Healthy cakes: Sweet mercy
When a cake fiend was declared dairy- and wheat-intolerant, she decided to reinvent her favourite treats. Her bakery is the toast of New York’s most health-conscious stars.
By Lucie Young. Photographs by Ditte Isager
Erin McKenna has achieved the culinary equivalent of splitting the atom. The 33-year-old New Yorker has discovered a way to bake scrumptious cakes without the key ingredients of butter, eggs, sugar and wheat flour. How good can they be? Most so-called healthy cakes are somewhere between cardboard and cattle-feed on the flavour scale. But her fans include the actresses Natalie Portman, Zooey Deschanel and Mary-Louise Parker, who regularly drops by McKenna’s Lower East Side store, BabyCakes NYC, to pick up a slice of banana bread.
McKenna is a medical anomaly. She is model-thin, 8st 2lb and a lifelong cake addict. She hasn’t always been so trim. In her twenties she weighed 10st. In those days she was a ‘world-class snacker’, pigging out on McDonald’s apple pies and Oreo cookies; breakfast was a muffin with three sugary mochaccinos to kickstart her sluggish system. By 25 she was suffering from serious fatigue, psoriasis and stomach upsets. It was annoying, she says, but she never considered that her diet might be responsible. Then four years later a nutritionist informed her that she was allergic to wheat and dairy products, and warned her against too much refined sugar. ‘I was devastated,’ McKenna says.
Kicking her cake habit was never going to be easy. McKenna was so hooked that she would get home from her job as a fashion assistant on a magazine, and bake. ‘It was the only thing that made me happy,’ she says. So, instead of forgoing cakes and biscuits, she resolved with all the pluck and determination of a modern-day Mildred Pierce to reinvent her favourite treats without their allergenic ingredients. Not only that, but she decided to open New York’s first healthy cake shop. A tall order for someone with no business skills to speak of and no culinary training.
Over mugs of tea and mouthwatering lemon-frosted cupcakes (her signature treats, which she describes as ‘the Christian Louboutin of cupcakes’) at the back of her dinky shop, McKenna explains that she got her fearless spirit growing up in a family of 12 children in Chula Vista, a small town in California on the border with Mexico. ‘I made family dinners at the age of 11. There were so many people, it was like throwing a dinner party every night.’ She made whatever she was asked to – leg of lamb, rump roast… ‘In a big family, you just take a stab at it and if you mess up, you redo it,’ she says.
To someone honed on trial and error, making healthy cakes seemed like something she could also take a stab at, this time in her tiny New York apartment where the cooker didn’t even have a working temperature gauge. (‘I would use a thermometer, but some nights the cooker would shoot up to broil and I had to keep opening the door to get the temperature down.
In the rush to fulfil her dream – which she did in record time, 16 months from concept to opening the store – she did everything upside down. She had downloaded a business plan from the internet, adapted it to suit her own vision and started approaching banks for loans when someone suggested, ‘Maybe you should get your recipes down first.’ It took more than a year to finesse the recipes for a bakery’s worth of cakes. ‘I had no idea how hard it was going to be,’ she says, rolling her eyes and wrapping a stripy cardigan over her form-fitting pink uniform (custom-made by the hip New York designer Built by Wendy). By her own estimate, she made hundreds and hundreds of cupcakes, brownies, cookies and tea breads – all equally disastrous. Having left her fashion job at the start of the project, she was now holding down three waitressing jobs to cover the cost of recipe testing.
There was no eureka moment. She simply inched her way forward until one day she thought she had a cupcake good enough to offer to Mark Ladner, the chef at Manhattan’s celebrated Lupa restaurant, where she was working as a waitress. ‘I knew it was OK when he tore out of the kitchen and said, “How did you do this?”‘
The key to her success, she says, was never to give in. When a building manager tried to warn her against renting a Lower East Side premises (‘You could roll a ball down that street in winter and not hit anyone, it is so deserted,’ he advised), she ignored him. No sooner had she opened her door than the area became fashionable. It is now the hip spot in Manhattan, overtaking NoLiTa, SoHo and the Meatpacking district.
Nearly four years on, with recession gripping New York, BabyCakes is still packed with devotees. McKenna’s dedication to quality means she arrives every day at 8.30am to go through all the batches made in the night by the bakers. ‘If they don’t taste right I remake them,’ she says. Then she starts work preparing new batches to keep the counters stocked and to keep up with the neverending orders for birthday cakes and deliveries (apparently some stars, including Jason Schwartzman of Rushmore and Slackers fame, have their favourite items delivered to the set).
Today she is making a batch of carrot cupcakes in the tiny 200sq ft BabyCakes kitchen. The bakery has only one oven and a 3 x 5ft prep table, the size of a modest desk. In the Los Angeles branch, which opens this summer, McKenna is delighted to report that there will be two ovens, plus some tables and chairs for the customers.
Talking a mile a minute as she hand-whisks the dry and wet ingredients together, she explains that making a cake without eggs is no easy task. ‘Eggs are the miracle ingredient. They add moisture and texture, and bind everything together.’ To replace the missing moisture, she has had to substitute fruit and vegetable purées: apple and pear sauce for her brownies; apple, pumpkin and shredded courgette for her muffins; and carrot for these luscious cupcakes.
The two star ingredients in BabyCakes treats are agave nectar and coconut oil, which stand in for sugar and butter. To McKenna, they are miracle foods. ‘Coconut oil engages your thyroid, strengthens your metabolism and helps you lose weight. There have been tons of studies. You should check it out on the internet,’ she says as she slides her cupcakes into the oven. As someone who taste-tests everything in the bakery, McKenna is certainly proof that coconut oil isn’t fattening. She brags that models also know they won’t get fat on BabyCakes, which is why they are such fans. ‘We just did a big delivery for Sophie Dahl,’ she grins.
Agave nectar, sometimes called agave syrup, is the main sweetener in nearly all her products. Agave comes from the Mexican agave plant. It is sweeter than honey but less viscous and has a low glycaemic index which, McKenna says, ‘means it breaks down in your system at a slower rate and doesn’t shoot up your blood sugar’. People who find themselves exhausted after consuming sugar, high fructose corn syrup or honey (which is sometimes contaminated with corn syrup) are usually able to consume agave without any side effects. As a result, agave has become the must-have item for health-conscious New Yorkers.
With the cupcakes out of the oven, McKenna sets about her favourite task of slathering on the frosting – essentially soy milk, soy powder, coconut flour, coconut oil and agave, this is naturally coloured (with a dash of turmeric to make yellow, blueberry juice to make purple, raspberry or beetroot to make pink, and chlorophyll to make green). The frosting is so addictive that it has developed a fan base all of its own. Some people just come in for a $1.50 frosting shot that they can knock back like a tequila or a 12oz take-out tub to devour at home.
‘Not a day passes that I am not asked for the cupcake and frosting recipe,’ McKenna says. Until now they have been top secret. But she is so confident that she is now revealing 50 of her favourite recipes in a BabyCakes cookbook (published in May, only in the US, by Clarkson Potter). The book is a slightly schizophrenic read, full of McKenna’s harebrained personal stories and Mrs Beeton-style admonishments to pay attention with measurements and to practise before trying out the recipes at a dinner party. ‘It’s not like normal baking. The consistencies are different. The batter is a lot stickier. It takes a little getting used to,’ she explains.
Asked what her biggest triumph is, she thinks for a minute before settling on the cookies. They caused more headaches at the trial stage than anything else, and in the end she had to use evaporated cane juice instead of agave to retain the texture of a normal cookie. But the big pay-off came when her mother tasted them and conceded that they were better than hers.