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Serious bakeries, whimsical cakes

October 18, 2006|Betty Hallock | Times Staff Writer

FINALLY, the frenzy over all those cute little cupcakes that had taken hold of Los Angeles by the sweet tooth seems to have waned, and here to help fill the void is the real deal: big, beautiful, serious layer cakes.

You can find a fantastic, sophisticated cake lightly spiced with cardamom, layered with delicate pistachio mousse, decorated with fresh roses and coffee berries and edged in lemon leaves at an unassuming cafe in a modest East L.A. neighborhood. Or even a stunning carrot cake -- no, that's not an oxymoron -- with nigella flowers and scented geranium leaves. And at a bright, airy, retro-swanky bakery in Brentwood, nostalgic cakes are lined up in a cheery bakery case like so many costumed mummers waiting for their stage cues. Meanwhile, highly refined cakes fashioned by an influential L.A. chef have shown up in Costa Mesa.

These are gorgeous, thoughtful cakes, the products of a recent spate of bakeries that have opened or expanded in the last year -- a cakery boom that continues to reverberate.

Darby Aldaco, executive pastry chef and owner of SweetCake Desserts, a custom bakery, plans to open a retail space on La Brea Boulevard in West Hollywood in January called SweetCake: A Dessert Parlor. Store plans include an espresso bar, a tasting salon (for sampling wedding cakes or for parties), and a central viewing room where patrons can watch cakes and chocolates being made. Platine Cookies and Little Flower Candy Co. also will be located in the dessert emporium.

Aldaco's cakes are elaborate, tiered affairs -- the kind that show up at celebrity parties and in the pages of tabloid magazines, such as Nicole Richie's Marie Antoinette-inspired birthday cake. The cakes are just whimsical enough, elaborately decorated with Italian meringue and a little fondant in graphic motifs of flowers or baroque designs with bold friezes in frosting.

"Pretty doesn't mean you lose flavor," Aldaco says. "If it's all flash and doesn't taste good, then it's not worth it. I'd take a rustic-looking, great-tasting cake any day." His coconut cake is lusciously buttery-moist, tinged with a little rum syrup; in between cake layers is a vibrant passion fruit curd paired with passion fruit mousse. Chocolate-cake lovers might be converted.

The Westside seems to be at the center of the recent cake boom, with the opening of bakeries such as SusieCakes in Brentwood, Jamaica's Cakes in West L.A. and Hotcakes Bakes in Mar Vista.

"I wanted a good, old-fashioned neighborhood bakery," says Susan Sarich, who opened SusieCakes on San Vicente Boulevard three months ago. Hers is an effort to tap into a nostalgia for all-American desserts. "It's being done in Chicago and New York, but nobody here had really homed in on the classic American desserts."

The bakery is a modern ode to old-fashioned cakes -- red velvet, six-layer chocolate fudge and a carrot cake improved upon with a praline filling and studded with sweet golden raisins.

The chocolate cake is covered with huge swirls of fudgy frosty that you just want to dive into. And a recent seasonal cake was a stunning strawberry chiffon with a fluffy-but-moist sponge cake frosted in a fresh strawberry whipped cream. My grandma never made cake like that.

But a renewed focus on cake goes far beyond the butter cream memories of childhood birthdays. Accomplished chefs are devoting their attention to bakeries -- and cakes especially. Tomi Harase, former chef-owner of the erstwhile Nouveau Cafe Blanc in Beverly Hills, has resurfaced at his own bakery -- named Cafe Blanc -- in Costa Mesa.

Harase, one of the originators of Asian fusion cuisine in Los Angeles, creates especially refined cakes with delicate layers of genoise and fillings such as cherry-brandy-kissed chocolate mousse, chantilly cream, marzipan or chestnut puree. A dark chocolate "miroir" is a glossy, enrobed jewel of a cake.

Harase, who studied pastry in Paris and Tokyo, says he returned to his first love and decided to open a patisserie before possibly opening another restaurant. For now, he's creating cakes such as chocolate genoise with a persimmon compote or almond-honey cakes with lemon and raspberry mousse.

Imaginative, delicious cakes are proliferating in the Valley, Pasadena, East L.A. and in Huntington Park. At CakeWalk, which opened in July just east of downtown, owner Debra King runs a tidy lunch spot and bakery, turning out cakes flavored with cardamom, fresh lemon zest, Callebaut chocolate or a hint of almond.

La Monarca Bakery opened in Huntington Park in February; co-owner Ricardo Cervantez said that he wanted to target a Latino market that is often neglected by the retail food industry. Offerings include tres leches cake and a dulce de leche cake studded with gooey caramel.

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