An Interview with CakeLove’s Warren Brown

As you saw in our post yesterday, we recently re-visited CakeLove and really enjoyed our experience. Warren Brown, former educator and lawyer, is the owner of CakeLove. He began his baking journey in 1999, with a resolution to overcome a fear of flour, and opened CakeLove, three short years later. He’s a featured chef and was the host of Sugar Rush on the Food Network. Warren has been written about numerous times, both nationwide and here in the Baltimore/DC area.

We were lucky enough to have Warren take some time for a little Q&A session!

CakeLove-WarrenBrown
Warren Brown: Baker, Chef, Author, Host, Entrepreneur, Educator, Lawyer, etc. etc. etc. (Photo found here, no harm intended)

What is your first baking memory?
I didn’t start baking at an early age. My first memories of a real adventure in the kitchen are from around age 10 when I made BBQ sauce and short ribs on the outdoor gas grill. If anything I think the first memories of baking was when my sister and her friends were baking box cakes at our neighbor’s house. I wanted to be there, but wasn’t and in some way I suppose my curiosity about cake started then.

I read that you started baking in 1999, just 1 year prior to leaving your law practice in 2000. What were the first steps you took in changing your career and opening CakeLove?
My first steps toward baking were small steps. I was determined to learn to bake and really use a lot of my research skills to find the best recipes. I found myself combing through books, websites, magazines and asking friends and relatives about their baking secrets. What surprised me was the number of people who had a special baking trick or piece of helpful info that they were willing to share. One man in the apartment building I lived in had a shelf full of books that he let me borrow for a few months. It takes a lot of time to find good recipes—there’s just so much testing involved. It took about 2 years for me to really feel comfortable writing my own recipes. And when I look back at what I wrote, I can really see that baking is a lesson in life-long learning. I’m happy to say that I use a broader array of ingredients now which keeps things interesting. It’s not that I out-and-out disagree with my early recipes, but what we’re doing now is more advanced, better balanced, and features a texture and crumb that is just more delicate.

Do you have any advice for someone who wants to change their careers and start their own business?
Fluffy thoughts advice in a nutshell: Starting a business is a great opportunity to have a memorable and riveting life experience. Recognize that you’re jumping into the unknown and be prepared—at least mentally—for the unexpected. A lot of what will happen will be great so celebrate the good things when they happen. Don’t fret over the bad stuff, not everything in life will go the way you hope.

Nuts & bolts advice in a nutshell: Have a big idea. Get focused on a strategy to make it happen. Check your ego at the door, get lots of feedback and adapt.

Who/What inspired you to become a baker?
I was inspired by memories of my favorite bakery from when I was boy: Lax & Mandel on South Taylor in University Heights, Ohio. The women who worked there were always very kind, the cakes were delicious, and my memories of the goodies in the box on my kitchen counter give me peace.

What is your favorite tool in the kitchen?
My digital scale. It makes measuring fast and accurate.

Do you have a favorite cupcake flavor?
My favorite right now is our Red Velvet. I became a convert once we revamped the recipe in December ‘12 to make it more moist and delicate.

What makes CakeLove different from other bakeries and how did you come up with the name?
Well, I think there is a lot that distinguishes CakeLove from other bakeries. To me, it’s all about the balance we try to achieve in each product—and we sell a variety of items apart from just cupcakes or cake pops. Our eclairs are awesome. The caramel brownies and chocolate chip cookies get lots of nods. The lemon bars never last long.

Of course, our bread & butter are cakes and cupcakes. So we try to keep a reasonable cake to frosting ratio for the cakes and cupcakes. We like the smiles of relief that come when people sample our buttercream or cream cheese icing; they like it because it’s “not too sweet.” And we really enjoy being innovative. We began a gluten free and vegan line back in 2006 which we’ve also recently updated with a wonderful , simpler recipe. I experiment in the kitchen all of the time and am very excited about our latest new release: Cake in a Jar. It’s cake & cream cheese icing in a recyclable jar with a screw top. It gives our product portability and customers have the option to eat a little now and save the rest for later. We’re stoked about its pending release in June.

The name CakeLove has always been a great part of the business. We get a lot of positive feedback about it. I love cake and wanted a strong name and thought a compound word would be fun. I don’t know why, but I’ve always liked compound words. Anyway, “love cake” didn’t quite work so I flipped it and found myself liking CakeLove from the beginning.

If you aren’t making the desserts yourself, where are you buying them from?
I’m liking my friend Jeff’s ice cream sandwiches from Cream Cycle—ice cream sandwiches sold via (adult sized) tricycles.

You were a great host on the Food Network’s Sugar Rush, will we see you or CakeLove on TV again anytime soon?
Thanks, I had fun hosting. No plans now, but we’re always talking with producers about ideas. A lot of the time I’ve spent working on media over the past few years has been focused on research & writing. My fourth cook book, PieLove, publishes this September. (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

You recently made some changes to CakeLove, including recipes and refrigeration, what made you change things?
After ten plus years we took stock of where we were and listened closely to what people were saying. We’re thankful for all of the feedback—it’s been a gift in terms of telling us what our customers like and don’t like. After a few deep gulps, we committed to change and dove in. We just kept it simple and asked what can we do better? Display the cupcakes so they’re ready to eat—done. Revamp the recipes so they have a softer texture—done. Boost the flavor of the red velvet—done. And so on.

Since we initiated change at the bakery, I’ve noticed just how many other businesses are doing the same thing and how normal it is. For a while I think I didn’t want to embrace change out of fear of alienating our core base. But our core values of baking from scratch with only the finest ingredients remains firmly in place and with our commitment to quickly incorporate the feedback from our community via social media, focus groups, and feedback swaps we’ve adapted and have much better product because of it.

We cannot thank Warren (and Kim LaMore, CakeLove’s Corporate Sales and Service Manager) enough for taking the time to contact us and answer our questions. We really enjoyed our second visit to CakeLove and Warren inspires us to continue to pursue our dreams, just as he did. If you’re ever in the area, stop in to one of his CakeLove shops and enjoy a sweet treat!

– Posted by Cupcake Crusader Elisa (Baltimore, MD)

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A Second Chance for True “CakeLove”

We Crusaders want each cupcake we try to be great, sadly that isn’t always the case and sometimes we end up writing reviews that aren’t so sweet. Because we pride ourselves in being perfectly honest, good or bad, we will write about it. Every so often we hear back about changes that a baker or shop made after reading our review, with requests to try their cupcakes again. Well, we love eating cupcakes and are always up for giving a shop a second chance, so when CakeLove contacted us about giving them another try, we knew we had to go!

Crudsader Stacy was the first to try CakeLove about a year ago (read review), sadly it didn’t quite live up to her expectations. Kim LaMore, CakeLove’s Corporate Sales and Service Manager, saw our review this past February and contacted us about giving CakeLove another try. We were excited to hear that they made some changes after reading reviews from yelp, bloggers, and other social media outlets. (It is always nice when companies listen to their customers and take criticism in stride.)

After planning with Crusaders Jenn and Stacy, I set out to swing by CakeLove after the DC Rock & Roll 1/2 Marathon in March. When I got to the shop I was greeted by very friendly staff and choose 6 cupcakes to bring back to Baltimore. The Crusaders and I made plans to spend the next day together and try them in true “cupcake buffet” form.

Bailey’s
CakeLove-Baileys

Who wouldn’t want some Bailey’s and chocolate cake the day after running a 1/2 Marathon, oh, and on St. Patrick’s day! While we thought the chocolate cake was just ok, the frosting really stood out and packed a punch of Bailey’s flavor. When eaten together the cake and frosting combination was a win.

Coffee Chocolate
CakeLove-Coffee

All three of the Crusaders love coffee, so this flavor was a must when I made my selections, and this cupcake did not disappoint. While we agreed that the cake by itself was nothing extraordinary, the frosting was amazing and we could have eaten a tub of it. The cake in this instance was merely a vessel for the fantastic frosting.

Red Velvet
CakeLove-RedVel

As always, Red Velvet vexes me and my cupcake crusade. It wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t a stand out in this bunch. The frosting was very smooth and a bit sweet, with an interestingly different flavor to it, perhaps mascarpone and a bit of butter? I wouldn’t mind having more of that frosting, but am not sure I want it on their Red Velvet cupcake.

Salted Caramel
CakeLove-SaltedCaramel

Lovely swirls of caramel and salt crystals adorn the delicious frosting of this cupcake, sadly the cake underneath was a bit dry and crumbly. I personally loved the frosting, it was smooth, very buttery (my favorite), and Crusader Stacy agreed that it had great salted caramel flavor. Crusader Jenn thought the frosting didn’t balance the sweet and salty, so this wasn’t her favorite frosting or cupcake.

Strawberry Vanilla
CakeLove-StrawberryV
This cupcake reminded me more of Strawberry Shortcake than a cupcake. The cake was a dry and crumbly, like that of the Salted Caramel, and even though the frosting was smooth and had great flavor, it couldn’t save this cupcake from being just “ok.”

Triple Chocolate
CakeLove-TripChoc

Sweeter than the rest, I was glad I saved this chocolate explosion for last! Rich and chocolatey, Crusader Stacy wished she had a glass of milk to drink with it. The shavings on top added a nice texture. And while super sweet isn’t always my style, this is a cupcake I would eat again and again.

CakeLove obviously made some fantastic changes to their recipes and we enjoyed their re-vamped cupcakes. We cannot thank them enough for reaching out to us! Not only did it give me a reason to eat cupcakes after running 13.1 miles, but it also gave us a fresh perspective on this very accomplished bakery. (And an added bonus for our readers: Kim sent along some interview questions to Warren Brown himself! Watch for that interview tomorrow.)

– Posted by Cupcake Crusader, Elisa (Baltimore, MD)

Guest Review | Kickin’ @ss in Boston, Mass.

Guest Crusader Rebecca is back again with a review of Kick*ss Cupcakes in Somerville, MA. Thanks Rebecca! 

On a recent trip to Boston with my fiancée, I used the Food Network “On the Road” App to find a good dinner spot. When looking over some options close to where we were staying, I noticed Kick*ss Cupcake right in Somerville, MA. They were featured on an episode of Kid in a Candy Store on Food Network and I KNEW I had to pick up a sample of their cupcake flavors and ask the crusaders if I could write a review!

The store is also a dairy bar serving ice cream and features fresh, local products; they also have a cupcake truck! There were so many appetizing flavors, but we settled on six flavors and one specialty “out of the ordinary” cupcake. They also feature a Deep Fried Cupcake, which you can make into a sundae. As delicious as this sounded, we opted to stick with the seven we already chose to take home.

The Green Monster

This chocolate cake featured a chocolate beer ganache center with green Sam Adams Cream Stout frosting and coco nibs. This cupcake exceeded our expectations! You could taste every single ingredient, but they also merged together in perfect unison. The chocolate cake was moist and fudge-like, almost tasting like raw brownie dough mixed with stout. It was delicious.

Cinna Punk (Vegan)

This moist pumpkin spice cake featured a cinnamon frosting, and boy did it pack a great cinnamon punch! The frosting melted in our mouths and this cake was a perfect fall selection.

Mojito

This rum-soaked cupcake has a sugar cane lime frosting with fresh mint. The cake was light, moist and VERY heavy on the rum – almost flammable! The frosting was light, sweet and flavorful. The fresh mint was a refreshing addition, but we would have liked a bit more mint flavor.

Lucky Cupcake

This was a lemon cupcake with white chocolate buttercream and candied ginger, complete with a personal fortune. We really enjoyed the texture and punch of the ginger, adding to the rich buttery flavor of the frosting. I  love lemon flavor and thought this cupcake could have used more. Regardless, the cake was moist and delicious, just like the others.

Cinnamon Chai Pecan Sticky

This spiced up cupcake was topped with gooey caramel and a pecan. Even though this cupcake did not have frosting, it had a great spice flavor. It was almost like a muffin, but had a wonderful crunchy texture and was super moist for having no frosting. The caramel on top was also tasty!

Super Chocolate

This chocolate brownie cupcake was fudgy, rich and could have easily stood alone without any frosting, but the bittersweet chocolate ganache and chocolate shavings added to its over the top rich flavor and texture variance.

In addition to the four flavors, we tried their specialty, the Cupcake Crisp in chocolate coconut. Their website describes this treat as, “A kicked up twist on the classic cupcake. Crunchy like a cookie then dipped in fine bittersweet chocolate and covered with your favorite toppings.” Even though it had a crunchy outside, it still had a rich fudge taste in the center.

If you ever find yourself outside Boston, make sure to check out this gem of a cupcake shop. With their use of interesting flavors, textures and ingredients, their cupcakes really do kick ass!

– Review by Guest Crusader, Rebecca (Baltimore, MD)

Interview with The Sweet Lobby

The Presidential election is around the corner and The Sweet Lobby’s cupcake and macaron polls are in full swing (you can track the results on their Facebook and Twitter pages). We had a chance to review them a few weeks ago and are now big fans of their tasty treats. The owner, Winnette McIntosh Ambrose and her brother, Timothy McIntosh, participated in Food Network’s Cupcake Wars, using their love of sweets and engineering backgrounds to win first place for The Sweet Lobby.

We had a chance to interview Winnette to find out more about their “sweet” election campaign, cupcakes vs. macarons, and Cupcake Wars:


(Article hanging in The Sweet Lobby, with photo of Winnette McIntosh Ambrose and Timothy McIntosh.)

The election is right around the corner and politics are in the air wherever one goes. Are you finding that customers are coming in specifically to place their vote?
I hope they are coming in because we have the best cupcakes and macarons in town but if “voting” makes them feel better about it, that’s great!

Being located so close to the center of political action, do you know if either candidate is aware of the sweet campaign you are running?
Yes, they are aware of the campaign. In fact, one of the Presidential candidates actually had two Barracks Row boxes full of political macarons presented to him on his bus.


(Presidential election macarons)

Your location seems to make The Sweet Lobby the perfect place to hold a presidential polling, sweet-tooth-style. Campaign parties must be popular around Capital Hill. Have you already seen a lot of interest in large orders for campaign parties?
Most definitely! We’ve been inundated with requests for the political pastries as well as our classic desserts.

When can we expect to see the Mac-Attack ads go live?
They are running now and will continue through Election Day. The Mac-Attack ads are actually “ad-like” banners that we feature on our Facebook cover page. They’re intended to deliver messages to constituents that have a “sweet tooth.”

Aside from the current debate topic, “Is your candidate more like a cupcake or a macaron,” what other issues might we see brought up for debate?
Our social media followers will be able to debate issues to include foreign and domestic relations ingredients, and effective ways to use sweets to boost the economy. We’ll give the Vice Presidential candidates some airtime as we debate the flavor of the VEEP.

While the main agenda of this campaign is to track candidates, the Cupcake Crusaders are also curious about another poll…What is more popular in your shop, cupcakes or macarons?
As an All-American indulgence, the cupcake embodies the irresistible combination of childhood nostalgia and undeniable appeal of a “made just for me” individual dessert that, at some level, is easy to make. On the other-hand, the macaron is a more delicate dessert that’s difficult to make and easy to ruin. They’re not very forgiving, but when made well, the impression is lasting. The first bite of the lightly crisp shell, the chewy interior and the flavorful, creamy filling! Who can deny the refined elegance coupled with fantastical whimsy of a Parisian macaron? At the end of the day, we are totally bi-partisan. We bake, you decide.


(ObamaMac and Obama topper on a Boston Cream Cupcake.)

Although you sell other pastries at The Sweet Lobby, cupcakes and macarons are what you are most known for. What do you think it is about each that makes them so enjoyable?
At the Sweet Lobby, we don’t take shortcuts! We prepare real buttercreams using traditional European methods, fresh fruit and ultra-premium chocolates. We pride ourselves in creating both classic and daring incarnations using the finest globally and locally sourced ingredients imaginable!

In addition to cupcakes and macarons, we have several product lines including shortbread, madeleines, caneles, éclairs, loose-leaf tea, and hot chocolate. We think that our guests can truly taste the difference and appreciate the care we put into everything we offer.

How do you recommend eating the MacTop cupcake? Taking the macaron off and enjoying it separately or digging right into to the whole thing?
That is totally up to you! We’ve seen it all! I am personal fan of the macaron-first technique.


(RomneyMac and Romney topper on a Boston Cream Cupcake.)

What’s the strangest or most unique order you’ve created in your Cupcake Lab?
Right now, we are working on a trio of beer inspired cupcakes for a craft beer themed wedding.

When you appeared on the Chinese New Year episode of Cupcake Wars and had to select at least 3 of the 12 exotic flavors, were you at all nervous that selecting 5 would be too much?
Not at all. I’m from Trinidad and Tobago, which is very culturally diverse, so all of those ingredients were very familiar to me. As an engineer/scientist, I am comfortable thinking on my feet and I understand how to combine flavors.

What did you take from your experience on Cupcake Wars (aside from the first place prize!)?
Cupcake Wars highlighted the importance of balancing some of the most key ingredients in food service: quality, presentation and delivery.

Cupcake Wars is known to have previous contestants return. Would you consider going back to battle again?
Of course! In addition to Cupcake Wars, we had the honor of participating on Cupcake Champions this past May. We welcome any new opportunities to return to television!


If you aren’t in the DC area and are now craving a perfect little pastry from The Sweet Lobby, no need to worry. They are offering nationwide shipping next month! You can find out more by visiting their website.


(The Sweet Lobby indulged our graphic design side and gave us a sneak peek at their new gift boxes, premiering in November!)

We’d like to thank The Sweet Lobby for taking time to answer our questions. Their Cupcake Wars win was well deserved and we appreciate what they are doing to get people excited about the election and getting out to vote.

– Posted by Cupcake Crusader, Jenn (Westminster, MD)