What would our diets be without humanity's lemming-like habit of chasing the latest food fads? The acai berry would remain in the swamp lands of South America, wheat grass would be something we mowed, and Oprah would be lacking show ideas. We'd live in a world where food still serves as sustenance, a world where we'd scoff, yes, scoff, at paying upwards of $5 for a cup of coffee.
Alas, we live in a world where food trends are both very real and quite surreal (raw foods movement, anyone?). However, food trends do occasionally bring out the best in us -- in this case, by "best" we mean fun and interesting ways to stuff our gobs with sweets. Food trend followers have an insatiable need to find the next big thing, and as the sun slowly sets on the cupcake craze, new fashionable sweet eats are stepping up to take its place: the whoopee pie, the glamorous macaron, and the cake ball.
Even Society Bakery of Lower Greenville, the native institution most synonymous with cupcakes in these parts, is being moved by the trends. A year ago, the bakery known for its Big D sized cupcakes added whoopie pies to its menu. After watching a Martha Stewart television episode devoted to whoopie pies - in the crudest terms, frosting sandwiched by two flat cakes -- Society Bakery owner Roshi Muns, recognized the treat as "a trend that can't be ignored."
But they can be tweaked. Muns wanted to add the treat to the bakery's line-up, but only if it was somehow original, and if it had, what she calls, "a Texas twist." She accomplished this by offering a red velvet version alongside a bread pudding whoopie pie. Both have been a success, though the bakery claims the latter has developed its own little cult following.
Not everyone is thrilled about changing up the originals. Such is the case at Maple & Motor, the young but increasingly popular burger restaurant on the Dallas food scene. One might think it odd to find whoopie pies on the counter at a burger-and- beer joint. It's owned by a husband and wife duo, Jack Perkins and Peggy Pearl, and Peggy is a native of Pennsylvania, aka the birthplace of the whoopie pie. But, don't let them hear you call it that. Jack and Peggy insist that their western-Pennsylvanian treat is called a gob. Jack compares the gob in Pennsylvania to what the praline is in Texas. Wanting to pay homage to her Ebensburg, Pennsylvania, roots, Peggy decided to feature the gob at the restaurant and to stay true to her mother's recipe. What emerges is a dessert slightly different from other whoopie pies served around town. For instance, Maple & Motor's cake is spongier than the average crumb-textured cake. More significantly, while other bakeries normally use a filling similar to cake frosting, Perkins describes their cream filling as a "whipped buttercream." A mixture of cooked flour, milk and sugar is blended with Crisco, which yields a cream center that is marshmallow-like in consistency and ensures a longer shelf life.
Regardless of how each bakery makes their creams or frostings, most every bakery in town seems to agree that the rich, sweet and sometimes overwhelming substance is a major factor in what's driving the dessert seekers away from the cupcake and towards the whoopie pies, macarons and cake balls. As Muns put it, "If you're not a fan of all the icing on cupcakes, then the whoopie pie is for you."
Apparently, the cake ball fits that same bill.
Staff at Uptown's The Cupcakery say their newly offered cake balls are selling well, primarily to customers who are looking for a small treat opposed to a calorie buster. The shelf life of the cake balls is another factor in its success. Cake balls can be refrigerated for up to two weeks, perfect for dessert lovers who can indulge sensibly. The dainty spheres weren't always met with such enthusiasm, however.
A couple of years ago, just up McKinney Avenue, Breadwinners was jumping on the cake-ball train. Melanie Kirby, assistant baker at the popular Dallas eatery, was given the assignment to come up with a recipe for a cake ball. Her boss had recently tried the trendy little sweet and asked her to recreate it. Giving her only a single sample to work with, Kirby soon conquered the dessert and was given the task of sole baker of cake balls served at all three Breadwinners locations. In the beginning, she was hard pressed to find any fans of her new endeavor. Dallasites still were in the cupcake frenzy and found the cake ball "hard to embrace." She began experimenting, offering the cake ball in all the same flavors of Breadwinners cakes, and eventually, she began to see a shift. Now she bakes more cake balls than cupcakes daily -- almost 50 per day. The benefits of the cake balls' success are twofold. Not only are they selling, but they're keeping the bakery from having to throw out large amounts of leftover cake. Cake balls simply are cake mixed with frosting and molded into balls, then glazed with an icing or melted chocolate. Before, employees would take home all the half-used sheet cakes at the end of their shifts or just throw them out. Now the bakery has found a use for the unused cake. Albeit non-glamorous, it is entirely practical, which is something even classically trained patissier Samantha Rush can appreciate.
The eponymous owner of Rush Patisserie in Oak Cliff understands too well the agony of discarding the fruits of her labor. Trained at the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, what Rush normally creates may be the extreme opposite of cake balls and whoopie pies, but still, she can't bear the thought of throwing out baked goods. Her fear of waste might explain why, even though arguably she is known as the preeminent source for macarons in Dallas, the French pastry cannot be found at her shop on a daily basis and can only be pre-ordered. Part of the reason is that Rush is a self-admitted perfectionist. After opening her patisserie three years ago, it took the former accountant close to six months to perfect her macarons (not to be confused with the coconut macaroon), as she refused to serve it before she could master the hypersensitive confectionary. Having trained for her craft in both Madrid and Las Vegas, the Bronx native initially had trouble with the Texas humidity. She spent long hours fastidiously studying the smallest details, from weather to exact times to pull out the touchy pastry from the oven. Her devotion eventually would pay off, and soon her lovingly crafted macarons would be featured in Departures Magazine and included in several "Best of" lists throughout Dallas.
Rush is aware of the current macaron trend, but she remains skeptical, lamenting, "It's a fad, a trend. But, I hope it's not just that. If everyone knew how hard it was, they would have a true appreciation. It's an art." Her fears may not be exclusive to just Dallas.
A recent Wall Street Journal article reported the macaron making an appearance in the most surprising of locations -- McDonalds.
While Dallas is in its initial phase of macaron lust, the confection long has been a beloved sweet extravagance in large cities across the world. It has become so popular, that even the macaron's homeland of France (some argue the macaron originated in Italy) is taking advantage. To the outrage of French citizens and macaron lovers in general, the confection can now be found in Parisian McCafe's, the caffeinated cousins of McDonalds. Stateside, the bite sized, meringue-like treats currently are scattered throughout Whole Foods and Starbucks. The review for these mass-produced macarons from the purists is a resounding "no." To them, the sandwiched tea cookie, or biscuit, must be the perfect texture of equal parts crunchy, chewy and creamy. Their standards stem from centuries of history, a pesky problem with which the cake ball does not have to contend.
The history of the cake ball may not be as lengthy as that of the macaron, or even the whoopie pie, but it isn't any less complicated. Because so many bakeries started making the round mounds of cake and frosting simultaneously, discovering who "invented" the cake ball is a tricky task. In the case of the cake ball, if you can believe Wikipedia, Dallas' The Cake Ball Company started the spherical cake craze. (We should not that owners Robyn Ankeny and Charlotte Lyon were the original authors of a cake ball Wikipedia page.)
Ankeny grew up in Bridge City, Texas, and she insists that the cake ball is "a very Southeast Texas thing." A few years ago, she decided she wanted to start her own business and began researching the market. Noticing that no one was making the dessert yet, she dusted off her mother's recipe (given to her mother by a friend) and started her business in a church kitchen.
Throughout her time in the church kitchen, she was making the church members' and church staffs' meals in exchange for rent. These humble beginnings could not prepare her for what would happen next. Ankeny's cake ball landed in the hands of a clothing buyer at Neiman Marcus, who immediately brought the elegantly decorated desserts to the attention of the Neiman Marcus gourmet foods buyer. Today, aside from being sold at Neiman Marcus, The Cake Ball Company delivers their desserts across the nation. Four years later, the ladies have moved out of the church kitchen to set up headquarters on Northwest Highway. The company's success seems to be only the beginning, as cake ball fever has yet to hit its peak.
A dessert that originates in Texas, that's small, yet rich, beautifully decorated, portable, and sustainable, the cake ball seemingly is the most likely heir to the cupcake -- if Dallas ever is amenable to that. Right now, the cupcake continues comfortably to sit atop the dessert throne. And, there's nothing wrong with that. Whether it's because of excitement for the new or plain boredom-induced hysteria, there's no reason to not partake in all the desserts Dallas has to offer without the arbitrary placement of labels and rankings. Whether it's an originator, a formalist, a bakery assistant, or a patissier in Dallas, they all have one thing in common, and that's the desire to please and to share their craft. So, enjoy.
Society Bakery 3426 Greenville Ave. 214-827-1411
Maple & Motor 4810 Maple Ave. 214-522-4400
Rush Patisserie 1201 Eldorado Ave. 214-749-4040
The Cupcakery 2222 McKinney Ave, Ste. 230 214-855-0003
The Cake Ball Company 10230 E Northwest Highway 214-341-9370
Breadwinners 3301 McKinney Ave. 214-754-4940