Is it the heat that got me thinking about cooler weather and baking? Perhaps the news of Bliss Bakery coming to Groton center? I decide to look around and see who out there is baking something yummy. This is what I found: delicious and creative cupcakes and flakey scones that remain true to their Scottish roots but push through new frontiers of flavor.
Disclaimer: I’ve had the key lime cupcakes and they are truly amazing, sweet and tangy and a delightful color! A look at countrysidecupcakes.com will show an impressive menu of summer flavors, including Pina Colada, festive and tropical, a moist pineapple yellow cake infused with rum flavor, coconut and rum flavored buttercream frosting and topped with shredded coconut.
On a balmy afternoon recently, I visit Sarah Abrahamsen in her Lost Lake home. She’s running a bit late and multi-tasking away as she asks me to sit and make myself comfortable.
She explains how she got into the cupcake business, “It was kind of a journey of myself that I stumbled upon, just years of cooking for family and being involved with PTA events. And realizing that my focus was always on making people happy by giving them something delicious to eat, especially sweets. With the cupcake movement that started in this country, it’s just slowly started to get under my skin, and eventually I just started making cupcakes as opposed to cakes or whatever for family gatherings.”
Abrahamsen was born with the sweet gene. “My grandfather was a candy wholesaler, and my great uncles were the inventors of the Almond Joy bar, so we had major candy business.” In 2007, she ran a PTA fund-raising event, called “Sweet Sounds” and says, “we had 4000 portions of donated desserts. To me it felt normal to be around that level of sweets for some strange reason. So, in joining together my own family history and what’s in my blood, with what has now become a national craze, it just all fit together.”
In order to start a business, Abrahamsen needed more than an appreciation for popular sweets. At first she looked into the legal aspects of a home business. The regulations to start a business cooking in one’s home are daunting. Abrahamsen says, “I didn’t want to do it out of my home, with kids and pets, and it was all too much and I don’t have a large home.”
She launched the business in 2011, when she became Serve Safe certified, by completing a course that had, “an unbelievable amount of information on food safety. So I got educated in food safety, certified, and found a place to cook in Littleton. Eventually I would like to find a place in Groton,” she explains
She had recipes and a place to cook. Next, Abrahamsen needed a name for her new business. “What I wanted for a name was taken by a bakery in New Jersey, but, living in Groton, I said ‘how can I create a name that is warm and welcome and representative of this beautiful countryside that we live in. And, Countryside Cupcakes! It just fit.”
She also designed her own website, label, and business cards. “I had a basic enough skill with Photoshop and graphics that I had been working with over the years, enough to be able to figure out, along with calling customer service constantly! “
Abrahamsen is proceeding slowly, not yet trying to sell in any bakeries or restaurants, and not advertising. There will soon be online ordering, “It is word of mouth right now. I’ve really kept it low profile because I’m still in the planning stages with some of the things. Right now, a patron can call and order for your party, or whatever. For example, I have a party on August 11, and she ordered a ton of cupcakes and jumbo cupcakes.” The customer looked over the website for flavor selections, phoned in the order, and then Abrahamsen will bake them and deliver them to the customer’s door just in time for the event.
For Abrahamsen, business has been “right where I want it to be right now. I’m still in the phase of working out some crucial things on the website that I want to offer as services.”
“In this economy, I find that people still want cupcakes! They love it. I keep asking myself, ‘what is it about cupcakes that people really like?’ I think it’s just the cutest little piece of cake. Cupcakes make people happy. They are just so darned cute, “ she says.
“They make me happy when they come out of the oven; they make people happy when they’re eating them,” explains Abrahamsen and I know I hope she’ll keeping making them for a long time to come.
Main Street Cafe’s Csaplar Scones
Saturday morning, 5:00 a.m. Main Street is empty. Really, really empty. I’m standing across the street from the Main Street Café, trying to capture in a photo the glow of the moon above the café, the bright harsh street lights, and the soft almost-beginning hint of dawn. I cross the street and notice light coming from the far back of the café, where Joanne Csaplar is preparing batches of the flakey “Cafe” scones that have earned a loyal following.
A few of the accolades from yelp.com about her scones: “she tried out the Apple Cinnamon Scone, and she LOVED it,” “The scones are just amazing and have so many different varieties. They do sell out early and often, so plan accordingly,” “a chocolate/cherry scone – both very good.”
Clearly at home in the café’s kitchen, Csaplar has her ingredients laid out on the metal workstation. Fans are keeping the room comfortable despite the heat from the ovens. Country music is on the radio, and she turns it off so that we can talk. She is very soft spoken, but animated; intent upon her work, checking on the scones in the oven, the ones waiting to go in, the ones she’s preparing; and still being very gracious about allowing a visitor to interrupt her customary solitude.
Csaplar has been working at the Main Street Café for 11 years through three sets of owners. “I wouldn’t be doing this if these people (owners Bob and Carolyn Wright and Alex and Laurie Otto) weren’t great. This isn’t about the money. There’s something about nourishing people, something about feeding, and the smell and touch of food.”
It seems as though customers can taste how good she feels when making the scones. “I like working with dough, “ Csaplar says, “I like decorating. I love the artistic aspect of baking. As they always say, you eat with your eyes. To me, it is my family heritage, it is my mother and my grandmother. Certain cookies we always had for Christmas and if I smell it, close my eyes, my grandmother is in the kitchen with me. Baking is a labor of love.”
She learned how to bake from her mother and grandmother, explaining, “I’ve had my hands in dough for fifty years. I call it my sandbox. I think I learned how to make yeast bread when I was about five.”
Main Street Cafe Groton
159 Main Street
Professionally, she is a pediatric nutritionist. For more than 20 years, she specializes in working with special needs children from birth to three years. The combination of working intensively with families during the week, and then Saturday baking day, listening to the radio, mixing ingredients, kneading dough, provides her with a sense of balance.
This morning she is making scones with a red raspberry jam filling. She likes working under pressure, “Normally I get here around 4:30.” and she needs to be finished by 7 so that other staff can prepare for the day.
“I used to cater,” Csaplar explains, initially in her hometown of Chicago, “then I had three kids, and catering is very demanding, very early in the morning, very late at night.”
Csaplar came east 25 years ago to attend graduate school at Tufts, and earned her masters degree in nutrition. “I was trying to figure out, ‘Do I want to do clinical nutritional, or do I want to do food?’ and it goes together, because if you’ve got someone who needs to change their diet you need to know how to do that.” After she earned her Masters, she continued to bake, mostly for family, and do some catering. She’s proud of her baking, “it doesn’t have a long shelf life, (has) real fresh ingredients.”
About 11 years ago, she heard that the Café was looking for help. Csaplar wanted a change, saying that “working with pediatric special needs kids can be an energy drain. I was thinking, do I want to do something different with my life? Do I want to shift, maybe own something, or continue what I was doing? And a great way to figure that out, was to try. “
She went to work at the Main Street Café working at the counter of the café a couple of days a week, and loved it. She says, “The wonderful thing about a small town like this is that you get to know people. You can get coffee anywhere, but you can’t get ‘how’s your mother doing in the nursing home?’ anywhere else.”
At one point the owners asked if she could bake, “I’ve waited tables, catering, I’ve always done food. It was a complete shift from what I was doing in my profession. I also learned over the years that I don’t want to deal with the air conditioning going out, or the order coming in.” Csaplar decided that she didn’t want to own and run a business; she just wanted to come in to bake. “The rest of my week is my profession.” She uses the time to think, sometimes jotting down her ideas on a pad. “I’ve got the radio on; I have my coffee. I keep thinking if it’s not fun, I’ll quit. But it’s been 11 years! I still love doing it. Nothing makes me feel like home like touching dough, without the headache.” And, she gets to leave all the dirty dishes behind when she’s ready to head home.
It’s almost 6:00 a.m., and the smell of scones baking is intoxicating. It’s light outside now, and time for me to go. I’ll need to come back when the Main Street Café is open.