– Story by Angela Cowan Photography by Lia Crowe
When it comes to desserts, cookies are great for an on-the-go sweet fix, and an overstuffed, golden-crusted pie serves up casual comfort food.
But if you really want to spoil yourself with something beautiful and decadent and special, a layer cake is the way to go. Decorated with a keen eye and deft hand, using chocolate drizzle or candies or fresh fruit and flowers cascading down the sides, stuffed with creamy fillings complementing moist, soft cake—it’s a slice of heaven. And Ruth & Dean Luncheonette and Bakery does some of the best and most beautiful cakes in Victoria.
It’s a late summer morning after the first rain in weeks, and outside Ruth & Dean’s Estevan Village location, the air is fresh and sweet, with just a hint of a welcome coolness. I’m here to chat to owner and baker Susannah Bryan, and to have a cake-decorating demonstration (and to possibly order myself a cake before I leave).
Inside, the widely spaced tables nearly all have customers enjoying scones, sandwiches, cake by the slice and more. It’s an open and airy design, with black and navy contrasting the bright white, and plenty of space to have customers safely distanced from each other.
Susannah started Ruth & Dean with her husband, Robert Smith, about seven years ago as an online cake and pie catering company. But within a couple years, the business expanded into a café location on Douglas Street, offering small breakfast and lunch fare as well as special-occasion cakes and goodies for every day. A hugely loyal customer base developed (not surprising, given the quality of the cakes) and in January of this year, Susannah opened the second location in Estevan Village.
“It’s been really wonderful. Ruth & Dean is such a good fit in this community,” she says of the expansion. “The reception has been warm and genuine, and it’s opened up a whole new direction of the business.”
With a significant increase to the square footage compared to Douglas (which is closed for the foreseeable future due to COVID), the Estevan location was able to lean into the savoury side of things a little more, with soups, sandwiches, scones and more available for takeout as well as eat in. And the expansion brought another shift when pastry chef Daniela Lucchitti moved from employee to partner, to bring in more “management boots on the ground,” says Susannah.
Daniela joins us at the table with a cake, preassembled into a perfect cylinder and already covered with a smooth foundation of a luscious papaya-coloured buttercream. Making a cake like this is a two-day affair, explains Susannah, so I and Tweed photographer Lia Crowe are stepping in at the last, most detailed stage to watch the magic happen.
The plan is to do an abstract floral design, beginning with shmears of white icing, followed by piped details in green, pink and yellow, and finished off with dragées (think fancy sprinkles) of varying colours and sizes.
“There’s a lot more room for error with an abstract design, and it’s a good way to have fun with the cake,” says Susannah, starting to apply some shmears with an offset spatula.
She and Daniela work side by side, turning the cake, adding detailing, piping green leaf details and yellow stamens onto the growing blooms. I stand back and watch, and it feels like a cross between watching an intricate paint cut-in on a house, and being in an artist’s studio watching the birth of a painting.
As they work, Susannah talks about the cake-decorating classes they’re planning to offer this winter. Participants will learn how to cut level layers, stack them properly, crumb-coat the cake, and finally, ideas for decorating. Today’s abstract design is an inspiration to anyone who’s never picked up an icing bag.
“You can make your cakes beautiful with just a creative eye and no skill,” Susannah assures me.
“We did cupcake classes at Douglas for years, but with the larger space here, we’re able to offer cake classes,” she adds. “We’re hoping to give you the skills so you can do this again at home. Even just learning how to crumb-coat a cake—you’ll never unlearn that. It’ll be a foundation of any layer cake you make.”
One of her biggest takeaways for aspiring cake-decorators is to be brave and think outside the box.
“I’m a really big advocate for using everything in your pantry,” she says.
Leftover chocolate chips? Melt them down for a chocolate drizzle. A handful of nuts can be crushed and candied with a fine sugar to make them sparkle. Or rub a spoonful of sugar and a couple drops of food colouring in your palm and mix it into a larger container of sugar to make a vibrantly coloured sanding sugar.
Fresh fruit and flowers are always a favourite. (Just be sure to stay away from toxic plants: no daffodils! No tulips!) And herbs or dried spices work beautifully as well. Think dried orange slices with cinnamon sticks and star anise on a spiced cake, or a sprig of fresh rosemary or thyme on a bright lemon concoction. Even candy can make an eye-popping presentation.
And don’t be afraid if you’ve never done a cake before; you might have more skill than you think.
“I come from a woodworking background, which translates really fluidly over to cakes,” says Susannah, who worked as a joiner for a Vancouver furniture designer for six years before moving over to baking. “The skill set is much the same. It’s the same attention to the relationship between materials and objects, and for finding effective designs. And being able to find a right angle or a level intuitively with your hands has been really helpful.”
Having worked in home renovations for years when I was younger, I can absolutely see the same concentration and precision as Susannah works with Daniela to add the last few details and dragées to the cake.
One final turn of the pedestal and the two women declare the cake finished. It’s gorgeous, with big white blooms interspersed with fern-like green accents and dots of colour. Over at the counter, more customers have lined up to order, and Daniela leaves for the kitchen with a smile and a wave.
I head out, inspired and hungry, excited to get home and try my hand at my own creation.
Originally published in the fall edition of TWEED magazine