamlined pricing and decor.  Cakes want to be delicious, precious and affordable, but I’m coming to the conclusion that they don’t want to be covered in artificial colors and flavors.  In fact, in the next few weeks, we will be shifting all of our colorants to naturally derived alternatives.

In addition to our basic cakes, you will also be able to find an array of cake decorating options in our shop – from fondant to gumpaste roses, from candles to sugar skulls.  That way you will have a multitude of cake decorating options at your fingertips.  Not feeling crafty?  Pick up some berries or flowers or ribbon at the grocery store and festoon your own cake.  This option may not work for some, who want the “spare no expense” super-elaborate cake as a centerpiece, but we will be happy to recommend some local bakeries that cater to that clientele.  The question is, will people be willing to embrace the simplified cake offerings and hopefully enjoy the part of cake-making that can be quite fun  – the actual decorating?

The verdict is uncertain, so all we can do is throw our ideas out there and hone our concept as we receive customer feedback.  I’ve already heard both positive and negative reactions to our new cake mantra.

” what a cool idea!” –  “so you don’t do custom decor anymore?” –  “i’m not artistic.”  –  “that’s all it would cost for a three-tier wedding cake?”

As this develops, I would appreciate your constructive input – on the cakes themselves, on the “decorate it yourself” concept, on our decorating options, on our online ordering.  At the end of the day, we want to feel good about what we’re offering to our customers, in terms of value, quality, variety and health.  From this paring back, we hope can come healthy growth.

Please visit blackmarketbakery.com for more information.

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7 Responses to “Winter Pruning”

  1. susan January 31, 2011 at 5:42 am #

    I am totally impressed that you are doing this. I love that you can embellish more if you want to but that the cake’s flavor will stand on it’s own. Bravo! I hope this is super successful for you!

  2. Lauren January 31, 2011 at 6:09 am #

    When you said major changes were afoot, at first I was afraid. I was petrified. Thinking, how would I ever live without…fancy cakes?

    But after reading this manifesto – for indeed, it is not a blog post but a rebellious re-envisioning of the very essence of cakedom – I feel like you’re not only going back to the original identity of cake, but to the identity of Blackmarket Bakery itself. You’re the rebel baker, and fancy cake fads be damned. You got rid of additives in favor of flour, sugar and butter (butter!), and now you’re coming full circle.

    At first I was afraid. But now I get it. And I love it. Viva la resistance! Viva La Saveur!

  3. Amy O. January 31, 2011 at 6:28 am #

    I love the wacky sculpted cakes, but I also love the idea of naturally-derived colorants and above all, I agree flavor should prevail. You do it so well!

    • Rachel February 28, 2011 at 3:46 pm #

      Amy – we just got our natural food color samples so we’ll start testing those this week… ingredients listed are red cabbage, red beet, beta carotene, caramel color, vegetable color and not much else. Wondering if they will impart any flavor as well?

  4. Gayle January 31, 2011 at 5:19 pm #

    I LOVE IT!!! Cake, Flavor, Taste- Simplicity & Outstanding quality. Your products will never disappoint. Thanks R!

  5. Louise January 31, 2011 at 5:54 pm #

    good for you…

  6. Marjy February 22, 2011 at 2:23 am #

    I’ve never been a fan of fondant, so this makes me happy! Give me a good buttercream any day.

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