It has been quite some time since we’ve talked about cake here, no? I cannot quite place why I have not been searching out cake slices as I had been in summer. It was that very quest that spurred the creation of this blog. Yet cake has not been on my mind so much lately as I become intrigued with other establishments that don’t offer cake. As I ease into this semester, however, I find myself wanting more and more to explore the cake scene of New York as I had originally dreamed. I crave the grounding force of a slice of cake to inspire me and fill me with joy, for there is a spiritual effect cake gives that cannot be found in any delicate patisserie item. Perhaps this effect is due to cake’s traditional association with celebration. I feel that even a good slice of cake consumed on a regular old day all alone instantly transforms it into a special occasion. It has the power to put things into perspective and make one feel full of worth, ignite determination, and instill a joy that can take hold for hours, even days. Cake is one of the most important foods in the world, and this past weekend I committed to return to the origins of my mission and do more exploring of what cake the city has to offer.
As my good friend Ndeye and I finished our Sunday brunch at Café Paulette, we looked at my list of destinations to attend in search of a cake place to keep our beautiful day going. As I am not often in Brooklyn, I thought it might be good to stay in the borough and knock a place off the list in the area. This ended up bringing us a few stops over on the G to Ladybird Bakery in Park Slope.
Ladybird is reminiscent of Amy’s Bread with its homey blue exterior. It truly gives the impression of being a neighborhood establishment, especially given that it’s not really near anything but a side entrance to Prospect Park. Unless you or a friend live in the area you won’t exactly find yourself happening upon it. Considering all this, I figured the quality must be high to give it the good cake reputation it had.
Inside was even cuter than the exterior, with little unique tchotchkes dotting the walls and a small spiral staircase in the corner going from the register to the upstairs office. There was not a lot of space, just enough for a couple of employees behind the pastry case and a couple of tables on either side of the door. Only about five people can stand in front of the counter at any given time, as the whole of the space is basically a narrow slice of floor. Despite the physical constraints of the space, it is warm and welcoming. The employees are welcoming and happy to help and do not pressure you to hurry up. On the contrary, Ndeye and I had ample time to decide on our game plan, and sat at one of the few tables for about an hour. The positive atmosphere is helped by the exceptional music selection of 80’s pop-rock that kept me constantly smiling dancing in my seat. I cannot emphasize enough how important good music choice at a location is to me. Your interior design can be beautiful, your product can be top notch, but if your music choice is a) one that isn’t cohesive with your physical design or b) consists of artists and songs I don’t know or don’t like, it’s hard for me to get on board. A bakery is an experience. A bakery with bad music is like a show with bad sound design. All aspects must be strong for me to say the show on a whole is strong.
When browsing our options, we were informed with great disappointment that slices were not available at Ladybird. They had full cakes, small cakes, and cupcakes in addition to pies, tarts, cookies, bars, and muffins. As previously mentioned, cupcakes are not the same as cake, and not a viable replacement. Luckily, there were two of us, and the small cakes seemed to be doable for two. We picked out a small Brooklyn Blackout cake and opted for it to be adorned with floral icing work, for if there is an option for more icing, I will always take it. In addition to that, we got a red velvet cupcake (as Ndeye is a red velvet fan. I will talk about my feelings about red velvet when we get there), a coffee for Ndeye, and a hot chocolate for me.
We started, naturally, with our little cylinder of Brooklyn Blackout. The flower work on top was delicate and formed with a different, lighter icing that was different than the thick fudgy one that encased the cake. I greatly appreciated Ladybirds commitment to never using fondant on their cakes, as I find fondant to be a sad-tasting cop out to turn cakes into a sculpture and destroy the experience of cake eating. If you can’t make a cake look cool with things that actually taste good and add to the flavor, it simply isn’t worth it. If you want a sculpture, get some actual clay and make one, don’t use fondant and try to pass it off as edible. It’s not.
I cut down the center as best I could with the plastic knife available, and was met with a good deal of resistance. I could tell from this alone the interior was on the denser side, and was met with confirmation of this as I withdrew the knife and found icing, pudding, and cake crumbs clinging to it, requiring me to thoroughly clean the knife before its next push through the cake.
Once split, we saw three small layers divided by the classic chocolate pudding characteristic of the Brooklyn Blackout. For some reason, I did not expect three layers from this small cake, yet it truly was striving to be a shrunken version of a full-sized layer cake. However, these layers were not distinct. The icing, cake, and pudding seemed to all cling together as they did on my fork, giving me the impression that the cake has not been fully cooled before construction. Though all segments are chocolate, and therefore similar in their dark brown hue, I expect to be able to see clear lines of where cake ends, pudding begins, and cake resumes. This all seemed like a bomb of chocolate with one ingredient flowing into the next, a job I want to do myself with a perfectly constructed forkful. This also signaled a problem with the cake’s texture. It was all too willing to break apart and produce crumbs that incorporated themselves into the pudding.
But we had not even gotten a forkful yet, so before too many visual observations influenced our opinion, we readied our forks for a bite. My first bite was only outer icing, which was adorned with purposefully crumbled cake on the outside, a typical Brooklyn Blackout decoration of which I am a fan. Icing is probably the biggest make or break quality when it comes to a cake’s greatness. It should be rich, flavorful, smooth, yet on the thicker side. I usually find myself disappointed on the textural front, encountering frostings far too thin or airy that offers nothing but more sugar. Thankfully, that was not the case of this icing. This was a sturdy, substantial frosting. It was so thick I could imagine it being possible to be molded on its own. While this played to everything I like in a frosting, I could see how the force of the icing aided in the destruction of the cake and subsequent crumbling of the top. Perhaps just a splash or two more of milk would have created a more spreadable substance while still maintaining a proper richness. Flavor-wise, it was a basic chocolate. I would not be surprised if it was flavored using Hershey’s cocoa powder (what I often use in my own frosting). The decorative icing was extremely light and less flavorful and overall not as pleasing as the main covering. However, I understand the need for this in order to create the delicate decorations, and will take this at least edible design frosting over fondant any day.
The cake was tasty, but that is pretty much it. It was a perfectly good chocolate cake, but nothing special. The chocolate flavor was similar to the icing, fairly one-note, and as suspected the texture was on the dryer side. I suspect that the batter would have been aided by some boiling water or buttermilk to give it some tenderness and moisture that was lacking. If allowed to properly cool, this would not only have yielded a more pleasing texture but helped the layers remain distinct rather than tearing dry cake crumbles into the stiff frosting. The pudding was similarly tasty but generic, and hard to taste distinctly as it got lost in the cake. The flavor of all parts could have been taken to the next level with some warm spices or even just some more salt. Overall, this cake could be described as perfectly adequate. But I could make, and have made, better chocolate cakes myself. For a bake sale, this was rather good. For a well-regarded New York bakery, it was unremarkable. But did we finish the whole thing? You betcha! It was cake after all.
After taking a bit of a breather to give our bodies a second to reconcile with the denseness just consumed, we started on the red velvet cupcake. Now ethically, I must say here that I don’t really like red velvet. I know it’s a flavor often fawned over and treated with extreme reverence, and I have tried to get on board. But it has never done it for me, and I find myself constantly disappointed. Firstly, I just don’t think cream cheese frosting is that great. When done right, yes, it’s a little tangy which is interesting in opposition with all the sweetness of cake. Sure. But every time I find myself thinking a different flavor would have been more fulfilling. And when not done particularly well, it’s basically just vanilla making me question why I got red velvet in the first place, because isn’t it just a serving device for cream cheese frosting? I say that because the actual red velvet of red velvet cake is just…milk chocolate. And sure I love chocolate cake, we all know that. But it should taste like chocolate. And red velvet rarely does. It’s often rather bland. I suspect this is because only a little chocolate flavor is added so the red food coloring isn’t fighting against a dark brown. But I simply cannot accept this style over substance “flavor”. I find that cake is unforgiving in this way. If not properly concocted, it tastes entirely lackluster, almost as if the flavor is diffused throughout its spongy nooks and crannies. You have to really know what you’re doing when striving for a cake flavor, especially one so delicate as milk chocolate. And red velvet never seems to display the skills of a competent baker to me. In summary, I believe red velvet to be unnecessary and all style with no substance.
This was, unfortunately, the case of this red velvet cupcake. The cake, was extremely dense, and Ndeye suspected that they used the same batter as they used in their full-sized red velvet cake, which will often result in a cupcake denser than the full sized cake would have been. So we found ourselves with a dense, mostly flavorless cake that did not glow as red as a red velvet should if it’s going to sacrifice all that flavor for flash.
There was a saving grace found in the frosting however. This red velvet cupcake was the essence of a vessel for cream cheese frosting, for while the cake was disappointing, it was topped with the best cream cheese frosting I have had in a while, possibly ever. It was thick and creamy with just enough tang and sweetness to create a perfect mix of flavors. However, while we found this frosting worthy of note, it was not enough to save the whole of the cupcake, which was overall, disappointing.
Ever so quickly, I will mention that the hot chocolate was also completely average and not very chocolaty. You can make your own or better at home.
So while we got a pleasant enough cake fix at Ladybird and enjoyed hanging at its cozy wooden corner table, it is probably not a place we’ll find ourselves back at unless we happen to be in the area. But as mentioned at the beginning, that isn’t very likely. So the search continues for the perfect slice that brings with it all that is remarkable about cake.