Warren Brown is a busy man. The founder of CakeLove is opening his bakery’s sixth location later this year, is engaged with a wedding planned for October, and has just come out with a book, CakeLove: How to Bake Cakes from Scratch. The lawyer-turned-baker agreed to sit down and answer a few questions during a recent stop on his book tour in Shirlington where a CakeLove bakery is located.
<b>So you got through law school, you were a government litigator—and cooking was always just in the background?</b>
In the background, but also really in the foreground in a lot of ways, because I would end up in the kitchen doing something elaborate three or four times a week, whether it was for breakfast, or serving lunch on the weekends—friends coming over, just doing a lot of things. What I discovered was, it’s a very easy way to share time and have company over, because I love entertaining. Well, that’s the thing, I don’t actually love entertaining, but I love cooking.
<b>What made you decide to make this your day job instead of practicing law?</b>
The reality that I couldn’t do both. The reality that I had to make a choice. There’s freedom and liberty in making a choice. Since I have, I’ve really excelled and been able to not just be at peace but really grow. The problem was, How am I going to pay for anything? How do I pay the rent, how do I buy the ingredients, how do I actually find the resources to make it happen; and secondly, how do we even know that customers are going to keep coming or come at all? Those are answers that no one can provide, really just time will provide.
<b>How did your family take it when you told them you were going to be a baker instead of a lawyer?</b>
They were supportive in general. You know, it took some convincing and persuading by way of showing them what I have, what my plan is, what the product is, and my energy and interest level. I took my time, and I think I approached the subject with them in a way where I said, ‘This is what I’m thinking of doing and what I would like to do, what do you think of it?’ and waited for their reply. And then, the next time I saw them, I brought a cake. I guess they just saw from the beginning how much I liked it, and they also have a lot of faith in me. I knew I could do it, too, but knowing you can do it and doing it are two really different things.
<b>Why did you settle on baking as opposed to any other form of art?</b>
I tried different kinds of art. I used to draw a lot with oil pastels, a lot with chalks, did a lot with poetry….. I did try, and worked and enjoyed, and I think I’ve made some pretty interesting stuff with art, and I probably would have continued if I felt like I’d had a better foundation to work with. But I suppose when I looked at it, and I was really looking to make strides with something, I noticed that cooking was something I naturally excelled at.
<b>You make European buttercream and American cake. Explain that.</b>
The difference with cake is, typically European cake is like a sponge cake. It’s a very low amount of butter relative to the sugar, flour, and eggs. It’s a foam-style cake where you’re whipping air into the eggs and sugar, then you fold in the flour, then you fold in a little bit of butter. In American cake, you cream the butter and sugar, very slowly incorporate air into the butter and sugar, and then add in eggs, flour, and some kind of milk item. There’s a lot more moisture in there from the milk, and the result is that the cake has a great ability to be a platform for supporting other flavors—frostings and fruit fillings.
Buttercreams, there’s a lot for that. Essentially, it’s American buttercreams, and then European ones. Europeans are Italian, French, Swiss—several different ways. The one we make the most is Italian meringue buttercream. American buttercream is butter whipped together with confectioner’s sugar, add in milk, sometimes cream—some kind of liquid dairy agent, until it’s smooth. Confectioner’s sugar is ground up so finely that when you bite into it, it just passes right through your mucous membrane and gives you a sugar rush. I don’t think it tastes that good. It’s just so sickeningly sweet that it’s too much to handle. We don’t go with that one.
<b>You’re interested in what goes on at the molecular level in your food. Can you explain that for someone who doesn’t know anything about cooking science?</b>
I like to think in terms of the smallest units. I like to imagine myself in the bowl as the mixer is going around, and get a sense of how the ingredients are bonding and coming together with one another. A cake batter is all the ingredients in there mixing around air. As I think myself into the bowl, I feel like I can get an idea of how much more of anything I can add. How much dairy agent can I add before I overwhelm the starch’s capacity to absorb moisture and give structure to the cake? I like to think at that level, and watching cartoons when I was a kid actually helps me to imagine that, because you have to have some basis for your imagination. So I guess CakeLove is the way it is because of Smurfs.
<b>What’s your favorite cake?</b>
New German Chocolate. Without the coconut. The frosting is particularly soft. I think it’s a fun construction of cake. It’s very liberal, I suppose, because there’s no frosting on the sides. And it’s not too overwhelming—when you get to the end of the cake, you’re not faced with a whole slab of frosting. I guess I like cake more than I like frosting. So yeah, the NGC. Plus, it makes me think of Prince and the New Power Generation.
<b>What made you want to write the book?</b>
My interest in getting people into the kitchen, and offering out cake as a means for them to break through some of the barriers to baking that a lot of people have. I always said, ‘I can cook, but I can’t bake,’ and I know I hear that a lot. What I learned is, it’s not as hard to bake as you might expect.
<b>You’ve got the blessing of Oprah, which carries a lot of currency in this world. What was that like for you?</b>
It was great. Meeting Oprah was very much a highlight of my life, and very much a feeling of validation, that what I had done was the right choice and that someone of that stature was recognizing me. It was an incredibly satisfying feeling.
<b>What would you want to say to your former self, the lawyer, or to someone like you who’s up baking at night?</b>
I’d tell him to get a lot of sleep, get focused on what you want, and make all the moves to get it.