Friday, June 10, 2011

Let Them Eat Cake

It was a not-uncommon night on the road for me, this time outside of Washington DC. I had finished work, gone back to the hotel and dropped my stuff off in my room. Then I headed out for dinner, my companions being a book and a glass of wine. Wandering afterwards, I was looking for something sweet to top off my evening. And that's when I came across Danielle, a vision in white.

Now, before you think there was anything illicit going on, Danielle was actually behind the counter of her shop, "Danielle's Desserts," and the whites she was wearing were chef's. Like you, I've been in bakeries before, and seen some good looking stuff. But this was different. No white cakes with curlycue frosting here. Rather, each of the many phenomenal cakes and pies on display looked like it was homemade, a fact validated as I watched Danielle scrapping down a regular mixer on the back bench.

Perhaps best of all, rather than untouched complete units, each sample was partially gone. What this meant, and what the chalkboard hanging on the wall confirmed, was that a slice could be yours for the asking. There was Coconut Pineapple and Fresh Apple Crumb, Southern Caramel and Raspberry Delight. For the chocoholics there was Triple Chocolate Fudge, and for the lemonophiles Lemon Chess Pie. One looked better than the next, and I couldn't decide. "Damn you," I said to her. She laughed: "I get that a lot!"

Turns out the shop is the culmination of a 20 plus year journey for Danielle. A baker since she was a kid, she was taught the art by her mother, a necessary one to help keep her four brothers happy (and yes, they learned to bake as well). And so while she plied her day job as a senior human resources professional, she started a side business baking at night and on weekends. She teamed with a local caterer, supplying her with the stuff of which dreams are made. Then about two and half years ago a local restaurateur tapped her talents, stretching her even further.

"I always knew it was a matter of time," she recalled. "It wasn't a question of if, but of when." She finally decided to take the plunge, leaving her six-figure job to go full time into baking. She cast about for a location, never finding the right combination of the cost she could afford, the space she wanted and the traffic she needed. Then at an interview for yet another space, her contact suggested her current location, the Tyson's Galleria, a high end mall in suburban Washington. "It was a temporary space, and they were willing to give me a try. I thought I was crazy... other people thought I was crazy... but it worked out!"

And so now she has a place to call her own. I asked her what sets her shop apart. "The concept was baking from scratch, baking throughout the day, being very interactive." She does that by getting feedback from customers, and asking those who wander in to taste her newer ideas. Posts on her web site tell the story: "I normally have a fair amount of self control, but when I'm in there my knees get weak, my palms start sweating, and my heart races until I can get my hands on a red velvet cupcake." Another: "Let's just say, it is absolutely, hands-down, THE BEST Key Lime Pie EVER!" And one more: "I could come back just for the visual food porn in the displays."

As for me, it was a tough call. I love coconut, and the Triple Layer Creamy Coconut (Danielle's favorite!) looked tempting. The Carrot looked great, as did the Chocolate Pecan. But I couldn't resist one I don't often get, the Sweet Potato pie. It was spicy and sweet, creamy and full of body, and it was all I could do not to go back and break in late that night for another slice.

Danielle will confess that it's hard work, being a professional baker. "It takes a toll on your body," she says, "the constant standing, the non-stop shoulder and arm motions. If I sit down, sometimes I can't get up." But there is an upside. "The thing that gives me most satisfaction is seeing people's reaction. I'm glad I'm not a dentist or an IRS agent. People come in here and get real happy. A lot say, ‘I was having a really bad day, and I came in here and now I feel better.'"

I concur. I wasn't even having a bad day. But after a slice of that pie, I can tell you it got a whole lot better.


Marc Wollin of Bedford can't wait to return to Danielle's Desserts in Tyson's Corner, VA. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

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