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Chocolate : When Business Is a Piece of Cake

April 22, 1993|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sarah Bernhardt changed Mary Aqleh's life. Not Sarah Bernhardt the French actress, but Sarah Bernhardt the Swedish confection.

Looking somewhat like a mounded Rorschach blob--or a giant escapee from a box of See's--it is a concoction of meringue blended with ground almonds, filled with chocolate mousse and covered with dark, rich Belgian bittersweet chocolate. Aqleh got the recipe from a Swedish friend and quickly turned it into her specialty.

Lots of home cooks earn accolades for a great dish, a fabulous cookie or exquisite meals. But few do what Aqleh did. She chucked a full-blown career--20 years of nursing--to become a professional baker.

That's a surprising switch for a woman who didn't know how to cook or bake when she got married 22 years ago. Once in the kitchen, Aqleh did more than cope. She discovered a passion for making desserts, the more outrageously complicated the better. "When we had company, what I planned first was the dessert," she says.

Baking could have remained a hobby. But Aqleh enrolled in a college extension course in putting creative talents to work. That inspired her to test-market the Sarah Bernhardts. And they sold by the basketful.

Then came a double life: full-time work as a nurse at Glendale Adventist Medical Center and part-time baking in rented space. As demand grew, something had to go.

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Now Aqleh presides over Perfectly Sweet, a small, intensely serious cake shop on Colorado Boulevard in Eagle Rock. Here she works all day and sometimes all night to handle the constant orders.

Getting started was difficult, Aqleh admits, because she had no professional training in baking or in running a business. "I had enormous support from my husband and son," she says, "and people in the industry were supportive."

Aqleh's husband, Kamal, a biomedical engineer at UCLA, drops in to assist with prep work, delivery--and dishes; their son, Michael, makes deliveries. But the main help comes from bakery manager Jim Ward, whom she met at a bakery in Pasadena where she rented space by the hour.

Aqleh sells to restaurants and caterers and to drop-in customers. From the outside, her shop is just another business in a rather drab corner mall. Inside, it's a charming spot decorated with masses of dried flowers, antiques, old cookbooks and past issues of Gourmet magazine, which was her guide in learning to cook.

A baker's rack holds vintage milk bottles from Challenge Dairy, Sunshine Farms and Fulton Park Dairy in Hillside, Ore. One armload of flowers stands in an aluminum vessel that once belonged to a creamery in Montana. The huge, marble-topped table where Aqleh and Ward work is in full view, along with custom cake forms and what may be the world's largest working rolling pin--a copper-lined 19-pounder that Aqleh had made for Ward's birthday.

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Since opening the shop a year and a half ago, Aqleh has expanded beyond Sarah Bernhardts to cakes, cookies and candy. These are displayed on her mother's blue-and-white Chinese plates. Walls are lined with poster-size photographs that show the goodies in settings that incorporate personal treasures. In one shot, lemon clouds are shown against her wedding gown. Her mother's pearls are also in that photo, along with an heirloom watch and a bracelet trimmed with hearts. A heart appears in most of the photos because it is Aqleh's favorite motif. Along with her chef's checkered pants and white apron, she wears an engraved silver heart-shaped pendant and silver heart earrings. Blue hearts decorate her business card.

Chocolate cravers love her three-layer, raspberry-filled chocolate cake; her dense, dark brownies and especially her espresso truffle cake. It's an almost flourless chocolate cake spread with espresso butter cream, covered with Belgian chocolate ganache, coated on the sides with toasted almonds and topped with chocolate-covered espresso coffee beans. Aqleh also makes a dark chocolate mousse cake in a hazelnut crust with a white chocolate curl on top, and a white chocolate mousse cake filled with raspberries.

Her favorite chocolate is Callebaut, from Belgium. "It melts easily," she says. "It curls nicely. It's nice to work with, and the taste is delicious." She also uses Ghirardelli semisweet chocolate chips for brownies and melts them as a dip for fresh fruit.

Aqleh's advice on cooking with chocolate is this: "Temperature is crucial when melting chocolate. Always do it over a pan of hot water. If you don't it will burn. Bring water to a boil, turn off the heat and let the chocolate sit in a pan over the water and melt slowly."

Aqleh makes a few desserts that don't include chocolate, such as cheesecake, carrot cake, oatmeal cookies and shortbread. Best sellers in this category are lemon clouds--tiny meringues sandwiched around lemon butter cream and dusted with powdered sugar. "They're for people who don't like chocolate," she says and then adds the obvious: "There aren't too many of those."

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