First Cakes

A local pastry chef finds out that she baked for Michelle Obama's birthday

January 28, 2009|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,

Michelle Obama's 45th birthday cake was mixed, baked and iced in the heart of Baltimore - in a cinder-block east-side building, next to a sheet-metal factory, a few blocks north of Pulaski Highway.

Longtime Donna's baker Sabine Breitenstein did the honors - though she had no idea at the time that it was an honor. She was just baking, as she's done for more than 15 years.

"I didn't know anything, really," says Breitenstein, who found out later that the two cakes she made were for Obama. "I was like, 'I wish I had known.' Then, I thought, 'Well, I probably would have been a nervous wreck.' "

Because Obama's birthday was Jan. 17, the day then-President-elect Barack Obama motored through Baltimore on his whistle-stop train tour to Washington, her staff called ahead so the cakes would be waiting downtown. Staffers apparently brought Breitenstein's creations on board the train to eat on the last leg of the journey.

To Breitenstein's dismay, the cakes weren't fancy.

The order was simple: a chocolate sheet cake with white icing and a yellow one iced with chocolate. Each cost $65. Breitenstein added a few flowers and iced on a nondescript "Happy Birthday" message.

Breitenstein's assistant, Dawn Schrenker, delivered the cakes at 7 a.m. to Nicola Heskett, a member of the staff coordinating the whistle stop.

Later that night, Heskett e-mailed Donna's co-owner Alan Hirsch a message with the subject line "birthday cakes."

They "were for Michelle Obama," Heskett wrote. "Her birthday was today. She was being surprised with them when they got back on the train after the Baltimore event." Heskett confirmed that the cakes were for Obama, but would say little else.

Hirsch says he isn't sure why the Obama team chose Donna's cakes.

Breitenstein, a native of Germany who has lived in the United States since she was 12 and became a citizen last year, couldn't have been happier. She cast her first-ever vote in November for Barack Obama.

Before she made the first lady-elect's cakes, her work had reached the lips of no one more famous than local news personalities. She also made the wedding cake for Donna's co-owner Donna Crivello.

Though she has baked Donna's pastries, cookies and desserts for 15 years, Breitenstein has no formal culinary degree - she graduated from Towson University with an art degree in ceramics.

She says she inherited her talent for creating sweet things from her grandmother in Germany, a woman who believed in old-fashioned simplicity. Every holiday season, Breitenstein bakes her grandmother's Christmas stollen.

"I like things pretty homey," she says, swirling a glistening chocolate ganache atop one of her signature mousse cakes.

Hirsch says Breitenstein has a way of making the straightforward taste special. In her hands, even sheet cake has panache.

"Her style is very simple and elegant," he says. "She's sort of the opposite of Ace of Cakes [the Food Network show]."

At Garry's Grill in Severna Park, which has ordered Donna's desserts for years, owner and manager Eddie Conway says customers can't get enough of the chocolate mousse cake. The decadent dessert is built atop a foundation of the same chocolate cake Breitenstein used for Obama's birthday.

Conway's favorite is the strawberry shortcake.

He was delighted to hear his desserts now have a bit of pedigree. "Now," he says, "I can tell people we get the same cake from the people who made Michelle Obama's birthday cake."


Age: 46

Background: Moved to the Baltimore area from Germany when she was 12. Graduated from Western High School and then Towson University with a degree in art

Personal: Married with three cats

Bakes to the sound of: National Public Radio

Breakfast: A healthful eater, she chooses Shredded Wheat and Cheerios over her own more decadent muffins.


(serves 16)

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup cocoa powder

1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup butter, at room temperature

1 1/2 cups sugar

2 eggs

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

1 1/4 cups milk

1/4 cup strong coffee

cream-cheese icing

1 pound cream cheese, at room temperature

1/2 cup butter, at room temperature

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

2 cups powdered sugar, sifted

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 13-by-9-inch cake pan. Sift together the first 4 ingredients. In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream together the butter and sugar until very light and fluffy. Add the eggs and vanilla until well incorporated, and scrape the sides of the bowl.

Mix in sifted dry ingredients alternately with the milk and coffee until well combined. Pour into prepared pan and bake 30 to 35 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the icing: : In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream together the cream cheese and butter until smooth. Add the vanilla, scrape the sides of the bowl and gradually add the powdered sugar until well incorporated.

Cool cake well before finishing with cream-cheese icing.

Courtesy of Sabine Breitenstein, pastry chef for Donna's restaurants

Per slice: : 415 calories, 6 grams protein, 23 grams fat, 14 grams saturated fat, 50 grams carbohydrate, 1 gram fiber, 90 milligrams cholesterol, 366 milligrams sodium

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