In the past month, I've been in a VIP lounge at a food festival in South Carolina and a cake lounge in Durham.
And I've got to say, while VIP-ing is pretty groovy, I'd rather spend my time in a cake lounge.
Every so often, I'll use my curiosity as a food writer to appeal to a food-based enterprise for permission to visit for a "play date." This is where I invite myself over to tinker around in the kitchen and learn from a chef. And since most culinary people were born with a freakish generosity, they almost always say yes. I've hung out in the middle of the night with bakers at Guglhupf in Durham, filleted fish at the Carolina Inn, and stirred grits at Vimala's Curryblossom Cafe in Chapel Hill.
For this cake tale to make sense, there's something you should know about me. My two favorite foods are potato salad and birthday cake. And I mean a birthday cake with an overabundance of sweet, gooey frosting. A well-iced cake has at least a 1:3 ratio of frosting to cake (and more is always better until there is no cake left in the equation; then it just gets a little sad).
In a pretty little brushed-silver building on Broad Street, there's a bakery called BIG Bundts & More. When I saw it the first time, I was interested, but not overly so, because I associate bundt cake with dry, boring slices passed out by fussy old ladies in the fellowship hall after Sunday church services.
But these are not your great-aunt Myrtle's bundts. BIG Bundts come in three sizes: large, medium, and bundt bites. My favorite is the chocolate bite. It is crazy-moist with tons of serious, no-foolin' chocolate flavor. It's not conventionally frosted but has a generous dollop of thick, fudgy glaze.
One visit—and this fudge—had me so undone that I literally forgot I had a family. When I remembered, I begrudgingly chose a few items to bring back to those confectionary interlopers to whom I'm related.
When I called shortly afterward to ask about a play date, owner Kristen Benkendorfer and company were welcoming and enthusiastic. We hung out for what became my longest, and one of my most enjoyable, field trips yet.
After I arrived, I realized some changes had taken place since the last time I'd stopped by. The big bundts were there, but the other mini offerings have been replaced by cake balls. Benkendorfer and her team take cake, mix it with frosting, and shape the mounds into spheres. They then pipe buttercream into the centers before coating them with candy melts—white or dark chocolate—and sprinkles.
The store has also gotten a makeover, with some upholstered chairs and lamps. It lends a pub-like vibe that makes you want to relax and hang out. The food, the furniture, and the atmosphere all combine in creating the newly christened cake lounge.
Benkendorfer introduces me to Shawn Collier, baker, and Christine Lang, front of house, order packer, and marketing expert, among other things.
Before we get started, the neatest thing happens. An adorable young couple comes in after a doctor's appointment carrying a sealed envelope. The idea is for their baby's sex to be divulged to family and friends when a cake's cut and the innards are either pink or blue. They open the envelope in the shop, and the icing color is determined; I won't spill the surprise.
But how cool is it to be in a business where you become part of something so sweet and momentous?
The bakers are used to this sort of thing, but they gather around the envelope excitedly. Then Collier takes me under his wing. I roll up my sleeves and get to work.
We coat, drizzle, and sprinkle. One thing I've always loved about BIG Bundts has not changed. All the lemon cake balls, squares, and bundts sport a tiny pink sugar heart. It's a cute candy beauty mark that I'd miss if it weren't there.
As we work, we all talk. About kids (Benkendorfer's oldest started college this fall) and dogs (Collier has a puppy named Maya). We talk changes (BIG Bundts originated in Benkendorfer's kitchen, moved to Straw Valley in south Durham, then settled into its current location).
And, of course, the frosting. There was cream cheese, lemon, caramel, and chocolate. There were two kinds of vanilla buttercream: American (with powdered sugar and butter) and Swiss meringue (the kind that starts with meringue made with cooked sugar syrup).
By this time, Benkendorfer is cognizant of my icing obsession. She asks me what kind was my favorite. I am completely flummoxed. I simply can't answer.