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Sweet Spots

From A-list bees to peanut butter and jelly cupcakes, Orlando just loves desserts.

Hollis Wilder, an aspiring actress before breaking into baking, makes cupcakes with every ingredient you can imagine and a few you probably can’t. Her book, featuring 100 new recipes, is in the works.

by Michael McLeod and Jennifer Pritchard photographs by Rafael Tongol

New-Age Cupcakes

Ah, cupcakes: one of the original comfort foods. They’re so simple and sweet. Unless, of course, you are Hollis Wilder. In which case they might well be neither.   

In which case, as a matter of fact, they might mean war.

Wilder is the founder, namesake and owner-operator of Sweet By Holly, a shop in the Waterford Lakes Town Center on Alafaya Trail that features cupcakes of every imaginable ilk.

There are coffee cupcakes and Key lime cupcakes. There are carrot cake, chocolate mousse, Heath bar, peanut butter, peanut butter and jelly, red velvet and white raspberry cupcakes. There are cupcakes so elaborately decorated in holiday themes that they can double as greeting cards.

Now and then Hollis will go all out and devise showpiece cupcakes that sound like something out of a Fabergé catalogue, such as the gluten-free chocolate cardamom cupcake with chocolate butter cream, spun-sugar bird’s nest and jewel-encrusted bird eggs.

Wilder began concocting her mini-masterpieces after she came to Orlando seven years ago from Los Angeles, where she was an aspiring actress who wound up working as a caterer for the movie and television industry.

She prepared lunches for performers and writers in private bungalows adjoining the sets of sitcoms such as Will & Grace and Seinfeld. She created elaborate to-go meals, often on short notice, so that celebrities such as Michael Jackson and Kevin Costner could be well fed as they flew off on private jets with their respective entourages.

It was a heady existence that suited Wilder’s nature: workaholic, independent, artistic. She calls herself a self-taught epicurean. Diagnosed with dyslexia as a child, she discovered in college that the only subjects able to hold her attention were literature and art. So she began using student-loan money to travel through Europe, visiting museums and sampling regional dishes, from Paris to Barcelona to Rome.

Then came the brief flirtation with acting and the segue into catering. After 15 years, however, she and her husband, Barry, seeking a less frenzied community in which to raise their two children, left L.A. behind and moved to Orlando.

Wilder began looking for a business that would take advantage of her culinary skills. She decided on a yogurt shop as the business and Waterford Lakes as the location.

At first, she had a hard time convincing mall managers that what she had in mind would work. So she added cupcakes to the proposed menu. Then, leaning heavily on the show-biz flair she’d absorbed in Tinseltown, she returned to the skeptics with an elaborate business presentation that relied, in no small part, on 500 artfully decorated and sublimely edible cupcakes.

“Hollis did one of the most intelligent things I’ve ever seen a retailer do,” says Paul Ajdaharian, a senior vice president with Simon Property Group, the largest real-estate company in the United States and the owner of Waterford Lakes. “There were all these cupcakes. There was wine. People were eating and drinking. I walked into what I thought was a business meeting. It turned out to be a cocktail party.”

In the end, Miss Holly had her way. “Cupcakes level the playing field,” she says. “They take people right back to their childhood.”

Soon after establishing herself in Orlando, Wilder was recruited to compete in Cupcake Wars, a reality show in which bakers compete against one another in a tight time frame and with a limited array of ingredients at their disposal. Their creations are then evaluated by a panel of food critics. She won twice, once with a concoction that blended salmon with capers, lemon and a cream cheese frosting.

“I looked around at the other contestants,” she says, “and I told myself: ‘None of these people are going to know how to use that salmon.’”

Ah, but she did. Catlike eyes glint mysteriously above sharply sculpted cheekbones. The Cupcake Queen has a lean and hungry look. It’s partly because, at 45, she works out assiduously with a personal trainer. And it’s partly because she takes a professional approach to taste-testing her own cupcakes: “This sounds gross, I know,” she says. “But I spit.”

It’s a good thing, given her latest endeavor.

Wilder recently signed a contract with Abrams Books that required her to create 100 new cupcake recipes for homemakers. For a three-month stretch she had to get by on four or five hours of sleep daily so she could spend nights in her well-appointed Winter Park kitchen testing new cupcake concepts.

When she was through, there was not a dulce de leche, tiramisu or German chocolate cupcake among them. Instead, coming soon from Miss Holly: Szechuan Pork Dumpling cupcakes, Upside-Down Granny Smith Ham Loaf cupcakes, Chicken Tamale Pie cupcakes, and 97 more that sprang from the same think-outside-the-pan mindset.

Wilder’s theory is that traditional American casseroles can be adapted to produce cupcakes. It’s a revolutionary idea in keeping with Wilder’s willingness to push culinary boundaries to the limit.

She sounds, at times, like an artist with a collection of paintings on display when she talks about her new creations: “This represents a 25-year body of work. It isn’t just a couple of years in the making.”

At other times, she sounds downright metaphysical: “A casserole doesn’t have a beginning and an end. A cupcake does.”

Mainly, though, she’s betting that Americans are ready for a vintage snack-food favorite to graduate into fashionable entrée terrain, carrying the banner for variety, smaller portions and a healthier diet.

Not too long ago, she served a visitor one of her latest creations, one that combined turkey sausage with apples, sweet potato and sage. It tasted like, well, Thanksgiving dinner, only with a beginning and an end.

Patti Schmidt understands that sweets can be sexy. She describes her Church Street shop, The Dessert Lady, as “a classy bordello.” The ingredients, in fact, are decidedly adult.

For Mature Audiences Only

There’s a miniature fainting couch perched on the counter at The Dessert Lady.  Too bad it’s not life-sized: The desserts here are enough to make even the strong-hearted swoon.

The lady in question is Patti Schmidt, and the desserts are served up in a quaint, 1920s-style café inside the historic Bumby Arcade on Church Street. Schmidt began baking carrot cakes for a local bakery out of her home 14 years ago, then branched out on her own with a dessert and wine bar in southwest Orlando. She moved to her Church Street location three years ago.

The café has what Schmidt describes as a “classy bordello” look, with dramatic, deep red draperies; a massive, ornately carved bar; a tin ceiling and richly upholstered chairs. Desserts are suitably sinful, or as Schmidt puts it: “These are really adult desserts.”

The Key lime cake comes with a rum glaze. The chocolate zuccotto is soaked in amaretto. The bourbon pecan pie speaks for itself.  It’s a wonder she doesn’t check IDs.

Be ready for grown-up price tags: $8 to $10 a slice, or $38 to $52 for a whole pie or cake. One strategy is to snag a great deal on the sampler: four half slices of any dessert on the menu for just $24.

Chocoholics with gluten intolerance will be forever grateful for the flourless chocolate torte, served in a generous pool of chocolate ganache sauce with a dollop of raspberry sauce on the side. The home-style sour cream apple cobbler is smack-your-hand-down-on-the-table good – with warm Granny Smith apples, sour cream custard sprinkled with a pecan streusel and soaked in caramel sauce.

There are 16 original cakes and pies on the menu. That includes the sentimental favorite, the three-layer cream cheese carrot cake that started it all.

“I’ll always be loyal to the carrot cake,” Schmidt says. “It’s what brought me here.”

In addition to his culinary duties, Chef Dan Yates (abone) has become the JW Marriott’s official beekeeper. He harvests honey for use in the resort’s two restaurants and even at the spa, where guests can enjoy warm honey massages.

The Bee Student

There is a brief notation next to several dishes on the menus at the JW Marriott Orlando Grande Lakes: local honey. Just how local might come as something of a surprise to guests of the luxury resort.

The honey is produced on site by hives of what are definitely A-list bees. Their honey is harvested just a few hundred feet from the resort’s two restaurants, Primo and Citron, from hives hidden away at the end of an obscure dirt path well behind the first hole of the resort’s golf course. There, in a clearing near a small, tranquil lake, three stacked wooden boxes are perched on a table surrounded by freshly laid mulch and purple lantana flowers.

The bees are here thanks mainly to Chef Dan Yates and Executive Chef Chris Brown, who decided to get into the bee business two years ago in order to supply their kitchens with the freshest possible honey.

Yates, who assumed the role of beekeeper, recently left the comfort of his kitchen on a windy, rain-threatened day to attend to the duties of his job-within-a-job. He was wearing his usual chef uniform – black slacks and a white, long-sleeved shirt with his name monogrammed on the pocket. To that, he added two obvious and important accessories: gloves and a protective veil covering his head.

The soft buzzing sound of 80,000 bees at work radiated from the clearing. Once at the hive, Yates pointed out to a nervous visitor that the wax in the honeycomb, which had been the color of coffee just a few days before, had begun to take on a paler shade, cell by cell – a sign that the honey would soon be ready to harvest.

In a few days, he and Brown would load up the honeycombs, laden with roughly 5 sticky, sweet gallons, and head back to the Marriott kitchens with their golden bounty.

There, the honey is tucked away in airtight containers just as it is. “It’s totally raw honey,” notes Yates, who says its taste is savory, with a hint of citrus, somewhat more mellow than traditional orange blossom honey.  

The naturally preserved nectar has a long shelf life – not that it needs to at the Marriott. It’s in demand. The Citron’s cheese platter and breakfast breads feature the honey. At Primo, it’s served with tea and freshly baked bread. At banquets, it’s an option to sweeten coffee. At the bakery, it’s used to sweeten muffins. Even the resort’s spa is on the bee list: You can have warm honey pedicures and massages.

Yates says that he first thought beekeeping would be simple: Just read some books, do a little online research, figure the rest out as you go. But there are some things you can’t learn from the Internet, such as whether or not you are allergic to bee stings. Yates found the answer one day after a bee flew up his bottom pant leg and stung his calf. He made a poultice of leftover charcoal scavenged from the Marriott’s kitchen, knowing the chalky powder would act as a natural absorbent to draw the poison from his badly swollen leg.

He plans on learning even more about bees by attending a two-day “bee college” program at the University of Florida, for lessons that will, hopefully, be less painful.

At College Park’s Truffles & Trifles, suburban cooks create delightful desserts of all sorts. But owner Marci Arthur (right, with student) confesses a particular weakness for, of course, chocolate.

Seriously Chocolate

On an early Saturday afternoon in College Park, a crowd gathers outside a pink-painted shop near the corner of Edgewater Drive and Smith Street. It’s a regular occurrence for a cooking class at Truffles & Trifles.

Owner Marci Arthur has been attracting such attention for the past 27 years, thanks to the heavenly scents that emerge from her shop’s kitchen as students refine their skills.

In recent years Arthur has had to occasionally rely on a motorized wheelchair as she teaches, an inconvenience that doesn’t keep her from ruling over her culinary kingdom in a stern but motherly manner. She’ll be the first to scold a student for not following a recipe’s directions – but also the first to give the highest praise for a successful dish.

Each day brings a different cooking or baking theme. But Arthur has her favorites, and one of them is chocolate. Her students share her enthusiasm.

“People love chocolate,” she says. “And they come here, sometimes with a bottle of wine, to have fun with it. It’s like a celebration.”

On this day, as the crowd gawks, the party has just begun. The smell is tantalizing outside; inside, it’s overpowering. Arthur is snapping photos of three middle-school girls using a peanut butter frosting to decorate a set of freshly baked chocolate cupcakes. A few older students, enjoying a glass of white wine, appear to have drifted off into a chocolate-induced haze.

Even some of the more attentive students seem to have forgotten just how serious chocolate making is. Then a timer goes off in the back of the kitchen. Arthur’s eyes widen as she spins her motorized chair around and speeds off toward the oven. “Where’s the soufflé?” she demands. A young woman grabs an oven mitt and gently lifts the puffed up chocolate dessert out of the oven.

“It needs to be cut right away!” Arthur orders.

Indeed it must. When making a soufflé, air is folded into the egg mixture, causing the concoction to inflate during the baking process. As soon as it is removed from the oven, however, it will begin to deflate. And as the air escapes, the delicate dish will begin to lose its sponge-like consistency.

Quickly, a student breaks the top layer of flaky crust and scoops out a serving. The delicate chocolate quivers as it is placed, crust down, in a large pool of warm chocolate Grand Marnier sauce. A hint of powdered sugar is sprinkled on top.

Meanwhile, other students begin removing chocolate walnut biscotti, a chocolate bundt cake and a pecan tart pie – incongruous amid all the chocolate frenzy but delectable nonetheless – from ovens all around the kitchen, creating a tantalizing aroma.

The next order of business involves truffle making, with students learning how to use their palms to shape spoonfuls of chocolate into truffles. “If you have warm hands, that’s bad for chocolate,” Arthur warns as they shape their truffles. “It helps to wear gloves, but you still need to handle the chocolate as little as possible.”

The problem is that chocolate begins to melt at human body temperature. Too much heat introduced too soon means it will begin to lose its flavor.  So Arthur’s voice rises, taking on the stern, definitive tone of a royal proclamation.

“Nothing you do will restore its original flavor or gloss,” she declares. “Nothing.”

Her Royal Chocolate Highness has spoken.

Sweet Shop Sampler

There are oodles of noteworthy sweet shops in and around Orlando. Here’s a baker’s-dozen sampling, in alphabetical order.

Andrea Quality Cheesecake, Orlando (andreacheesecake.com). Andrea’s College Park bakery, which doubles as a café, has more than 20 custom varieties of cheesecake on hand.

Blue Bird Bake Shop, Orlando (bluebirdbakeshop.com). This Audubon Park bakery specializes in cupcakes, but brownies, cookies, scones, muffins and other delectables are also offered.

Charlie’s Gourmet Pastries, Orlando (charliesgourmetpastries.com). Charlie’s has been an Orlando mainstay for decades; it’s a full-service bakery that includes top-of-the-line cakes, pies, cookies and other sweets.

Chocolate Provocateur, Orlando (chocolateprovocateur.com). Located inside College Park’s Infusion Tea, this bakery treats desserts as art. Highlights include chocolate peanut butter cupcakes.

Clara’s Bakery & Cakes, Winter Springs (clarasbakeryandcakes.com). The specialty here is cakes – all kinds of cakes, particularly custom-decorated.

Cookie Cousins, Orlando  (thecookiecousins.com). This College Park bakery, owned and operated by two cookie-crazy cousins, offers decorated cookies for every occasion.

Croissant Gourmet, Winter Park (croissantgourmet.com). You can get cold and hot sandwiches here, but the main draw is its authentic French pastry shop, with ooh-la-la tarts, éclairs, chocolates and other tasties.

Cupcake Delights, Mount Dora (cupcakedelights.com). It’s all about cupcakes at this Lake County bakery, in dozens of varieties, typically topped with butter cream or cream cheese frostings.

Delish New York Bakery, Orlando (delishnybakery.com). This is the place for chocolate babka, black-and-white cookies and other traditional Big Apple bakery items.

Dolce Bakery & Café, Kissimmee (dolce-usa.com). The owners – a group of Italian-Venezuelan friends with a “passion for pastry-making” – offer unique cakes and pastries.

Dylan’s Candy Bar, Orlando (dylanscandybar.com). This candy superstore has only two outlets outside metropolitan New York City: One’s in Houston, the other’s at the Florida Mall.

Peterbrooke Chocolatier, Winter Park & Winter Garden (peterbrooke.com). Here you’ll find high-end chocolate in its many permutations, including chocolate-covered bacon and chocolate-covered popcorn – in both dark and milk chocolate.

Sugar Mama’s Bake Shoppe, Clermont (sugarmamastreats.com). Another bakery that specializes in gourmet cupcakes, although it adds gourmet cookies, muffins and cinnamon rolls to the sweet mix.