A Year in Cakes: 12 Months of Trying New Bakeries

A father’s love for dessert and a daughter’s dedication to trying new things combine for a sweet adventure.
Written by CC Parker  |  Photography by S.P. Murray

The author with her father

You wouldn’t know it when you look at him, but my father loves dessert. At 76 years old, he still clocks in at his Broughton High School football weight. He’s a devotee of his local gym (2 p.m. daily) and he carefully watches his “food intake.” (Sometimes, I suspect he’s watching my food intake as well.)

But after dinner, the man craves a sweet treat. Birthday cake, in particular. Dad always materializes at my children’s birthday parties just as the cake is being passed. Of course, he loves his grandchildren, but he especially loves cake. He’ll gladly take home a slice or three under the auspices of sharing with Mom. Nightly, they’ll whittle away at the confection. If no birthday cake is to be had, they head for Krispy Kreme.

So, in pondering my 2018 Christmas gift to my father, it occurred to me that I could check two of his favorite boxes: his love of birthday cake and his love of trying new (to us) food purveyors. My gift was that each month of 2019, my father would receive a “birthday cake of the month” from various bakeries and restaurants around town. 

“Happy birthday, Big Daddy!”

The idea was born in the parking lot of Nothing Bundt Cakes on Falls of Neuse Road. It happens to sit across from Premier Cakes. Months earlier, I had observed two women in fisticuffs within a line of weary customers waiting for Easter desserts outside the bundt shop. Meanwhile, across the parking lot, Premier was also doing a brisk business. It begged the question: How can two bakeries in the same strip stay in business when it’s just easier to grab a ready-made from the grocery store? What makes each of these shops worth a special trip? I started noticing bakeries everywhere, and my quest for the hidden gem cake ensued. 

Reader, please bear in mind that cake is subjective: Does almond extract make you swoon or gag? Do you call it “icing” or “frosting”? Does the cake’s packaging make a difference? It’s all personal—so consider this more a diary than a review. Here’s what we tried. 

Whole Foods: Black & White Cake
This cake came highly recommended by a friend who is a fabulous cook and it did not disappoint. Rich, moist and delicious. Side note: Whole Foods has fantastic cake designers that can create whatever (unlicensed) theme you desire for an additional $15. They did the most fabulous “Tacky Christmas Sweater” cake for a birthday party I hosted, as well as a cake covered in “ugly man-eating aliens from outer space,” inspired by my 13-year-old son’s birthday and attitude. They are eager to please and their cake tastes homemade.

Nothing Bundt Cakes: Bundtlets in Chocolate-Chocolate Chip, Red Velvet and Lemon
Each of these bundtlets gives you three to four forkfuls of yumminess, and they have a fantastic gluten-free option. The bundts melt in your mouth. You can buy them in a variety of sizes and they have cute packaging. Rather than committing to one flavor you can get an assortment, which is always a crowd pleaser. For this one, I placed my order online.

Lucettegrace: Le Cakey Cake
Everything downtown is hipper, right? Of course, there is the fear you’ll be towed while you dash in to grab your cake. Lucettegrace’s cakes can be ordered online and have très chic packaging that adds a “wow” factor. While you’re there, grab a yummy boxed lunch to go—sandwich/soup/salad and sweet of your choice.

Costco: White Sheet Cake
This might sound uninspired, but at the time of purchase I did not know I would be writing about my cake selections for all the world to see. That being said, do not be confused: this cake is so very moist and delicious. It’s a beast filled with two pounds of vanilla cheesecake mousse and iced with white buttercream. This is the kind of cake you offer to “put away” at the end of the party, just so you can scrape all the icing off the bottom while no one is watching. For Dad, THIS is the cake to beat.

Burney’s Sweets and More: 15-Layer Caramel Cake
This cake was recommended by a friend, and it’s delicious. Very moist and sweet—better than most. Dad gave it two thumbs up. It’s a relatively new franchise out of Elizabethtown. Their shop has a cheery retro interior and I have been told that their glazed croissants rival Krispy Kreme donuts. I look forward to researching this lead.

Harris Teeter: Friendly’s “Reese” Peanut Butter Ice Cream Cake
My father loves peanut butter and he loves chocolate—and I liked the bright orange packaging of a huge Reese’s cup. I was also in a hurry and already at the store. Unfortunately, Dad has never been partial to ice cream cake, and his silence about this dessert was deafening. Our family have long been fans of this grocery chain’s “lard birthday cake.” Dad’s vote would have been to bypass the freezer and head straight to the bakery.

Smith’s Red & White (Dortches): Slices of Coconut, Old-Fashioned Vanilla with Chocolate Icing, Caramel Cakes—and a Fudge Pie—from Tastee Creations Bakery 
Initially I planned to buy their variety of cake slices. Then, at checkout, a customer behind me noticed my dessert samplings and tapped my shoulder, pointing to her fudge pie. You MUST buy this one, she said. Dad loved it. The fudge pie itself might be worth the 45-minute drive to Dortches. You can purchase these delicious treats inside the Red & White or in the adjoining Tastee Creations bakery shop next door.

Aladdin Restaurant: Baklava Cheesecake
I was told Aladdin’s cheesecakes are the best in town. They offer a wide variety of flavors, and when asked their top seller, the clerk recommended the Baklava cheesecake. The cheesecake is divine and gets better with time, but, in my opinion, the baklava does not. I would recommend being a purist and getting simply the cheesecake. They require a week’s advance order and are very nice on the phone.

Premier Cakes: Slices of Hummingbird, Sweet Potato, Cheesecake, Old-Fashioned Yellow with Chocolate Icing, Double Chocolate, German Chocolate and Carrot
When I called to place my order, the clerk said they only sell their cakes by the slice and that their inventory changes daily—they are constantly baking. He declared that his two personal favorites, Hummingbird and Sweet Potato, were just out of the oven. So I dashed to the store to buy them, plus six more varieties. Dad’s pick was the Cheesecake and Mom’s, the Hummingbird.

Annelore’s Bakery (Cary): Prinzregententorte
The ebullient German shop clerk who took my call (possibly owner Norbert Gstattenbauer himself) listed his favorite “special occasion” cakes so quickly that he had me laughing because I could not understand anything he said. He resorted to spelling them out while I googled them, and we settled upon the Prinzregententorte (say that three times fast). It’s a cake made up of seven thin yellow layers of vanilla cake with chocolate buttercream, covered in a layer of dark chocolate ganache icing, finished with flecks of gold. It was my personal favorite of the whole year. It requires five days’ advance order and is worth it. My parents and I agreed that this is a cake that actually gets better with time in the refrigerator. Their bakery in Cary’s charming downtown is a cheery spot that serves delicious coffee, too. 

Side note: At this point, my parents—who can live happily off of half a Subway sandwich for three days—were beginning to look wary as I ascended their driveway. Perhaps feeling like force-fed foie gras ducks? Plus, I suspect my monthly gifts were impacting Dad’s trips to Krispy Kreme. He is a principled man and would never buy a new—albeit preferred—dessert if a perfectly decent dessert is sitting in his refrigerator at home. My gift had started to cramp his style.

Buttercream Bakery (Apex): Traditional Vanilla Birthday Cake with Buttercream Icing 
While the folksy bakery clerk said their #1 seller is the carrot cake, my mom advised that I stick to traditional birthday cake for Dad. I selected a pickup time that would avoid the commuter traffic and was there in 20 minutes from my home in Five Points. Historic downtown Apex is so charming, and I took a few minutes to walk Main Street. The cake was worth the drive; it got a two-thumbs-up text from dad with a picture of the cake. The proprietor, originally from New York, has expanded her repertoire to Italian baked specialties like cannoli and jelly-filled cookies, if you are looking for something new. (And I did buy a slice of carrot cake—just because—and understand why it is their best seller. Lots of luscious cream cheese icing and moist, flavorful cake.)

The Groovy Duck Bakery: Cow Cake
The Groovy Duck on Edwards Mill Road is one of the mysterious bakeries that initially caught my eye. It’s self-described as a “groovy, down to Earth, American bakery… Like America, we’re a bit of this and a bit of that. Very Groovy.” Chipper on the phone and offering cakes ranging from “Coconut Snowball” to “Mango Mojito” and a crazy assortment of muffins, it’s a neat spot. My eldest son picked up our Cow Cake (marble cake oozing with yum pudding layers) and received detailed instructions on how to store and serve it. When asked to relay these instructions, he had forgotten them all—but said that the clerk was nice. But whether we ate it properly or not, the cake was very good, gooey and rich. We loved it.

An unexpected pleasure in this project has been calling in the orders. Almost every time, a cheerful, live person answered the phone immediately—a miracle unto itself. Each bakery clerk was delighted to share their shop’s “house specialty,” as well as share his or her own personal favorite. It’s always fun to talk cake!

Dad and I wrapped up the project over coffee. The clincher for me was the smile on my father’s face as he recalled Poole’s Pie Shop, a family favorite (and the predecessor to Ashley Christensen’s Poole’s Diner in the same location). Forty years ago, dad reflected, on Friday nights, he would bring home a couple of pies from Poole’s to his weary young wife and spirited young daughters. For Dad, it was a sweet celebration with his family at the end of a long work week. I hadn’t thought about those pies in years, but for a minute or two, I was eight years old again, enjoying a lost family moment. At fifty, you don’t take these moments for granted!

The cake hunt has been a fun distraction in my daily drives, and I’ve barely made a dent in the market—these days, I see a new bakery on every corner. Dad’s sweet tooth has not subsided, though he did recently text my sister, “Have you ever heard of someone dying from birthday cake seven months after their birthday?” Fortunately, no.

Hayes Barton Cafe and Dessertery: All of Them
It would be remiss to skip this bakery, which has been our go-to sweets purveyor for years. (It’s not included only because it’s not new to my family.)  After evening school performances, the children were always treated to “dinner” at the Dessertery, which consisted of whatever cake slices they craved… and French fries. Frank is the perfect host at the front-of-house, quickly providing mom with a big pour of Cabernet while rushing the French fry order to the back. Fun for the whole family, and their assortment of cakes cannot be beat. I will never forget my youngest child’s expression as he toddled up to that wonderous dessert display case for the first time, face illuminated and transfixed by the wonders inside.