Baking the treats of dead literary heroes is a trendy but often ill-advised endeavor. Emily Dickinson’s favorite black-bottomed rum cake, according to a rare recipe revealed a few years ago, contained more than 30 ingredients — most notably enough bourbon to intoxicate an entire seminary. And a review of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s party cake (published in a “frontier foods” cookbook) proves just how far from romantic the baking techniques of olden times could be.
On her blog Thehairpin.com, Jessica Pan attempts Wilder’s cake and contemplates the dubious wisdom of “… the gods who decided beating egg whites for an hour was a good idea.” She also reports that the rosewater icing “smells and tastes like old-lady perfume” and is most likely poisonous.
But when Kim Hicks, proprietor of Flat Rock Wood Room, began baking and offering her own vintage-recipe cakes, she didn’t rely on the ruthless whims of famous writers. Instead, she culled gems from the reliably wholesome near past.
“I remember when I was young, going to my aunt’s house, she was always in the kitchen wearing a beautiful apron, making the best cookies and cakes,” says Hicks. She and her husband, the restaurant’s co-owner Wayne Blessing, are avid antiquers. “Last summer we were doing some picking in South Carolina for our store [here], and I found this cookbook called The Cake Bible.”
It’s a new day for old-fashioned pastry, and the awareness is bound by vintage values. Jodi Rhoden, founder of Asheville’s Short Street Cakes, scored a point for the fad in 2011 when she published Cake Ladies: Celebrating a Southern Tradition. And Asheville’s chicest homesteader, Ashley English, made Booklist’s “Top Ten Food Books of the Year” with her handsome volume A Year of Pies: A Seasonal Tour of Homebaked Pies.
Hicks’ discovery of The Cake Bible deepened her own nostalgia — and her ambition. “All of this came together in my mind,” she says. “That’s what inspired me to relive the cakes people remember their aunts and grandmothers making.”
She’s infused some old-fashioned entrepreneurial spirit into her newest small business. Hicks and Blessing are competitors on the national barbecue circuit, using a secret-recipe, Memphis-style dry rub on their pork and beef, including a champion brisket that’s placed in the country’s top 20 out of 5,000 contenders.
Inside the Wood Room, where locals and loyal vacationers are devoted to the restaurant’s barbecue plates and wood-fired pizza, Hicks and Blessing also sell local crafts, curated antiques, and boutique curios in an old-time-style gift shop. The newest addition to the mini-empire is Hicks’ bakery. She’s branded it with a whimsical, down-home touch: Kimmie B’s Vintage Bakeshop.
Her long-range plan, she says, is to carry 15 to 20 different cakes each day, along with cupcakes, pies, and other baked goods. Dense, gooey cake slices are part of the restaurant’s regular dessert menu.
Hicks’ recipes are simple ones — there’s none of the toxic snarl of fillers found in cake mixes or commercial restaurant desserts — although “the details in the ingredients are extremely important to staying true to vintage,” she notes.
That means using real chocolate. Real vanilla. Every ingredient is basic but carefully natural, including, in season, plenty of regional fruit: Henderson County apples, South Carolina peaches. Helped by a young baker — “she is so excited to be learning these recipes” — Hicks produces the cakes in small batches.
“I was so intrigued [by The Cake Bible] that I began doing more research,” Hicks says. “Then we began baking some of these recipes and testing them on our friends and staff at the restaurant. I would hear comments like, ‘Oh I remember that [one]!’ As we got more feedback, we made more cakes and found more recipes, and eventually we began offering these to our customers.”
Favorite cakes so far include the Pink Lady, Caramel, Pink Lemonade, Goober, and a classic standby: German Chocolate.
The Goober is rich to the last crumb, a peanut-butter-based triumph that requires an almost diabolical sweet tooth. Hicks’ version of the German is darker than most, with a blue-ribbon-worthy icing that smacks of top-shelf chocolate. And the Pink Lemonade cake is a clear standout — the culinary equivalent of a Eudora Welty short story or Lee Smith novel, read while rocking on a Southern verandah. Part sweet, part tart. Freshness buttressed by decadence.
But it’s not easy, honoring the past with a purist’s vision. The cakes are “a labor of love,” admits Hicks. But they raise a lot of smiles — not to mention return business.
“That makes it all worthwhile.”
Kimmie B’s Vintage Bakeshop
Located inside Flat Rock Wood Room
1501 Greenville Hwy., Hendersonville, 828-435-1391