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Adam Ewing photo
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Left to right: Apple Cake (Sweetest Thing Bakery), Tres Leches Cake (La Sabrosita Bakery), Disaronno Cake (The Desserterie), Lemon Pound Cake (Michaela’s Quality Bake Shop), Sweet Potato Cake (The Black Sheep) Adam Ewing photo
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Left to right: Bacon brownies (Norwood Cottage Bakery), Sticky Buns (Grammy O’s Sticky Buns), Apple Toffee Crumb Pie (Simply Southern Pies (Simply Southern Pies) Adam Ewing photo
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From top left: Feathernesters Fudge, Original Toffee recipe from Mmm…toffee, Chocolates from Chocolates by Kelly, Dark chocolate with Pistachio Cranberry from Chocolate Cravings and Chocolates from Gearharts Fine Chocolate Adam Ewing photo
Making life a little sweeter is the avocation of those featured on the following pages. Our community of bakers and candy makers ranges from trained pastry chefs to home-based entrepreneurs. Some dream up new flavor combinations (lemon-peppercorn truffles, anyone?); while others sift through family recipe boxes in search of treasured classics. And for those who must live free of flour, milk or sugar, Click here for our list of specialty goods — deprivation is not the answer.
I've read that a wedding cake should be moved only by the person who bought it or the person who made it. Jenny West , of the Sweetest Thing Bakery , filled both roles recently in making her own wedding cakes, including a chocolate fudge cake with mint buttercream icing and a coconut cake with dulce de leche filling and Swiss meringue buttercream. West, a culinary school grad, has been baking since age 9, when she sifted alongside her mom, a caterer. Lately, she says, "I'm working on piping techniques and playing around with different flavor combinations." Her apple cake, made with apple butter and brown sugar and paired with buttercream flecked with vanilla bean seeds, is a delicious testament to her success. 3119 W. Marshall St., 551-1731 or sweetestthingbakery.com . —Karen Cauthen Miller
The ultra-moist tres leches cake with luscious caramel filling is the most popular variety at La Sabrosita Bakery , a family-owned business that makes pound cakes, cheesecakes and sponge cakes, all available in slices, as well as wedding cakes and Latin American pastries. When Argentina Ortega , from El Salvador, bought the bakery in 2005, she was the only employee, and she worked 14 hours a day, seven days a week. Today, with help from her two sons, who left the troubled construction industry, the business has expanded from its former 600-square-foot space to one that's about eight times larger. In addition to operating as a storefront, La Sabrosita supplies baked goods to more than 250 shops in the region. 7730 Midlothian Turnpike, 986-9695 or lasabrositabakery.com . —Taryn Kelly
Unlike the oversized, spongy cakes topped with inches of sweet, buttercream frosting that are commonly found in the South, creations by pastry chef Pierre Tocco are precise works of art — modest in size with sophisticated flavor combinations and smooth, thin layers of cake and frosting. Tocco is part owner of The Desserterie , a European-style shop and bistro in Midlothian. Trained under French chefs, he has been baking for 26 years. He came to Richmond nine years ago to work at The Jefferson Hotel, then moved on to A Sharper Palate catering company. The Desserterie's popular cakes include dark chocolate Disaronno, carrot cake with Grand Marnier cream-cheese filling and coconut cake layered with rum-flavored buttercream icing and pineapple curd. 6161 Harbourside Centre Loop, 639-9940 or thedesserterie.com . —TK
Michael Hatcher began baking in his teens as an apprentice at Thalhimers' Westmoreland Street store. He stayed on as an employee, baking all of the store's signature cakes. After Thalhimers closed in the 1990s, Hatcher kept on baking at a shop in his North Side neighborhood. Three years ago, he moved the business to a new location and added his daughter's name to it. At Michaela's Quality Bake Shop , a quaint, Southern-style bakery, the Thalhimers recipes live on. Hatcher's six-layer chocolate cake is his most popular kind. You can buy it whole or in slices, as well as Boston cream pie, carrot cake and coconut cake. During winter months, Michaela's offers rum cake, lemon pound cake and black walnut cake. 207 W. Brookland Park Blvd., 321-0025. —TK
A Simple Style
Newcomer Nicole Lang is the talent behind desserts at The Black Sheep , among them, sweet potato cake with pecan filling and rum-buttercream frosting. Lang, who moved to Richmond in June, has prepared cakes and pastries for Ipanema and Garnett's Café, among others. She's also created a stir through her blogs: Dessert of the Month Club ( dessertofthemonthclub.blogspot.com ) and Food Punk ( foodpunk.wordpress.com ), where she offers cake and whoopie-pie expertise in a feature called "Dollop." You won't find Lang making cakes that resemble convertibles or Star Wars characters, a la Ace of Cakes. She prefers down-home treats that blend simple flavors. At The Black Sheep this winter, look for flavors such as devils food cake with peppermint frosting. 901 W. Marshall St., 648-1300 or theblacksheeprva.com . —TK
Here's a sampling of other bakeries around Richmond.
A Peach in a Pear Tree: In addition to wedding and all-occasion cakes, Mechanicsville-based Alicia Darnell is known for her cake pops — an orb of frosted cake on a stick. (877) 730-2253 or apeachinapeartree.com .
Babycakes: Flavors at this cupcake bakery include OMG — chocolate cake with whipped-cream filling and a ganache topping. 3324-B W. Cary St., 354-9866 or babycakesva.com .
Baker's Kitchen: This shop specializes in wedding and all-occasion cakes and carries a wide variety of cake-decorating and candy-making supplies. 3503 Courthouse Road, 745-0441 or bakerskitchen.com .
Cakes by Barbara: Barbara Slaughter bakes wedding and specialty cakes at her shop off Midlothian Turnpike. 6834 Atmore Drive, 622-2560 or cakebarbara.com .
Cakes by Favienne: Pastry chef Favienne Roop offers dozens of cake flavors, including unusual choices like chili-chocolate. A seasonal favorite, bûche de Noël, is available in chocolate rum, vanilla apricot and chocolate-orange. 240-2301 or cakesbyfavienne.com .
Cakes by Graham: Graham Haddock specializes in wedding and all-occasion cakes, often using a European-style fondant for icing. 718 N. Cleveland St., 288-1920 or cakesbygraham.homestead.com .
Carytown Cupcakes: Offers five "classic" cupcake flavors daily, plus weekly specials such as pecan pie and roasted pumpkin. 2820-C W. Cary St., 355-2253 or carytown-cupcakes.com .
DownHome Desserts: Makes the sweet potato pie and cheesecake served at Croaker's Spot and takes orders for cakes, tarts and cupcakes as well. Look for a new DownHome restaurant on Leigh Street near VCU in January. 665-3474 or dhdesserts.com .
Frostings: In December, owner Matthew Fraker is offering cupcake flavors such as gingerbread, eggnog and chocolate-peppermint. 11331 W. Broad St., Suite 137, 360-2712 or frostingsva.com .
Jean-Jacques Bakery and Café: Owner and pastry chef Jozef Bindas makes European-style pastries, wedding cakes and all-occasion cakes. 3138 W. Cary St., 355-0666 or carytownbakery.com .
Lana's Custom Desserts: Chef and pastry instructor Lana Petfield makes cupcakes, tarts, wedding cakes, all-occasion cakes and more. lanascustomdesserts.com .
Lucille's Bakery: Specializes in wholesale baked goods for restaurants, as well as desserts and wedding cakes. 2118 W. Cary St., 687-6513
Mixing Bowl Bakery: Founded in 1926, the Mixing Bowl has three area locations for its cakes, pies, tarts, cupcakes, cookies and pastries. 4120 W. Broad St., 359-4224; 4025 Lauderdale Drive, 360-0942; 8903 Three Chopt Road, 288-2712.
Petite Sweets: This new bakery specializes in cupcakes, "lollicakes" (cake dipped in chocolate on a stick), cookies, wedding and all-occasion cakes. 7313 Hancock Village Drive, 739-1631 or petitesweetsva.com .
Shyndigz: Bryon and Nicole Jessee make fun, whimsical, artful specialty cakes and offer a cake café on Friday and Saturday evenings (check the website for extended holiday hours). 5716 Patterson Ave., 938-3449 or shyndigz.com .
Simply Delicious: Owner/baker Carolyn Purcell makes old-fashioned pound cakes, cookies, bars, pies, tarts and brownies. 5932 Brook Road, 264-3434 or simplydelicioushomemadedesserts.com .
Westhampton Pastry Shop: Home of the "Donut Squad," this bakery also specializes in cookies, pastries, cupcakes, pies and buttercream-frosted wedding cakes. 5728 Patterson Ave., 282-4413.
Williams Bakery: This business, which traces its history to 1911, has four locations, using time-tested recipes for its pastries, pies, cookies, bars, doughnuts and cakes. thewilliamsbakery.com .
Four years ago, after Heather Glissman was laid off from her state-government job, she set out to re-create the tasty sticky-bun recipe that her grandmother never wrote down before she passed away. With practice and experimentation, Glissman nailed down the Pennsylvania Dutch-style recipe, and Grammy O's Sticky Buns was born. These buns are an oversized, gooey and buttery deviation of everyday cinnamon buns found in coffee shops. Most of her sticky buns — plain, raisin and the very popular pecan — are sold on her website, but you can also find them at the South of the James Market or through the Fall Line Farms cooperative. 564-4856 or grammyos.com . —TK
A pal's bacon obsession led baker Mark McIntyre to create his unusual but popular bacon brownies. The owner of Norwood Cottage Bakery enjoys experimenting with odd flavors to produce savory desserts — such as double-chocolate stout cake and pumpkin-pecan cream-cheese crunch cake. This former Jesuit, whose job titles include calligrapher, graphic designer and photographer, now enjoys a profession with a workday that starts at 4 a.m. No alarm clock is needed as he bounds out of bed eager to start creating daring and delectable delights. You can order McIntyre's goodies through his website. 539-1110 or norwoodcottage.com . —RF
Tracey Winslow puts in a 40-hour week as a systems analyst and then switches gears when her family enterprise, Simply Southern Pies , goes into production mode at 4 a.m. on Friday. "We bake as many as 400 pies just for one weekend," she says. Winslow's apple-toffee crumb pie won a blue ribbon at this year's Virginia State Fair, and her gluten-free peach pie also won in its category. Her buttery crusts are hand-fluted and crimped, and she uses hard-to-find, old-fashioned filling flavors, like sweet potato and rhubarb. The pies are sold at farmers markets and online. "When someone tells us that they love our pies because they remind them of their mother or grandmother, it makes the long hours and hard work worth it." 240-7130 or simplysouthernpies.com . —KCM
If you've tasted one of Michael Calogerakis ' outstanding croissants or Danishes, chances are you didn't know who made them. The Flour Garden Bakery is a wholesale business that supplies croissants (plain and chocolate), cinnamon buns and Danishes to about seven area restaurants as well as The Jefferson Hotel and the Hilton in Short Pump. Calogerakis uses a French technique known as laminating, in which a machine called a dough sheeter spreads the dough flat. Chunks of French butter are spread across half the dough, and the other half is folded over. Then the dough rolls back through the sheeter, getting folded repeatedly until there are more than 800 layers. The resulting croissants are much lighter and flakier than the previously frozen variety. "People really appreciate the difference," he says. 8437 Glazebrook Ave., 261-5757. —TK
Jenny Robinson 's extra creamy cheesecake recipe originated from her pastry chef grandfather and was passed down to her mother and then to her. She says the secret is in the method as well as the ingredients. "After people try my cheesecake, they really don't want to go anywhere else," she says. Robinson runs The Cracked Egg Bakery out of her Brandermill home. This time of year, she offers seasonal flavors, such as white-chocolate peppermint (with a slightly spicy graham-and-homemade-gingersnap cookie crust), pumpkin-caramel pecan, or apple-crumb. Her cheesecake is available by the slice at the South of the James Market and can be ordered by phone or online. 14311 Cove Ridge Terrace, 484-0749 or thecrackedeggbakery.com . —TK
Working around a full-time job as a sales representative, Jan De Falco bakes on nights and weekends. The owner of Biscotti Goddess since 2006, she sells her handmade biscotti primarily to a wholesale market, though they are available through her website and some events. "My biscotti is very flavorful and crunchy," she says. "It's not brick hard. It has a wonderful texture and flavor, and it does not need to be dipped to be eaten." New flavors for the holiday season include cinnamon-pecan, and orange-cranberry-pistachio dipped in white chocolate. Area speciality stores carry her biscotti, which also can be found in seven other states. 745-9490 or biscotti-goddess.com . —Robin Farmer
Veronica Perez of Petites Bouchées says the challenge of creating Parisian-style macarons inspired her passion for them. "I just got really interested in learning how to make them because they are one of the harder techniques to master." The American version of this treat is made almost exclusively of coconut, egg whites and refined sugar. The French version is a study in the technique of meringue making — a difficult process that takes great patience. Perez, daughter of a bake-shop owner in her native Philippines, has traveled extensively to refine her craft — first to San Francisco, then to Chicago and finally to Paris, where she studied with master macaron makers for two solid days. My favorite is her hazelnut macaron filled with house-made salted caramel, which isn't too sugary and offers a pleasant chew. The pistachio with dark-chocolate-espresso ganache filling is another popular choice. Already well known locally for these confections (she sells them at the Farmers Market at St. Stephen's and, since 2007, via her online store), Perez is introducing Richmonders to yet another sweet specialty. "Dessert tables for weddings and other special-occasion gatherings are really trendy and just catching on here," she says. Perez works with other like-minded bakers, including Jenny West of Sweetest Thing Bakery, in designing elegant, themed dessert displays. 332-8699 or petitesbouchees.com . —KCM
From peach-shaped cookies loaded with peach preserves to lime sandwich cookies bursting with flavor and color, Gourmet Cookies by Valli produces an assortment of sugary confections that Valli Laneve sells to caterers and directly to customers via phone or online orders. Laneve's hand-decorated butter cookies rank among her top sellers; this month, they'll take the form of snowflakes and holly leaves. A baker since childhood, when she used an Easy-Bake Oven, the former human resources professional decided to follow the advice she had given others over the years when she opened her business in 1999. Laneve says, "I told people when you love what you are doing, you get up every day and have a bounce in your step." 360-1963 or gourmetcookiesbyvalli.com . —RF
Crazy for Icing
With the opening of at least six specialty cupcake bakeries in greater Richmond since the end of 2008, there are enough of the fresh, made-daily treats in town to satisfy many a sweet tooth. While there's no shortage of cake varieties (chocolate, vanilla, red velvet, carrot, banana, peanut butter, spice, coconut, lemon and more), they are merely a delivery vehicle for my beloved frosting. And with so many options, it's tough to choose just one. Buttercream is the most common, prized for its smoothness and consistency. But local shops also offer cream cheese, honey-whipped, crème fraiche and seven-minute frostings as well as ganaches, glazes and meringues. Here are three of my favorites. —GL
Along with its signature ingredient, this frosting is composed of softened butter, vanilla and powered sugar. The great thing about cream-cheese frosting is that anybody can tweak it and give it a unique spin. CargoTrike , a home-based business started by a recent Virginia Commonwealth University graduate, makes a delicious orange-pomegranate cupcake with a light, fluffy cream-cheese frosting. 245-0786
The base of this frosting is chocolate and heavy cream, but flavorings, liqueurs, butter or shortening can be added. The cream is heated until it simmers, then poured over the chocolate. Keep in mind that the quality of the chocolate determines the quality of the frosting. Two Sweet uses chocolates from California. I'm a fan of the bakery's chocolate-peanut-butter cupcake topped with chocolate-ganache frosting and a tiny peanut-butter cup. 3422 Lauderdale Drive, 360-4284 or twosweetrichmond.com .
Despite the moniker, creating this kind of icing is time-consuming and requires constant attention. It also requires a double boiler, separated egg whites and pre-measured ingredients. The name refers to the time required to beat the egg whites over heat. The frosting on the "Pearl Goes Co Co" cupcake at Pearl's Cupcake Shoppe is an excellent example. 5812 Grove Ave., 285-2253 or pearlscupcakeshoppe.com .
Harrison Street Coffee Shop opened in Richmond 10 years ago because Joseph Musgrave wanted a good vegetarian place to eat lunch and some desserts to go along with it. "At first we didn't know if an all vegan/vegetarian restaurant would make it, so we had it be a half coffee shop to bring in initial customers," says manager Quillin Drew. All of the shop's desserts are made from scratch daily, and vegan options are available. ( 402 N. Harrison St., 359-8060 or harrisonst coffeeshop.com ).
After being diagnosed with celiac disease, Susan Feller, owner of 3 Fellers Bakery in Goochland, started making her own gluten-free desserts, including cookies, cakes, cupcakes and brownies, which are available her in shop and some area grocery stores. "I thought there was a huge need for a gluten-free bakery," she says. ( 3041 River Road West, 556-0671 or 3fellersbakery.com ). Anna Strahs of annaB's Gluten Free Bakery has a similar story. "I have a lot of food allergies, and eating out in Richmond was basically impossible for me," she says. Her cakes, cupcakes and cookies are available at restaurants such as Savor Café and Urban Farmhouse as well as the Farm to Family Market and Belmont Food Shop. They can also be ordered online. ( 491-9288 or annabglutenfree.com ).
As demand grows for specialty baked goods, more businesses are offering them. Here is a sampling, though many bakers will accommodate dietary requests with advance notice. —Erin Kelley
Vegan and gluten-free options
Carytown Cupcakes: Offers five "classic" cupcake flavors daily, plus weekly specials such as pecan pie and roasted pumpkin. 2820-C W. Cary St., 355-2253 or carytown-cupcakes.com .
Chocolates by Kelly , see Candy
Ellwood Thompson's Local Market , 4 N. Thompson St., 359-7525 or ellwoodthompsons.com .
Frostings : In December, owner Matthew Fraker is offering cupcake flavors such as gingerbread, eggnog and chocolate-peppermint. 11331 W. Broad St., Suite 137, 360-2712 or frostingsva.com .
Garnetts Café , 2001 Park Ave., 367-7909 or garnettscafe.com .
Lamplighter Roasting Co. , 116 S. Addison St., 728-2292 or richmondcoffee.net .
Pearl's Cupcake Shoppe , see Crazy for Icing
Bin 22 at Betsy's , 3200 W. Cary St., 358-4501 or bin22carytown.com .
The Buttercream Bee , 288-4367 or thebuttercreambee.com .
Crossroads Coffee and Ice Cream , 26 N. Morris St., 355-3559; 3600 Forest Hill Ave., 231-2030 or crossroadsrva.com .
Ipanema Café , 917 W. Grace St., 213-0190 or ipanemaveg.com .
Strange Matter , 929 W. Grace St., 447-4763 or strangematterrva.com .
Sugar-free and reduced-sugar options
A Cake to Remember (reduced sugar; vegan options also), 754-2084 or acaketoremember.com .
Cakes by Barbara (yellow and chocolate cakes available with Splenda), see Cakes.
Cakes by Favienne (vegan, gluten-free and organic also available in most flavors), see Cakes .
For the Love of Chocolate (also carries kosher, gluten-free and peanut-free items), see Visions of Sugarplums.
Kathleen's Fudge and Sweet Sensations , see Visions of Sugarplums
Sweet Center , see Visions of Sugarplums
When she expanded selections beyond her original toffee recipe with semisweet chocolate and pecans, Michele Brooks of Mmm…toffee wanted to offer more distinctive flavors. She started trying some new combinations, and her efforts resulted in "S'mores," with milk chocolate, walnuts, graham crackers and marshmallows; "Midnight," with almonds, dark chocolate and sea salt; and "Luau," with white chocolate, macadamia nuts and toasted coconut. Although Brooks had been making toffee for parties for years, she didn't think of starting a business until she was between jobs. She started making her toffee two years ago as wedding favors in a kind of mini business, and she eventually began packaging it for sale in stores like Gather, Libbie Market, Tweed and Very Richmond. 730-6584 or mmmtoffee.com . —Megan Marconyak
A Fudge-Making Demonstration Watch as Feathernesters co-owner Marc Goswick whips up some customer favorites
In addition to traditional fudge selections such as chocolate and peanut butter, Feathernesters co-owner Marc Goswick whips up creative seasonal flavors like creamsicle, Key lime, pumpkin, eggnog and candy cane. Goswick makes the fudge in a big kettle, using a traditional recipe featuring fresh cream and butter. Customers can watch as he perfects each batch. "The chocolate smell fills up the whole shop," he says. 6118 Lakeside Ave., 262-7305 or feathernest ers.com .
Tim Gearhart likes to introduce people to unexpected flavors. His latest creations for Gearharts Fine Chocolates include dark-chocolate caramels made with a hint of balsamic vinegar and cracked black pepper, dipped in dark chocolate and topped with smoked sea salt, plus chai-spiced pecans rolled in chocolate mixed with spices, then rolled in cocoa powder and chai. "We really concentrate on flavors and playing around with spices," Gearhart says. After the success of the first Gearharts shop in Charlottesville, he and partner Bill Hamilton opened a Richmond branch in 2009. He's hoping to have a Maya hot-chocolate mix — made with cinnamon, ancho chili and orange dust — ready in time for the holiday season. 306 B Libbie Ave., 282-1822 or gear hartschocolates.com .
Adventures in Chocolate
Cathy Churcher is known for unusual treats such as deconstructed s'mores (a graham cracker coated in dark chocolate and topped with a marshmallow), Guinness brownies, jalapeño-and-cinnamon bark, and chocolate-dipped orange peels. "I'm always trying to explore how I can push chocolate to its limits and do new things," she says. Churcher, who has traveled the world to learn about chocolate-making, took her part-time business, Chocolate Cravings , full-time two years ago. Her holiday-season specials include cranberry-pecan and gingerbread truffles as well as pumpkin-ganache tarts, bars and truffles. You can find her chocolates at area farmers markets, specialty shops and cafés or at Churcher's store. 6929 Lakeside Ave., 363-6873 or choccravings.com .
Kelly Walker 's confections include handmade marshmallows and caramel and — of course — chocolates. "I'm really into pushing the envelope on sweet and savory," says the woman behind Chocolates by Kelly . Some of her favorite creations include a lemon-peppercorn truffle and a strawberry-balsamic truffle. Around the holidays, she makes pumpkin-caramel truffles and peppermint meltaways. Walker's chocolate-making roots go back to her great-grandmother, who was a confectioner in the 1920s, but Walker is the first in her family to make the tradition into her own business. Chocolates by Kelly are sold at TaZa Coffee 'n Creme. 5047 Forest Hill Ave., 233-8646 or chocolatesbykelly.com .
Visions of Sugarplums
You could say you're looking for stocking stuffers, a hostess gift or some sweets for your sweetie, but who really needs an excuse to visit a candy store?
James Kinard manager of For the Love of Chocolate ( 3136 W. Cary St., 359-5645 or lovchoc.com ) says that 100,000 types of candies reside in the 18-year-old Carytown store. Some of the best sellers are made by Leonidas, a Belgian chocolatier, and by two Virginia producers: Nancy's Truffles (from Meadows of Dan) and Spice Rack chocolates (from Fredericksburg).
You can find chili-mango, strawberry cheesecake and toasted marshmallow among the 50 flavors of Jelly Belly beans on the shelves at the Sweet Center ( Chesterfield Towne Center, 378-0796 or sweetcenter.net ). Owner Jay Sharma carries a large section of Asher's sugar-free chocolates along with chocolates by Nestlé and Cadbury.
There's an old-fashioned feel to Kathleen's Fudge and Sweet Sensations ( 1328 Sycamore Square, 897-8299 ) in Midlothian, where customers are lured by apples and Oreo cookies hand-dipped in house-made fudge (pictured). Kathleen's also sells imported chocolates as well as sugar-free candy and fudge.
D e Rochonnet Delights ( 13228 Midlothian Turnpike, 794-1551 or derochonnetdelights. com ) has a few surprises on its shelves: bacon chocolate as well as a truffle assortment that includes beer, wine and martini flavors. In December, owner and chocolatier Jeanne-Louise Womble offers gelato flavors such as eggnog and gingersnap. There are also 3-D toy soldiers and snowmen, hand-painted chocolate ornaments, and, of course, Santa Claus.
Godiva operates local shops at Regency Square mall ( 741-7894 ) and Short Pump Town Center ( 364-4417 ). This fall, the company introduced bakery truffles with flavors such as Chocolate Lava Cake, Strawberry Tarte and Tiramisu.
As this issue went to print, a new shop called the Sweet Spot (shopsweetspot.com) was preparing to open at West Broad Village next to the Children's Museum of Richmond-Short Pump. Co-owner Sarah Solomon says it will offer chocolates, bulk candy, bottled soda, allergen-free sweets and games. —GL
A Good Judge of Gingerbread
Gerry Hempel-Davis takes gingerbread houses far more seriously than most architects of the edible edifice. A judge of the National Gingerbread House Competition at Grove Park Inn Resort and Spa in Asheville, N.C., ever since the contest's inception 18 years ago, Hempel-Davis has developed a keen eye for the creations she describes as "unbelievable masterpieces." The author, a former NBC Today show correspondent who now calls Richmond home, was invited to judge the contest after investigating Grove Park Inn for a book.
What began as the annual creation of a gingerbread village by a pastry chef at the inn was transformed into a nonprofessional public competition because of avid community interest. The event now draws hundreds of entries — judged on Nov. 15 and displayed until Jan. 3 — and tens of thousands of visitors, a testimony to the artistry of works that transcend the typical conception of a gingerbread house. (Results are posted after the judging at groveparkinn.com/media/press_releases.)
Hempel-Davis recalls the exterior and interior elaborateness of past creations such as a covered wagon, a mansion complete with chandelier and piano, and a dog nursing puppies on a farm. One contestant last year flew through two airports painstakingly balancing a house decorated with hundreds of marzipan flowers on her lap; she collapsed in tears upon its safe arrival at the resort. With such great effort expended on the houses, some of which are months in the making, Hempel-Davis says, "You get so emotionally involved."
In addition to judging criteria including difficulty, consistency of theme and edibility of materials — a category in which contestants occasionally try to fudge things — Hempel-Davis calls upon her studies as an art major and her years of experience at the contest when evaluating entries.
When not filling her role as a gingerbread judge, Hempel-Davis is usually scouring the highways of America in search of fodder for her travel writing. The first volume of Romancing the Roads, her guide to hotels, resorts, consignment shops and notable stops nationwide, comes out in the spring. In the meantime, she will be editing the second volume. As she puts it, "I'm not one to sit around and twiddle my thumbs." — Brent Merritt
A sweet benefit of Richmond's increasingly diverse population is the availability of delicious baked goods from around the world. By Hollister Lindley
Russian children don't wait for Santa Claus; they look forward to Father Frost. He brings treats on New Year's Eve, among them a gingerbread cookie called a pryaniki . He is accompanied by his fairy granddaughter, Snegurochka (Snow Maiden), who helps him play with children and present gifts. And the spicy cookies are a perfect addition to a cup of tea while opening presents. Not too sweet and full of flavor, they can be found at Kalinka International Deli . 1326 Gaskins Road, 864-0070.
Middle Eastern Treats
Mamoul , a mixture of Cream of Wheat (farina) and lots of butter, can be stuffed with spiced dates or walnuts, cinnamon and sugar. Traditionally, children roll the date paste and stuff the tender cookie dough, which is then formed into small balls or pressed into a wooden form. The Mediterranean Bakery & Deli sells both the ingredients and the finished product. The pistachio baklava baked at the store would also make a nice gift or addition to the holiday table. 9004 Quioccasin Road, 754-8895.
Jewish Egg Bread
Treat your guests (or yourself) to some challah , a traditional, somewhat sweet Jewish egg bread reminiscent of French brioche or Portuguese pão duce . The versions at Montana Gold have no artificial ingredients or preservatives, come in several flavors and make amazing French toast or bread pudding — if there is any left after breakfast, that is. The cherry and apple varieties are especially good. 3543 W. Cary St., 359-7700.
French Yule Log
Whether the delightful bûche de Noël cake came about because of Napoleon's order to keep Parisian chimneys closed in winter or as an extension of ancient Celtic customs, it is a dessert to celebrate. A flavored sponge cake is filled, rolled, shaped into a log, frosted and decorated. Jean-Jacques Bakery in Carytown carries on the tradition by special order. It comes in two flavors: chocolate cake with raspberry filling or white cake with Grand Marnier cream filling. 3138 W. Cary St., 355-0666. ( The Desserterie in Midlothian also makes bûche de Noël ).
NOTE: This article has been corrected since publication.