Lisa J. Olin, of Cake Monkey bakery, jokingly calls herself “The Cake Nazi.” What Olin means by this is that when you stop by the nondescript Burbank storefront she runs with partner and pastry chef Elizabeth Belkind to pick up a box of the mini–layer cakes the bakery is known for, she will follow you out to your car and nervously watch how you load your baked-to-order bounty. She has been known to climb into your car, push aside your belongings and create a protective cake area. In my case, I gingerly placed the box on the floor of my car’s passenger’s side (good), then propped my giant purse against it for ballast (good!), then I told her I was off to run a few errands (bad, bad, BAD).
I understand why Olin didn’t like the idea of her dollhouse-sized, perfectly decorated, four-layer cakes left to wilt in my Prius. But she’s still to blame for what happened next: Instead of going to Sears to buy vacuum cleaner bags, I first stored the cakes in a nearby friend’s refrigerator. When I returned a couple of hours later, the box still contained a beautiful, tangy-tasting lemon custard cake frosted in a light, toasted Italian meringue and bejeweled with a teaspoon of homemade huckleberry preserves. Also there was Cake Monkey’s fruity spin on red velvet cake, which involves raspberries, no red-dye No. 2 and vanilla-raspberry swirl frosting. But all that was left of the Must Love Chocolate cake was a thin smear of dark buttercream frosting on a plate, a few crumbs of devil’s food cake and some crunchy dust that once was the handcrafted honeycomb candy that adorned the top. My friend wasn’t at all apologetic.
“It was very moist,” she said in a tone that made it clear that I should be grateful she hadn’t demolished the other two cakes, as well.
When they first met almost two years ago, Olin was the former executive producer of a WB hot teen alien-in-suburbia series called Roswell and Belkind was the pastry chef at Grace restaurant, where she was known for her Donut Shoppe night. Before that, Belkind was part of a legendary Nancy Silverton–led Campanile pastry department dream team — she worked with cookbook writer Kim Boyce and pastry chefs Dahlia Navarez (Mozza), Michelle Rizzolo (Big Sur Bakery) and Roxana Jullapat (Lucques, AOC). As the story goes, Olin was out walking her spaniel-retriever mix, Tug, when she said to him, “C’mon, baby cakes.”
“A light bulb just went off in my head.” says Olin. She put an ad in Craigslist for a consultant who could help take her individual 3-inch-tall desserts from dog-walking-inspired dream to high-calorie reality. Belkind answered. The rest is tiny-cake history.
After that, followed a couple of month of labor-intensive recipe testing and problem-solving. (Q: How do you create a dense, flavorful cake that would hold its structure when you cut into it? A: Use a cookie cutter to punch thick circles from a sheet cake, stack them, then frost them on a conventional cake spinner, using a small metal spatula meant for mixing paint.) During one phase, all Belkind would do was race against the clock, building mini–layer cakes faster and more efficiently until she reached her current speed of five minutes. Along with running the business, washing the dishes and developing packaging, it was the job of Olin, who is a Long Island transplant and a self-proclaimed snack treat–aholic, to educate Belkind in American sweets. Belkind was raised in Mexico City and therefore wasn’t so fluent in the waxy, cream-filled language of Hostess and L’il Debbie.
Olin’s tutorials were more significant than you’d think. Besides mini–layer cakes, the rest of the Cake Monkey line is modernized, high-quality-ingredient twists on processed delectables you’d find at your local AM/PM: Pop Pies (see: Pop-Tarts), Yo-Hos (see: Ho Hos) and Moguls (see: Snowballs). They came up with bittersweet chocolate–coated Cakewiches — their spin on Ding Dongs and available in three different flavors — as a way to use surplus cake left over from their sheet-cake circle-punching. Because Olin and Belkind don’t have a retail space, places that carry their items — Gelato Bar, Umami Burger, Silverlake Wine — act like test kitchens, sending word back to the women about how samples of their new products are faring.
At this point, Olin and Belkind have spent so much time together that they are now at the stage where they look like sisters (straight hair, long pretty faces, identical jeans-and-T-shirt outfits) and laugh at the same jokes (they call their ability to nibble sweets all day yet maintain their slim frames “Body by Cake Monkey”). What they also share is that special aura of energy of people whose lives have gone on an upward trajectory that they never imagined. When they talk about anything with “cake” somewhere in the sentence, there’s a happy fizz in the air. Besides mini–layer cakes, snack treats and all manner of cookies, they also custom-make cakes, in both conventional sizes or in miniature, for any occasion — birthdays, weddings, baby showers. But can they train their customers to think of them early enough?
“What we’re learning about people is that in terms of giving cakes as a gift, it’s a last-minute idea,” says Olin. “Two weeks before Valentine’s Day, no orders. Two days before Valentine’s Day? BOOM!”