As the owner of Sage Cakery, a new bakeshop in Urbana, Nikkie Byrd is fighting a losing battle with her better angels.
Yes, she’s loved baking almost her entire life, and yes, her first-ever job was with the now-closed Valley Donuts in Monrovia. But in her mid-20s, the self-taught baker and Frederick County native (now 35) decided she wanted to focus on health and wellness. Years after Byrd found her calling at a Michaels cake decorating class, she decided to enroll in herb school — the Green Comfort School of Herbal Medicine, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia — with the goal of becoming a registered herbalist.
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But midway through the program, she got pregnant, prompting a mini spurt of introspection.
“I realized I was missing the creativity of cake decorating and I didn’t want to do herbalism as a career,” Byrd said. “I wanted to keep it as a reprieve for times of stress.”
That realization, coupled with unwavering support from her partner, Kurtis Esworthy, encouraged her to open her own bake shop. After five years of waiting for the perfect location, Byrd launched Sage Cakery in late May, steps away from the historic Landon House on Urbana Pike. Yes, she recognizes the irony of an almost-herbalist and self-described “fitness person” plying buttery treats. But hey, the heart wants what the heart wants.
“Everyone knows and loves me for my sweet, sugary cakes,” Byrd said. “So, that’s my main focus for right now.”
Thank goodness for that. After a few weeks in business, Byrd is already showcasing creative flavors and some serious baking chops — traits I hope will continue to grow as the storefront settles. Maybe it’s the herbalist in her, but I couldn’t help but marvel at a few artful flavor combinations that felt specially catered to grown-up palates.
Chief among them: a cardamom pear cupcake with warm spices delicately seasoning the tender crumb. The fragrant cardamom tasted freshly ground and mingled deliciously with a subtle fruitiness from the rich pear. Topped with a tangy cream cheese frosting dyed a pretty sage green, the cupcake was a polished few bites of sweet and spicy pastry.
Different, but delicious, was a fenugreek and maple cupcake with an intense syrup flavor and bite of bitterness from the underused spice. Most of the flavor came from the buttercream frosting, velvety and air-light atop the crumbly pastry, but the crumb itself also packed in plenty of mellow vanilla with just a hint of spice (fenugreek is known for mimicking the taste of maple syrup, which might explain the intense wallop of flavor).
Right now, Byrd isn’t breaking any molds when it comes to her pastries. Visit the shop on any given week and you’ll find an assortment of cupcakes, cookies, cake pops, and chilled dessert bars, with the occasional nod to the healthier side of sweets (when I visited, it was a vegan chai cupcake tucked away from the other egg and butter-laden treats). The cooler is stocked with a handful of full-sized cakes just waiting for a home, in case a customer comes in for a last-minute special occasion, Byrd said.
Still, her treats stand out for their fresh ingredients. The strawberry cupcakes burst with flavor from the fresh summer fruits, which taste as though they’ve been macerated into the frosting itself. Her lemon bars are a perfect blend of sugar and mouth-puckeringly tart citrus, blended into a custard-like filling that sits pretty under a layer of crackling meringue.
Some of the more quotidian options are, well, quotidian. Of course Byrd offers a red velvet cupcake, a flavor whose popularity I’ve never been able to understand. The cake was fine, if a little glue-y, with the distinct artificial tang of food coloring. The frosting was deliciously creamy with a distinct smack of cream cheese. It was a little better than a chocolate cupcake with vanilla frosting, which suffered a bit from an overbaked crumb. Based on the consistency of her other desserts, I’m sure it was a glitch in the batch, but it still didn’t save me from a dense, crumbly cake with an oh-so-slight acridity.
Don’t take those notes as an unendorsement. I’d recommend Sage Cakery for the cardamom-pear cupcakes alone, and I’m excited to see what Byrd does as the shop figures out its footing. She’s already peddling some of the best flavors around.
Kate Masters is the food and features reporter for The Frederick News-Post. She started cooking when she was 12 and has eaten her way across a dozen different countries.
Follow Kate Masters on Twitter @kamamasters