Miette means "little crumb" in French, but if you've ever visited a little bakery by that name in San Francisco, you'll know that in English, it means "supremely excellent cake". To us, the cakes are instantly nostalgic, calling to mind cakes from childhood (whether or not Grandma's cake really did look that good or not) and with a joyful, storybook quality about them. And while some may say they're too pretty to eat, we have found that when you do, it's well worth it: the cakes have a fresh, just-heavy enough buttercream and a meltingly tender crumb, all made with the precision of a French Pâtissier. We took some time recently to chat with Caitlin Williams, who co-owns both Miette Pâtisserie and Miette Confiserie along with Megan Ray; here's what we learned about their cakes, the storybooks inspired them, and how the dot-com crash just might have been the best thing to happen to cake lovers in the Bay Area:
Cakespy: We've read that Meg started Miette after being "liberated" from a dot-com job; similarly, Caitlin has a non-baking background. So, Meg and Caitlin, how does the baking world differ from your previous careers?
Miette Cakes: We were both living in San Francisco in the late 1990's and, really, it was hard not to take a job in the dot-com world. It was wild, it was well paid, and I think it was a time for all of us to assess what we were working very hard for and what we would like to be doing instead. It had to be a very clear calling, indeed, because we both went from very glossy (and hard working) worlds to a pretty unglamorous world of blue-collar baking with not much pay. Especially starting where we did...we were a two person operation--from designing the cakes, to decorating the cakes, to prepping the cakes, to doing the dishes, delivering the cakes and selling them. But there isn't a moment where either of us has looked back and wished it had happened any differently!
CS: You mention that your influences include, amongst other things, children's storybooks. Any storybooks in particular?
MC: One of our favorites is a little Family Storytime book called Pantaloon about a black poodle who dreams of being a baker.
CS: What made you decide to open a Confiserie in addition to the Pâtisserie? Is there any crossover, or is it just baked goods at the Pâtisserie, and candies at the Confiserie?
MC: We had thoughts of a new store for a while, but we didn't want to replicate what we had already done. We had been selling these amazing Dragees from France and some really dreamy caramels at the Pâtisserie and that sparked the idea for a really beautiful, upscale candy shop with a lot of candies we had only seen in Europe as well as super yummy favorites made locally and some goodies from our childhood. We found this beautiful space (that needed a TON of work) in a great neighborhood with beautiful tall ceilings and our dreams of a candy shop were solidified! We are lucky to have Meg's husband, Chris, who took that pretty gross little space and made it extraordinarily beautiful. In terms of product, the shops are very complimentary, the Pâtisserie carries a few of our favorite (and appropriate in theme) candies and our Confiserie carries many cupcakes, macarons and cookies.
CS: What is your favorite type of dessert (doesn't have to be something you sell, although it can be!)?
MC: My favorite things we sell are the walnut shortbread and lime meringue tart. But my very favorite desserts to eat are pies (just out of the oven) served a la mode. One of my most vivid pastry memories is from our first trip to France at Pâtisserie Stohrer, a Puit d'Amor - orange custard in a tart shell, beautifully bruleed on top that I ate, about 15 yards away, sitting on a bench on Rue Greneta.
CS: What is your most popular cake?
MC: It's probably our Vanilla Tomboy. It's great because it's the traditional chocolate cake with vanilla buttercream but it has a really great balance in decorating. We strive to make our cakes as absolutely perfect and simple as possible, but often we hear that they are just too perfect to eat! The Tomboy is great because it's super feminine and delicate but you don't have any trouble diving in. It really is our version of a cute girl with the knees torn out of her jeans!
CS: We notice that you have an email entry for candy suggestions on your site. Have you ever ended up developing and selling any candies based on suggestions received?
MC: We have! Very often, it's an item that we already carry or are dying to find, so this is a great communication tool with our customers! We wish there was a way to get all of our candies online, but our stock is too large and varying with seasons and availability. So, we rely on lots of calls from far away places and special packages being delivered to our customers!
CS: You use only organic baking ingredients. In your opinion, do organic versus non-organic baked goods vary in taste?
MC: I don't know if I would say organic versus non-organic is the taste definition, because we've all had an organic apple that still tastes terrible. We strive to use the best ingredients from the people we know. Whether this is the perfect raspberry bought in-season from our friend Howard, the dairy that we use from Straus (our smallest local dairy that can get us the quantities we need), or the eggs that we can sometimes get from Nigel at Eatwell Farms. In the case of the larger ingredients (flour, sugar, etc) we go with organic because in our own way, if we're going to be supporting anyone with our little amount of buying power, we want to be supporting people doing some bit of good for the earth. That, and it's what we always used at home for our friends and family, so it made sense to cook that way for customers.
CS: Have you ever had a recipe or cake that didn't quite work out?
MC: Oh goodness, all the time! Starting out at the farmers market was really great for flushing out what worked and what didn't. We have some amazing customers who were great with feedback and support in helping us narrow our focus and develop the perfect Miette products. there are also a lot of considerations for products we won't do because of our unique location at
the Ferry Building. Our baking is done in Oakland and transported over the Bay Bridge every morning. We have to have products that will hold up in traffic and then on the shelf for the full day. We also have to be good neighbors, there are two other bakeries in the Ferry Building and we all hold a specific niche - we don't want to step on anyone's toes!
CS: You offer the tomboy, the debutante and the princess cake--do you find that people order according to their personality type?
MC: Unfortunately, no! they're all so very different in flavors and, rightfully so, people are choosing based on what will be most popular for their guests. Sometimes I wonder if people even see the connection - when I'm setting up the cake case, I set them up in order of frill: princess,
debutante, tomboy to see if i can get people to see our little wink!
CS: To follow up on that question, which do each of you relate the most to: tomboy, debutante or princess?
MC: The Tomboy! Not too frilly, but still really girly!
CS: What do you think the most important aspect is in making a good cake?
MC: It's definitely possible to mess up good ingredients, but you definitely have a leg up if you're using really great ingredients to bake with.
CS: What is the best time of day to eat cake, in your opinion?
MC: With afternoon tea! I could spend my days amongst the very fancy French women sitting for tea and cake at Laduree. There is nothing more indulgent and sophisticated than people who take time mid-day to enjoy a well made sweet and a touch of tea.
CS: Is there such a thing as a "bad" cake or pastry? What makes it bad?
MC: Well, there are so many definitions of bad - taste is incredibly subjective! I try to be very aware of what my taste is and define things as to what is to-my and not-to-my taste. Taste memory is really strong and, as bakers, we find ourselves competing with people's memories of their grandmother's cake or their favorite Tollhouse chocolate chip cookies. We just focus on making the things that we think are the best tasting we've ever had - it may not be the best tasting you've ever had, but we feel good about what we're putting out there. But, yes, I've had many pastries both that are not to my liking and that are executed poorly, but having my work
highly scrutinized, I'm sensitive to keeping my opinions to myself and giving second chances!
CS: Any future goals or exciting things coming up for Miette?
MC: Very immediately, we're just trying to get prepared for the holidays! But the biggest project I'm working on is renovating our web store to make it more user friendly and full of things that people are always asking us for (cake plates and candy!). It should be up in time for the holidays (December 1).
CS: Do you have a cookbook or offer any recipes to the general public?
MC: Maybe one day! we've gone through a number of ideas for cookbooks and I think we're narrowing it down. We have had a pretty unique business experience and I think that it would be fun for people to read. We'll see!
Miette Pâtisserie is located in the Ferry Building Marketplace, Shop 10, San Francisco. Miette Confiserie is located at 449 Octavia Boulevard, San Francisco. For more information or to view their fantastic cake gallery, visit miettecakes.com.