After spending an afternoon in the kitchen with Christy Milligan, who owns Cupcakes on Kavanaugh and Cupcakes on The Ridge, I realized that behind her moist, decadently iced cupcakes is an experimental chemist. Milligan shared with me the trials and triumphs of turning her family's old cake recipes into cupcakes, baking with Guinness beer and the joys of vanilla.
Where did you get the inspiration to own a cupcake bakery?
I've always been a huge baker. My grandmothers, my great-grandmothers and my mother all from-scratch baked. My [father's mother], you walked into her house any day and there were at least two pies, usually a chocolate cake and some kind of cookie.
I majored in dietetics and food nutrition in college — I love the idea that I have a food nutrition background, though I did have someone walk in one time and ask me how I felt about contributing to America's obesity. I said, "You know, I'm a huge advocate of portion control and I think a cupcake is a perfect portion." I'd never advise someone to eat a dozen of them — and I've always been a foodie. My husband's always been the cook, and I'm the baker. I was living in Charleston, South Carolina, and doing cooking demonstrations for Taste of Home magazine. There was a cupcake bakery there that we loved. But the cupcakes never really tasted like they were from scratch. But it always looked like such a fun idea. So I'd always go home and bake for the neighborhood and make everybody cupcakes and my friends would say, 'You should open your own cupcake bakery.'
How'd you get your business started?
When my son was six months old I started writing the business plan. I'd been testing recipes for several years and people had been giving me feedback. I got lucky because my husband is in construction, my sister-in-law was an accountant and my brother-in-law is a banker.
I had been sketching in a book — I still have the book — what my logo would be, sketches of a little table and chairs, a picture on the wall. And that's what it looks like today. It was designed on a dime. My husband built every bit of it. I painted the canvases because I needed cheap wall art.
What kind of cupcakes do you sell?
We've got our classics that we do every day — the Classic Vanilla, which is vanilla cake with vanilla icing; Vanilla Chocolate, which is vanilla cake with chocolate icing; our Ghirardelli Squares, made with Ghirardelli chocolate; our Black Tie, which is chocolate [cake] with vanilla butter cream, and we threw in Red Velvet because it was extremely popular. We have our Baker's Choice, which [recently was] a Peanut Butter Fluff, which is chocolate cake with a marshmallow filling and a marshmallow butter cream icing drizzled with peanut butter and chocolate. We also have an Oatmeal Cream Pie, based on my grandmother's recipe; it was her favorite cake.
Are cupcakes just for kids?
It's funny — most of our customers are professional people. When I was doing my business plan my demographic was age 2 to 102. An adult with a little more mature palate is going to appreciate what we have more. My four-and-a-half year-old can probably just stick anything in his mouth and if it's sweet he's going to love it. So I think for $2.95 each, it's a gourmet dessert. You can get a variety, because you know it takes enough time at your house to bake one. We have business people that come in here and get eight different flavors and take them to the office for adult birthdays. We also do bridal showers, weddings and groom's cakes.
Many of your recipes come from your grandmothers. How do you translate their cake recipes into cupcakes? Is it difficult baking small?
Yes, that's a great deal of what I had to do in the testing. I had to change a little bit up. It's very tricky making cupcakes taste as good as cakes. Some recipes are much harder than others; the vanilla is very tricky. The red velvet is my grandmother's cake recipe that I've made into a cupcake, and one second it's so not done and 10 seconds later you've got to get it out of the oven. You have to touch it; it really is a kind of a feel. You just kind of know. Every day is different. We crack all of our eggs. We don't use any kind of egg substitute — not that there's anything wrong with that — but some days your eggs might be a whole lot bigger than your eggs the next day.
[In] one of the tests I did in the beginning, the [cupcakes] came out like hockey pucks. The next batch I did I overcompensated and it was like a sheet cake on top. It's trying to find that perfect puff. It bothers me to see the wrapper on a cupcake. Some people think that our cupcakes are not normal sized. But they are; we just try to bake them out of the wrapper. The oven is tricky because there's the fan that can pull [the cakes] this way and that way. It's like making little bitty cakes.
How is vanilla cake different from white cake?
White cake doesn't usually have any yolks in it. And you wouldn't use real vanilla in white cake because it would color the batter. So our vanilla cake has yolks and we use Madagascar Bourbon vanilla, which I think is so important. It's a lot richer. Good vanilla is huge in my opinion. It's what tops off the butter cream. I think it makes it a bit creamier. If something needs to be a little sweeter I add vanilla.
Our vanilla recipe I developed on my own. I pulled [famous New York bakery] Magnolia's recipe — you can get it online — and I didn't like it because it didn't have enough texture, plus I didn't want to use someone else's recipe. I pulled my grandmother's recipe and it wasn't working, it was too heavy. So I developed my own.
Our vanilla cake is different from other bakeries' because a lot of bakeries' vanilla cakes have a pound cake taste or a lot of people put syrup on their cakes because if you bake them a couple days before, the syrup helps keep them moist. But we don't serve anything that's not freshly baked, or if it was baked the day before we tell you.
Do you ever get bored doing just cupcakes?
No, and I guess that's a good sign! We try and change the menu up seasonally. We're working on a stout cake — a man's cake — it's so yummy. The idea [came from] my baker at our Pleasant Ridge location. It's chocolate-based with Guinness beer. It sounds like it would be heavy but it's not; the fizz and the carbonation make the cake light. We're trying to toy with what we want to do. Because the cake is so light and has such a good flavor I'm thinking just a chocolate ganache on top so that it's sweet but not too much.
How do you juggle running a business with having a family?
It took us a long time to have our little boy — they gave us less than a 5 percent chance to have him, so when we [did] we made a promise to ourselves that one of us would be there with him and somehow we've stuck with it. But here he's like a kid in the candy store! When we hire people we ask them "do you like kids?" But we had to make a choice at the first of this year. [Our son] asked us last year, he said, "Daddy, do you live in a cupcake store?" And he said "No, baby, I don't live in a cupcake store. And he said "Oh, but Mommy you live in a cupcake store." That's when we closed on Monday again.