One has conquered the world of plant-based baking. Another runs a microbakery from her home. Two own businesses with their spouses. And the fifth is a James Beard finalist chef. The common thread? Absolutely delicious cakes.
Chocolate Chai Bundt with Candied Oranges and Rum Buttah
Reine Keis baking
Left: Credit: Kelsey Hansen
Right: Credit: Courtesy of Love and Magic Mixes

Reine Keis, SweetArt, St. Louis

Reine Keis loves to tell the story of how she gave up meat the day she met her ex-husband, blurting out that she, too, was a vegetarian. Later, aiming to ease their son's asthma and allergies, the couple adopted a vegan diet and opened SweetArt, an art-filled, plant-based cafe and bakery. Now she's going it alone, and aiming higher than ever, with the launch of Love and Magic, a line of vegan cake mixes and frostings.

What is the trickiest part about vegan baking?

The most unique challenge is finding the right butter substitutes, like olive oil or coconut oil, and knowing when to use each one. It varies based on what kind of dessert you're doing. It's the same for eggs. Some people get really tied to flaxseed and want to put that in everything, but that doesn't work. It's all about learning when to use flax, or tapioca starch, or applesauce, or bananas. 

Is there a dessert that you haven't cracked yet?

I'm not pounding my chest over here, but I don't think there's anything I can't do plant-based! Sure, I can't do a rack of lamb. But that's fancy food. Everything I love from childhood that my mother made, I can do it plant-based without any issues, and make it delicious. I've had plenty of recipes that were a miss, but I keep going. I make changes and strive to be better.

The recipe you shared with us is a Chocolate-Chai Bundt Cake with Candied Oranges and Rum Buttah. Any secrets to getting a Bundt out of a pan?

I love all of the baking sprays. Those who are anti-baking spray, I don't know why. An organic shortening with a dusting of flour works too, but just use the spray. It'll save you heartache and headache.

What will never leave the SweetArt menu?

The Maine Event is my signature chocolate chunk cookie, named after my brother Jermaine. Also, our Fauxstess Cupcakes. Sometimes we'll do the white squiggle, and sometimes we'll write words like Joy, Faith or Shine. Customers will pick out the word they need, or the word a friend needs. It's our way of uplifting people.

Where did you find your love of cooking?

My mother was an exceptional cook. To this day, my biscuits are reminiscent of hers, and my peanut butter cookies are in honor of hers. My brothers were busy being boys, and I was really underneath her apron, learning as much as I could while she cooked and baked. She did everything from scratch.

What's your favorite kitchen tool?

I hate breaking out my chunky blender and food processor, so I use my immersion blender as much as humanly possible.

What dessert do you request for your birthday?

Peach cobbler or pie. And now I've learned that I just have to make it for myself, because I like mine to have freshly grated nutmeg, cardamon, cinnamon, and a little bit of orange blossom water. I like too much stuff. So I make it myself, and I eat it like a prescription, breakfast, lunch and dinner.

What's another Midwest bakery or bakeshop you really admire?

Chicago's Brown Sugar Bakery. They've been in the game so long. I'm always inspired by any Black-owned business that's doing major things, because if you're Black or a woman, you're less likely to get financed. So you're doing it with all the money you have on earth. It requires sweat equity, and a God-given energy. I think about the prayers that went into SweetArt and that keep it going. I admire that Brown Sugar has excelled in the business of this, and seem to be doing well.

Gingerbread Latte Cake full
Rebekah Stuber
Left: Credit: Kelsey Hansen
Right: Credit: Courtesy of Bay Laurel Baking Co

Rebekah Stuber, Bay Laurel Baking Company, Des Moines

Marketing herself through Instagram, Rebekah Stuber has cultivated a loyal following for her cakes, cookies and pastries—available on occasional Saturdays in her dining room. She also sells sourdough loaves in a weekly pop-up at Des Moines Mercantile, a local housewares shop. Fans especially rave about her spice cakes. The secret, she says, is to double or triple the amount of spices called for in most recipes.

The recipe you shared with us is Gingerbread Latte Cake with Molasses-Espresso Cream Cheese Frosting. What do you love about layer cakes?

They're just so fun! And so pretty! I never decorate a cake the same way twice. I always tell people who order from me, "You can give me a general sense, or a word or a feeling or a little bit of a color scheme, but I don't do design commissions. I will make it how I feel in the moment, with whatever flowers and berries I have on hand." And I like how you can mix and match the fillings, the frosting and the cake base. For example, using a lemon curd filling versus using lemon flavor in the buttercream will really change the cake's taste and flavor.

Get the recipe: Gingerbread Latte Cake

In addition to selling baked goods, you host Bake-and-Barter events, where people can trade handmade or homegrown food or crafts. What inspired that?

Connecting with my neighbors is one of my highest values, and something that's getting lost in this day and age. I want to know all my neighbors' names—and their dietary preferences, so I can bring them things! Anyone can come to these events. I have discovered that some of my neighbors are ceramicists, or artists, or they knit crazy things. One photographer came, and he had these beautiful old posters he had done that were just sitting in his attic. It's so neat seeing people meeting each other who wouldn't have met otherwise. Also, I know that for some people it's an extravagance to spend $5 on a baked good. This way you can trade me for maybe some tomatoes from your yard. I always want my food to feel accessible.

What's your favorite kitchen or baking tool?

My Kitchenaid! I want to get a tattoo of it! And my rolling pin. It was handmade by my friend's father. It's a French baton style and so beautiful, and it's extra long, since I roll such large slabs of dough.

If you could eat your way across one country, which would it be?

France! So cliché. But I haven't been to many European countries, and France for a baker? I can't think of anything better. I've told my daughters since they were born, "When you are teenagers, we're going to Paris, just the three of us, and we're going to stop at every outdoor cafe, and order coffee and croissants at every one."

Is there a dish you haven't quite cracked yet? What's your holy grail?

Those croissants. Mine are passable, and some batches turn out much better than others, but they're so finicky. I'm still panicking every time I make them.

What's another Midwest bakery or bakeshop you really admire?

Ardor Bread and Provisions in Peoria, Illinois, is so amazing. I just want to cry when I go in there. They have this old bar cart filled with the cookbooks that their staff uses, so they're all crusted with flour and butter, and they're sitting out so people can look through them. I grab a stack, and I sit by the old window with light pouring in, and you can watch the bakers fire the bread in the ovens. It's magical.

German Chocolate Cake full
Jennifer Krane and husband, Bake Chicago
Left: Credit: Kelsey Hansen
Right: Credit: Courtesy of Bake Chicago

Jennifer Kane, Bake Chicago, Chicago

Stepping into Bake Chicago feels a bit like cutting into a Funfetti cake–a riot of color, pure happiness in every bite. Jennifer Kane and her husband, Eric Estrella, stock the glass case with an array of mostly classic, American-style confections. In the window and along the walls, you'll find other novelties for sale, including cookbooks, vintage cake stands, funky candles, and letterpress greeting cards—perfect for pairing with that birthday cupcake for your friend. 

Did you grow up in a baking family? How did you get into this?

I'm the youngest of four. The other three are a lot older, so I was with my mom a lot, and we would bake all the time. Loaves of bread. I remember eating loaves of bread right out of the oven.

How did the German Chocolate Cake you shared with us end up on your menu?

This is a cake I've been eating since I was a kid. We had it as birthday cakes and things. I love coconut, and I love the filling. The recipe we use at the bakery is a compilation of a lot of things—a little bit from my mom, and a little bit from recipes my husband and I have come across in our years working. It's more of a wintry Thanksgiving and Christmas cake, but we never take it off our menu.

Get the recipe: German Chocolate Cake

What's another signature?

Definitely our pretzel chocolate chip cookie. We've been making that since we first opened, and any time we don't have it or run out of it, that causes chaos. It's the sweet and salty thing.

With all this sugar flying, do you have a savory snack you keep close in the kitchen?

We always say that we can't start eating sugar because you won't stop all day! Lately we've been getting really good grapes from our farmer, so we've been eating frozen grapes—which seems weird, but they're really good in a hot kitchen.

Do you have a favorite food movie or show?

I always watch Top Chef, whenever there's a new season. And Somebody Feed Phil is one of my favorites. We've also been rewatching all the Anthony Bourdain shows.

Is there a dish or dessert you haven't quite cracked yet? What's your holy grail?

Every summer we try and make a strawberry cake, like the Duncan Hines strawberry cake I remember eating as a kid, but I don't want to put artificial flavoring or gelatin in for the bakery, and we can never get it right.

If someone were visiting you in Chicago, where would you tell them to eat?

My favorite place in Chicago is called Same Day Cafe. It's a little tiny place, and it used to be a cleaner, and they kept the name from the sign. It's the best—simple, delicious food, and they make their own sodas that I love.

Peppermint Patty Cake
Kristine Moberg and Mitch Jackson
Left: Credit: Kelsey Hansen
Right: Credit: Courtesy of Queen City Bakery

Kristine Moberg, Queen City Bakery, Sioux Falls, South Dakota

After almost 15 years of running Queen City Bakery, Kristine Moberg and her husband, Mitch Jackson, have figured out the division of labor. She's the finisher in back, while he's the talker out front, introducing customers and making everyone welcome. They see their spacious shop as a community gathering place, with abundant seating and a mostly American-style menu that has something for everyone.

You didn't bat an eye when I asked what item will never leave your menu.

I had done quiche at the previous bakery I had worked at. I don't know if I thought smaller quiche was a good idea, or I just saw the pans, but I started Queen City with 3 dozen individual-size pans, and right away, we were selling them all, no problem, every day. I had to roll them myself, and I thought that was a lot—but now I have 11 dozen pans! As much time as it takes, and we all kind of groan about it, it's not going anywhere. It's our highest-grossing single item every day.

You're also a go-to for layer cakes, like the Peppermint Patty Cake for the holidays. What do you love about making them?

My position has changed at the bakery the older I've gotten, but I used to be the one who iced all the cakes, and that was my favorite part. I like the assembly, making things even, getting that straight edge. I enjoy that little satisfaction when it's all done, just stopping and looking at it.

Get the recipe: Peppermint Patty Cake

What's your favorite kitchen tool?

The yardstick! I do a lot of cutting and measuring. I make sure every item sees its best self as it goes out. So I like a ruler.

Do you have a signature holiday food memory?

My grandma and aunt always baked Christmas cookies, and they would keep them all in tins out on the porch where it's cold. Everyone had their own cookie. They would do a trilby that was a date-filled cookie, and that was my dad's. And they did a Reese's cup one, and that was mine.

What's on your kitchen playlist?

We start off with NPR in the morning, and when it starts to recycle through, we'll switch to music. And then our day usually ends with a murder podcast. The last thing we do is rolling all the little quiche shells, and so the podcast is good when your brain shuts off and you're just quietly rolling.

Do you have any Midwest bakeries on your travel bucket list?

Sister Pie in Detroit. I have one baker who loves cookbooks, and we're always talking about taking a bakery trip there. Lisa Ludwinski's stuff looks great, and I love that she speaks out about stuff she believes in. It's about more than food.

Vanilla Crepe Cake
Gavin Kaysen bakery portrait
Left: Credit: Kelsey Hansen
Right: Credit: Courtesy of Libby Anderson

Gavin Kaysen, Bellecour Bakery, Minneapolis and Saint Paul

A two-time James Beard winner, Gavin Kaysen is synonymous with eating well in Minneapolis. And so is the Vanilla Crepe Cake he gifted the city when he launched weekend brunch at his best-known restaurant, Spoon and Stable. Inspired by a similar confection at Lady M in New York, it quickly became a cult classic. Now you can buy it every day (in classic vanilla or seasonal variations) at Bellecour Bakery, Kaysen's French bakery counters inside Cooks of Crocus Hill. Or make it yourself! Because rather than keep the recipe a secret, Kaysen has shared it widely, through a fun online class, and with us.

Get the recipe: Vanilla Crepe Cake

Making crepes is daunting enough for some people, let alone stacking them into a cake with a homemade cream filling! Any words of reassurance?

To be honest, it's not really "easy," but each part can be made ahead. You may look at ours and see 18 perfect layers and think, "I can't do that." But it's not like I look at Tiger Woods golf and think, "I can do that!" It's OK to mess it up a little.

Besides the legendary crepe cake, what are some other Bellecour staples?

Probably the kouign-amann sticks, and the chocolate-almond croissant. But most items will never change! I never want it to change.

You offer an array of online tutorials under the banner GK at Home, and your new cookbook, At Home, is full of how-to's. What has motivated you to become, in a way, a teacher?

I love cooking, and I love being able to see people's reactions when we cook. I find it inspiring to be able to teach people through the process. It doesn't have to be intimidating.

What's your favorite kitchen or baking tool?

Offset spatula.

It's not the holiday season until I eat ________.

Pumpkin pie.

What dessert do you request for your birthday?

My kids take over the requests more than me. They want ice cream cake, so that's what we have.

If you had to give up wine or chocolate, which one goes?


Do you listen to music or podcasts while baking?

Actually, I don't! I find cooking to be my meditation. If I need time to think, or time to work through an issue, once I get into the kitchen, that's my zen moment. It's always been my zen, ever since I was 15.