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One can have cake, and eat it and more delectables at Sugar Cafe in Dormont

| Sunday, Oct. 16, 2011

Baker Amber Kunselman celebrated her 25th birthday last month.

Did she make her own cake?

"No, I didn't," she said, laughing heartily, as she plated a spicy-gingerbread bundt cake, working in the balcony bakery at Sugar Cafe.

It's a wonder. Cakes and baking drive her.

A graduate of Indiana University of Pennsylvania's culinary program, Kunselman has worked at The Ritz in South Beach, Fla., the Marco Island (Fla.) Marriott, and had a short stint at The Fairmont, Downtown before signing on at "the Sugar," as owner Kelly James calls her cafe on Potomac Avenue in Dormont.

Like fondant and wedding cakes, Kunselman says her fit at the cafe is snug.

"I get to do what I like to do," she says. The venue, which serves breakfast, brunch and lunch, and caters and bakes special orders, opened in February.

"It's not just 'work, work, work' on a production line."

Kunselman, of Dormont, is one of two bakers at the cafe, working with fellow pastry chef Brian Wildroudt. While the pair keep the cafe's display case stocked with scones, cupcakes, cheesecake and biscotti, Kunselman's specialty is decorating and plated desserts.

Bring on that fondant.

In her hotel life, she could only decorate cakes if she was the chef, she says. Because she wasn't, she taught herself on her time, making cakes for friends and family.

Kunselsman tells the memorable story of how, while working in Florida, she made bright orange, magenta and yellow gum-paste flowers in her apartment, packed them up and traveled with them to Buffalo, N.Y., where she made her stepsister's wedding cake. A brochure for the Sugar Cafe features it and others she has made.

She is drawn to the artistry of decorative baking.

"Not everybody knows what goes well together," she says, listing how good decorative baking requires more than knitting colors and textures. "A beautiful cake is not good unless the cake underneath is good."

Sugar Cafe consequently uses Italian buttercream icing when icing tops its cakes. It is lighter and fluffier than conventional, and takes well to flavoring, thus amping up the dessert.

Most recently, Kunselman baked for a vegan wedding: Lemon Lavendar, Chocolate Peanut Butter, Toasted Almond and Key Lime Coconut cupcakes and a small Pumpkin Spice cake, all served in tiers.

Kunselman, says James, was her first hire. After 18 months of planning, James, 42, of Mt. Lebanon, left her job as pastry chef at the Sonoma Grille, Downtown, in September 2010 to realize her lifelong dream of having her own place.

"I just fell in love with her," James says of Kunselman. "I just thought she was a little 'mini-me.' "

"We're a match. She does beautiful cakes. Her style is a little different -- hers are more whimsical, mine are a little more elegant. I thought putting those styles together would be perfect, and it has been."

The whimsy, and youthful touches, are evident at Sugar Cafe. Visitors are welcomed by a mat bearing the cafe's logo, an aproned waitress in platform heels, carrying a cake on one tray, and cupcakes on another.

Most recently a store specializing in jewelry, "metaphysical" products and such things as tarot-card reading, the cafe space is bright and airy, with tables, a display case and counter, ovens and coffee machines on the main level.

That balcony bakery overlooks it.

"Things are really starting to boom upstairs," says James of the cafe's bakery operation.

The interior is painted a sprightly hue of turquoise. Here and there are drawings by James' son, Jack, 4.

"Keep calm and eat cupcakes," reads a framed poster on one wall.

Head barista Tommy Medley serves artistic espressos. James worked with La Prima coffee importers, Strip District, for three months to come up with the cafe's exclusive Sugar Blend.

Cooks Brandon Sachs and Don Yokum make sandwiches, salads and breakfast items that include buttermilk waffles with homemade raspberry jam and bagel sandwiches with chive-and-cheddar scrambled eggs or smoked salmon, red onion, capers and hard-boiled eggs.

"I look at the Sugar -- it's just everything I've ever done, all smashed together into one," says James, who has wanted to own a restaurant after she played at it as a child. Besides pastry chef, she has been a bartender, cook and waitress.

"It's nice for me to see it all come together."

Dark, Spicy Gingerbread With White Wine and Vanilla Roasted Pears

This sweet bread, which Amber Kunselman of the Sugar Cafe bakes in a bundt pan, says fall in so many ways. Redolent with several of the same spices that make September-October-November an earthy treat, it is topped with one of the season's favorite fruits, pears.

Kunselman uses Guinness in this recipe, but says you can use any stout. Feel free to substitute another variety for the Bosc pears, as well. Don't skimp on the vanilla beans — there's nothing like the taste of fresh vanilla.

For the gingerbread:

  • 8 ounces stout beer
  • 1 cup molasses
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 2 tablespoons ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 1 cup firmly packed dark-brown sugar
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 3/4 cup vegetable oil

For the oven roasted pears:

  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1 vanilla bean
  • 6-8 pears
  • 1 lemon
  • 1/4 cup sweet white wine
  • 2-4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • Confectioners' sugar, for serving

To prepare the gingerbread: Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a bundt pan.

Bring the beer and molasses to a boil in a large saucepan and remove from the heat. Whisk in the baking soda, then let it cool to room temperature.

Sift together the flour, baking powder and spices in a large bowl.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the sugars and eggs. Whisk in the oil, then the molasses mixture.

Add to the flour mixture and whisk until just combined.

Pour the batter into the greased and floured bundt pan. Bake in the middle of oven until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, for about 50 minutes. Cool the cake in pan on a rack for 5 minutes. Turn out onto rack and let it cool completely.

To prepare the pears: Heat the oven to 375 degrees.

Place the sugar in a small bowl. Split the vanilla bean lengthwise in half and scrape out the seeds. You can use a spoon. Stir the seeds into the sugar and save the pod. Set it aside.

Peel the pears and cut the pears in half. Remove the stems and cores. Arrange the pears in a large baking dish, cut side up.

Squeeze the lemon evenly over the fruit and add to the baking dish. Sprinkle the pears with the sugar. Nestle the vanilla pod among the fruit. Pour the wine into the dish. Dot each pear with butter.

Roast the pears for 30 minutes, brushing them occasionally with the pan juices. Turn the pears over and continue roasting, basting

once or twice, until they are tender and caramelized, for 25 to 30 minutes longer.

To serve: Slice the gingerbread into pieces 3/4 to 1-inch thick.

Plate one slice of gingerbread with 1 or 2 pear halves. Dust with confectioners' sugar.

The gingerbread may be served with ice cream, sweetened whipped cream or creme fraiche.

Makes 8 servings.

Additional Information:

The Sugar Cafe

Cuisine: Casual breakfast, brunch on weekends, lunch

Entree price range: $2.95-$6.75, breakfast; $4.95-$6.95 lunch

Notes: Homemade pastries a la carte and coffee. Specialty cakes and pastries by order.

Hours: 9 a.m -7 p.m. Mondays-Fridays. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. Breakfast and lunch served all day. Brunch specials on weekends.

Address: 1517 Potomac Ave., Dormont

Details: 412-341-1090 or www.sugarcafepittsburgh. com .

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