Consumed by a passion for cake

April 01, 2009|By ROB KASPER

About four years ago, when Leslie F. Miller was a graduate student in the Master of Fine Arts Creative Nonfiction program at Goucher College, she was searching for a thesis topic.

Cake was one of her passions. She had read an essay at a gathering of writers detailing her intense, quixotic relationship with the cakes of her past, and it had gone well. So she decided to write about eating cake.

She set out on a cake odyssey, visiting the kitchens of the area's better-known bakers - Duff Goldman of Charm City Cakes, Warren Brown of CakeLove, Jamie Williams of SugarBakers, Leslie Poyourow of Fancy Cakes by Leslie - all the while retaining her fondness for simple cakes, like the Safeway sheet cake.

She theorized about the symbolic importance of cake - families have it at every ceremonial occasion. She took an etymological swing at the question of whether Marie Antoinette really said "Let them eat cake," or whether this was a mistranslation of the word "brioche." She mused about a play called "Gateau" that stated a cake is a substitute for unrequited love. She looked at the "cake as weapon" theme of the mother in the television comedy Everybody Loves Raymond.

She stirred all this material together, added footnotes and some edits by Todd Richards and other Goucher mentors, and her thesis became a book - Let Me Eat Cake, published this month by Simon & Schuster.

Recently, Miller and I sat down over beers at the Brewer's Art - her suggestion - and talked about her book and her life. From the get-go, she wanted it understood that this was not a cookbook. "There are a million books on how to bake a cake," she said. Her book, she said, was about "how to love a cake."

Although she can make cakes - the Silver Palate carrot cake is one of her favorites - she sees this undertaking as the work of a writer rather than a baker. She also wanted the work to have humor, folding in accounts of how she tells her husband to hide cakes in his truck, rather than bring them into their home where "they call to me."

She has a writer's pride and mentioned that she was stung by a recent unfavorable review. That review, in Publishers Weekly, said: "Like her frantic, inconsistent attempts at baking, the writing suffers from the 'perils of impatience' and a lack of focus."

Miller, 46, has worked on several artistic fronts. She is a photographer; some of her prints hang in the Brewer's Art dining room. She was a singer in a band called Question 47. She made mosaics, including one of a fish that was part of a project that placed pieces of whimsical marine art around the city. She was editor of Joe, a magazine, now defunct, about coffee. She was poetry editor for City Paper, and taught English for 17 years at the University of Baltimore.

She grew up in Baltimore County, the daughter of a traveling salesman and a schoolteacher. Somewhere around the sixth or seventh grade at Deer Park school in Randallstown, an English teacher, Ken Sanner, planted the idea in her head of being a writer.

"I always wanted to be a rock star or a writer, but I was never any good at guitar," she said.

She met her husband, Martin, a teacher at St. Francis of Assisi School, when they were living in a communal house near Druid Hill Park. After a stint in Charles Village apartments so hot "we slept with our feet sticking out of the window," the couple moved to their current home in the Beverly Hills neighborhood of Northeast Baltimore. They have an 11-year-old daughter.

Part of what motivated her to write about cakes in Baltimore, she said, was the attention that area bakers were drawing on Food Network shows and on a Today show competition that pitted area bakers in a contest to make a wedding cake for a Maryland couple.

Her visits to the city's renowned bakers yielded mixed results.

"Duff Goldman has an incredible mastery of sculpture and art, making cakes that look like Prada bags, or motorcycles," she said. Yet these soaring creations are often stronger on eye appeal than flavor, she said. "It is not the best cake that I ever had," Miller said of Goldman's work. In her book, she admits to tossing out the leftovers of the high-priced birthday cake that Goldman made for her.

Warren Brown, she reported, is "so cute" that she and female customers of his Canton store can't resist flirting with him. Miller learns from a dietitian, however, that Brown is wrong in saying that powdered sugar reaches the bloodstream faster than granulated sugar.

Despite their flaws, cake bakers have winning personalities, she said. "Cake people are effusive," Millers said. "They bubble."

Baltimore, she says, is the cake capital of the nation, a claim she said that is based both on the television presences of its bakers and her own provincialism.

"We have good-quality stuff here. And when you are poor and writing, you tend to stay where you are. I am here, the lover of all things cake."

Her journeys taught her a few tricks of the trade. One reason why professional cakes look perfect, she learned, is that bakers throw away their mistakes.

Although it does have plenty of calories, Miller contends that true cake is made with "real" ingredients, such as flour, sugar, butter, eggs, vanilla, baking powder and salt.

Miller, who once owned a low-carb food shop and says she has been on the Atkins diet about a dozen times, confesses that she has a "constant craving" for cake. "I mark cake events on the calendar and I plan my weeks around them," she says.

"But," she insists, "it's under control. I can stop at just one - or two. And an extra blop of icing."

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