Room for dessert: Asheville eateries feature unique sweet endings

SWEET TALK: The Blackbird's coconut cake has been a fixture at the restaurant for years, but it has recently undergone a makeover at the hands of pastry chef Doug Cooper. In addition to tweaking the recipe to boost moistness and fluff, he has recently added a fourth layer to the already towering confection. Photo by Lynne Harty

Dessert may be something of an afterthought when considering Asheville’s overall culinary landscape, but many would argue that no dining experience should conclude without a sweet resolution. The blend of creativity and tradition that helped give birth to some of the South’s finest kitchens has also produced some memorable Asheville desserts.

Now-defunct stalwarts like Margie’s Battery Park Café (home of the Mile-High Pie) and Picnics Restaurant and Bake Shop (where it was rumored there was a pound of butter in every pie) have given way to other popular treats.

Nuts for coconut

Executive chef Michael Reppert has been at The Blackbird for five years and has seen several variations of the restaurant’s well-known coconut cake. But he believes it wasn’t until the hiring of pastry chef Doug Cooper two years ago that the recipe was finally perfected. “I believe dessert is a very important part of the meal — it satisfies people at the end. And with Doug’s talents, the creativeness of some of the stuff he comes up with, some of our desserts have had massive success,” says Reppert.

“Dessert is my passion,” Cooper adds. “I’m always looking to invent new things and have fun playing with it.”

The coconut cake came about when The Blackbird belonged to former owners Bobby Buggia and Roz Taubman, and is the only dessert on the current menu that preceded Cooper’s tenure. New owners Jesson and Cristina Gil gave him the freedom to tinker with the recipe.

“I kind of added a fluff to it,” explains Cooper, who worked in a cake shop for three years before his arrival at The Blackbird. “It was more of a pound cake before, which is denser and was causing it to dry out. I switched it to more of a sponge cake, which is fluffier.”

Also, just last month, he took the cake from three layers to a towering four layers of vanilla sponge cake, all separated by coconut custard. The outside is veiled in cream cheese icing and fresh coconut. The massive pieces could double as edible doorstops. “As our owner says, it’s our Big Mac,” Cooper jokes.

Hummingbirds and royalty

Much as the coconut cake preceded Cooper at The Blackbird, the popularity of the hummingbird and king cakes at Short Street Cakes predates Olga Jimenez’s ownership of the small West Asheville bake shop. The bakery’s founder, Jodi Rhoden, has always been fascinated by Southern cakes and their stories.

Rhoden started baking New Orleans Mardi Gras king cakes in 2010, when she created them for Mystic Mountain Krewe’s 12th Night Celebration. The cakes consist of a sweetened yeast dough with a flavored cream cheese and praline fillings, topped with white glaze and colored sugar sparkles. They are a staple at Short Street Cakes’ annual combination community Mardi Gras party and anniversary celebration.

Hummingbird cakes are believed to have originated in Jamaica before being introduced to the United States in the late 1970s. Jimenez describes the confection as having elements of spice cake, carrot cake and fruitcake. “It has bananas, strawberries, pineapples and pecans,” she says. “It’s a really moist cake and definitely one of the favorites.”

Jimenez was a baker in the shop for three years under Rhoden before taking over ownership two years ago, and she still regularly works in the kitchen. Some aspects of the operation have changed, but the hummingbird and king cake recipes have remained the same.

Hummingbird cakes are available throughout the year and are especially popular around Easter and the winter holidays. The king cakes are made only from February to March in celebration of Mardi Gras. Jimenez estimates the shop churns out more than 100 king cakes every Mardi Gras.

Short Street Cakes asks for 48 hours’ notice for orders. Hummingbird cupcakes are usually available in the store’s display case for walk-in customers.

Bread and milk

Pastry chef Leon Perez has a knack for making cakes that come from even farther south than the Carolinas. He’s been baking at Tienda Los Nenes for roughly 10 years, and his pastel de tres leches (three-milk cake) and concha (Mexican sweet bread) have become under-the-radar sensations.

Originally from Hidalgo, Mexico, Perez learned the recipes while working as a baker in Mexico City before coming to the United States. It didn’t take long for word to spread that Perez was rolling out fresh, authentic Mexican desserts in an unassuming West Asheville strip mall.

Today, Tienda Los Nenes receives 50-60 orders each week for tres leches cakes for occasions ranging from weddings to graduations to quinceaneras (traditional 15th birthday celebrations for girls). As the name suggests, the cake is made with three types of milk: condensed, evaporated and whole. Filling options are strawberry, pineapple, coconut, pecan or peach. Flan, a caramel custard dessert, is another commonly ordered item at the shop, which is also a Latin American grocery with butcher and delicatessen counters.

Cheers to doughnuts

Beer may not be everyone’s idea of dessert, but Burial Brewing’s Skillet Breakfast Stout is where Asheville’s craft brewing industry meets its artisan food scene with a sugary twist. The beer is made from nine barley malts, oats, milk and molasses sugars and freshly roasted Counter Culture Coffee beans and is “full of flavors of rich cocoa, smooth caramel, dark fruits and an abundance of diverse coffee aroma,” says Erin Jones, Burial’s head of marketing.

The twist is the Vortex Doughnuts doughnut holes that ornament every glass, making Skillet the perfect nightcap to conclude a day of brewery tours and an apt Beer City dessert. Skillet has been popular since it was released as one of the brewery’s original offerings when it opened in 2013, and it has been a mainstay ever since.

The Blackbird is at 47 Biltmore Ave. Short Street Cakes is at 225 Haywood Road. Tienda Los Nenes is at 1341 Parkwood Road. Burial Beer Co. is at 40 Collier Ave.

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One thought on “Room for dessert: Asheville eateries feature unique sweet endings

  1. hauntedheadnc

    I’m glad some eateries feature unique sweet endings, because the vast majority of places in this town do not. It seems that unless you’re going to some place that specializes in them, there’s a dessert crisis around here; almost every restaurant features the same damn things: brownie sundae, plain cheesecake, baklava (if you’re lucky), and some kind of pie. WTF? Seriously? Does anyone remember the Mississippi Mud Pie at the old McGuffey’s, or the coffee ice cream cake at Tripp’s, or the peanut butter pie at Fatz before they “improved” it out of existence? Those were desserts. Also, Asheville restaurants have forgotten the art of offering a dessert for one person. They’re usually only offered as “table size,” which is to say they’re the size of your head, and have tens of thousands of calories, enough to feed an African village or one Walmart shopper.

    Now, yes, you do have your exceptions. Acropolis has a different cheesecake every month, plus gelato in flavors other than the plain vanilla that every other place keeps on hand for their brownie sundae. Rosetta’s has delicious cakes but they rotate their flavors so you’re never guaranteed to find what you want there, and they’re also gluten free, which is to say they’re so dense and heavy they could be used to weigh down a body you’re sinking in a lake. The French Broad Chocolate Lounge is a good option, but only if you’ve had your dinner somewhere else, and they usually have a line of giggling tourists that stretches down past the hospital. Likewise Old Europe, although one can only eat so much opera cake before craving another option.

    What I mean to say here is that the restaurants other than the fancy downtown eateries need to step up their game. Down with brownie sundaes and plain cheesecake!

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