-Words by Jane Mundy Photography by Don Denton
Walking through the door of Cakes Etc., you’re immediately bathed in the sweet scents of butterscotch and buttercream and vanilla. That gives you a happy feeling and that’s one reason baker/owner Deb Cater is so good at her job.
“It’s satisfying to make nice things for people and be a part of their celebrations,” she says. “I can decorate cakes with notations like ‘Will You Marry Me’ and ‘Happy First Birthday,’ and this past Christmas we made 90 Yule logs—it’s also rewarding to be a part of family traditions.”
And baking is definitely a Cater family tradition, Deb says: “I learned from my mom, and cake is part of my culture—everyone in England eats more cake. Now my husband and I run the bakery, and I am so thankful to my two daughters who have helped make our family affair a success.”
She adds, “I grasped the basic principles of baking as a kid and it’s now ingrained in me. I understand the science of baking soda and baking powder but I couldn’t explain it—I really admire teachers.”
Inspired by her teachers at art school, Deb learned how to create novelty cakes for cash; she was able to “make something that looks and tastes good.” Next up, she moved to Vancouver as a nanny and made cakes for people in upscale Shaughnessy, which led to an apprenticeship with a French pastry chef.
“He was old school,” Deb recalls. “He cracked the whip and threw the rolling pin, but I was determined to learn and I stayed a few years.”
Deb thought about enrolling in culinary school, but “didn’t want to go by the book.” Instead, she landed a job at a German bakery. She was soon in charge and could make what she wanted—as long as it sold.
Deb followed her other passion—windsurfing—to Victoria in 1989. At that time there wasn’t a local bakery offering cakes to restaurants so she started knocking on doors.
“I sold cakes from my home kitchen and nobody died so it was okay,” Deb says, laughing. “I met so many people who were supportive and encouraging—like Gilbert. He had a little deli where I worked at night and he charged rent based on what I sold. He made it possible for me to carry on. And it also helped that he knew all the chefs in town who bought my cakes.”
Now years later, Deb still makes what she wants because everything sells at Cakes Etc. But she spends lot of time on research and development, trial and error. For instance, creating dairy-free Black Forest cake was a challenge: it took two dozen tries until they got it right. Now it’s popular even with dairy lovers; it’s moist and delicious without that (somewhat vaguely vegan) chemical taste. And how do you come up with something dairy-free that resembles whipping cream? Answer: make a custard from oat milk, whip margarine to incorporate air and combine. The Black Forest cake is proof that it works.
Fifty per cent of Deb’s business is wholesale and it results from quite a production. Pallets are packed five feet high with sacks of flour and oats. Twenty-six dozen vegan cookies (they are way beyond the proverbial baker’s dozen) are spinning inside a floor-to-ceiling convection oven and another large (and expensive) piece of equipment is the sheeter, which looks like a giant ironing board and rolls dough to make every cookie uniform and speeds up the process. Lucille Ball wouldn’t get a job here.
At 11 am, a steady stream of customers arrives to pick up their cake orders, and who can resist a whoopie cookie or a pumpkin scone resting on tasteful wood and pewter platters? And everyone—including Starbucks—needs a package of Cakes Etc.’s signature oat bars. The Fruit Symphony cake, towering between coconut mango and Sicilian lemon cakes in the display case, looks too gorgeous to eat.
I choose the latter—the luscious lemon curd and cream between five layers of the vanilla sponge is amazingly light, almost ethereal. With one bite, visions of sugar plums dance in my head.
Dave and Marion Freeman have been regular customers since 1993, when Cakes Etc. first opened on Esquimalt Road (it’s now located at 2821 Quesnel Street).
“Every Friday afternoon we get two slices of cheesecake—it’s nice that you don’t have to buy a whole cake and that Deb comes up with new recipes,” says Dave. “We’ve tried everything, and our current fave is the chocolate torte. We also love coming here because all the staff are so pleasant—Cakes Etc. is a class act.”
Deb offers up some advice for home bakers, saying, “Jump in the deep end—what is the worst thing that could happen? You try again.”
She adds, “Maybe start with muffins and not puff pastry. Find a recipe that you can make with a spoon rather than a mixer so that you don’t over-mix. And follow the recipe well. Make sure your oven is calibrated and don’t keep opening and slamming the oven door as my daughters do. And check your ingredients for ‘best before’ dates: I made a mistake baking bread with old yeast a few weeks ago. Above all, have a lot of fun and make a mess!”