Sweet Dreams

May 24, 2010

CakeLove is a recipe for success for GW alumnus Warren Brown.

By Rachel Muir

Oprah has raved about his cakes, he’s had a Food Network show and his bakery was voted the best in last year’s Washington Post readers’ poll.

But only a decade ago Warren Brown, J.D., M.P.H. ’98, was an attorney working long hours for the Department of Health and Human Services.

It’s been a busy 10 years.

Growing up in suburban Cleveland, Mr. Brown helped out in the kitchen. “It was a chore at first, but I came to like it,” he says. As a teenager, he honed his cooking skills — a result of “always being hungry” — whipping up burritos and other meals after coming home from school or playing basketball.

He earned an undergraduate degree at Brown University and taught reproductive health to high school students for a few years before heading to GW in 1995 for a joint degree in law and public health.

Cooking was always a hobby, that is, until 1999, when he made a New Year’s resolution to bake. Within the year, Mr. Brown found himself baking three to five hours a day after work — chocolate cakes, butter pecan cupcakes, cookies, scones.

At the time Mr. Brown was working as a litigator for HHS. He calls it “noble work” —trying to keep emergency rooms from denying care to uninsured people, for example —but found it ultimately unsatisfying.

“I wanted to be more involved, building something, creating something,” Mr. Brown says.

He started to sell his baked goods, hosting a cake party at his house and friends’ places. When that proved a success, he took the plunge, giving up his HHS job to open CakeLove in D.C.’s U Street corridor in 2002.

Now with seven locations across the Washington, D.C., region, CakeLove has become one the area’s most popular bakeries.

CakeLove’s menu includes dozens of kinds of cakes and cupcakes, everything from strawberry buttercream to carrot cake to red velvet and “44,” a vanilla cupcake with a salty caramel topping named in honor of President Obama.

Mr. Brown’s favorite is CakeLove’s German chocolate cake. Subtitled “Warren’s weakness,” the chocolate-and-cream cake is topped with coconut-vanilla buttercream icing and a dusting of powered sugar.

Although he visits as many as three of his stores every day and oversees 70 employees, Mr. Brown still finds time to bake and experiment in the kitchen. He has a new book, United Cakes of America, which includes two recipes from each state. “Montana and North Dakota were challenges,” he says. But he made use of a lot of research to craft recipes tapping local ingredients and traditional desserts.

And, he says, despite his “seismic” career change, Mr. Brown still draws on lessons learned at GW, especially from a course on secure transactions taught by Professor Luize Zubrow. He also cites Paul Butler and Todd Peterson as favorite GW law professors.

So, what tips does he have for amateur bakers?

First, he stresses using a scale to weigh flour. Scooping up flour or even spooning it into a measuring cup usually results in too much, making cakes dense and dry.

Another common mistake, he says, is not creaming sugar and butter correctly. “People beat them on a too high speed for not enough time. It should be three to five minutes at low speed.”

Top-quality ingredients are also critical. CakeLove, for example, gets its brown sugar from Mauritius. For those who can’t readily import ingredients from an island in the Indian Ocean, he recommends shopping at Whole Foods and generally paying a little more for better chocolate, butter and other key ingredients in baking.

Most of all, he says to experiment and have fun. “Baking is actually a really good time,” says Mr. Brown. “I’ve found a lot of joy in the kitchen.”

For some of Warren Brown’s recipes — including ones for “sassy pound cake” and “chocolate burritos,” click here.

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