Before cake by the slice was a thing, I was an enthusiastic patron of the cupcake bakeries that sprouted up all over Manhattan in the early 2000s. I patiently stood on the queue at the original Magnolia on Bleecker when the sign in the window proclaimed customers were limited to 10. The line often wrapped around the block, and as I waited, I admired everyone’s fashionable outfits while dressed in my frumpy teacher clothes. In those days, I still ironed my work clothes–with starch, even.
The Cupcake Craze
I remember the taste of the original cupcakes: the frosting was hardened around the edges and shattered like crème brûlée when bitten into. The cake itself was really, really buttery. I had never before tasted a treat as delicious as Magnolia’s cupcakes. But, ultimately, it became too much of a fuss with the line and an east/west commute.
I found my own cupcake bakery in Sugar Sweet Sunshine on Rivington Street on the Lower East Side. It was an easy walk from Avenue D, and I got to pass by the Streit’s matzoh factory that was surprisingly still in operation, and peer into the window. At that time, retro was 1970s (not, puzzlingly, the 1990s), and those few blocks in the East Village were ironically celebrating the fads and crazes decade. Welcome to the Johnsons, across the street, was a bar dressed up to be a replica of a 70s living room. Sugar Sweet Sunshine was decorated in yellow and orange flower wallpaper–the same yellow of my princess phone I held on to (and used) through the early 2000s. The cupcakes were not quite as good as Magnolia’s, but there was no line and no bus trip required.
Cake by the Slice
As all fads seem to do, the cupcake craze died out by the end of the aughts. Magnolia turned into a corporate chain, and I learned that I had Celiac disease and couldn’t eat gluten. I laid off the sweets for a while until I discovered By the Way, an entirely gluten free bakery whose treats had no hint of the cardboard after-taste frequently associated with gluten free pastries. The bakery offered a “slice of the day.” There was coconut cloud, em cake, vanilla cake, lemon, red velvet, chocolate/chocolate, chocolate/vanilla, carrot cake, and my favorite–strawberry shortcake.
Slowly, I became hooked. Not only because the cakes were delicious and there was an element of surprise (what would be the daily offering?). But because eating a slice of cake for no reason is, in my opinion, an unapologetically celebratory act. A drink before noon for those who don’t drink. A slice of birthday cake not on your birthday. Sometimes the cakes were decoration mistakes–a misspelling or a sloppy flower, and I’d eat someone’s misfired congratulations or happy anniversary celebration.
Throughout the pandemic, cake slices have sustained my desire for celebration. When I moved to this town, one of the compelling reasons for choosing it was because By the Way was down the street.
I don’t know why the cake slice idea hasn’t taken off. Maybe a TV show needs to make it into a fad the way Sex and the City did with cupcakes (and conversely, with Peloton). But a cake slice bakery is a great idea. Profitable, I would think. I pay at least $8 for a slice. And if there are 8 slices in a cake, that’s $64! The little shop is tiny–I can’t imagine it commands such a high rent in a small town. And kitchen bakeries are legal, I believe, so someone starting out could bake at home.
There are a ton of vacant storefronts in my neighborhood. I wish I baked. Anyone interested in a sweet and celebratory joint venture?
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