“I’m looking for a certain color of petal dust: blood orange,” the petite, young blond woman informs the sales clerk. “Do you have it?”
It’s Saturday afternoon at New York Cake and Baking Distributors. Baking mavens, cake decorators, confectionary artists and assorted do-it-yourselfers elbow through the inventory-crammed aisles of a 3,000-square-foot retail shop, weirdly reminiscent of an old-fashioned hardware emporium.
According to the store’s owners, 20,000 items of baking equipment and supplies-including petal dust for the hard-core gum-paste flower creator-account for current inventory. From hard goods to edible ingredients, everything a baker needs to practice her alchemy can be found here-somewhere.
The commonplace and the esoteric mingle in counter-top bins, gather dust in corners or are wedged onto shelves that climb up to the edges of an ancient tin ceiling, heavy with rolling pins, cookie presses, French cake pans, balloon whisks, fondant, meringue powder, wedding cake toppers, pastillage, bulk chocolate, pastry wheels, dough cutters, cake strips, levelers, icing knives, aspic cutters, assorted sprinkles, sanding sugars and silver dragees.
Prick the finger of the cashier and it would probably bleed pastry filling-at least one of the eight varieties the shop carries. Is this heaven for the cake-bible lady? Does the cookie crumble?
Located on 22nd Street just off Sixth Avenue, New York Cake is the neighborhood eccentric-the anti-store that speaks in a gnarled New York accent and practices a mom-and-pop aesthetic oblivious to brand-name conformity.
The storefront’s display window is more Mad Hatter than Maida Heatter. The ambience: no-frills. The attitude: crusty, even during peak baking seasons like Christmas. But at least the shop smells of good chocolate, thanks to the tower of Valrhona piled near the cash register.
Bed, Bath & Beyond and Williams Sonoma are both within a scone’s throw. So why come here?
“Because it’s the ultimate in cake support,” says Alison Lee, long-time customer and business manager at The Spotted Pig. “They’ve everything you need to bake exactly the way you want to. They’re not interested in what I call the ‘eyeful’ quality: whether or not a piece of equipment will look good in someone’s fancy kitchen. The focus is on the tools. And, in that sense, it’s more like an art store.”
Art store? Isn’t that kind of stretching it? Not to the home baker, eager to shed her fusty Becky Crocker image for something hipper-sugar artist, cake sculptor, food artisan, culinary provocateur. In fact, New York Cake Co. itself was spawned by an extravagantly creative act: cake decorating. (Think mile-high wedding cakes worthy of a Disney princess.)
More than 30 years ago-before photo-lush baking blogs, the Food Network’s Ace of Cakes and the Magnolia cupcake phenomenon-Joan Mansour decided to follow her muse and conduct informal cake-decorating classes in the back of her husband’s cosmetic business near Radio City Music Hall. The classes caught on big time. When her husband decided to close shop and retire, her students begged her to relocate.
In search of an inexpensive lease, Joan, with the help of her then college-age daughter Lisa, moved the enterprise to W. 22nd St. That was back in 1989. Lisa, who still has a hand in the family business, remembers the risk involved. “When we came down here it was really, really dead. But we couldn’t afford the rent anywhere else. So I guess we were pioneers.”
Within a few years, through advertising, word-of-mouth and some well-placed mentions by Martha Stewart and other baking cognoscenti, New York Cake Co. was reincarnated as the go-to place for baking supplies. Alas, the decorating classes died a quiet death like Miss Havisham’s wedding cake.
Since the store’s relocation more than 20 years ago, a veritable who’s who of the confectionary world has passed through its doors: pastry professionals like Claudia Flemming, cookbook authors including Dorie Greenspan, the test- kitchen staff of Everyday Food, students from the French Culinary Institute and, of course, legions of ambitious home bakers. Equality prevails. All are treated with the same casual indifference. Regulars have an unspoken pact with the management: We won’t complain as long as you keep us supplied.
Self-described baking evangelist and award-winning author Dorie Greenspan considers the shop a great place for amateurs “because it offers them a chance to buy ingredients and equipment that chefs are using … in an atmosphere that makes the home baker feel completely comfortable.”
That need-to find exactly what a recipe calls for-underscores the growing popularity of amateur pastry making. Borders Books has reported a double-digit increase in the sale of “comfort food cookbooks” related to baking, cookies and desserts. What’s more, according to the Home Baking Association, 2008 marks the first year flour sales have increased in the Northeast after a 20-year decline. But parallel to this trend is the proliferation of online sources for baking supplies, where selection is vast and comparative shopping is the name of the game.
Whether this will render New York Cake a pastry pantry paradise lost is anyone’s guess. For now, professionals and amateurs alike are content to root through its bins and rummage through its shelves like kids in a candy shop. Who cares if this place may be approaching its sell-by date, when you’re looking for a hexagonal Bundt pan and a pinch of petal dust?
Photo credit: Michael Harlan Turkell