The sweet and spicy aroma of lemon and ginger scones perfumes Rande Smith's house on this early fall morning. She drizzles icing on the delicate biscuits, elevating them to the next level of deliciousness.
Smith, the owner of Sweets Bakery & Catering, returned to her first love of baking and cooking about two years ago, when the home construction industry dried up. The former residential construction superintendent decided to tailor her products to people wanting exquisite desserts for special occasions such as birthdays, anniversaries and parties.
"Cooking was the first job I ever had," says the 61-year-old Smith. She recalls her hippie days in Aspen, Colo., where she worked at restaurants between her undergraduate college days and going to graduate school. She would make desserts at home and sell them to earn extra money.
She's come back to the kitchen as a vocation, serving busy people who crave elegant cakes and pies but don't have the time to create them. Smith has expanded the business to include other dishes, such as chicken potpies and stews, but sweets are really where she made her mark. Her reputation for baked goods ranging from simple fruit pies to one-of-a-kind desserts is on the rise. Her Raleigh neighbors and patrons of the Boylan Heights Saturday Market have grown to depend on her seasonal fruit tarts, scones, handheld pies and warm sticky buns.
Smith strives for the intense flavors and perfect textures of her childhood favorite cakes made by her grandmother. "She was very particular, and not just about the flavor. The texture had to be right," Smith said. "Her frosting was rich and light. It was almost whipped but so intensely chocolate," she says. "I spent years trying to perfect it."
That attention to culinary detail has made Smith among the go-to bakers and caterers for Raleigh residents.
Raleigh writer and artist Carrie Knowles is a fan of Smith's signature dessert, a three-layer sweet and salty chocolate caramel cake. "It's a wonderful combination of dark chocolate cake with this homemade caramel and whipped chocolate ganache frosting with a little sea salt on top. It's an explosion in your mouth."
Raleigh writer and attorney Kim Church looked to Smith, too, when she was in charge of furnishing a seasonal dessert for a group of friends. She chose Smith's apple, pear and cranberry crisp served with whipped cream. "I love the combination of flavors ... the fruit was perfect, not overcooked or undercooked. And it was presented beautifully," she said.
Smith has also catered some events for neighbors Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker and his wife, Anne McLaurin. The food is so visually pleasing, you sort of don't want to touch it, McLaurin says.
Smith's husband, Rick, is the face of the operation. He sells the goods while his wife is delivering pastries straight from the oven. The market is just down the street from their home. He understands his role in the business. "I don't cook. I squeeze lemons. I grate carrots. And I do a lot of errands," he says.
Rick Smith also functions as the Nielsen rating system of the company. "That sticky bun is a major item," he says. "People buy with their eyes. It's gleaming with pecans. They are gorgeous."
Smith says she can tell when her husband doesn't like a particular baked good because he brings more of it back home. For example, he was hesitant about her black bean, goat cheese and banana empanadas. "I had a hard time telling people what they were," Rick Smith says.
But after eating a few, he became comfortable and they start selling.
"I have to convince him first," she says.
Rande Smith's Chocolate Cherry Scones
Makes about 12 scones
2/3 cup chilled buttermilk
1 large egg yolk
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/4 tsp. almond extract
7 tbs. chilled unsalted butter, diced
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/3 cup plus 2 tbs. sugar
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. (packed) grated orange peel
3/4 cup miniature semisweet chocolate chips
3/4 cup coarsely chopped dried tart cherries
FOR GLAZE: milk, enough for brushing on scones, and sugar for sprinkling
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or coat with nonstick spray. Whisk together buttermilk, egg yolk, extracts; put in refrigerator.
Cut butter into 1-inch chunks and refrigerate.
Place first six ingredients in the bowl of a standing mixer with paddle attachment and mix on low speed for a minute until combined. Add butter and mix on low speed until the largest pieces of butter are about the size of grapes.
Add cherries and chocolate and mix briefly. Pour in the buttermilk mix and blend on low until all ingredients are just barely combined. Don't overmix.
Turn the dough onto a flat surface. If there are unmixed dry ingredients in the bottom of the bowl, sprinkle them on top. Pat the dough to a 1-inch thickness. Using a 3-inch biscuit cutter, cut out the scones. The scones can be baked immediately or frozen.
To bake, put the scones on the prepared baking sheet, brush with milk and sprinkle with sugar. Bake for about 18 minutes until lightly brown and just firm to the touch.
To freeze, put the scones on a cookie sheet lined with plastic wrap and place in the freezer until the scones are solid. Then put the frozen scones in a plastic bag and store in the freezer until ready for baking. At that point, follow the regular instructions, although the scones might take a few additional minutes to bake.