June 15-21, 2006
Eats : FoodElemental Magic
Copper Desserts makes sweet alchemy from vegan and gluten-free ingredients.
: Michael T. Regan
The petite, health-conscious Winters is a self-taught baker who honed her skills while growing up in Harlem. Producing annual birthday cakes for her five siblings was her unofficial training. Baking professionally, however, was not her initial plan. Winters attended college at Clark Atlanta University and worked at a bank in Atlanta, Ga., before two bank robberies, a car accident, a burglary and Sept. 11 prompted her to move back to her parents' house in New York. At first, she began a career in public relations, landing a job in the public affairs department at Harlem Hospital. "At the time I thought I wanted to be Miss Corporate America," she says, "but it just didn't mesh. I realized I wanted to do something more meaningful with my time."
In 2004, she left the hospital and began her first baking company, Three Layers Cake. The name was inspired by her father, a numerologist, who emphasized the mystical symbolism of her stacked creations. Winters specialized in conventional egg and flour cakes, and the company became a supplier for New York City restaurants. The business took off, and she started work on a second entrepreneurial venture, a line of organic, all-natural skin care products called Honey by Keirra, which she still owns and operates.
Then Winters met and started dating her now-husband, John, which threw a lump into the proverbial batter. "He was a vegan and over time I was changing my eating habits, too," she says. "Now that I had given up eggs and milk I wondered if I could actually stand behind my own products and recommend them to others. Ultimately my goals and priorities changed along with my diet."
And, as Winters was finding, few vegan sweets were as good as the real thing. Both vegan and gluten-free desserts havesometimes unjustifiablybad reputations among dessert lovers, and they are tagged as dry, leaden, flavorless or too sweet. "Consumers with dietary needs are often forced to get something bland to maintain their health standards," Winters says.
Seizing on a business opportunity, Winters decided to change her baking tactics. In her home kitchen Winters began experimenting with her traditional recipes. "My husband told me that the one thing that tempted him to cheat was carrot cake, so I started with that," she says. The result was so good that he promised he would never again stray for a slice of cake made with animal byproducts.
That led to more experiments. Winters worked on other recipes, using her husband and his co-workers as taste testers. The red velvet cake was an especially hard one to nail, she says, requiring several attempts before the flavor, texture and icing came together in a credible facsimile of the buttermilk, egg and cream cheese-laden original. While improved food science and better replacement ingredients have made good-tasting vegan and gluten-free products more accessible than they were a decade ago, it is still rare to find a cake that a vegan and a person with celiac disease can share. What makes Copper Desserts unique is that it addresses both camps in every product.
No wheat, no eggs, no dairy: Bite into a flaky double-crusted peach pie or an oversized golden coconut cupcake with silky frosting and sweet flakes of dried coconut and you can't help but wonder what exactly is in it. For starters, Winters uses unsweetened soy milk, vegan egg replacer and flaxseed. All sugar is unprocessed and organic. For the red velvet cake, Winters uses a customized natural food coloring that looks as convincingly rosy as any Red 40. Like all great chefs, however, Winters has some secret ingredients in the mix. To guard her recipes she has also patented her formulas.
Last fall the couple moved to Mt. Airy and Winters spent a few more months fine-tuning before officially opening Copper Desserts in late January. For the moment it's a wholesale business. The cakes are now available at Jamaican Jerk Hut and will soon be at Weavers Way Co-op, but individuals can make orders by phone. On the tempting list are the carrot, red velvet, and chocolate Inka cakes, plus a traditional chocolate cake and chocolate bourbon pecan pie. In addition, Winters makes changing seasonal pies and a range of cupcakes by the dozen. (Most of the cakes can be ordered in cupcake size.) In the coming months, Winters plans to expand into a larger operation, supplying more natural supermarkets and eventually opening up a retail storefront in Philadelphia. She knows she has a captive audience of people waiting for that sweet bite of goodness that they thought they'd never taste again. "It's a universal concept," she says. "We're not leaving anyone out."