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September 2011

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sweet talk with cakespy jessie oleson


                 

She's here! She's here! Let the sweetness begin!



When I decided to devote the month of March to Cupcakes and Bake Shop Treats, I immediately thought of Jessie Oleson, a.k.a., CakeSpy. After all, her sweet and scrumptious blog is where I get my daily sugar fix. There, I feast on delicious interviews with bakers and pastry chefs, read about fun baking experiments, learn about bakeries all over the country, and of course, drool over the neverending stream of recipes, stunning photographs, and whimsical Cuppie art.

Truly, if anyone seems to be leading a fairy tale life, it's Jessie. She's one of the few people I know of who's able to make a living by combining her three greatest passions: writing, illustrating, and baked goods. She launched CakeSpy back in 2007, and was so successful at selling her artwork that she was able to quit her day job and devote all her time to "seeking sweetness in everyday life." She runs her "Dessert Detective Agency" from her home in Seattle, but has several Cake Gumshoes around the country sniffing out the latest and greatest in the world of dessert. 



I was curious to learn more about this extremely talented and enterprising sugar-fueled dessert dynamo, who recently purchased the Bluebottle Art Gallery in Seattle, and who just returned from a whirlwind trip to Paris, where she communed with the likes of gateaux, macarons, Roulé Cannelle, Tarte au Chocolat, Marie Antoinette, and a Black Currant Violet Religieuse. Oo-lah-lah, la vie est très bon!



Welcome, Jessie! I’ve been enjoying your posts about Paris! What was the most delicious dessert/pastry you ate there? Please share a few of your sweetest encounters!

Mon dieu! Well, my goal in Paris was to visit at least one pâtisserie in each arrondissement. And I did it! It was a great way to see the city as well, as it took me to neighborhoods I might not have found otherwise. I must admit, although it was not the flashiest of the bunch, I simply adored the "figue" pastry -- a fig and chocolate mixture enrobed in marzipan -- which was found at a few bakeries there. But in terms of bakeries I truly loved, topping the list are Pâtisserie des Rêves, Eric Kayser, Pierre Hermé, Ladurée, and Legay Choc. 


Read about Jessie's visit to Ladurée here.


The famous figue pastry.


Pierre Hermé chocolate macaron.


Jessie's favorite treat from Legay Choc was this Roulé Cannelle (cinnamon roll).


Tarte au chocolat from Eric Kayser.


Jessie wants to try this on her next visit to La Durée.

Why do you think people are so crazy for cupcakes these days? Do you see any other type of dessert coming close to rivaling the cupcake’s popularity in this country?

I feel like macarons and whoopie pies are the "on deck" sweets, but I still have my doubts. The cupcake has several things going for it -- not only is it iconic as a symbol of celebration and as an object d'art, but it's also something that is fairly easy to make and have a delicious end result. With macarons, the process is a bit fussier and making a really good one is a bit more difficult, which makes them harder to mass produce, in my opinion -- and well, let's just be honest: whoopie pies have a very stupid name.
 


Macarons at McDonald's in Paris.

You describe yourself as a writer, illustrator, and cake sleuth -- there really seems to be no limit to your creative energy and talent. What do you enjoy most about your work?

I love the fact that it feeds all of my interests. I have worked as a freelance writer, illustrator, and art director, respectively -- and while I enjoyed all of them, I never felt like all of my interests were fed. With CakeSpy, which I consider the ultimate combination of my biggest loves, which are writing, illustrating, and baked goods, I feel like I am really doing my life's work. Is that cheesy? No, it's saccharine! But it's true.


Jessie in her studio.


Jessie advocates cake for breakfast!

Often, creative people struggle with the business side of freelancing, but you were able to quit your day job less than a year after your web store first opened. Why do you think you’ve been so successful in promoting and selling your art?

I feel as if my unique angle as a writer and illustrator -- specializing in a very niche category, of baked goods -- has been an asset here. My income as an illustrator or writer alone would not be enough to live on, but combined, while they don't make me a wealthy person, they do allow me to contribute my fair share to the mortgage.

Congratulations on purchasing the Bluebottle Art Gallery in Seattle! Tell us about your plans for it.


CakeSpy and Mr. Spy at the Bluebottle.

Really, it is not going to change a terrible amount -- it will continue to be a gallery focusing on showing the best indie artwork from around the country. But, I will be the "artist in residence," and my artwork will be the primary thing on show. And, visitors may just get free samples of the latest thing I've baked!
 

Cuppie has captured the hearts of so many, and with all his fun adventures, seems like the perfect character for a children’s story. Any desire or plans to publish a picture book in the near future?

            
                       An early rendering of Cuppie.

My biggest wish and dream! I do now have a wonderful agent, and we will see what the future holds. Of course, any publishers wielding a huge advance check can email me directly.

In your lovely Mother’s Day post from last year, you credit your mom, Margie Moore, who is a children’s book illustrator, with instilling in you a deep, abiding love for all things cake. Can you share an especially sweet childhood food-related memory?

How 'bout I share not A memory, but THE memory? My mom, the inimitable Margie Moore, was always a creative type and a very talented baker. She never went the professional route, but calling her a home baker would really not give her credit. For our birthdays we never had a mere sheet cake, but would often have three tiered dream cakes instead.



Margie's cupcakes inspired the creation of Jessie's iconic Cuppie mascot.


From Ruby Bakes a Cake by Susan Hill, illos by Margie Moore.
 
As you can imagine, these cakes involved some advance planning and much baking time, so to stave off the hungry masses (myself, my two sisters and my dad), she would often bake off a batch of cupcakes to keep us away from the finished product. And oh, if you could see the cupcakes she baked -- you'd see where Cuppie came from. Cuppie IS the cupcake my mom would bake!

Were you an avid reader as a child? Which books/authors/artists have influenced you the most?

Avid reader is an understatement. Not to brag, but I read the most books in my summer reading club for about seven years when I was growing up. OK, maybe I did just brag a little bit. The writers and illustrators closest to my heart? In no particular order: William Steig, Roald Dahl, Saul Steinberg, Robinson, Roz Chast, Quentin Blake, Aubrey Beardsley, Sempé, and so, so many more. In both writing and illustration, I feel like I value cleverness above all else.
 

What’s next for you and Cuppie? You’ve already achieved so much, but what is your wildest dream?

My wildest dream? Moving to France with my dear Mr. Spy and two pugs. I love the culture, architecture and food there -- so much I ache when I visit!
 

Finally, what’s your favorite type of cake? Can you share a favorite recipe?

I do have a soft spot for the birthday cake I grew up with -- it is a "silver cake" with a classic buttercream frosting (it is from a Betty Crocker book, but I don't have it handy). However, in recent years I have become a devotee of Hummingbird Cake, which is a Southern treat which I like to describe as "like carrot cake, but with banana."


Recipe for Hummingbird Cake is here.

My favorite recipe, though? NANAIMO BARS. If you've never tried one, you really should.

Recipe for Nanaimo Bars is here.

Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.

You can see why I'm such a big CakeSpy fan -- she knows how to combine personal passion with clever artistry, a sense of fun, and good business sense. I predict we'll be seeing a Cuppie picture book sometime in the not-too-distant future, along with lots more adorable Cuppie merchandise. Be sure to check out the CakeSpy Shop, where'll you find clothing, mugs, tote bags, notecards, original paintings, prints and more. Jessie also does custom work, and of course, you lucky Seattle area people will soon be able to purchase her art in person at Bluebottle Gallery.


"Cupcake Cannibalism" mug is available at the CakeSpy Shop!

MORE SWEETNESS:

Click here to go straight to CakeSpy.com

Vote for CakeSpy in the first annual Saveur Food Blog awards! She's been nominated for Best Baking and Dessert Blog.

Videos: CakeSpy in NYC with Kelly Ripa here, Interviews with Cupcakes Take the Cake here and here.

Click here to check out the Bluebottle Gallery.

And don't forget to say hello to Jessie's mom, children's illustrator, Margie Moore.

Here are some of my fave CakeSpy posts:

Sweet Celebrities: A List of Sweets and Desserts Named After People


Chocolate Chip Cookie Timeline

Sugar Mama: An Ode to the Sweetest Mother Ever

Like a Rolling Stone: A Collection of Rock 'n Roll Inspired Sweets

Jessie also writes a weekly column at Serious Eats. Love this post:

CakeSpy's Guide to the 13 Best Sweets in Paris

Have a Sweet Day, everyone, and thanks for visiting alphabet soup, Jessie!

More Cupcakes and Bake Shop Treats here.

                      

*Artwork and photos posted by permission, copyright © 2010 Jessie Oleson. All rights reserved.

**Illo from Ruby Bakes a Cake copyright © 2010 Margie Moore. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2010 Jama Rattigan of jama rattigan's alphabet soup. All rights reserved.


Comments

Wonderful interview - thanks Jama!

I adore your work Jessie!! And wow, your life sounds SO FUN!!!

I will probably be back to buy more notecards for promotional use, since they go so nicely with my new middle-grade novel!! :)
Glad you liked the interview, Lisa. Those library notecards are perfect for your book. Everyone I give those to really really loves them.:)

Yummy interview!

Beautiful artwork!

Re: Yummy interview!

Thanks for commenting, Laura! I'm glad you got through this time. :)
OMG, that hummingbird cake sounds so fantastic! (We'll ignore the calories, shall we?) And thanks for sharing yet another wonderful interview!
I know, isn't it beautiful? I'm very curious about those Nanaimo Bars, too.

BTW, did you have any problems leaving a comment just now? LJ has been acting weird the past 2 days.
No, I didn't, but I have had some loading problems on and off - pages turning up temporarily blank and so on.
I've had those same loading problems, with LJ just running slower overall. Just checked the list of open support requests -- seems others are having problems commenting,too, and some are also seeing ads. Very frustrating. Every time LJ announces they fixed a bunch of things, something else breaks.
Delicious!
That's what I say! :9
Paris! Cupcakes! Yummy photos! What more could we want? I used to eat birthday cake for breakfast--I'd actually buy birthday cakes (can't have it just once a year) and have them for breakfast. Interesting choice of illustrators--all kind of "out there," like Chast and Blake. Thanks for this Friday morning treat!
Birthday cakes for breakfast? Now I'm seeing why you're able to write so many books! :)