Recipes for This Story
Chocolate Cake with Passionfruit Filling
Coconut Cake with Key Lime Filling
Banana Cake with Cream Cheese Filling
Vanilla Cake with Strawberries
Chocolate Cake with Milk Chocolate Filling
Text by Stephen Exel
Photographs by Tyllie Barbosa
Delectable (and often decadent) confections draw Windy City visitors and locals alike to Sarah's Pastries & Candies, a sliver of a shop on Chicago's exclusive Oak Street. Shelves stocked with dipped marshmallows and turtles made with chocolate and vanilla-bean caramel are likely to tempt, but it's the tiered cakes lining the counter that amaze with their delicate, whimsical, always intriguing designs. Some--favorites of owner Sarah Levy-are just big enough to be shared by two. "Sweet!" as the saying goes.
"There's something very special about combining butter, sugar, and flour into a gift," Sarah notes. "It takes planning, energy, and thought that show in the results. A cake for two is about the person with whom you share it."
Sarah's miniature cakes are classics: vanilla, two varieties of chocolate (can you ever have just one?), banana, and coconut--with equally delicious fillings.
While it is what's inside that counts, it's the absolutely gorgeous fondant and buttercream exteriors that will cause the initial swoon. First impressions, after all, are so very important.
Never attempted to use fondant because it looks difficult? Think again. The sweet covering encourages creativity. (Find it in the cake decorating aisle of a crafts store.) "Fondant is just as easy to work with as pastry," Sarah says. "You knead it, roll it out, and shape it to the cake."
From there, it's a simple process of smoothing and stretching the fondant over the buttercream-covered cake. Fondant has a natural elasticity that eliminates pleating at corners and curves.
Satiny-smooth buttercream dresses the coconut and banana cakes. Sarah gets the picture-perfect finish with two essential tools--a small offset spatula and a dough (or bench) scraper. "Turn the cake plate as you go," she advises. "Or, use a lazy Susan to turn the cake."
Use cookie cutters to cut shapes from the fondant; attach them with a dab of water. Pipe on designs with small-tipped pastry bags.
Sarah studied at Chicago's French Pastry School, starting two weeks after graduating from Northwestern University. In 2004, she began making candies in her mom's kitchen. Sarah now has two shops and has authored her first cookbook, Sweetness.
Design inspiration comes from many sources: lace from a wedding dress, an invitation, the delicate henna patterns traced onto the hands of a Hindu bride. Mostly it's the recipient who inspires Sarah. "A cake that makes someone happy is the best reward," she says.