Cakes as Canvas
Brigitte Oger plops a silken pile of buttercream onto a square of parchment paper. We’re inside her brightly lit work space ––a shared art gallery and kitchen called the Lab— in Charlotte, North Carolina. To the sounds of salsa music, she daintily dips a toothpick into a small container of food coloring and adds it to the glossy buttercream. With an offset spatula, she begins working the color in like an artist mixing paint, until the cream gives way to an earthy tone of blue. Oger calls it cornflower. “Any darker and it would be denim,” she says.
To watch Oger in the kitchen is to watch an artist at work. Her brain is a compendium of pastry techniques and Pantone swatches, a combination of skills that she uses to make edible works of art where cake is the canvas. Her Queen City-based business, Craft Cakes CLT, creates custom cakes for a wide audience including folks seeking gluten- and dairy-free options. She pulls out another bottle of food coloring and adds a few drops, this time mixing a bold cobalt blue that she’ll use as an accent.
Today’s palette is Venetian-style, she says, reminiscent of the rustic tones and terra cotta textures of northern Italy. Pleased, she applies the freshly mixed shades to a four-tiered chocolate cake covered in vanilla buttercream. She tilts her shaved head to the side and begins spinning the cake stand round and round, moving the offset spatula in calculated motions, every flick of the wrist an artistic decision.
Oger works with focus and confidence, an assured woman who knew her path at an early age. Born and raised in Miami, the daughter of a Puerto Rican mother and a father with Greek, German, and French roots, Oger always knew she wanted to be in a kitchen. Her love of baking and cooking was spurred by early Food Network shows and nostalgic experiences, like when she and her mother would turn Pillsbury biscuit dough into cinnamon sugar doughnuts. At 8 years old, she was already entertaining her creative whims, jumping in the kitchen whenever an idea struck, sometimes to her mother’s dismay. At 9, she met a pastry chef for the first time and got to “help” with a Halloween party, and by middle school she was making soufflés and knew she wanted to go to culinary school.
Oger eventually went to Johnson & Wales in Miami and quickly began working in kitchens. At every turn, she learned what she did and didn’t want to do, steadily shaping her ideals with every new experience. As a prep cook in a banquet kitchen, she understood very quickly that she was just another number. Plus, she constantly found herself near pastry, trying to catch a glimpse of the action. Once she recognized her true interest, she made the switch to the baking and pastry curriculum.
When the time came to find an internship, Oger knew she wanted to work in a cake shop. She found Divine Delicacies, a female-owned business and lively bakery chock full of Cuban women. Oger worked her way up the ranks, and learned how to fashion a cake into just about any object you could imagine—an intense period of that was both a blessing and a curse. Her time at Divine Delicacies fostered resilience, resourcefulness, and a community of Latina women that she never forgot. One thing she was pleased to leave behind? All that fondant.
In 2012, Oger and her partner moved to Charlotte after visiting North Carolina for a vacation. She finished her degree at the Johnson & Wales location in town and nabbed a job at a well-known catering company. Over the next four years, she would continue learning in a number of capacities––as a chef-instructor, executive pastry chef, and a patisserie employee.
But nothing held her attention. “I don’t last in places very long,” says Oger. “I either check out mentally or emotionally, and this is something you have to be passionate about. It started to settle in that I was going to have to do my own thing if I was going to be happy.”
That meant finding a focus. So she returned to where she started, to that seminal internship in Miami, and decided to specialize in cake. “[Cakemaking] was always kind of like unfinished business,” she says. “I thought, ‘I’ve learned a lot in ten years, and I’m going to do it my way now.’” By this time, she was buzzing with cake research, well-connected to her local food community, and knew she wanted to bring a natural approach to baking. So she combined the informal color theory she learned at Divine Delicacies with her love of the abstract and began making cake her way.
Today Oger exudes focus and contentment, her strikingly dark eyes studying the way each stroke of the spatula shapes her chosen canvas. “I pride myself in not being a typical cakemaker,” she says. “I’m not dainty.” But the completed cake—with its abstract strokes and contemporary palette— is beautiful, striking in its own way, just like its maker.
No Dairy, No Problem
A traditional cake is the height of decadence, an indulgence spun from copious amounts of sugar, flour, eggs, and butter. Craft Cakes CLT takes a different approach, creating cake batters that are free of egg, dairy, and gluten. And it’s not just special orders; this is how all of Brigitte Oger’s cakes are made. She spent hours researching tips and techniques for vegan and gluten-free cakes and dialed in her approach to use ingredients sourced from her local community.
Applesauce—Oger sources apples from Perry Lowe Orchards and cooks them down, skins and all, into a rosy applesauce that she uses in place of eggs in her cake batter.
Aquafaba—Also known as garbanzo bean juice, Oger uses this liquid as another egg replacement. Its protein acts as a stabilizer.
Coconut oil—Instead of butter, Oger uses refined coconut oil to replace the fat in the cake batter. (But choose refined oil, she says, to avoid making everything taste like coconut.)
Oat milk—There are a ton of milk alternatives, but Oger chose oat milk as her dairy substitute for its mild flavor.
Lovers of true buttercream, don’t fret. Oger still makes a decadent icing from locally sourced eggs and cultured butter. Vegan cakes, meanwhile, are coated in a dairy-free chocolate ganache or coconut maple cream frosting.
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