“Life is uncertain. Eat dessert first” ~ Ernestine Ulmer
(This post may contain affiliate links)
Today, the final installment of a five-part series here at The Veggies
Liz Jeffrey and her husband Ryan are the geniuses behind Arcadia, one of Ames, Iowa's most loved coffee shops. Home to “The slowest cup of coffee in town” Not only is their food comforting (mmmm .. Laksa soup and Sweet Potato Gnocchi), but the homey vibe makes you want to stay a while, have a turtle bar, and take a million Instagram pics
In Part I – They chatted about moving to Ames, early experiences in the culinary world, and her parent's funny reaction when she told them they were getting married
In Part II – Liz shared her journey toward perspective, why she doesn't take short cuts and a terrifying late-night robbery that would forever shape their business strategy
In Part III – Words of wisdom to someone thinking of opening a restaurant, the bachelor food they love to cook at home, and the unexpected origin of their (much-loved!) cheesecake recipe
In Part IV – Funny customer pet peeves, a truly unforgettable order, Ryan's home-brew, and why the bakery is Liz's sacred space
Ahead they share Arcadia's most popular coffees, favorite cookbooks, the magazine her famous chocolate cake recipe was clipped from, and Mixmaster vs. Kitchen Aid (it's a real thing!)
Are you coffee snobs?
Liz: Absolutely .. 100%
Ryan: Actually, she’s more of a coffee snob than I am
I will not drink diner coffee. If I can see through to the bottom of the cup, it’s just not worth it.
Ryan: In a diner, I can drink diner coffee just fine. I couldn’t drink it in a different environment, but in that environment, that’s what it’s supposed to be
I learned to drink coffee because of his roasting, so it needs to be within the parameters. The really, really light roasts are gross, and the really, really dark roasts are gross
It's very hard to travel. We actually bring our coffee
— — —
What are your favorites?
Our customers love the Sumatra (our darkest roast). It makes up about a third of our total coffee sales. For me? It's the Guatemala, the El Salvadores, the chocolaty type coffees
Ryan: Ethiopian is my favorite. It's the first coffee that I ever had freshly roasted
The Ethiopian isn’t my favorite, but I can get around it, as long as I don't have to smell it. Whenever we were doing tastings, I’d smell soggy cardboard, cinnamon, and cedar. I never really got the fruitiness
Ryan: Fruit and berries, that’s what it is
But to me .. I smell soggy cardboard and I think “Ethiopia.” Once I get past the smell, I can taste the berries, and then it's ok
When roasting coffee beans, is it hard to match the flavor from one batch to the next?
It can be. Some customers say “I loved it yesterday, now do it again!”
Ryan: Especially Ethiopian Harar, it's tricky
Harar is my favorite region and it's not trivial to get that flavor setup. These were flavors I didn’t even think were possible in coffee, and I've never been able to quite match that first day. Unfortunately, the Harar region has basically been decimated in terms of coffee production
— — —
Who inspired your baking?
My grandma and my mom
My birthday cake was always a seven-layer Dobos Torte, and it's only found in recipe books. I tried to sell it at Arcadia .. people were like “That’s awesome! I’ll take a turtle bar”
What are your top three tips for baking/dessert success?
I have a baker’s instinct, and not everybody does. It’s really hard to instill.
Temperature and the way you combine ingredients is very, very important. When a recipe says “room temperature” it can’t be melty. It can’t be cold. If it says “cream it for three minutes” .. you actually need to cream it. It's important to learn what the stages look like, so you know if you're on the right track or not.
Sometimes you can fix things and sometimes you just can’t
When it comes to finishing desserts? You just have to do it. You can’t be afraid of it. I always tell people to move with intention. You have to frost it like you mean it. You have to torte that cake like you mean it .. you can’t be afraid. You just have to do it a hundred times. They’re going to be ugly and that’s fine.
Don’t be afraid, it’s just a cake .. come on
Ryan: Carefully reading and understanding the recipes, especially older recipes. They’ll use words like “cream” that correspond to settings on a mixer. Most modern mixers just have numbers, but mixers from the ‘20s through the ‘60s had words
He’s from a Mixmaster family and I’m from a Kitchen Aid family. We weren’t even sure we could combine families. His bowl spun. Who does that? I was a planetary mixer .. my beaters spun.. his bowl spun
Ryan: They haven’t made Mixmasters well since the mid-‘70s. So all those I grew up with are antiques
Mixmaster vs. Kitchen Aid – it’s a real thing
— — —
Who are some of your pastry heroes or mentors?
Ryan: Her cakes are hard. They’re wonderful, but you have to be very careful when making them because they’re easy to screw up
Sherry Yard .. she has some really good things
What are some of your favorite cookbooks?
It’s like Christmas when they all release cookbooks. It's pretty awesome.
I do a lot of research online as well. I have enough cooking experience to know which mommy blog works and which doesn’t. If I see a blog where their picture comes up in various other places, I know it’s not necessarily a truthful representation of what they can do
I’ll read through a recipe and in my head I can tell if it works or if it doesn’t work. I also compare it to recipes I have that I know work. As a baker, I collect recipes. I’ve found that you just need five or six that work really well and you can do anything to them
I use the same chocolate cake recipe that Ryan's grandma cut out of Women’s Day and sent it to me in the mail, six or seven years ago
When it arrived I thought “All right grandma .. thanks” Then I tried it
— — —
What are your favorite kinds of desserts? And do you have a signature one?
Probably the Dobos Torte. It's my signature cake that nobody else really does
Ryan's is probably the chocolate-cinnamon cheesecake. My grandma said, “He has his own cake recipe?” She wouldn’t allow my grandpa in the kitchen at all, except to do dishes
Ryan: The idea that I would not only be in the kitchen, but I would develop recipes and do my own thing was astonishing to her
My favorite thing to make is croissants. The process is probably the most fun for me
What is your secret to fluffy scones?
I used a recipe from some cookbook .. I can’t even remember which one but I’m sure I checked it out from the library. I use a method from a different cookbook .. which uses a dough hook. I mix the dry ingredients in the food processor the night before. The next day we add milk .. the mix-ins and eggs.
They're baked in a convection oven
A lot of the girls who work for me say “I made your scones at home and they’re not the same”
So the Danish dough hook .. not over-working the dough .. and the convection oven. The gluten-free are actually easier because you can’t overwork them.
Ryan: She used to make her own gluten-free flour
Now we get a palette at a time. That's a lot of flour(!)
— — —
What are some of your favorite things on the Arcadia menu?
The Lomito is very popular. The Chimichurri Steak, sunny side up egg with the brioche-type bun
Ryan: The bacon baguette sandwich is still the best-selling product
Ryan didn't have bagels growing up, so he couldn't understand why you would choose a bagel vs. a donut. So his favorite is the sausage + egg + cheese on a jalapeno bagel
Ryan: The new stuff. Either the Lomito or the Grilled Octopus
Sweet potato gnocchi is awesome
Oh, and the broccoli is so good! It’s amazing! I love the broccoli
Ryan: Every time the two of us go to eat there we each get a plate and share the broccoli
I had to laugh because there are so many platforms for people to leave their opinions on. (And frankly, I just don’t care that much) One of them said $5 for broccoli? And I was like “I could eat that broccoli all day long – two servings”
Who or what inspires you daily?
We try to travel as much as we can.
People do not like to go to restaurants with us because we’re looking at the menu and looking around at the design aesthetic. How is it being served? What are the glasses and all of those things? And so when we’re traveling, I’m constantly looking for inspiration.
The inside of our house looks a lot like Arcadia. We defiantly chose the things we liked
Ryan: I grew up going to Taliesin and saw Frank Lloyd Wright architecture on a daily basis. So that’s always been a core part of my design language
I’m hoping in the next few months, I can get back to being inspired. Not just surviving. These first months have just been surviving, with little room for anything else. At some point, I need to play
What’s the one thing always on your grocery list?
Apples, bananas, and cottage cheese. They’re my survival things
Ryan: And whiskey
— — —
Thank-you Liz and Ryan for your funny stories, words of wisdom, and for being all sorts of wonderful(!)
As I transcribed our interview, there were a number of recipes that made it onto the short list of those to feature. The one always at the top? Liz's favorite .. the Dobos Torte. A celebration cake if there ever was one, with its thin sponge-like layers of cake, sandwiched between rich chocolatey buttercream
Little did I know what I (or the neighborhood, really) were getting ourselves into
Once I figured out a process for making the layers, surprisingly it was one of the easiest cakes I've made. There's only one cake batter. No syrups, no splitting of layers or leveling the tops. They bake roughly five minutes apiece and are cool by the time the next one is coming out of the oven
The frosting is a breeze (especially if you have a master cake decorator who lives a few doors down) and is the chocolate-butter bomb you're hoping it would be. Worried about left-overs calling your name? Me too(!) So pretty plates wrapped in plastic were delivered to houses up and down the street that evening
(ps: If you deliver the cake on a Sunday night .. guaranteed you'll come home with some delicious treasures. Homemade bread + grilled pizza + lemon cake – thank-you everyone!)
As the emails trickled in with the results of the taste test .. it was declared a winner
This cake is most definitely doable .. and infinitely delicious. Go for it. We're all here .. cheering you on
A few notes:
The best method I found for making the layers is demonstrated in The Aubergine Chef's video. A skeptic at first, I was a true convert by the end. Circles are traced onto parchment paper, which is then flipped pencil-side down onto a flat cookie sheet. After that, it's greased and the batter spread until the circle is filled. It worked every time. Some did stick .. but they all peeled off nicely without breaking. Some did overflow but I could trim them up and no one was the wiser
The neighborhood consensus was, while it was awesome the first day, it was just as good, if not better a few days later. In the past, sponge cakes have always seemed on the dry and dull side. But this one, with its buttery chocolate frosting sandwiched between pancake-like layers, is neither. It has a softness you wouldn’t expect from something that slices so neatly. In the fridge .. the shell-like chocolate exterior locks in the moisture for days
I detoured from tradition in a couple of different ways. First, I made more layers than the requisite 7. Second, I skipped the traditional caramel layer that goes on top
Dunk your cake batter bowl in water right away. It dries quickly and was surprisingly hard to scrub off later
- Cake layers
- 7 large eggs, separated
- 3 large egg yolks
- 1 pound (3½ cups) confectioners’ sugar + extra for dusting
- ¾ cup all-purpose flour
- 1 Tbsp lemon juice
- Frosting and Filling
- ½ pound (8 oz) semi or bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
- ½ pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into chunks
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 3 large egg yolks
- 2 Tbsp confectioners’ sugar
- Caramel layer optional
- ½ cup granulated sugar
- 1 Tbsp water
- A handful of hazelnuts toasted and peeled
- Prepare your parchment rounds
- (I made mine using the cut-out of a 9" round)
- Cut each piece of parchment paper larger than needed for the cake shape and size.
- Stencil your cake shape on one side of the sheet, then flip it over and butter and flour the shape area on the reverse side.
- Tap away any excess flour
- Preheat oven to 425°F
- In the bowl, your stand mixer, beat 10 egg yolks for a few minutes at high speed, until they're pale.
- Gradually add the sugar and increase the mixing speed .. beating the yolks and sugar until they've turned thick and glossy. (Don't forget to scrape the bowl occasionally with a rubber spatula as you go)
- Gradually add the flour and salt, increase the mixing speed, and mix for 5 minutes more.
- Add the lemon juice and mix to combine. (Your yolk mix should resemble the thickness of spackle at this point)
- In a separate bowl with cleaned beaters, beat the 7 egg whites with a whisk attachment until they hold stiff peaks
- Stir a few heaping spoonfuls of the whites into the yolk mix to loosen it .. before folding in the rest of the whites in three additions.
- When you’re finished, your batter will have transformed from a dry paste to a spreadable, foamy batter
- Bake the cake layers
- Place the stenciled shapes of parchment paper onto baking sheets.
- Spread the batter within their stenciled shapes on parchment paper .. trying to push the batter rather than pull it with an offset spatula (it will help keep the parchment from rolling up)
- Don’t worry if they spread past the shape outline on parchment, you can trim them later
- I spread about 1/4" thickness into each circle. Alternately you could weigh the batter and divide it out accordingly.
- Bake each layer for 5-6 minutes, or until the tops are golden with a few dark brown spots (thicker layers may take a couple of extra minutes)
- When each layer is baked, remove it from the oven and flip it out onto a cooling rack that has been dusted with a small amount of confectioners’ sugar.
- Carefully remove the parchment paper before flipping the cake back onto another lightly dusted cooling rack to finish cooling. (It’s best to cool the layers right side up; the tops are the stickiest part)
- Repeat with the remaining layers (they'll cook very quickly)
- Trim the edges of cake, if needed, to make even shapes
- Chocolate Buttercream
- Melt chocolate until smooth.
- Set aside to cool to room temperature, but not so cool that it hardens again.
- In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter until soft and smooth
- Add vanilla, 3 egg yolks, sugar, and cooled chocolate, beating until thoroughly mixed (scraping as needed)
- Place a few strips of parchment or waxed paper around the outer edges of your cake plate.
- Place the first cake layer on a plate and spread chocolate on top and to edges with an offset spatula (the filling must be spread fairly thin to have enough for all layers and the outsides of the cake)
- Repeat with remaining layers (or all layers except one, if you’d like to do a decorative caramel layer), stacking the cakes as evenly as possible.
- Once fully stacked and filled, you can trim the edges again so that they’re even.
- Spread chocolate on outside of the cake in a thin coat, just to cover and adhere the crumbs to the cake.
- Place cake in the fridge for 30 minutes (or freezer for 5 minutes) to set the chocolate.
- Spread chocolate more thickly and smoothly to make a final exterior coat of frosting.
- Remove paper strips
- Caramel Topping (optional)
- Lightly grease a sheet of parchment paper.
- Place last cake layer on this sheet.
- Lightly oil a large chef’s knife (if cutting layer into 16 traditional wedges)
- Combine the sugar and water in a small, heavy saucepan and swirl it until the sugar melts and begins to turn a pale amber color.
- Quickly and carefully, pour this (you’ll have a bit of extra) over the prepared cake layer and spread it evenly with an offset spatula, right over the outer edges.
- Using prepared knife or cutter, quickly cut layer as you wish.
- Leave in place, then cool completely.
- Once fully cooled, cut edges of shapes again, to ensure that you can remove them cleanly.
- Arrange caramel pieces or wedges over cake, propping them up decoratively with hazelnuts.
- Chill cake until really to serve