Upstart bakers tap into childhood memories with Whisked!

December 6, 2011

“Watch your step,” Stephanie Willis says, as we carefully descend into the basement kitchen at 1905 restaurant in the Shaw neighborhood. “It’s a little precarious.”

She’s not kidding. Even once we’re downstairs, there is so little space for Willis and fellow baker Jenna Huntsberger to maneuver as they swirl chocolate into pumpkin puree, fill brownie sandwich cookies with vanilla cream and bake off pear cobblers that when Willis needs to fetch a tool, she and I have to do a little trading-places dance.

Such is the challenge for upstart bakers whose primary “storefront” is a part-real, part-virtual combination of farmers market stand and online ordering system. As the brain trust and elbow grease behind Whisked!, the two women are grateful for 1905’s affordable kitchen space, where they bake twice a week. But they’re also eager for the day when they can find a bigger one, preferably something that doesn’t require them to arrive before dawn so they can be out before lunchtime.

As Huntsberger puts it, “Getting up at 4 in the morning is killing me.”

The two met when Willis, the voice of the Adventures in Shaw blog, organized a charity bake sale at the 14th and U Farmers Market in fall 2009 featuring other local food bloggers. Soon, Willis started e-mailing baking questions to Huntsberger, who had been writing the ModernDomestic blog and quit her office job to pursue baking.

Meanwhile, 14th and U’s manager, Robin Shuster, was impressed with Willis’s organizational skills and asked Willis to fill a hole at the market, which was without a baker. “She knew I was into baking, and she’s very persistent,” said Willis, 35. At another bake sale at the D.C. State Fair, Shuster broached the idea again, and when Willis mentioned it to Huntsberger, the immediate response was, “Let’s do it!”

Five months of recipe testing, bureaucracy negotiating, kitchen-space hunting and business planning later, Whisked! was born. The mission: to sell baked goods that are “nostalgic but still appeal to an adult sensibility,” says Huntsberger, 29. (The business’s tag­line is “Baking with Northern Style and Southern Charm,” to reflect Huntsberger’s upbringing in Oregon and Willis’s in Georgia.)

That means, for instance, that when Willis decided to make her grandmother’s 7-Up poundcake, relentless testing led her to replace half of the soda with fresh lemon and lime and to cut way back on the sugar. “We want you to think, ‘This reminds me of my childhood, but it’s so much better,’ ” Willis says. “We also don’t want to kill you.”

Cookies, naturally, have been a mainstay, around the holidays more than ever. When The Post asked them to develop recipes for our annual cookie section, they were elated, for a reason we hadn’t expected: “We really wanted to be able to use expensive ingredients,” Huntsberger confesses. “It was so liberating.”

We’re not talking gold leaf or anything. But for a small business, using dried cherries and pistachios such as those that go into the oatmeal cookies they designed might be foolhardy.

“We really try to limit ourselves in terms of costs,” Huntsberger says, noting that they work with local produce as much as they can. “We can’t use five expensive nuts in just one cookie each, because then you have that inventory, and you have to store it. So if we get something, we try to use it in a lot of places. And we would never be able to use sour cherries in a bunch of recipes because they’re just too expensive.”

All three cookies represent the bakers’ commitment to developing flavors, whether that means toasting the coconut that goes into chocolate cookies or adding one of the most addictive ingredients possible to a thumbprint cookie: “You can put Nutella in anything, and people will love it,” Huntsberger says.

By their account (and Shuster’s), the retro-hip strategy is succeeding. They still have their day jobs — Willis is a statistician, while Huntsberger is the pastry chef for Spilled Milk Catering and works two days a week at Soupergirl — but Whisked! sales have been strong enough for them to hire a part-time baking assistant. Before the farmers market season ended in mid-November, the women regularly sold out of the dozens of pies and “pielets,” cookies, bars and loaf cakes they took every week.

And they’re looking to grow. They’d like to start saying yes to the frequent requests for wholesale jobs and to sell at more of their beloved farmers markets, but that goes back to the ongoing hunt for bigger kitchen space.

What about their market customers who don’t want to go without their weekly fix? The women are selling a couple of sweets at the Big Cheese truck and are appearing at the Downtown Holiday Market two Saturdays this month. Perhaps best of all, they have set up a pickup spot for their online orders. Every Friday night and Saturday, customers who ordered, say, a banana Nutella pie or a dozen cookies can pick them up at Mr. Yogato in Dupont Circle.

That fro-yo, come to think of it, would be a nice counterpoint to the salty-sweet crackerjack bars, a favorite of Shuster’s.

“The first time I sampled one, it took me right back to my childhood at the movies,” Shuster says. “I was looking for the tiny plastic figures!”

Huntsberger will answer questions about cookies and other holiday baking topics during the Free Range chat today at noon, at live.washingtonpost.com.

To order baked goods, go to www.whiskeddc.com and click on “Shop.” Orders placed by 11:59 p.m. Wednesdays can be picked up after 5 p.m. Fridays or noon-1 a.m. Saturdays at Mr. Yogato, 1515 17th St. NW.

Whisked! will sell at the Downtown Holiday Market, Eighth and F streets NW, Dec. 10 and 17, noon-8 p.m.

Joe Yonan is the Food and Travel editor of The Washington Post and the author of "Eat Your Vegetables: Bold Recipes for the Single Cook." He writes the Food section's Weeknight Vegetarian column.
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