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Cake or die!: HoneyBee Cakery fights the good fight against blah baked goods

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The Bunker, SLO’s newest art space, is quiet on a Wednesday morning, save for three women fussing over an edible work of art. New Times photographer Kaori Funahashi drools as she snaps photos of HoneyBee Cakery Owner Lizabeth Nagel, who is currently squeezing delicate, buttercream rosettes onto a round, white cake with deft precision.

This is an old-school skill that Nagel loves to teach her cake decorating students—especially little kids.

“Rosettes are so sweet and innocent,” she said. “The effect looks labor intensive, but they are not hard to do. Plus, you get a real ‘wow’ factor.”

Once each buttercream flower had found its place, the self-taught baker did what we’d been waiting for since the moment we walked in the door: She cut the cake.

BAKE LIKE YOU MEAN IT:  With crafty cake, cookie, and cupcake decorating classes held at The Bunker in SLO, HoneyBee Cakery Owner Lizabeth Nagel is hardcore - about quality baked goods. - PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • BAKE LIKE YOU MEAN IT: With crafty cake, cookie, and cupcake decorating classes held at The Bunker in SLO, HoneyBee Cakery Owner Lizabeth Nagel is hardcore about quality baked goods.

Inside, psychedelic swirls of red, green, yellow, blue, and orange tie-dye emerged from under the creamy layer of stark white.

The flavor? Vanilla rainbow marble—and oh, was it magic. I literally jumped up and down, clapped my hands, and shrieked with delight at this fantastic trick.

Double. Rainbows. All the way across the sky!

Color is a big theme for Nagel, who actually likens herself to “a walking rainbow.” With a cascade of lavender hair, sparkly headband, blazing teal top, and cheery polka dot apron, she is a joyful extension of her craft.

Or, her craft is an extension of her joy.

Even in a warehouse surrounded by art—the graphic drippings of Jeff Claassen, the bold shapes of Neal Breton, and frenetic comic book art of Irene Flores, the baker stands out. So do her baked goods, which have found a much-needed home in the crafty space. After years without a “home base” for her custom cake lab, she is now right where she belongs.

Want to decorate your own Star Trek-themed cookie? Want to send raspberry “blood” splattered zombie brain treats to your friend for Halloween? How about learning how to make romantic rose-covered cupcakes just in time for Valentine’s Day? Go see Nagel, who you’ll find at The Bunker, sitting on a bright pink stability ball chair (her derriere tends to fall asleep after hours of rolling, cutting, and sugar-dusting).

If your idea of baking a cake revolves around a box of Betty Crocker Red Velvet cake mix, think again.

TRIPPY TREAT:  This delicious vanilla marble cake crafted by Honeybee Cakery Owner/Baker Lizabeth Nagel is made with unbleached flour, organic butter, fresh eggs, and bourbon vanilla sourced from Madagascar. Oh, and it’s pretty, too. - PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • TRIPPY TREAT: This delicious vanilla marble cake crafted by Honeybee Cakery Owner/Baker Lizabeth Nagel is made with unbleached flour, organic butter, fresh eggs, and bourbon vanilla sourced from Madagascar. Oh, and it’s pretty, too.

Nagel’s custom cakes—crafted for weddings, birthday parties, and just for the fun of it—are freakishly clever, taking anywhere from 10 to 40 hours from start to finish. Creations include a “wine keg” cake that actually poured wine out of a realistic-looking “wooden” barrel, tiered layer cakes dotted with vibrant spring blooms, and even a Wizard of Oz cake that managed to feature fields of poppies, a distant Emerald City, and a pair of ruby red slippers on top.

When I asked her how she could have possibly learned all of these skills without going to baking school, the baker admitted to consuming an unhealthy amount of reality TV.

“I watched a lot of Ace of Cakes,” Nagel said with a laugh, adding that she’d really love to meet Food Network heartthrob Duff Goldman. If you ask me, this lady should be on one of those shows.

While some bakers focus on form over quality, Nagel creates her staggering cake creations without cutting corners or adding even a pinch of “blah” flavor.

Not only are the Morro Bay baker’s cakes made from the best ingredients (the aforementioned rainbow cake was made with organic butter, unbleached flour, and bourbon vanilla sourced from Madagascar), they taste different, too.

“The ingredients are often insanely expensive, but well worth it,” Nagel said. “You can really taste the difference. Tasting real vanilla is like experiencing a mouth hug.”

Normally I would scrape off any excess icing while enjoying a slice of cake, which can often feel like one flat, sweet note that is jabbing—not hugging—my palate. Not so with HoneyBee. As I plunged my fork into the moist rainbow cake again and again, I couldn’t stop thinking, “This is the best cake I can remember having.”

And I served Madonna Inn Pink Champagne cake at my wedding.

Nagel said that younger generations have been jipped by the status quo. We didn’t get to have the free love or the groovy drugs, and it turns out our cake was bunk too.

NO BOXES HERE:  Whether your inspiration is Mario Brothers, the beauty of state parks, a love of local wine or simply the blush of spring buds, HoneyBee Cakery Owner/Baker Lizabeth Nagel can craft a cake that honors your eyes and your taste buds. - PHOTO BY HONEYBEE CAKERY
  • PHOTO BY HONEYBEE CAKERY
  • NO BOXES HERE: Whether your inspiration is Mario Brothers, the beauty of state parks, a love of local wine or simply the blush of spring buds, HoneyBee Cakery Owner/Baker Lizabeth Nagel can craft a cake that honors your eyes and your taste buds.

In the ’80s and ’90s, bakers moved away from quality and started using mass-produced mixes and other speedy cost-savers that chip away at good flavor.

Think: That boring Costco sheet cake with the neon, chemical-laden icing. Bletch.

“People quit cooking and quit baking,” Nagel said. “So when modern-day customers eat something with real flavor, that has real butter—they can’t believe how good it is. I’m choosey; I use sustainably produced ingredients that are as natural and unrefined as possible.”

That means zero “Red 40” dye, eggs plucked fresh from the chicken’s nest, and absolutely no creepy, astringent vanilla substitute (mouth hugs are mandatory, people). The end result is a handcrafted, dare I say, “artisanal” product that—although higher in cost than a Vons version—is also higher in enjoyment.

“I love watching people dig into my desserts and make ‘the face,’” Nagel said. “The face” lets the baker know she’s doing her job right.”

It’s a heartwarming realization for the baker: She’s worked her fair share of unfulfilling day jobs.

In fact, Nagel has spent most of her life unsure of exactly what she should be doing for a living, and even tried to make a new life in Las Vegas and Portland. To the joy of local sweet-tooths, Nagel and her 6-year-old daughter returned to their old stomping grounds of Morro Bay back in 2010.

“That hunk of rock is in my blood,” Nagel said. A tattoo of the landmark might make a nice accompaniment to the “cake or die” cupcake inked on her inner-forearm (by now, dear reader, you know that Nagel is deathly serious about baked goods).

PHOTO BY HONEYBEE CAKERY
  • PHOTO BY HONEYBEE CAKERY

Even Whole Foods bakery, where she was briefly employed, didn’t make the cut.

“I was really disheartened seeing cakes going from the freezer to the oven; it was heartbreaking,” Nagel said. “I lasted exactly one shift there.”

The baker’s fierce dedication reminds me of the old adage, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Nagel wanted to see better, more delicious baked goods, so she rolled up her sleeves and got to work.

Maybe her bunker-mate, artist Irene Flores, can draw up a new superhero inspired by Nagel. “The Cakestress” would wear an apron instead of a cape and derive her super powers from pure, organic cane sugar.

The power of cake is real, after all.

“I could be dead on my feet, and if you get me into my kitchen with my apron on, I come alive,” Nagel said. “I bake with my heart. It is my passion, and there isn’t anything I would rather do.”

Cakewalk with me

By now, you are in love with Lizabeth Nagel and her HoneyBee Cakery, right? I mean, who doesn’t love quality baked goods crafted with love? Check out her classes coming up at The Bunker, located at 810 Orcutt Road in SLO. On Thursday, Feb. 12, make Geektastic Valentines featuring cookies decorated with the Star Trek uniform design (6-7:30 p.m. class.; or get a half dozen cookies for purchase and delivery for $25). On Friday, Feb. 14, sign up for a Valentine Cupcake Gram featuring jumbo Death by Chocolate or FUNilla cupcake with a classic chocolate rose on top (delivered to SLO County; $7.50 for a single, $25 for a cute pack of four). Or just shoot the baker an email and chew the fat: honeybeecakery@gmail.com.

Reach Hayley Thomas at hthomas@newtimesslo.com.

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