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Sweets for the Sweet

A Burlington baker shares ways to give your lover a (sugar) rush


Published February 2, 2010 at 6:01 p.m.

For her first romantic dinner with the man who would become her husband, Jen Smith made a chocolate amaretti cake from a recipe by Giada De Laurentiis. “It was [also] the cake I made the night I proposed to him,” recalls the petite Burlington baker, now 26.

Smith clearly knows something about wooing the heart and mind with the help of the stomach. And now she’s selling the fruits of her experience through her Burlington-based baking business, the Nomadic Oven. Among the treats on her special Valentine’s Day menu are candy boxes filled with honey caramels and truffles; and a trio of vegan, gluten-free confections called Sweets of Samarcande: stuffed dates, apricot “gems” and almond balls.

But to really get their sweeties in the mood, customers may want to try a Persian Love Cake. With February 14 fast approaching, Smith agreed to share with Seven Days a few of her secrets for making swoon-worthy desserts.

Is the two-layer Love Cake as arousing as its name suggests? When we visit Smith’s kitchen, she’s putting the finishing touches on one by slathering it with rose-scented whipped cream, then smoothing the top and sides. Next, she places green pistachio halves and hot-pink dried rose petals around the edge.

Several of the cake’s ingredients — including cardamom and rose — are considered aphrodisiacs. In Middle Eastern lore, pistachios signify romance, too. When the nuts ripen, their shells burst with a loud pop — a good omen for lovers who hear the sound while strolling in a pistachio grove at night.

That all sounds pretty exotic, but the Persian Love Cake isn’t an authentic Middle Eastern treat. It is, however, an Internet phenomenon. A recipe from the June 2005 issue of Bon Appétit, and its subsequent appearance on the Epicurious website, have spawned comments, blog posts and even contests to come up with a fittingly sensual creation myth. In fact, the recipe appears to be the handiwork of celeb pastry chef Elizabeth Falkner, owner of Los Angeles’ Citizen Cake. (Smith opted not to share her adaptation, but numerous versions are online.)

Although the concoction doesn’t hail from the Middle East, it does apply classic flavors of that region — rose water, cardamom, saffron and pistachio — to a particularly American concept: the fluffy, cream-frosted layer cake. Specifically, it’s a chiffon cake — supposedly invented in 1927 California by the aptly named Harry Baker, who worked as an insurance salesman before becoming a caterer.

“If I was going to become evangelical about one thing [in baking], it would be about how good chiffon cake is, and how underrated and underestimated it is,” Smith says. “People are so impressed with génoise, but I don’t know.” Chiffon cake has more leavening than its French cousin and is made with oil instead of butter, so it has a lighter texture. “You can eat a chiffon cold, and it will still have a nice melt-in-your-mouth texture,” Smith points out.

Though it may be as American as it is “Persian,” the Persian Love Cake meets Smith’s definition of romantic: “You want something with luscious flavors and luscious textures,” she says.

To prepare the cake for transport, Smith — clad in a lemon-yellow shirt, red checked demi-apron and jeans — places it on a plastic base and pops a cover over the top. It’s a ritual she will probably perform many more times in the weeks before Valentine’s Day. Since she doesn’t have a brick-and-mortar store, she does all her whisking and beating in her bright and airy apartment kitchen — certified by the Vermont Department of Health — and sells her goods at the monthly Burlington Winter Farmers Market. To keep busy between markets, Smith works as the pastry chef for Cloud 9 Caterers of South Burlington, and the Nomadic Oven accepts custom orders for pickup or delivery.

In her kitchen, Smith has the Persian Love Cake process down to a science: She grabs ingredients from a tray loaded with eggs; and a tall bottle of rose water; spices, bags of pistachios and flower petals from the City Market bulk department. When she’s done with something, she immediately puts it away, even her hefty, butter-colored KitchenAid mixer. After using it to whip egg whites, Smith sets it aside and folds the cake batter by hand. A few minutes later, she brings the mixer out again to make whipped-cream frosting infused with saffron and rose water. “If I don’t keep things neat, I get distracted,” she says. “I’m definitely of the belief that a cluttered space means a cluttered mind.”

Although the work fits her personality, Smith rejects the notion that she was born to bake — “I think I could have been a million other things, too” — but notes that she got an early start as an entrepreneur of the edible. “In eighth grade, I made it known to my friends that I was available for custom cake decorating and ordering,” she recalls, giggling at the thought of making a profit off her parents’ pantry staples. “I always had side businesses making different kinds of food.”

The Persian Love Cake’s unusual flavors are nothing new to Smith. When she traveled to Morocco at 18, she discovered sweets scented with cardamom and flower petals. A few years later, her first pastry chef job (she’d already completed a series of apprenticeships) was in a bakery that turned out Eastern European, Armenian and Russian desserts. “That was the beginning of my total love affair and obsession with flower waters,” she says.

The name she chose for her company, the Nomadic Oven, may refer in part to her extensive travels. “When I was a kid, my family lived in Africa for a few years, so we’d do interesting experiments making things you couldn’t buy,” Smith recalls. “We had a little egg beater with a crank on the side, and we used to make marshmallows by hand.” The food at her wedding was Moroccan, and the couple took their honeymoon in Belize. As Smith cooks, French chansons from her iPod play on the stereo.

It was while bicycling around New Zealand with her husband that she came up with the idea of opening a bakery that wasn’t tied to a single location. “We were staying with a lot of different people, and I was baking for a lot of people because it was a good way of exchanging hospitality,” she says. They moved to Vermont last spring, and Smith got her business rolling in time to sell at the Old and New North End markets.

The only downside to her career is that her husband isn’t surprised by her deft concoctions. “Becoming a professional pastry chef has really ruined my best trick, because Dan is no longer really impressed when I say, ‘Look what I baked!’” she says.

But couples in the wooing stage — or hoping to inject some sweetness into an anniversary — can certainly benefit from her expertise. Smith shares a couple of her inventions that she finds particularly fitting for a celebration of romance, including a recipe for honeyed pots de crème (see sidebar). “There’s a sensual, unctuous element to pots de crème,” she says.

Plus, the dessert is served chilled. “I’m all about the romantic desserts that you can cook in advance and whisk out,” Smith says. That way the cook won’t be all “hot and sweaty” from running around the kitchen when his or her date arrives.

To demonstrate, Smith pulls a custard-filled ramekin from the fridge, tops it with a dollop of whipped cream and a drizzle of honey, and places it on the counter. Her version of pots de crème — think crème brûlee without the burnt-sugar topping — is simple yet elegant.

“It’s always important to use good ingredients,” Smith remarks. “But here, since there are so few ingredients, it’s extra important.” In her opinion, commercial honey can taste “harsh,” so she gets hers from a small local producer.

Smith also demonstrates how to turn squares of ginger-scented chocolate ganache into rustic-looking truffles coated in cocoa powder (see sidebar).

As much as Smith likes exotic sweets, figs, pomegranates and wine, she doesn’t believe the food of love has to be fancy or expensive. “There’s the sexy, wine-and-chocolates side of ‘romantic’ — you think about typically romantic meals as being luxurious, rare treats,” she says. “But I think romance on a day-to-day basis has more to do with comforting, maybe sustaining things, like fresh bread and hot tea and such.”

For those who aren’t content with that on V-Day, though, she’d be happy to whip up a Persian Love Cake. You’ll have to find your own ripening pistachio grove.