Remember cake? Before the cupcake took over the world, before cake balls, cake pops, cake truffles, and cakesicles, there was just plain cake. Honest-to-goodness cake. A cake meant something. A cake was a celebration. A cake helped commemorate birthdays, weddings, baby arrivals, anniversaries, job promotions, and graduations—the cake has played a pivotal role in the important life events for billions of people. A cake is a labor of love, a commitment in its preparation, not something impulsively created and devoured for a midday sugar high.
I’ve been fortunate to come across some wonderful cooks and bakers through my explorations within the Arkansas foodscape. But often, some of the greatest food I’ve encountered did not come from a commercial kitchen, it did not come from a celebrity chef with three Michelin stars behind his name, it did not come from the hands of an alumnus of the The French Culinary Institute. It came from home kitchens, from neighbors, from friends with a passion and talent for cooking. Recently, I’ve been able to get to know one a young woman with a brilliant aptitude for baking. Currently, she bakes at home, but it would be unfair to dismiss her as your average home cook, as her cakes and other baked goods are anything but average. Zara Abbasi could easily find herself in any of the best bakeries in the country; instead life has taken her in other directions. But recently, she’s begun showcasing her talents publicly and making her wares available to any looking for a truly exceptional cake. I was able to catch up with Zara and learn a bit about what makes her tick, and of course, cake was had…one of the finest cakes I’ve eaten in quite a while, in fact.
Zara wrote her first cake recipe at six years old, and was making family dinners by the age of seven. But for Zara, baking was always something that came naturally. Later in her life, her family opened Masala Grill and Teahouse in Little Rock, a Pakistani fusion restaurant and gourmet tea house. Zara made all the desserts for the restaurant and they held many successful events putting her skills to use: dessert pancake night and a cookies and tea bar, just to name a couple. Family issues forced the restaurant to close in early 2011, but Zara continued to bake and sell cakes privately. The work was sporadic, but as patrons began to discover her talent, she developed a regular clientele. Simultaneously, she had her sights on a career in the legal field, and completed a formal education at Bowen Law School. Life—as it is for most talented, intelligent people—became rather demanding. But somewhere between studying for the bar exam and whipping lemon meringue, Zara found time to refine and expand on her skills as a baker. As word about the talented girl’s cakes began to spread, she found herself taking more jobs and producing more elaborate products. She was driven by her success to experiment with new flavors, techniques, and products, never feeling satisfied with the plain and ordinary. She describes some failed flavor combinations (one being the ginger and soy sauce cake, which incidentally only required on bite to buy itself a ticket in the trash can). But she also developed a number of popular, successful cakes, many of which remain favorites of her customers today; these include a dark chocolate mocha crunch cake (dark chocolate cake with coffee buttercream and crushed chocolate cookie, topped with dark chocolate ganache or coffee buttercream), a strawberry lemonade cake (lemon sponge cake with fresh strawberries and vanilla buttercream), marzipan cake (a marzipan cornmeal cake filled with almond buttercream, topped with dark chocolate ganache), and a lemon rosemary cake (lemon-infused marzipan cake with rosemary and olive oil, drizzled with lemon icing).