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My first thought on meeting Stephanie Hart at her Grand Crossing cake shop, Brown Sugar Bakery, was that if I was casting a reality TV show, I'd put her on TV, no question. This wasn't a random thought, because she actually is going to be on TV—you can see her starting Sunday on the Food Network's Holiday Baking Championship, hosted by Bobby (progeny of Paula) Deen. She's one of eight bakers who will compete by making different holiday treats over six weeks. And however the competition turns out, it's hard to imagine that anybody will beat her when it comes to being a big, telegenic personality on the show—as soon as I arrive, she steers me to the cake case, "You have to taste something because you want to get to know me, right? That's what the interview is about. Knowing me is having one of my treats, because that's me up there."
Even if you don't spend a lot of time on 75th Street, you may have seen her shop if you've ever been to Lem's Bar-B-Q, the oldest and most famous barbecue joint on the south side, which is almost across the street. Her specialty is caramel cake, a soul food classic—and it turns out that I had had it before I ever heard of her shop, since one of her restaurant accounts is Macarthur's, the most prominent soul-food spot on the west side. (She also points out that Lem's paid her the ultimate compliment after she opened, by dropping the desserts they were selling and just telling people to cross the street and buy from her.) But it's only one of many flavors she regularly has on display, including red velvet cake, one she calls the Porgy and Bess ("It's chocolate for Sidney Poitier and caramel for Dorothy Dandridge"), and one called the Obama cake—"Sort of like America, it's chocolate cake, yellow cake, red velvet cake, white frosting, covered with chocolate frosting—and nuts."
My caramel cupcake in hand, we sat down to talk in the attractive, caramel-colored shop.
Michael Gebert: Tell me about your business.
Stephanie Hart: We are servicing our community by providing cakes that kind of connect to memories. Also, it's just like really fun, to put this in your mouth. You remember being a kid and you tasted that cake and it made you happy—my cake is intended to do that.
Are the recipes intended to be traditional?
They are definitely traditional. And then twists on traditional. We start out with the memories of my childhood, and then I take those and mix them up. For instance, we make a rainbow sherbet cake. It's everything you remember, mixed together but still based on tradition. Along with the cakes that everyone grew up with, German chocolate cake, yellow chocolate, red velvet cake—and then we take those and then we have turtle, we make a pineapple-coconut cake that's a little more rare here, but it is a real southern cake. And then we do southern desserts—banana pudding, bread pudding, sweet potato pie.
So were you born in the south or here?
I was born in Detroit, but I grew up in Downers Grove, and came to Chicago as an adult.
But you grew up eating those southern things.
Right, because my grandmother made them. This is about that; it's about my grandmother's friends, all my aunts of my grandmother's generation—they were amazing cooks and bakers. It was all done with the utmost care and love. Whatever you presented to your family, it was the best. My grandmother made the best . . . everything.
Was caramel cake one of the things she made?
I actually did not grow up on a caramel cake. It wasn't a favorite of Mississippi, which is where my relatives hailed from. It was more of an Arkansas-Alabama thing, which is a lot of Chicago. But I knew, being in this business, that I wanted to have a caramel cake that was completely unique and smooth. There's all kinds of consistency of caramel cake, it can be extremely sugary, it can get hard—if you notice, the caramel you're eating is soft. It's not stiff at all, and when you put it in your mouth, it kind of melts. That's extremely important to me.
How do you find about desserts you didn't grow up on?
People ask you about them. For instance, I never had white potato pie. And I make that. Your customers—and I've been here ten years—tell you about things. There are things that I aspire to make that I haven't quite conquered yet. I'm working on the perfect tea cake. I would also like to, on special occasions, sell spoon bread, but I have not conquered that yet.
That's something I've made, out of books, but I don't have a memory to compare it to.
Well, I do. If I could get it consistent, I would make it.
And now you're going to be on TV. How did they find you?
I really don't know how they found me. I received a phone call, that's how that process worked! I interviewed and got the opportunity to go to LA to be on the Food Network. Which for anybody in a business like I am, is pretty much a dream come true. Totally awesome, totally exciting.
So the nature of the competition is that you were given different holiday treats to make. Were they all things that were kind of outside your tradition and kind of strange to you? I mean, I don't normally think of fruitcake as an African-American thing, but who knows?
Although my grandmother did make fruitcake, but that was one that as a little girl—do I have to eat it? And actually, fruitcake is in a lot of African cultures, like Jamaicans love fruitcake, Jamaican customers always ask me about that, they call it black cake.
Yeah, it was unique challenges—of course they're going to make them unique challenges. I can't wait for you to see the show.
What else did you end up making for the holidays?
[Carefully avoiding answering anything that would give away the plotline of the show:] What I'm working on in my store are my jar cakes, so that I can actually get cakes to people. Our testing of shipping those out is going really good. The test is just to see which ones do well in a jar. One of the cakes we make doesn't do well in a jar, and it's sad, you'll just have to get that at Brown Sugar, but so far so good on all of main standards, that people always are looking for when they get off an airplane and they get back in Chicago and they come here first, that makes me feel good.
I have Brown Sugar babies too. I have people that I've done their wedding, and their first baby, and the mom was eating Brown Sugar when she was pregnant and now they're eating it too. That's a great part about being in this kind of business, you get to be part of people's home and their lives. It's a fun business, and I've perfected my product, I'm at a point where I feel confident enough about it to really start moving it around and expanding, so I can meet the needs of my growing customer base.
I'm really particular about how I wholesale. You've got to love my cake and handle it a certain way. You have to have enough volume to turn it over. I don't want to ever see my cake just sitting there, it's not for that.
Brown Sugar Bakery, 328 E. 75th, 773-224-6262, brownsugarbakerychicago.com.