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Bake Me a Cupcake

Cake Tahoe brings the cupcake craze to Truckee
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If you’ve recently enjoyed a mouth-watering cupcake at Cake Tahoe in Old Town Truckee, you can thank Martha Stewart. Well, first thank Johanna Lasseter-Curtis, who opened the bakery last June. But if it weren’t for the Domestic Diva, Lasseter-Curtis might never have started making cupcakes in the first place. Lasseter-Curtis remembers it like it was yesterday when in 2003, for the first time ever, cupcakes graced the cover of Martha Stewart Wedding magazine, kicking off a nationwide cupcake craze.

“They had blue frosting and white fondant with monograms,” she said. “It’s what started it all.”

Lasseter-Curtis, who was a single mother and business owner like Stewart, looked up to Stewart as a mentor.

“I devoured her magazines, bought her cookbooks,” she said. “It’s the reason I started my own business.”

Lasseter-Curtis started Cake Tahoe in 1995 as a wedding and specialty cake business, but it wasn’t until 2012 that she opened her own brick and mortar bakery. Now, Cake Tahoe is a cupcake and ice cream shop where Lasseter-Curtis still makes wedding and specialty cakes, as well as pies, but only for special order.

Lasseter-Curtis has been in the baking and restaurant business for 30 years. She trained at the California Culinary Academy before working as a pastry chef at the former Passage restaurant (inside the Truckee Hotel), Cottonwood, and the Lake Tahoe Brewing Co., which she owned with her husband, Rob Curtis, for nine years. (Curtis is now the general manager of the West Shore Café). But it wasn’t until recently that she was ready to open her own bakery. After a few locations fell by the wayside, the new Truckee Railyard building, a contemporary structure made of recycled barn wood, proved to be the perfect spot. (The building was named the Contractors Association of Truckee Tahoe’s 2012 Commercial Project of the Year.)

Cake Tahoe features 12 different types of cupcakes daily, five of which change every day. The seven staple cupcakes are vanilla, chocolate, coconut, red velvet, gluten free, crème-brûlée, and Heath Bar. All cupcakes are made from scratch every day — staff comes in at 5 a.m. to bake — using organic eggs and milk. Lasseter-Curtis tried baking with organic flour, but the high altitude caused the confection to turn out like sawdust.

“People hate dry,” she said. “That’s the rap we get up here, that our cakes our dry.”

Lasseter-Curtis’s solution is to mix her own flour. She uses a combination of cake, pastry, and organic flour to get just the right blend for Truckee’s elevation. Besides the flour, there are two other things that set her cupcakes apart from the average cupcake. The first is the size. Cake Tahoe’s cupcakes are half an inch taller than most cupcakes. Lasseter-Curtis has to special order cupcake papers for just that reason. She wanted a bigger cupcake because she fills them with homemade cream, her cupcakes’ second unique feature, “like a good Hostess CupCake,” she said. Each cupcake has a different filling in its center — triple crème inside the red velvet, vanilla bean custard inside the vanilla, lemon curd in the middle of the lemon cupcake. The cupcakes are piled high with frosting and decorated with bits of candy or cookie that reflect the mini cake’s flavor — broken pieces of candy cane on the chocolate candy cane cupcake and an Oreo atop the cookies and cream cupcake. (Look closely at the frosting on Cake Tahoe’s cupcake logo and you will see an image of Lake Tahoe on its side.)

Lasseter-Curtis’s personal favorite is the gluten free (she also mixes her own gluten-free flour), and the store has developed a large gluten-free following. Cake Tahoe has 10 gluten-free flavors, which change daily, like pumpkin, black velvet, and lemon citrus.

Cake Tahoe also serves ice cream from Minden Nev.-based Tahoe Creamery and makes pies to order. Pies include pumpkin, sweet potato, apple crumb, and key lime. On top of running a store and baking cupcakes, Lasseter-Curtis still makes wedding cakes half the year, which account for about 60 percent of her business. Last summer, she had to limit herself to two wedding cakes a week, since she was so busy with the shop.

If Lasseter-Curtis’s name sounds familiar, you wouldn’t be wrong. Her twin brother is John Lasseter, one of the founders and chief creative officer of Pixar, and principal creative advisor for Walt Disney Imagineering. Lasseter-Curtis has made elaborate cakes for some of Pixar’s movie premiers, including cakes in the shape of Syndrome’s island for “The Incredibles,” and characters Mater and Lightning McQueen for “Cars.” She even made the cake for Steve Jobs’ 50th birthday (he was CEO of Pixar for a time) — a box of cherries that matched the cherry tree on his birthday invitations.
While Lasseter-Curtis’s specialty cakes are still popular, it’s cupcakes that are drawing customers to her store. One out-of-towner walked in and ordered a red velvet.

“We go to Sprinkles in L.A. but we always have to come back here,” he said, paying Lasseter-Curtis the ultimate compliment by comparing her shop to Sprinkles Cupcakes, the world’s first cupcake bakery, which she loves.
Sprinkles, which opened in 2005 in Beverly Hills and has since expanded to 10 cities, helped spread the cupcake fad. So why are people so enamored with hand-held cakes?

“They’re little and they’re fun … and they’re cute,” Lasseter-Curtis said. “And people don’t think they’re as caloric as a piece of cake.”

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Reader comments so far...

Johanna Lassete... (not verified)
thank you Melissa! Great article. Please bring in your son for some GF cupcakes. Jo

Kelly (not verified)
Thanks for the article! I live in Truckee and didn't even know it was here! I'm so looking forward to my 1st visit to a cupcake shop!
lovecupcakes's picture

I enjoyed reading you blog. I'm a cupcake lover and planning to have my own pastry shop soon :) how to get more follower on instagram

The bigger challenge is when shipping or delivering them, a proper freezer truck can be helpful on this part of the business.

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January 10, 2019