It’s not yet 2 p.m. on a Monday and Lisa Clark has already gone through most of a bottle of merlot. The co-owner of Cupcake A La Mode is in the midst of putting the finishing touches on her Blackberry Merlot, one of two new seasonal cupcake flavors for May.
She deftly squeezes a pastry bag, swirling the merlot buttercream on top of chocolate cake before adding a fresh blackberry garnish. Adding wine to cupcakes is just one of the unexpected turns that her business has taken over the past six years. We sat down with Clark to learn more about the future of Cupcake A La Mode and why she bakes cake daily.
What’s your earliest baking memory? My earliest memory of baking is my Easy-Bake oven. I remember thinking I had this special skill, baking was always something in my back pocket.
Growing up in Long Island, there were bakeries on every corner. You’d go to the dentist and then go to the bakery or go to the bakery instead of walking home. My favorite are rainbow cookies. It’s a labor of love. It’s literally a three-day process to make them. They’re aesthetically gorgeous: pink, yellow and green. They have raspberry and almond and chocolate – three flavors that I love to put together. It’s a cookie that eats like a cake.
You’ve been open on the Plaza since 2009 and Park Place since 2010. Did you ever imagine you’d have a pink cupcake shop? I hate pink. I’m a tomboy, so I wanted black. Then I thought that black is not a traditional bakery color. But this pink – not the pastel pink – offsets the black in a really nice way. It’s a little more edgy.
What’s the key to having great cake? We bake cake every day. I realized that the buttercreams could be made ahead of time, but the cake has to be baked every day. I didn’t want a freezer because I didn’t even want to be tempted by the convenience. I did not want to be known as the girl that had really pretty cupcakes that didn’t have the taste to match.
I definitely want the cake to be moist. I like a sticky cake — poundcake is one of my favorite things. I make it a little over the top. It’s heavier and denser. You can squeeze it into a little dough ball if you want. The only secret I’ll tell you is that cold butter goes a long way.
I want the cake to have body because it has to hold the weight of the heavy buttercream. But the cake has to be simple to not overpower the cream. They have to marry in flavor, but there has to be a difference.
If cake is one part of the equation, let’s talk icing. You use buttercream? We’ve got a huge mixer. It’s 20 quarts. It’s as big as I can lift and I put in six pounds of butter at a time. Then I add confectioner’s sugar and vanilla extract.
You want buttercream to be light and fluffy, not thick and dense. That’s why we whip it for a good five minutes on the highest speed possible. I make a traditional buttercream with butter instead of Crisco or some kind of shortening. I want the richness of butter — I don’t want a lot of hydrogenated oils.
What are Cupcake A La Mode’s most popular flavors? Our most popular is the French Vanilla Ooh Lah Lah – it’s white cake with vanilla buttercream. That’s Kansas City in a nutshell. My personal favorite is the PB&J [white cake topped with peanut butter buttercream and raspberry jam]. I wanted it to taste like the sandwich. I wanted you to feel like a kid when you eat it.
Your menu is divided into chocolate and vanilla cake cupcakes. Do you ever experiment with other flavors of cake? Once a quarter, we introduce a flavored cake. Right now, it’s lemon. And it’s covered in cream cheese, rolled in graham cracker crumbs and then topped with lemon buttercream.
We also do two flavors of the month [This month, it’s Blackberry Merlot and Raspberry Cheesecake Swirl (vanilla cake with raspberry jam topped with cream cheese icing and rolled in graham crackers with a swirl of raspberry sauce]. Two regular flavors, Mama Mia [a take on Tiramisu] and the Gold Digger [chocolate cake with a caramel center], both started out as specials. We have 18 flavors – I originally wanted to launch with 30 flavors. So every month, I get to play around with two flavors.
What are some of the flavors you’ve experimented with in the past? We made a version of a Southern peach pie. It has whiskey soaked peaches and we made our syrup with whiskey and brown sugar. We pureed the peaches and filled the cupcakes. We’ve tried rosewater. One lady with a British family told me it tasted just like Turkish delight.
We made a root beer float cupcake. It was vanilla cake with a root beer buttercream that we made with root beer extract and root beer milk. We used a little vanilla buttercream to make it look like a float and some cute, colorful straws.
We tried florals, which I never thought I’d do. But we’re selling lavender cupcakes, lavender buttercream with chocolate cake over at Dean & Deluca. When you play around with florals and alcohol, it changes the consistency of the cake. So you need to be really careful.
Cupcakes are a happy food. What’s made you happiest about your cupcakes? We’ve had proposals in our store. There was one guy who had us rearrange the cupcakes in the case to spell out, ‘Will You Marry Me?’ Then he brought her in and showed her the cupcakes. It took her a minute to figure it out, but then she turned around and he was on one knee.
We’ve had people that are dating and this is their favorite cupcake shop and then we do wedding cupcakes for them and now, we’re doing gender reveal cupcakes. I feel like we get to celebrate with them.
What’s next for Cupcake A La Mode? We just built a kitchen next to our space on the Plaza. And we’re working on lemon bars and macaroons and cookies. I’m working on a better vegan buttercream for our gluten and dairy free cupcakes.
We’re starting to think about things other than cupcakes. There’s always a need for cake. Cake is never going away because people want sweets when they celebrate.
Find Your Flavor is a series of sponsored posts on The Recommended Daily. Over the course of the next year, we’ll explore the menus, cuisine and folks behind dishes at the restaurants in Leawood’s Park Place. We talked food loves with 801 Chophouse’s chef Jeremy Kalcic, visited chef Leo Santana’s scratch kitchen at Carma, looked at how Gordon Biersch pairs food and brews, saw how Pickleman’s is reinventing the sandwich shop and learned about t. Loft’s evolution into a health cafe.