The phrase “it’s a piece of cake” is often used to imply “easy,” but there’s nothing easy about making beautiful, delicious cakes.
Heather Keach knows. “I learned by reading books, watching videos, trying new techniques and from practice,” she says. Lots of practice.
Fast forward hundreds of cakes and Keach, owner of Heather’s Bakery in Poland, now specializes in “custom cakes” for any occasion.
A home baker since she was a child, Keach studied culinary arts in college, although, she admits, “Baking was not my focus.”
She was introduced to the art of cake decorating when she worked at the Poland Spring Resort. “My cakes weren’t fancy — mostly just basic, large sheet cakes — but I didn’t have a lot of skills back then,” she says.
She then worked at Foley’s Bakery in Portland and “I saw some really cool cakes.” A colleague there, whose work inspired Keach, encouraged her to practice. The following year, after leaving Foley’s, Keach created and sold her first wedding cake. “I also made some birthday cakes,” she says, “but it wasn’t until I started Heather’s Bakery that I really started making a lot of cakes.”
Opened in 2005, Heather’s Bakery — located in Keach’s home — now offers a catalog of what in some cases can only be described as edible art, including more than 40 flavors of cake, iced with a variety of sweet and silky-smooth frostings.
Vanilla and chocolate? Sure, but also flavors like mudslide, razzmatazz and salted caramel.
For instance, compared to the cocktail by the same name, a mudslide cake has “all the same components in its mousse filling,” Keach says. Sandwiched between layers of a dark chocolate cake, which also contains Kahlua and Bailey’s Irish Cream, and topped with a chocolate ganache, this cake is, according to Keach, “divinely decadent.”
A ganache, Keach explains, is a frosting made with heavy cream and chocolate. To make a ganache, you heat one pint of heavy cream until it’s almost at a simmer and pour it over two pints of chocolate chips. After about 5 minutes, once the chocolate has melted, you stir it up and wait for it to cool. When the mixture has cooled, you can whip it and use it as a frosting or, for those who just can’t wait, “you can pour it over a cake while it’s still lukewarm,” says Keach.
Another flavor, red velvet, has a lighter chocolate flavor, says Keach, noting that red velvet may have been “a traditional southern-style cake that migrated north.” Whatever its history, its flavor is as rich as its color, and its texture as smooth as its name suggests. This cake is typically frosted with a thick layer of cream-cheesy buttercream, on the top and sides, with a generous portion in between each velvety layer.
Also frosted with buttercream, her Razzmatazz Cake is flavored with fresh raspberries. Likewise, Simply Raspberry — her most popular cake — is a vanilla cake filled with raspberry filling, layered with buttercream.
Capitalizing on the salty-sweet craze, Heather’s Salted Caramel Cake is also one of her more popular flavors. “It’s a dark chocolate cake layered with a salted caramel buttercream. . . . I make the caramel,” says Keach, “and add it, along with sea salt, to the buttercream.” The cake is garnished with chocolate-covered pretzels to give it texture.
A traditional buttercream frosting, also called “an American buttercream,” according to Keach, is made with butter, shortening, confectioner sugar and a variety of flavorings. Although many bakers might use milk in their buttercream, Heather’s Bakery prefers to use water.
“I also use a lot of frozen fruit in my cakes to flavor them, rather than imitation flavorings,” she says, and her finished cakes sometimes include chocolate-covered strawberries as garnish, or as a stand-alone treat.
Keach, who became a mother just over a year ago, has gotten used to juggling motherhood and the demands of running a busy bakery out of her commercial kitchen. She’s also gotten used to making more technical, “highly sculpted” cakes that require more time, as clients see the kind of work she does.
“People come to me with a specific theme . . . looking for an artful creation,” she says.
Using a homemade rolled fondant – the recipe for which is one of her best-kept secrets – Keach is able to make highly decorative works of edible art for any occasion. “Rolled fondant,” she explains, “is like a sugar paste that is rolled out like a pie dough,” making it possible to sculpt things that you just can’t make using buttercream.
Made with confectioners sugar, glucose or corn syrup, gelatin, water and flavoring, fondant’s texture is different than the old-school buttercream frosting, she says. Though buttercream is still in demand, many of Keach’s customers are now looking for something with a “finished, sculpted” look that can only be achieved with fondant.
“Fondant,” says Keach, “tastes kind of like marshmallow,” and although some bakers use marshmallow in their fondant, Keach does not. “I like to flavor it with white chocolate or citrus flavors,” bringing Heather’s Bakery’s fondant to a whole new level of sweetness.
The texture of the cake itself doesn’t escape Keach’s scrutiny. “One of the things that I strive for is to have a moist cake,” she says. “There’s no sense in eating cake if it’s not really good,” she laughs.
What’s her secret? “I use a lot of sour cream because it adds moisture and gives it a unique flavor.” She also has a secret weapon for silky icing . . . and she’s keeping it a secret — although she does share two other recipes with readers on this page.
Keach’s moist cake, variety of flavors and hand-crafted cakes are just part of the picture. Her recent creations have included a rabbit popping out of a hat complete with cards and other objects of magic, a larger-than-life Nikon camera, a baby blue ’57 Chevy, a large dump truck with a company logo for a special end-of-life celebration, and a storybook cake featuring Humpty Dumpty, Mother Goose and other characters and books for a baby shower.
Keach also makes something she calls a Mousse Bomb — a brownie cake on the bottom with a honey mousse on the inside. Like the Mudslide Cake, the outside is covered with a chocolate ganache.
“I like to mess around with new flavor combinations, and I’m always trying new techniques,” says Keach. Yet even with all her flavors and unique combinations, she says “chocolate is still my favorite and my most requested cake . . . especially chocolate cake with chocolate mousse.”
3/4 cup buttermilk
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1 1/2 cups white sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
3 cups shredded carrots
3/4 cup chopped pecans
1 (8-ounce) can crushed pineapple with juice
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour an 9-by-13-inch pan.
In a medium bowl, sift together flour, baking soda, salt and cinnamon. Set aside.
In a large bowl, combine eggs, buttermilk, oil, sugar and vanilla. Mix well. Add flour mixture and mix well.
In a medium bowl, combine shredded carrots, pineapple and pecans.
Add carrot mixture to batter and fold in well.
Pour into prepared 9-by-13-inch pan and bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour. Check with toothpick.
Allow to cool and ice with cream cheese icing.
Cream cheese icing
2 8-ounce packages cream cheese
1/2 cup softened butter
2 cups confectioners sugar
1 teaspoon real vanilla extract
Cream together first two ingredients until creamy. Slowly add confectioners sugar, then vanilla. Beat 1 to 2 minutes until fluffy
Dairy-free whoopie pies
3/4 cup canola oil
2 cups sugar
2 cups coconut milk
2 teaspoons vanilla
10 tablespoons cocoa
4 cups flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
Combine all ingredients Beat 1 to 2 minutes until smooth.
Scoop out onto parchment-lined baking sheets or a greased and floured baking pan.
Bake at 350 for 15 to 20 minutes until tops spring back when touched. Cool.
Spread icing on one chocolate “cookie,” then top with another.
3 cups confectioners sugar
1 1/2 cups vegetable shortening
1 teaspoon vanilla
Beat until fluffy, adding water as needed to reach desired consistency.
By appointment only