I love a good piece of cake or a delicious cupcake. I’m pretty easy – I like a cake that’s moist and has some body, a moderate amount of icing that complements, rather than distracts from, the cake itself. Really, I want something that lives up to the cakes my grandmothers used to whip up from scratch – and perhaps it’s childhood nostalgia, but so little seems to match that these days.
The past decade or so has been marked by dessert “trends” – you know what I mean – the sudden obsession, for example, with cupcakes after Sex and the City highlighted New York’s Magnolia Bakery, the obligatory follow ups – cake pops, mini pies, “gourmet” cookies, “luxury” candies. Can we, on the day after Thanksgiving, just agree that we as a nation love sweets and it matters less at a party that you serve trends than something delicious? I prefer something incredibly good, regardless of what the latest “thing” is, and I’m sure you would too.
Of late, at least in the South (where admittedly, we get “trends” a little more slowly in some cases), the dessert in vogue has continued to be some manifestation of the cupcake – and frankly, while dozens of bakeries have popped up to offer them in a vasty collection of flavors, most of them don’t live up to the hype. The general take is pretty disappointing, actually – a gigantic gob of sweet icing in artificial colors, often bedecked with sprinkles sure to delight My Little Pony fans everywhere, tops a small cupcake usually created from an industrial mix rather than scratch ( for consistency purposes, I’ve been assured on occasion). That cupcake is all too often dry and lacking.
Likewise, it’s been easy to get jaded when it comes to gourmet cupcakes. “Really?” is my typical response when I get a note from a PR person wanting me to take a look at the latest variation on the cupcake theme. I can count on one hand the number of people I’ll buy cakes and cupcakes from : Julia’s Homestyle Bakery in Murfreesboro, a few sellers at the Franklin Farmers’ Market like Dozen, but not a lot of the cupcake shops.
So I’m happy to say I’ve met another cupcake and cake baker I want endorse. Kristina Mansoor and I met in a darkened PR office on a Tuesday night, she surreptitiously opened the boxes of cake and cupcakes she’d brought with her, and started to talk. And I quickly realized she got it.
Kristina hails from Charlottesville, VA., and she arrived in Nashville in 2008. She did culinary studies at the Art Institute of Nashville, fell in love with the city, and decided to stay. With a love of baking deep in her soul, she worked in a number of bakeries, including some of those cupcake places and Franklin’s late lamented Curious Gourmet cupcake shop, before striking out on her own.
She started her independent baking career the way most do – by making cupcakes and cakes for her friends and family. The requests escalated, and she found herself producing cakes for all occasions – and voila! A business was born. Now she’s baking like mad, looking for premises, and taking orders for her exceptional product daily. Since it’s the holiday season, and you’re probably planning a party, it seemed a good time to drop a hint to readers that she’s out there.
What Kristina does differently from most of the commercial cupcake places: first she does it from scratch – no mixes, not pre-fab. Second, she avoids artificial color. “I like to stay classic and natural, I like that look,” she says. “I really appreciate natural flavors and colors, I don’t think you need more. That’s not to say if someone wants a bright pink cake for a child or something, I won’t make it, but generally I encourage my customers away from all that.”
That’s not to say her cakes aren’t lovely – they are. Ditto the cupcakes. Her understated, lovely decoration of both adds to their appeal – and Kristina Mansoor loves some cake decorating. And frankly, it’s refreshing to look at cakes that look more like cakes than cartoons.
The further allure of Mansoor’s baked goods has to do with the flavor combinations she puts into play: These, boys and girls, are different. They are not bland confections , but heady mixes of chocolate cake with chocolate truffle filling and chocolate almond buttercream, cranberry cake with orange buttercream icing, banana cake with cinnamon buttercream, or cardamom cake with brown sugar buttercream topped with bacon, so you can give into your cravings for sweet and salty simultaneously.
And should you doubt these will appeal to less refined palates, I’d like to point out that at a recent tasting at Brentwood’s Governor’s Club, kids surrounded Mansoor and wouldn’t let her escape, as they enjoyed samples of every single unusual variety she had. (Kids will try and like unusual foods, as long as you don’t make a fuss about them being something different that they might not like.)
Kristina makes her own jams and jellies as well and these become cake elements. Imagine for example, a black cherry buttercream made from her jelly, paired with chocolate cake.
“I put a lot of passion into what I do, and it’s really important to me that customers think what they get is amazing, that it’s exactly what they wanted,” says Kristina. “I think it’s tough for me when someone says ‘do what you want’ with an order, because I worry my pick might be different from theirs – but then, the challenge is also inspiration to work even harder to please them. It’s always fun to match my vision with what the client wants, and it lets me think outside the box.”
If you’re ready to order, you can find more details at steenthebean.com (click here). Cupcakes are $2.50 each, with a minimum order of one dozen. An 8” layer cake is $40, with prices increasing with size. Specialty items and sizes are available, with pricing upon request. Yes, she does weddings, corporate events, and any other occasion you can think of – including your holiday party. She doesn’t have a storefront yet, but it’s coming.
The Goods on Kristina Mansoor
Neighborhood: East Nashville
Lunch: The Pharmacy, amazing burgers and house-made sodas
Dinner: Germantown Cafe
Dessert (not cake): ice cream
Steak temperature: medium rare
Salad dressing: Bleu cheese, from scratch
Cocktail: White Russian
Listening to: Sail by Awolnation
On your TiVO: The Walking Dead
Book: The Stand by Stephen King
Jeans: American Eagle
Gadget: No gadgets, I’ve got the oldest cellphone on the planet
Thing you can’t live without right now: Lotion – this dry weather is killing my hands