Sweets Bakeshop and Sugar Sugar candy

Sweets turns scratch-made cupcakes into edible art
Steve Neuharth

Growing up, I was always the weird kid at birthday parties because I never ate the cake. You know the cakes I'm talking about: the flat, white, rectangular sheet cakes, smooth as a just-made bed, edged with lacy scallops and decorated with bright bunches of balloons or one-legged flamingoes. The cakes were bought from the closest supermarket bakery, and inevitably one of the kids would suggest that, on the count of three, we each stuff a whole piece into our mouths, triggering a big ol' giggly mess.

While others always clamored for the coveted corner slices—years later, in geometry class, we would realize this was called maximizing the ratio of frosted surface to cake volume—I learned to request ice cream only, hold the cake. I'd been fooled before by its perfect-looking skin, piercingly sweet and waxy on the tongue. The frosting always left behind an odd residue that coated the throat like cough syrup. What was it, exactly? Plastic?

"Two cups of Crisco and four cups of powdered sugar," explains Ly Lo, co-owner of the new Sweets Bakeshop in St. Paul. Unlike those mass-produced cakes by commercial bakeries, Lo's shop uses natural ingredients, including Hope Creamery butter and Larry Schultz organic eggs—and that's just one of the differences at Sweets. Lo explains the impact that scratch-made cakes have on people used to eating box-mix ones. "I think they don't realize that cake isn't supposed to taste like that," she says. Her business partner, Krista Steinbach, adds, "You taste flavors, not just sweetness."

Lo, an artist trained in furniture design, had just opened a custom cake shop in the former Legacy Chocolates space this fall when she met Steinbach, a Culinary Institute of America grad who had been selling cupcakes at Local D'Lish and the Mill City Farmers Market. Lo had a retail space but no retail products; Steinbach had products but no space. And so the two joined forces under the name Sweets Bakeshop.

Steinbach and Lo typically work from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., six days a week, and on any given morning, before the shop opens, the petite women can be found bustling around its kitchen like Santa's elves. Steinbach takes the lead on baking and Lo decorates, as they whip up batches of buttercream in Kitchen-Aid mixers, then heat the frosting for a few seconds in the microwave and pipe it onto each cupcake in soft-serve swirls. Every few minutes, their work is interrupted by the piercing beep of the oven timer. I expect they hear its high-pitched "eep, eep, eep" in their sleep.

Though they also produce brownies, blondies, and hard-to-find French-style macarons (the ones shaped like little pastel hamburgers), Steinbach and Lo specialize in cupcakes, which they've found to be a good medium for experimenting with flavors and embellishments. I started with their most basic offerings, including vanilla, red velvet, and banana. With each, the cake was dense and springy, not crumbly; the frosting was light, not waxy, and just sweet enough. Put simply, they're textbook.

But Sweets' more inventive flavors are the true standouts. Kettle Corn is a sweet cornbread topped with honey buttercream and candied corn kernels. One called Breakfast is frosted with maple buttercream and has its center filled with bacon bits to replicate the sweet-savory tingle of syrup commingling with salt. Mexican goat's-milk caramels inspired Feisty Goat, a chocolate cupcake filled with caramel and pecans and smothered in a blend of sweetened mascarpone and goat cheeses. The confection has all the satisfaction of a turtle cheesecake, with a sweetness tempered by the barest whiff of barnyard.

Sweets more than indulges the chocolate-lover with its Triple Chocolate, which essentially combines chocolate cake, mousse, and truffles, and its Peanut Butter Cup, which is twice as pleasurable as a Reese's and doesn't contain tertiary butylhydroquinone. If you hit the shop in the next few weeks, you'll probably encounter some of Steinbach's current experiments: thyme/honey/walnut, caramelized pear ginger, and eggnog with brandy buttercream.

For custom orders, Lo treats the cupcakes as canvases, topping them with sculptural fondant and marzipan to create everything from elegant snowflakes to Dogwood blossoms. She's grouped cupcakes to create entire scenes, including a Thanksgiving dinner-table spread and Tom Sawyer's adventures down the Mississippi River, complete with straw hat and fishing rod. "It's performance art," Lo says of her creations. "You can look at it and eat it as well."

Since the Magnolia craze of the early 2000s, when the tiny New York City bakery sold some 3,000 cupcakes a day, the petite sweets have seen their popularity rise and fall and rise again. After being arguably over-hyped and experiencing a brief backlash, cupcakes are today the subject of a new Martha Stewart cookbook and a Food Network pilot. Stand-alone cupcake stores are starting to challenge scoop shops, food-industry experts say, for their nostalgic, year-round appeal. Is there such a thing as third-wave cupcakism?

Here in dairy country, I'm not sure that going out for cupcakes will ever replace going out for ice cream, though with Sweets located just down the street from Izzy's, I'll bet many will treat themselves to both. I can finally recommend it.

THE OTHER DAY, a small boy with a SpiderMan backpack walked into Sugar Sugar Candy in south Minneapolis, looked at the Willy Wonka-esque display of bulk gummy sweets and retro candy bars, widened his eyes, and said, "Wow!"

The shop specializes in unusual and hard-to-find candies—if Walgreens stocks it, Sugar Sugar probably doesn't. Owner Joni Wheeler is a constant presence behind the counter and helps customers make their selections by describing her wares, offering samples, and relaying historical tidbits. Did you know, for example, that Necco is the oldest candy company in the country? During the Civil War, soldiers stocked its sugary pastel wafers in their packs. In the 1930s, Admiral Byrd took 2.5 tons of Necco Wafers to Antarctica, causing Wheeler to wonder if the South Pole is littered with the least-popular, clove-flavored disks.

Wheeler's background is in retail—she's been in the floral, wedding cake, and costume businesses, and worked most recently at Paper Source—so she appointed the shop with a sharp eye for aesthetics. She has always loved advertising graphics, she says, and considers candy "the perfect vehicle to show off fun packaging."

Before opening the shop, Wheeler painted the walls with the signature green of Paris's Ladurée pastry shop (as Tiffany blue is to jewelry, Ladurée green is to confections), mounted her collection of art nouveau chocolate boxes, and convinced the noted illustrator Elvis Swift to design the shop's logo in exchange for a lifetime of free merchandise. Then she started buying candy.

In came the orange slices, produced by Minnesota's Fritzie Fresh, the chocolate mustaches on sticks, and the chocolate bars flavored with bacon, Earl Grey tea, and pink peppercorns. She lined the shelves with British imports, including Nestle's light-as-air Aero bars and Cadbury's lacy, caramel-filled Curly Wurlys. She tracked down nostalgic favorites: Sky Bars, Blackjack gum, Mallo Cups, and Ice Cubes. She brought in candy-scented perfume (in case you want to smell of pistachio ganache) and bright candy baubles that double as necklaces and rings—New York fashion designers have used them recently in their runway shows.

Along one wall, glass apothecary jars are filled with bulk candies: limoncello marzipan nubs, organic gummy pandas, all-natural jelly beans, satellite wafers that taste like communion wafers filled with candy dots. An entire row contains licorice selections—apparently Minnesotans eat more of the stuff than residents of any other state. If you are the sort to debate the merits of Australian licorice versus Dutch, or licorice root terroir, this would be the place to do it.

One day I stopped in at Sugar Sugar and bought about $40 worth of candy that I'd never tried before, thinking it was pretty cool that was even possible considering how much candy I've eaten in my lifetime. Several of the things I sampled didn't win me over. The $3.50 Aero bar, for example, wasn't a whole lot more special than a handful of Andes mints. And with many of the retro candies, there's a reason their popularity has declined. If sour gummy worms had been around during the Civil War, I'm pretty sure the soldiers would have packed them instead of Neccos.

Still, I appreciated the chance to experiment with new candy and reconnect with a few old favorites. I took one bite of a Charleston Chew—the first time I'd tasted the chocolate-covered taffy plug in probably 20 years—and instantly I was a preteen, hanging out with my cousins at the municipal pool's concessions stand.

If there's a special candy you're looking for, Wheeler will take requests, though she hasn't been able to resurrect the Seven Up bar, a chocolate candy bar with seven flavored, goo-filled chambers, which St. Paul candy maker Pearson's retired back in 1979. In an effort to please a wide range of customers, Wheeler stocks candy for various budgets, tastes, and dietary restrictions, right down to the vegan candy bars made with rice-milk chocolate substitute that actually tasted just as good as a Snickers. "Everybody should be able to get something fun," she says. 

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Sweets Bakeshop - Closed

2042 Marshall Ave.
St. Paul, MN 55104


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