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Warren Brown takes the cake in place of law career

| Sunday, April 29, 2007

In two short years, Warren Brown transformed himself from a government lawyer into a full-time cake baker. Now he owns a cafe and two noted bakeries -- one more on the way -- and is a celebrity chef on the Food Network.

The host of "Sugar Rush," Brown had his sights set on a law career specializing in health care. But he discovered that flour, eggs and unsalted butter appealed more than writs and decrees. Besides, aprons are much more comfortable than suits.

Brown is the celebrity chef featured at this year's Simon SuperChefs Live, from 11:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday at Ross Park Mall, Ross. The program, free and open to the public, has live cooking performances and demos, a segment on entertaining, food and beverage sampling, cookbook sales, autograph signings and an Iron Chef-style cooking competition among four area chefs. Marc Silverstein, of the Food Network's "The Best Of," will host the event.

Brown is different from mainstream cake bakers in that he minimizes decorations -- in fact, if you want a confection festooned with fondant, intricate roses or a birthday celebrant's photo, you'll have to go elsewhere.

"We will write Happy Birthday to someone on a cake, and I know how to write with chocolate, which I do a lot," he says in a call from his original bakery, CakeLove, in Washington, D.C.

"I went to the market and watched people's plates to see what they like. People scrape off the decorations. They complain the icing is too sweet, or they don't like the roses and the frilly work.

"There's a market for decorated cakes. Some people like to look at them," he says. "But my customers want a cake that tastes great and looks like you made it at home.

"Decorating takes a lot of time. When I started making cakes in my apartment, I wanted to cut out as many steps as I could. Besides, decorating hurts your hands. A lot of decorators have carpal tunnel from squeezing pastry bags, especially stiff royal icing."

His cakes do feature all-natural ingredients -- no stabilizers, precooked ingredients or preservatives, "the way cakes used to be made." He uses butter made in Pennsylvania Amish country.

The health department mandates CakeLove to keep the cakes refrigerated before selling them.

"Always eat cake at room temperature," he tells his customers. "A cold cake doesn't taste as good. Serving cake at room temperature is part of my public education campaign."

Brown, a native of Cleveland, is writing a book -- "CakeLove" -- for Stewart, Tabori & Chang publishers to explain the development of his cake-baking style, share secrets and offer recipes.

"Cooking is something I've done since I was little," he says. "I knew how to cook and follow the steps in the kitchen, but when I needed to get into baking, I had to learn how.

"I went to the bookstore and found as many books as I could on cakes. I looked in the bibliographies to find a common denominator. It gave me really good baseline knowledge."

After 18 months of experimenting with all sorts of recipes, Brown says, he felt he was ready to "go it alone."

CakeLove bakery opened in Washington, D.C., in 2002, followed by the Love Cafe nearby in 2003. He since has opened another bakery in Silver Spring, Md., and will dedicate a new location this year in Shirlington, Va. Brown is working to expand his delivery area outside those areas to other states.

"We can't ship the cakes because they are perishable," he says. "But pound cakes, cookies, scones and brownies can be shipped."


LCD Vanilla Pound Cake

"LCD" stands for "lowest common denominator" -- vanilla -- says cake expert Warren Brown, of CakeLove, in Washington, D.C.

"Vanilla is the world's most popular flavor, and pound cake is the quintessential American cake," Brown says. "Of all the cakes I bake, this is my mom's favorite."

This recipe will appear in "CakeLove," to be published by Stewart, Tabori & Chang in early 2008.

For an alcohol-free cake: Omit the brandy, amaretto, rum and whiskey and substitute with 2 tablespoons minced lemon zest and 7 tablespoons whole milk (whisk to combine with the liquid ingredients); and use vanilla extract that is not alcohol based.

Serve the cake plain, drizzled with glaze, dusted with confectioners' sugar. For maximum flavor, store under a cake dome at room temperature.

Oil and starch vegetable cooking spray, for coating the pan

Dry ingredients:

  • 2 1/2 cups plus 3 tablespoons (13 1/2 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon potato starch
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda

Liquid ingredients:

  • 8 ounces (1 cup) sour cream
  • 2 tablespoons heavy cream
  • 1/4 cup brandy
  • 1 tablespoon amaretto
  • 1 tablespoon rum
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons whiskey

Creaming ingredients:

  • 2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 3 cups (24 ounces) extra-fine granulated sugar
  • 1 vanilla bean
  • 5 large eggs
  • 1 large egg yolk

Heat the oven to 350 degrees (or heat a convection oven to 335 degrees). Position a rack in the middle of the oven.

Set out the ingredients and equipment. You will need a standing mixer, mixing bowls, a 12-cup Bundt pan and a wooden skewer.

For accurate measuring, sift the flour directly into a bowl on a scale. Next, combine it with the other dry ingredients in a mixing bowl and gently whisk for 10 seconds to blend. Set aside.

In a separate bowl, whisk the liquid ingredients to combine; set aside.

Measure out the butter and sugar into separate bowls and set aside. Crack each whole egg into a separate bowl and place the egg yolk in another bowl.

Cream the butter and sugar by combining them in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment on the lowest speed for 2-3 minutes.

Meanwhile, slice open the vanilla bean, using a paring knife, and scrape out the tiny black seeds. Add them to the butter and sugar while it is creaming. Reserve the vanilla bean for another use.

While still on the lowest speed, add the whole eggs one at a time, followed by the yolk. Let each fully incorporate into the mixture before adding the next.

Continuing on the lowest speed, alternately add the dry and liquid mixtures in 3-5 additions each, beginning and ending with the dry. Move swiftly through this step -- do not wait for each addition of the dry and liquid mixtures to be fully incorporated before adding the next one. This step should take a total of about 60 seconds.

Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl all the way to the bottom. Make sure you don't miss any clumps of ingredients hiding in the bottom of the bowl. Mix on medium speed for 15-20 seconds to develop the batter's structure.

Coat the cake pan well, using an oil and starch vegetable cooking spray, such as Baker's Joy. Fill the pan by depositing the batter, using the rubber spatula, in small clumps around the pan instead of pouring it into one spot. Fill the pan about 3/4 of the way and level it, using the spatula.

Bake for 45-70 minutes. Test for doneness with a bamboo skewer after the top of the cake no longer jiggles in the center. The top might look wet, but the shine is normal and comes from the fat in the heavy cream. Insert the skewer into the center and remove. When the skewer shows just a touch of crumbs, the cake is done. Remove from the oven and place the pan on a flat, heat-resistant service or wire rack.

After the cake has cooled for 5-10 minutes, remove it from the pan by inverting it onto a flat surface. Glaze and serve, or store for later use.

To store for later, carefully wrap the completely cooled cake in plastic wrap. Store in the refrigerator or freezer.

Additional Information:

Simon SuperChefs Live

What: Cooking expo featuring celebrity cake expert Warren Brown

When: 11:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday

Where: Ross Park Mall, Ross

Details: 412-369-4400 and www.simon.com

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