KAYTE YOUNG: From WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana, this is Earth Eats and I'm your host, Kayte Young.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: She looked at my husband and she was like, "Jennifer, translate what I'm about to say, OK? She doesn't speak English." She was like, "Tell Derick that I said to please start a website for you and help you spread your word about your cake business." And I was like, "Grandma, I don't really know who's gonna buy a cake from me."
KAYTE YOUNG: This week we're talking with Jennifer Whitley, owner of Cakes by Yenni. She walks us through the assembly and decoration of her strawberry cake with strawberry buttercream icing and shares the origin story of her new home-based business. That's coming right up, stay with us.
KAYTE YOUNG: Thanks for listening to Earth Eats, I'm Kayte Young.
KAYTE YOUNG: Pulling into the driveway of a brick faced house in a stylish suburban neighborhood in Bloomington, you'd never know that a baking mastermind lives inside. Jennifer Whitley owns a small business called Cakes by Yenni and she bakes in her home kitchen. Her path to running a food business is not exactly linear. She's trained as a speech language pathologist, but in many ways her new endeavor lines up perfectly with her history. We'll hear more of that story later in the show. What you need to know now is that Jennifer's approach to cake baking is serious, well practiced and precise. She leaves nothing to chance, well, except maybe the final decoration, that's the more spontaneous part. Let's dive right in and geek out with Jennifer on the finer points of cake and frosting.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: I am Jennifer Whitley and I am the owner of Cakes By Yenni.
KAYTE YOUNG: I met Jennifer in her home in south east Bloomington and she agreed to share some of her secrets with us.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: We're going to be making a strawberry cake with strawberry buttercream frosting. I got the cake layers started, I baked those last night. So, those are ready and usually I try to freeze the cake layers before I decorate it, it makes decorating a lot easier. I take them out from the freezer about an hour before I start decorating, so they've been out for about an hour.
KAYTE YOUNG: What's the benefit of freezing them?
JENNIFER WHITLEY: It makes it a lot easier to frost. So, the frosting, I've noticed that if the cake layers are not either refrigerated or frozen, I tend to get a lot of crumbs, which I want to avoid when I'm decorating. You could always add a crumb layer, which is just the first layer that you do when you're decorating the cake, but it takes extra long. So, it saves me a lot of time if the cake layers are cold before I decorate them.
KAYTE YOUNG: But then you do defrost them a little bit, you said you take them out for a little bit?
JENNIFER WHITLEY: Yes, I'm not going to frost them, like, completely straight out of the freezer. I was hoping we would be able to go through the process of making buttercream together and I had prepped all of my ingredients, but I take out the butter to make sure that it gets to room temperature and it was starting to get to the point where it was going to go past that, so I had to start it. Butter, when you're making buttercream, it really has to be right at room temperature. If it's not, it just doesn't go on the cake as well, it makes the decoration a lot harder, you have to put it in the fridge, take it back out. So, really when you're baking, I think one of my biggest tips is to make sure that your ingredients are always at room temperature.
KAYTE YOUNG: And so how does it get beyond room temperature if it's in the room? How does that even happen?
JENNIFER WHITLEY: Baking for me has been different throughout the year. So, wintertime, I'm usually pretty good, the kitchen's pretty much at the same temperature. But in the summer, it just kind of depends what the temperature of my kitchen is. Sometimes I've noticed if I've been baking all day, my kitchen's going to be a little warmer. So I have to keep a closer eye on the ingredients that I'm putting out for the next part of the cake decorating or the baking process.
KAYTE YOUNG: So, you took the butter out, it was at the perfect temperature so you had to go ahead and start?
JENNIFER WHITLEY: Yes. So, I went and go ahead and start but I wanted to share with you what I added and just some of my tips when you're making buttercream and when you're making strawberry buttercream. So, the butter has to be at the perfect temperature. It has to be at room temperature. I usually have kitchen thermometers that I use when I'm baking.
KAYTE YOUNG: I got a little confused when Jennifer was talking about room temperature. I didn't realize that there's an ideal temperature that's often referred to as "Room temperature." When Jennifer checks her butter with a kitchen thermometer, she's looking for 60 to 64 degrees Fahrenheit, keeping in mind that it will warm up as you're mixing it. If your kitchen is warmer, your butter could go beyond that temperature and be too soft for making buttercream.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: One way that you can tell if your butter's at room temperature, you could put your finger on the butter stick and if there's a little bit of dent, it's probably ready. If your finger goes all the way in there, it's a little too warm. So, you start with the butter, you mix the butter until it gets to the perfect consistency, which, if you ask me what the perfect consistency is, I have to eyeball it.
KAYTE YOUNG: OK, so how would you describe it then? Maybe that's a way.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: It's very creamy and I could tell you that when I put either a knife through it, it should be able to just easily mix off the bowl. It shouldn't have any tiny little pieces in it, it's like a cream, which is where buttercream, the name, comes from. So you end up getting this really creamy texture.
KAYTE YOUNG: So, you mix the butter first until you get it to that temperature? I will say it, almost every, especially a cookie recipe, it always says, "Beat butter and sugar together until light and fluffy." And I'm always like, "I see light, but I never see fluffy," and how do I know? Is that ten minutes? Is it two minutes?
JENNIFER WHITLEY: So, you really have to get to know your tools and the ingredients that you're using. Because when I first started baking, I used to follow the recipe exactly and if a recipe said, "Mix it for exactly two minutes" I was like, "OK, that's two minutes, time to move on." But, I watch a lot of bakers on social media, so many people are on You Tube, there are so many podcasts. And I've learned so much just from watching and listening, really watching YouTube videos and seeing what people mean by fluffy, creamy, I'm like, "Oh, OK. I see what I'm looking out for." With that said, I've been experimenting a lot and doing a lot in my kitchen, so I know when my ingredients get to whatever texture is being described in the recipe.
KAYTE YOUNG: OK. So, what you just said was helpful, though, you said, "looks like cream, there aren't little pieces."
JENNIFER WHITLEY: Yes. There aren't little pieces and really, I think the nice thing about buttercream is you can over mix the butter to the point where it's going to get really warm. But you could always save it, because you could put it back in the fridge, wait for it to get to room temperature and then mix it again. It's just going to take a little longer. But with buttercream, once your butter gets to a creamy texture, I add the powered sugar, which I usually weigh before I add it, and I sift it too. I find that sifting the powdered sugar gives me just a much lighter texture than adding it all in. And then with strawberry buttercream, I experimented a lot throughout the years and I learned that using freeze dried strawberries gives you the best texture. If you use fresh strawberries, it's watery, you just mess up the consistency. So freeze dried strawberries is what I use.
KAYTE YOUNG: The flavor of those is so intense.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: Yes. So you get this amazing flavor and then you get this beautiful color. I don't use any food coloring because you get this beautiful color just by using fresh ingredients. So, I mix the strawberries that I get, just a powdery texture.
KAYTE YOUNG: You blitz them in a food processor or something?
JENNIFER WHITLEY: Yes. I put them in the food processor and I add the sifted powdered sugar along with the powdered freeze dried strawberries. A little bit of vanilla, a little bit of salt to cut out the sweetness and then heavy cream. Mix that all together and this is what you get.
KAYTE YOUNG: Well, that does look beautiful. It's a great color.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: Yes. I'm going to mix it just a little more before I start decorating it.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: OK.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: So now what I'm going to do, is I'm going to prep my piping bag to add the first layer of buttercream. So, one thing I should share is that part of my style is I don't add a ton of frosting on my cakes. I just don't personally like it when I get a slice of cake and it has a thick layer of frosting. I feel like it just messes up the whole experience of the cake flavors that you're eating. So, with that said, I'll start with the first part of decorating, which usually I'll prep a piping bag, it doesn't have a tip and I add any kind of piping tip to it. Put the frosting in here and then I add a thin layer of frosting to the cake board to let the cake layer stick to it. So that's what I'm going to do.
KAYTE YOUNG: Pro tip. I never knew that.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: Yeah. It's one easy way to make sure that the cake layer sticks to your cake board. So I'll do that.
KAYTE YOUNG: When Jennifer says she's prepping the pastry bag, she's placing a cone-shaped clear plastic sleeve with the tip cut off into a cup and folding the top of the sleeve over the sides of the cup so that it's easy to spoon the frosting inside for piping.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: So, strawberry frosting. See it's really thick, kind of looks like an ice cream. Which is what people have told me my strawberry buttercream frosting tastes like.
KAYTE YOUNG: Does the cake itself have strawberries in it?
JENNIFER WHITLEY: Yes it does. So, the cake itself actually has fresh strawberries that I reduced, so I reduced the strawberries and I end up getting a bit of a thicker consistency. This is a two layer cake, so I used about a pound of strawberries, washed them, blend them before you put them on the stove and then I usually leave them on medium low heat for about 30 minutes and then I let it cool completely. And then I go ahead and blend it in to the rest of the ingredients.
KAYTE YOUNG: You're making a fresh jam almost?
JENNIFER WHITLEY: Yes. Which is really nice because you get this really, really light strawberry flavor as you're eating it.
KAYTE YOUNG: But I could see too if you don't reduce it, the moisture is going to mess up the cake.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: Yes, so I played around with this recipe for a long time and what I used to do is, I used to finely chop strawberries and then add them to the cake. But I didn't like the consistency I would get after I would bake them because you end up getting a consistency that almost seems like the cake is not fully baked. And it's because of the moisture. So, I kept thinking about it, I was like, "How can I add it?" So then my first thought was, what if I blend them first and then add them just as a puree? That didn't work out very well because it was too much water. So then I was like, "Well, what if I reduce it?"
KAYTE YOUNG: That's a really great idea and also I think sometimes when you have strawberry cake that has strawberries in it, you kinda bite into the strawberry and it's been cooked so it doesn't taste fresh and then it doesn't have the intense flavor that you're looking for. So that just seems like a perfect solution, I love it.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: I'm really looking forward to you trying this and telling me what you think because I'm very proud of this recipe. OK, when you're adding buttercream to a cake, every baker has their own technique. I like to use a piping bag when I'm adding buttercream in between layers because I feel like I get a much more even layer of buttercream. I usually start on the outside and then I'm just going to spin my table a little as I go. So that's the first round, now let's say I was adding some kind of filling. You would first do an outside layer of buttercream and then add your filling to make sure that it stays in place. I've got a good amount on there. I'm going to go in with this little flat tool that I'm totally blanking on the name of.
KAYTE YOUNG: You've gone around in kind of concentric circles from the outside. But you haven't totally filled it in, like the middle still doesn't have icing.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: Not yet, and I didn't fill it all the way in because the layer that I added seems pretty thick. So, I'm going to go ahead and see what it looks like once I kind of blend it in towards the middle. And if I feel like we need to add more, then I'll just add more.
KAYTE YOUNG: You're using a tool that looks, I don't know, like what I would call a bowl scraper but I don't know what they're really called.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: Yes. There we go. If you look at it.
KAYTE YOUNG: That looks gorgeous.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: It looks pretty even.
KAYTE YOUNG: It really does and it also looks flat across.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: Now we're going to add the next layer. So, an additional tip, when you're using piping bags you don't want to fill it all the way. Because then it just spills all over the top. So I'm going to do the same thing again with the other layer, I'm going to start from the outside first.
KAYTE YOUNG: And a couple of your tools are pretty nice too. You've got the cake board and then you also have this kind of spinning stand.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: Yes. I love the spinning stand, I've had it for years. I thought of getting a new one, but I think I'm emotionally attached to this. So, I'm going to scrape it to even out the buttercream.
KAYTE YOUNG: Looks perfect.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: One thing that I sometimes do, is I use this little tool, you can add a little bit of texture.
KAYTE YOUNG: You're using like, the tip off the offset spatula to just make a little spiral indent.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: Yes.
KAYTE YOUNG: Yes, it looks good.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: So now we are going to add the frosting to the outside.
KAYTE YOUNG: This is the part where everything always goes wrong for me.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: Why is that?
KAYTE YOUNG: I don't know, crumbs get everywhere.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: So, I told you, freezing the cake layers really helps with making sure that you don't get crumbs everywhere. Another thing that really helps is adding a very thin crumb coat, which basically means you're adding a thin coat of buttercream. You can do that, put your cake in the fridge for about 15 minutes and then you can come back to decorating and add another layer.
KAYTE YOUNG: And then you're getting less crumbs. You're frosting on top of frosting.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: Yes, exactly. Another thing that you can do is just make sure that your tools, as you're using them, that there aren't any crumbs on them. I usually have a little bowl of water close by so that I could just dip them in and make sure that I'm starting with clean tools as I go through each layer, so that I don't get crumbs. You can do that. So, for the outside, I always like to start at the bottom and then I work my way up. So, I'm going to start here.
KAYTE YOUNG: And again, you're using the pastry bag.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: Yes. So I start here. Go all the way around.
KAYTE YOUNG: So many mysteries are being solved for me right now.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: This is a very therapeutic part of baking for me.
KAYTE YOUNG: Yes, it's sort of the artistic part.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: It is. I usually have background music. I always say, sometimes I get inspired by the beat of whatever song I'm listening to. So, this is basically a basic layer. All of my cakes look a little different. I try to have an idea of what I want the cake, how I'm going to decorate the cake based on the ingredients that I'm going to be using in the cake and whatever I'm going to use, whatever fruit I'm going to use to decorate it. I think about the event and whatever the client shared about the celebration that the cake's being used for. This is a just because cake for you and I, so I have a little more freedom there, but I do have a couple of strawberries and then I have some blackberries that I may use to add a little bit of contrast. So, this is a process that I would say sometimes takes a little bit of trial and error because I'll start with one thing, if I don't like it I'll just start all over again. So we'll see how this goes. One fun thing about decorating with fruit, it's natural colors. So I like to play around with the colors that I have to give a little more contrast, to make it a little bit more visually appealing. You know what? I have an idea.
KAYTE YOUNG: It's also probably hard to do this with somebody standing over you. What are you going to do?
JENNIFER WHITLEY: You know, to be completely honest, I usually do this when I'm alone in the kitchen.
KAYTE YOUNG: Yes, I could totally understand that. I don't like to have people around when I'm being creative.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: Yes. There's no way I would do this with my husband or my toddler around. So, I've got another piping bag here, and I have the one M piping tip on here. Each piping tip creates a slightly different design. I've been learning as I go about piping tips and different decorating techniques. What I think I'm going to do is I'm going to go for a little bit of asymmetry. Let's add some swirls here, see how that goes.
KAYTE YOUNG: I see, so that tip when you swirl it around, it almost makes like a rose look.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: It does, but I think this buttercream turned out a little thicker.
KAYTE YOUNG: Jennifer artfully swirls the pink buttercream into some rustic roses and star-like blossoms. She casually places strawberry halves and whole blackberries as bright accents of color. She knows when to stop and the process is remarkably quick.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: Let's add some strawberries here. I think what I'm going to do now is I'm going to add a little bit of a border at the bottom.
KAYTE YOUNG: If you wanted a thinner buttercream at this point, could you add cream to it and mix it?
JENNIFER WHITLEY: Absolutely, yes. You could absolutely add cream to it. You could tell when you're piping and when you're decorating if you don't have the consistency that you're used to.
KAYTE YOUNG: So if you're getting frustrated you can do something about it?
JENNIFER WHITLEY: Yes, you can absolutely do something about it, it's just going to take a little extra. OK, so we go round.
KAYTE YOUNG: Oh, it's so cool. It's like a little fluffy skirt.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: So there we go.
KAYTE YOUNG: That is so gorgeous. And it's simple too, it's not over done.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: No, I mean, when you see a really elaborate cake with a lot of decoration, it probably has a ton of frosting which is something I personally don't like. This is pretty much the last bit, I'm going to leave this cake like this and usually after I finish decorating the cake, I take pictures of it. I've got a little light box that my cousin gave me for Christmas a few years ago. I take pictures of it to use for my own marketing and then box it up and it's ready to go.
KAYTE YOUNG: This will be fun too.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: I'll get to take a picture of it once we've cut into it. I usually don't get to do that because it goes home with the client.
KAYTE YOUNG: We took the finished cake into the next room and set it up in the light box for the glamor shots. You can see one of those on our website, EarthEats.org.
KAYTE YOUNG: That is so cool. I love it.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: Do you know what? I love it.
KAYTE YOUNG: I'm talking with Jennifer Whitley about her business, Cakes By Yenni. After a short break we'll return with a conversation about food and family and the inspiration behind Jennifer deciding to share her cakes with the world. Stay with us.
KAYTE YOUNG: Thanks for tuning into Earth Eats, I'm Kayte Young and our guest today is Jennifer Whitley. She's the owner of the home based bakery, Cakes By Yenni. After sharing a tutorial for assembling and decorating one of her signature cakes, we sat down for a conversation about what led her to this new endeavor. First things first, I wanted to know what was behind the name, Cakes By Yenni.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: So, Yenni is what my family calls me and I figured that the name had to carry something from my family, especially my grandmother because she was the one that inspired me to start the business. She does not call me Jennifer, she calls me Yenni. She is Mexican American. So, Spanish is my first language and in the Spanish language the J sound in Jennifer doesn't really exist, so Yenni is what I go by. So, I was trying to think of a name that would have a little bit of my family's background but also a name that people here in Bloomington could pronounce, so Cakes by Yenni is what I decided.
KAYTE YOUNG: It seems to work. I mean, as soon as I saw that your name was Jennifer, it kind of made sense.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: Yes.
KAYTE YOUNG: I would love to hear the story about your grandmother inspiring you.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: I have been baking for years and people have encouraged me to start a business for a long time but this particular summer my parents and my grandmother, my aunt and uncle came to visit. We just bought this house, so they came to visit to see our new house and while they were here we celebrated a lot of birthdays so I made a cake every day. We had a different kind of cake for dinner every day and for everyone's celebration. There was one morning where my grandmother was like, "Did you really bake all of these cakes on your own?" I said, "Yes." She was like, "Sweetheart, I knew you were good at cooking and baking but you really need to start a business." My family's in the restaurant business, so to her it was like, she said, "Why aren't you selling this?"
JENNIFER WHITLEY: So anyways, that was the topic that kept coming up while they were here and there was one day at breakfast, I had made cinnamon rolls. My grandmother doesn't like cinnamon rolls, so she was like, "Ah, I'm going to pass this time, I've enjoyed everything you've baked but I don't like cinnamon rolls, I think they're overly sweet, I just don't like them." My husband was like, "No, you need to try this. It's so good, you're going to love it." She was like, "Well, I'll have a little bit." Derek served her a whole cinnamon roll and she ate the whole thing and when she was done, she was like, "On my goodness I ate this whole thing, this was so good. You need to start a cake business." So, she looked at my husband and she was like, "Jennifer, translate what I'm about to say, OK?" She doesn't speak English. She was like, "Tell Derek that I said to please start a website for you and help you spread the word about your cake business."
JENNIFER WHITLEY: And I was like, "Grandma, I don't really know who's gonna buy a cake from me." I was like, "I only bake for family and friends." She's like, "No, that's how you start a cake business. You tell people that now you're selling your cakes and then you sell a cake to a friend and that friend tells another friend and that friend tells another friend. And before you know it, now people are coming to you for cakes." She's like, "Jennifer, I feel like you're leaving money on the table. You really need to sell these." So, Derek was like, "Well, your grandma said you need to start a business, I think we need to do this." So he started my website, I would say probably the day after they left. He put together my website with pictures that I've taken throughout the years, so the pictures on my website are pictures that I've taken myself of cakes I have tried these past few years. I put a menu together based on cakes that I know my friends really like and the ones that people typically ask me to bake. Added cupcakes to the menu because I figured people really like cakes and cupcakes.
KAYTE YOUNG: Yes, especially for birthday parties and stuff.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: I started a Facebook page, an Instagram page. I don't post a lot on my personal social media but I make a post and I said, "Hey, Bloomington friends, I'm starting a cake business. Here's my website, spread the word." I started that, I want to say that I posted maybe in August, I was fully booked until November. And it got to the point where the first few weeks, I didn't know how much I could handle at one time. So, the first few weeks, I agreed to making quite a few more cakes than I probably should have agreed to. Then after that, I started limiting the number of cake orders I was taking per week. And I also take orders based on what's going on in my family's schedule. So for example, around the holidays, my last cake order went out, I believe on the 22nd. And I've taken a break since.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: My first order is actually this weekend. So, that's how the cake business started. I've been overwhelmed and just super happy knowing that people enjoy what I bake. It's been really fun to meet people. Typically when I get a new client, I always ask what the cake is for and what a favorite memory of whomever is being celebrated, what's a favorite memory that they have around food and dessert. I love hearing how people are going to be using my cakes as part of their celebrations and I feel like you make so many great memories around food that the thought of my cake being a part of a favorite memory just warms my heart.
KAYTE YOUNG: I really love what you said about asking them about a favorite memory because as someone who just bakes at home for family and friends too, I know that if I'm making something for somebody, I'm thinking about them while I'm making it.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: Exactly.
KAYTE YOUNG: And when you're making it for someone you don't know then that element's missing. But if you ask, then you can think about that a little bit, try to picture it.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: Yes. And it's always really fun hearing people in the moment, people are like, well, no one's asked me that before. But a customer that I had a couple of weeks before the holidays, they were celebrating an 80th birthday and she seemed so flattered that I asked her that question. I was like, "Do you remember any favorite memory or dessert that your mom really, really likes?" She was like, well, I think it was brown sugar cookies. She was like, "Well, she really likes brown sugar cookies." So then we started talking about the kind of cake I can make. I heard that she loved it and I got pictures of their birthday celebration, so.
KAYTE YOUNG: So asking that question is also helping you figure out what kind of cake to make, if they don't already have something in mind, like we know we want chocolate with this kind of icing.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: Yes. And then typically that question will also start the conversation of people's preferences on cakes and dessert. I've gotten a few customers that have told me, well, I actually don't really like cake. OK, well that's OK, what is it about cake that you don't like? A very common answer is, "I don't like all of the frosting on it." "Well, that's perfect because I don't use a ton of frosting." That really helps me get to know new clients.
KAYTE YOUNG: And it also maybe give you some things to think about when you're decorating too.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: Absolutely, yes, yes, absolutely.
KAYTE YOUNG: So, one of the things that I'm always really interested in when I talk to people who have food businesses is, "What made you take this leap? But it feels like you have told me that, that it was really not necessarily your idea."
JENNIFER WHITLEY: Yes. Well, I should add, I'm not a baker by trade. I'm a speech language pathologist. I've worked in speech language pathology, gosh, since I was 18. Certified for almost ten years, but I was a professor at IU for six years, as a clinical associate professor in speech language and hearing sciences. Stepped away from that job to be at home with my child, we were struggling with childcare, whole different story. But, this cake business has given me just something else to do outside of my day to day stay-at-home mom duties. Which has been really nice. I am not practicing, I would say, anything related to speech language pathology when I'm baking but it's been such a fun way to learn a different set of skills, to get into the business world, my family comes from the restaurant business but I obviously haven't been involved with that in so long. I've learned so much about social media marketing. Anytime I post a video or a post, I get more clients. So, yes, it's just been such a fun way to tap into my creative side.
KAYTE YOUNG: It sounds like it could be as big as you want it to be, but you might have your own limits on it.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: Yes, I mean, in an ideal world, I would love to one day own a brick and mortar but that's just not in the cards right now. I'm really enjoying this stage of life and this stage of motherhood, so having my baking business, it's just something that I do on the side and a hobby that I've turned into a business.
KAYTE YOUNG: It's really great how you can set your own parameters, you know, you can do it on your own terms. You can limit how many cakes you want. You can decide what are the times that you're taking off when you just aren't taking any orders.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: Yes. When I know that I'm not going to have childcare, I avoid taking orders, or I move orders around. There's no way that I could bake a cake the way that I did with you, if my toddler was running around.
KAYTE YOUNG: What kind of food businesses do people in your family run?
JENNIFER WHITLEY: Restaurants. So, my family, they own taquerias back in California. Mexican food, tacos, tortas, flautas.
KAYTE YOUNG: And are they small mom and pop kind of things? Or is there a chain?
JENNIFER WHITLEY: Oh, it is not a chain. People had approached my grandparents a couple of times about turning it into a chain, but my grandfather always said no. So, it's just a mom and pop place and all of the recipes are recipes that my grandmother develops. She still makes a lot of the hot sauces with her daughters. There are recipes that not even the workers know of.
KAYTE YOUNG: Wow, I bet that is good Mexican food. So where in California?
JENNIFER WHITLEY: The suburbs of LA. So, close to Long Beach. It's in a small city called Hawaiian Gardens. There's one there, there's another one in Anaheim, California. And then my uncle lives in Oklahoma city, so there's another one there.
KAYTE YOUNG: So, you had some exposure to that, but like you said, it wasn't something you had been involved in at all.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: I had been involved with it when I was living back home in California, I worked there. But, a baking business has been totally different, especially with me being the only person running the business. But I've gotten to use a lot of my skills, so doing cost analysis, keeping track of my sales, keeping track of flavors that are really popular, cost of ingredients.
KAYTE YOUNG: Can you talk about what parts of it you enjoy the most?
JENNIFER WHITLEY: I probably enjoy the baking part of it more than the decorating part. So the first part. So, getting all of my ingredients together, making the cake. Making sure that the cake turns out, the texture that I usually like my cakes to turn out. That's a whole scientific process for me, that I absolutely enjoy.
KAYTE YOUNG: And what kind of things are involved in that formula?
JENNIFER WHITLEY: For example, I've played around a lot with my chocolate cake recipes. I've learned that adding espresso powder really brings out the chocolate flavor. I have a technique where I add a little bit of hot boiling water to the mix to bring out the chocolate flavors. I don't know if it's my head, but I'm pretty sure it works. So, I like that process, just because I've played around with my recipes for so many years. I have what I would say are my own techniques and my own little secrets and tips that I've learned as I've experimented. I don't experiment as much as I used to simply because the cost of ingredients are through the roof. So, I can't really afford to experiment as much but I really enjoy that process. I have definitely flopped some recipes but I write everything down, I keep a note book where I write down my own notes. I took that idea from my grandmother. She has note books that she has shown me before with little notes that she's written of just things that she's learned as she's tried a new recipe. So, I'm hoping that's a notebook that I can look back on, or someone else in my family can look back on and be like, "Oh, these are really good tips."
KAYTE YOUNG: What kind of baker are you? Are you really organized and you kind of lay out everything, all the ingredients, measure them out ahead of time? Or do you just kind of wing it as you go along?
JENNIFER WHITLEY: No, I'm definitely very organized. I would say that's the speech language pathologist in me. I didn't realize how organized and particular I was when I'm baking until I started teaching other people how to bake. I have a system, I try to make sure that I take out my ingredients ahead of time. I definitely weigh my ingredients all the time. I also have a system that helps me with the cleanup process. So, I'll take out my ingriedients, measure them, bake my cake, put it in the oven, clean up, do my first round of cleaning and then onto the next step. So, I would say I'm a pretty organized baker.
KAYTE YOUNG: Methodical.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: Yes. I'm probably not as organized when it comes to the decorating process because, like I said, I have an idea in mind of how I want the cake to look but I always end up with something totally different.
KAYTE YOUNG: So, it's the more spontaneous part of it.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: Yes. And maybe I do enjoy that process more than I think I do. But it's definitely a process that's very different from my personality.
KAYTE YOUNG: That sounds like it pushes you in the uncomfortable zone.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: Yes. Whenever someone tells me that that seems like such an artistic process, I'm always really flattered because I don't consider myself to be a super creative or artistic person. But, now that I think about it, I think art really does happen in the kitchen. Art and science, definitely happen in the kitchen.
KAYTE YOUNG: I also think the restraint that you show in the design probably comes from that.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: Absolutely. And I've also learned that I like very simple designs. But the most simple designs are actually the hardest to put together. So, whenever you're out there and you see a very smoothly frosted cake, I guarantee that baker took a long time to learn how to do that.
KAYTE YOUNG: I see, so the more kind of fluffy decorated one might be easier to do, or might be covering flaws or whatever.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: I personally think you're covering a lot of flaws as you keep adding more. But that's my personal opinion. I definitely do admire those cakes that are so elaborate in their frosting design. But when I think of a cake, I'm not thinking of just the design, I'm thinking of the actual experience. When you are slicing into it and eating the slice? I don't really wanna see that people leave all of my frosting that I've worked so hard to make on their plate. I wanna see people enjoy the whole slice of cake. Which is usually what happens.
KAYTE YOUNG: When she's not baking cakes, cupcakes and cinnamon rolls, I wanted to know what else Jennifer likes to cook.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: I didn't learn how to make a lot of Mexican recipes. Growing up there was typically someone else making things, either in the kitchen or making things at the restaurants. I never really had any need to cook for myself until I left my childhood home. So now that I'm so far away from home, I've really enjoyed just Mexican cuisine. I dig into recipe books, social media. I'm just playing around with recipes. I think I'm probably my harshest critic because I never think they taste as good as what my grandmother or my family back home makes. But my friends like it, my husband loves it.
KAYTE YOUNG: There's something you're remembering and you're trying to make it?
JENNIFER WHITLEY: There's usually a memory in smells tied to what I'm trying to make. For example, sometimes if I really am a little homesick, I'll make Mexican tacos in the morning and just the smells of everything that I'm using make me feel like I'm right at home.
KAYTE YOUNG: That's nice.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: Yes. There's something about my kitchen smelling like my childhood home that brings me so much comfort.
KAYTE YOUNG: I'm talking with Jennifer Whitley of Cakes by Yenni in Bloomington, after a short break, we'll slice into that strawberry cake to sample it and talk about the possibilities for the next generation in the kitchen. Stay with us.
KAYTE YOUNG: Kayte Young here, this is Earth Eats and we're back with Jennifer Whitley, talking about cake and family and memory and starting a home-based food business. Earlier in the show, Jennifer walked us through the steps of assembling, frosting and decorating her strawberry cake with strawberry buttercream. She put the finishing touches on the decoration, popped it into her light box and snapped a few photos for her marketing. Now it was time to slice into it and have a taste.
KAYTE YOUNG: Do you have any special techniques for slicing?
JENNIFER WHITLEY: I do. One thing that I do is instead of slicing what I would say the traditional way is, I start on the side. I slice vertically. So I slice it this way and I end up getting way more slices. People don't always want a huge slice of cake, so when you slice it this way you get a lot more servings. So this I would say would be good for 15 to 20 people, depending on how you slice it.
KAYTE YOUNG: Wow. OK, that's awesome. Yeah, because if you did it the traditional way, it would be like, eight or ten.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: Yeah. Eight, ten. And I start on this end and then here I usually could get about three.
KAYTE YOUNG: Instead of cutting the cake into pie-like triangular slices, Jennifer cuts across the cake in strips about two inches wide. For the end strips, she can get about three cuts. On the longer strips, more like four of five slices. We have a photo on our website, EarthEats.org.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: Here you go.
KAYTE YOUNG: Thank you. Yes, I'm with you, this is plenty of icing.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: Right? What do you think?
KAYTE YOUNG: The frosting is so good. It's so flavorful. I just really got that punch of strawberry but not artificial.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: Exactly.
KAYTE YOUNG: It's really good. OK, now I really want to get a good bite of the cake so I can see. Ooh, I love the texture of it, it's fluffy.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: Mm-mm.
KAYTE YOUNG: Yeah, it's really good, you're getting a different kind of strawberry flavor, it's more fresh.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: Exactly.
KAYTE YOUNG: Even though it's cooked. And it's not overly sweet. The icing has to be overly sweet because of all that powdered sugar, but like, the balance is really good.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: Thank you.
KAYTE YOUNG: Oh, this is so good.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: I'm so glad you like it.
KAYTE YOUNG: Mmm, I love it. I love it.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: I'm pretty proud of this recipe.
KAYTE YOUNG: Yes, and it sounds like it's something you've developed over time with a lot of trial and error.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: Yes, I'm pretty proud of how this recipe has developed throughout the years, or evolved, I should say.
KAYTE YOUNG: I really like the edges of the cake where there's a little bit of that browning, it's really tasty.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: I'm so glad to hear you like it. See, I felt like if I had added an even thicker layer of frosting, it would just be too much sweetness with each bite.
KAYTE YOUNG: Right, and you have that border for those people who just really got to have the extra icing.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: Yes, yes. I try to balance it and still keep a little bit of my style but I typically like to ask too.
KAYTE YOUNG: If the icing is not good, I will often just peel the icing off the cake.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: That's what most people do.
KAYTE YOUNG: But if it's this good, I'm probably going to do that a little bit but then by the end I'm going to end up eating all of it. Yes, I love both elements in different ways.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: It tastes like strawberry, right?
KAYTE YOUNG: Mm-mm. It feels like you're tasting strawberry as opposed to just tasting sugar.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: Good. I love hearing that.
KAYTE YOUNG: In Jennifer's kitchen, snugged up to the central island, I noticed a white, wooden kid's tower. It's like a step stool but more stable and it's designed for little ones who want to be in on the action in the kitchen. I asked Jennifer about how she involves her toddler in cooking projects.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: Maddox just turned two and he really likes being in the kitchen with mommy and daddy. So we've baked together, we cook together, I give him little simple tasks to do and it's been a really fun way to spend time together and a really fun way to hopefully instill a fun, healthy relationship with food. It is the cutest thing in the world when he helps me make pancakes on Saturday mornings. His face is just the absolute cutest when either my husband and I are like, "Oh my gosh, Maddox, did you make these? These are delicious." He's like, "Oh, yeah." I mean, he makes a huge mess. But he loves to be in the kitchen.
KAYTE YOUNG: Let's hear it for developing early positive relationships with cooking. That was Jennifer Whitley talking about family time in the kitchen and about her baking business, Cakes By Yenni.
KAYTE YOUNG: Well, thank you so much for talking with me, I really appreciate it.
JENNIFER WHITLEY: Thank you so much. I am absolutely thrilled that you're here.
KAYTE YOUNG: You can see a photo of Jennifer Whitley with her strawberry cake on our website, EarthEats.org and you'll also find links to her website and her social media. And you can follow us on Instagram for more food visuals, you'll find us @EarthEats.
KAYTE YOUNG: That's it for our show this week. Thanks for listening. We'll see you next time.
DANIELLA RICHARDSON: Earth Eats is produced and edited by Kayte Young with help from Eobon Binder, Alex Chambers, Mark Chilla, Toby Foster, Samantha Gee, Abraham Hill, Payton Whaley, Harvest Public Media and me, Daniella Richardson.
KAYTE YOUNG: Special thanks this week to Jennifer Whitley and her family.
DANIELLA RICHARDSON: Our theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey. Additional music on the show comes to us from the artist at Universal Production Music. Our executive producer is John Bailey.