A fortune teller once told Judith Fertig her life would “unfold,” but a more accurate reading might have foretold a work life layered with sweet fillings and buttercream frostings.
Fertig, who lives in Overland Park, is perhaps best-known for her numerous cookbooks on Midwestern cuisine, barbecue, grilling (including pizza) and baking.
However, this summer — in addition to two new cookbook titles, “Bake Happy” and “BBQ Bistro” written with longtime collaborator Karen Adler — Fertig also released her debut novel, titled “The Cake Therapist” (Berkley, $16).
The cake therapist is Claire “Neely” O’Neil, a professional pastry chef who leaves her torn marriage to start over. She returns to her hometown of Millcreek Valley, a downtrodden blue-collar Ohio community experiencing a renaissance as a one-stop-shopping bridal district.
Neely opens the Rainbow Cake bakery, and her intuitive sense for flavor combinations — cinnamon makes you remember, plum is pleased with itself and orange is a wake-up call — enables her to “taste” others’ feelings. She uses that flavor sense to promote her seasonal offerings: January’s flavors are dark chocolate and coffee, “those pick-me-ups we needed to start the day — or the new year.” But her specialty is helping couples and their families celebrate their weddings.
Fertig and I met recently downtown at Sasha’s Bakery. While enjoying a gougere and a cafe au lait, she revealed her own sense of taste and her move into novel writing.
You studied at Le Cordon Bleu in London and La Varenne Ecole de Cuisine in Paris. How much of the main character Neely is based on you?
I never really wanted to be a pastry chef, but my daughter did for a while. She went to the French Pastry School in Chicago and just loved it, so it’s a little bit her, but it’s not her.
You know, it’s your life experience and people that you know and places that you’ve been, but it’s kind of pieced together. It’s a mosaic that you get different parts from different things.
How did you choose the setting?
I knew I wanted it to be set in my old hometown because you move away and all of a sudden it’s interesting. It wasn’t interesting when you lived there, of course, but it’s interesting when you move away because then you can do anything you want with it.
Did your hometown actually reinvent itself as a bridal district?
It did. It’s this old business district with Italianate storefronts, and what used to be a hardware store/five-and dime is a bridal boutique that sells Vera Wang. They’ve really done a lot, although there’s not a really good bakery there. Which is OK. That’s part of the made-up thing.
The bridal business seems like an odd plan to save a foundering town.
I’m not sure what prompted that, but there were a few businesses that located there when this area was going through a downturn. The industries (including a mattress factory) that had been along the canal that is now I-75 were closing down, and they were brownfields because of the asbestos and the oil and the cotton filament and all these other things that had plagued the area.
Lockland (Lockton in the book) had a major downturn. Reading, where I grew up, which is Millcreek Valley in the book, saw Lockland going down the drain and seized on the idea that if they had a theme people would come there and these mom-and-pop shops would survive.
If “The Cake Therapist” becomes a series, where will you go with the story?
The signature flavors change at Neely’s bakery, so every three or four months there is a new story arc that comes in, so hopefully it will be a five-book series, but we’ll have to see. (Her second novel, “The Memory of Lemon,” will pick up where “Cake Therapist” leaves off and is due out next summer.)
How is writing a novel different than writing a cookbook?
You have to push the cookbook out the door.
One thing I’ve discovered is the cookbook is finished with you way before you are finished with the cookbook. I still play around with recipes afterward. And you do something and you think, “Oh, I like that, too. I wish I had done that as a version.” You still keep playing with the same things, but your book deadline is finished.
With a cookbook you get your cookbook contract but you don’t have to have written the whole thing beforehand. But with a novel you have to have written the whole thing, and then when you try to get an agent you have to pitch for your agent, so that’s a whole other thing.
Will you continue to write about food or take a completely new path?
I’ve been writing about food since we moved to London in the mid-1980s. You know, I’ve written all kind of food stories and cookbooks, and I got to the point where I thought, “I’m not interested in the ‘Next Big Thing.’” I don’t care about Bolivian street food or the new berry from South America or the hot new restaurant. People do want to know that, but it doesn’t stay with you. It’s like Twitter and all these things that flit back and forth, but what stays with you? What does this all mean?
I was lucky to work on “Bake Happy” at the same time I was writing “Cake Therapist,” and I was lucky to get to think about flavor as energy: What if two flavors combined together work on each other, and when you tasted them that did something to you?
I read Niki Segnit’s “The Flavor Thesaurus,” and I thought it was interesting to learn about the flavors that pair well, like the chemical components in cardamom. And why that works with blueberry.
At first I wondered if Neely was a supertaster, but you took it into a more magical realm.
Over the years I’ve gone to see intuitives, people who can tell you something about yourself. The first time, I went to see a woman. She lived in this brick Cape Cod, and you walked right into her living room and she would take you down into her basement with knotty-pine paneling to sit around a card table. She didn’t have a purple turban or a crystal. She would use a deck of cards to tell you about your life, and she was dead on.
She said, “Your life is constantly unfolding,” and I have remembered it to this day. It’s not like a ladder, it’s unfolding. I don’t do that kind of thing a lot, but I’m an interested skeptic.
Is Neely an intuitive?
Yes, but only in a flavor sense.
I read about synesthesia, mainly you hear about people who see musical notes as color, like Pharrell, the guy who did “Happy.” So there are people where that’s a brain thing that they perceive things that way. Some people see numbers as colors. I thought, “Well, if you can do that it’s not beyond the realm of possibilities that she could see feelings as flavors.” And feeling is at the heart of the story.
Tell me about the multilayered rainbow cake on the book’s cover depicting one of Neely’s signature cakes and the namesake of her bakery.
(Local restaurant) Succotash has a rainbow cake, and it has robin’s egg blue frosting like what I wanted Neely’s rainbow cake to be like. And then there’s a recipe in “Bake Happy” for a rainbow cake that really tastes good. A lot of times you get rainbow cake and it’s just about the color; it doesn’t taste like anything. I wanted it to taste good.
I was working on the novel, then “Bake Happy” came along, and I thought about how cake makes you feel. I thought, what if you use those principles and you could see the product and give it to other people?
So when I was wondering if strawberry with rosewater really does take you back to your childhood, I would just go in the kitchen and try it out.
Join Judith Fertig and Karen Adler for a four-course dinner based on recipes from “BBQ Bistro: Simple, Sophisticated French Recipes for Your Grill” (Running Press, $20), as prepared by chef Carl Thorne-Thomsen of Story in Prairie Village.
Dessert will be prepared by Fertig, who will also read from her debut novel, “The Cake Therapist.”
This recipe appears in Judith Fertig’s new cookbook, “Bake Happy” (Running Press, $27.50). It was the inspiration for the name of the bakery featured in “The Cake Therapist.”
“There’s something about a rainbow cake that just makes you smile. A rainbow cake can be vivid or more pastel, which I prefer. Cake flour and sour cream in the batter ensure that your cake will be moist and tender, yet firm and sturdy — just what you want for a rainbow cake. If you like, you could stir about 1/2 teaspoon flavoring into each tinted batter — lemon zest for yellow, orange zest for orange, lime zest for green, and so on. This makes a festive birthday cake for any age.”
Rainbow Cake With Robin’s Egg Blue Frosting
Makes 1 (8-inch) four layer cake
For the cake:
1 1/2 cups unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for the pans
2 cups sugar
2 large eggs, beaten
1 1/2 cups nonfat plain Greek yogurt or full-fat sour cream
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla or almond extract
3 cups sifted cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
Assorted gel food coloring
For the frosting:
5 large egg whites
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups unsalted butter, cut into tablespoons, at room temperature
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Wilton teal gel color
To make the cake: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter four 8-inch round cake pans and set them aside.
In the bowl of an electric mixer on low speed, cream together the butter and sugar for 5 to 7 minutes until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, sour cream and vanilla. Then beat in the flour, baking powder and salt for 1 minute, scraping down the sides of the bowl.
Set out four small bowls. Spoon 3/4 to 1 cup of batter into each bowl and tint each with food coloring to your desired color, such as pale yellow, green, coral and pink. Keep in mind that color will somewhat darken and brown during baking. Spoon a bowl of tinted cake batter into each of the prepared pans and smooth the tops with a spatula or knife.
Bake for 25 to 28 minutes or until the cake comes away from the sides of the pan and is springy to the touch in the center. Remove the cakes from the oven and let them cool in the pan for 15 minutes, then invert them onto cooling racks to cool completely, about 30 minutes.
To make the frosting: In a small saucepan or in the bottom of a double boiler, bring about 2 inches of water to a simmer over medium heat. Place a medium metal mixing bowl or the top of the double boiler over the water, but do not let the water touch the bottom of the bowl. Add the egg whites, sugar and salt to the bowl or top of the double boiler. Whisk the mixture by hand, constantly, until an instant-read thermometer inserted in the mixture registers 160 degrees and you can run the warm mixture between your fingers and feel no grit, about 5 minutes.
Remove the pan from the heat and transfer the egg mixture to the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Beat the mixture on medium-low speed for several minutes, until the sugared egg whites become foamy. Increase the speed to medium-high and beat for several minutes until the egg whites are white and soft peaks form, then increase the speed to high and whip the egg whites until they are white and glossy, and stiff peaks form that just fall over at the tip when you test with your finger. Beating the egg whites should take a total of about 10 minutes.
Once the egg whites have formed stiff peaks, switch to the paddle attachment on the electric mixer and begin to add the butter, a tablespoon at a time, beating on medium speed and mixing well after each addition. When all the butter has been incorporated, beat in the vanilla, food coloring, or any other desired flavoring until the buttercream is smooth and thick.
Use the frosting right away or store it, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 1 week. Let the frosting come to room temperature before using.
To assemble the cake: Save the most domed layer for the top. Place the flattest layer on a serving plate and spread the top with 1/2 cup of the frosting. Repeat with the next three layers. Using an offset spatula frost the sides of the cake with half of the remaining frosting, then use the rest for the top of the cake.
Store the cake, covered, at room temperature for up to 3 days.
Per serving: 542 calories (40 percent from fat), 24 grams total fat (15 grams saturated), 98 milligrams cholesterol, 76 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams protein, 186 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.