Rare Sweets specializes in vintage dessert recipes, but its signature ginger and lemon cake is the owner’s in-house creation
“I think a lot of it has to do with attention to detail in mixing,” says Meredith Tomason, whose cake shop serves what may be one of the world’s great cakes.
This is a pretty low-key, modest way to describe the secret behind Rare Sweets, which opened in December 2015 in Washington’s massive new CityCenterDC development.
But the more Tomason talks about cake, and how she makes it, the more it seems that attentive mixing may indeed make the difference between a really good cake – like, say, the old-fashioned chocolate cake at the San Francisco Fairmont, or the cheesecake at New York Deli on Bay Street in Toronto – and the transcendent thing Tomason has just waiting for you on the counter of her tiny storefront.
“A mediocre cake is going to have some ready-made parts, some canned filling,” Tomason says. “A good cake is going to have the best intentions, but maybe the follow-through isn’t going to be there.”
Follow-through doesn’t seem to be a problem for Tomason. After a career on Broadway, she moved to DC and started baking for hire, selling her desserts to area stores. Her cakes, sold under the Rare Sweets brand, earned enough of a reputation that she figured a shop would make the next logical step.
The location’s perfect. CityCenter is the new luxe centre of DC. It’s a part of town that your concierge would have warned you away from during the last Bush years. Today, it consolidates the boutiques and flagships from Connecticut Avenue and Georgetown and gathers them close together along the roads and laneways of a ready-made 10-acre neighbourhood.
Though Tomason’s cake slices aren’t expensive, it makes perfect sense that they share space with Ferragamo’s sinewy hourglasses and the diaphanous goings-on over at Hermès. They are masterworks, paragons of pastry craft and vision.
I say “they.” I mean “it.” There are other cakes here, just like there are other Chevys, other Beach Boys albums, other Baldwins. But the only slice that really matters, the only one you want to walk up to and lick the icing off, is the slice of ginger and lemon that you can get twice a year: during the winter, and during the shop’s Christmas in July, an annual excuse to bring it back.
Now, I’m not suggesting you should take a trip to Washington right now just to get a taste of the ginger and lemon cake. I’m just saying you could. And that you wouldn’t be sorry.
Sweet, sweet history
Rare Sweets’ specialty is heritage American recipes that Tomason has resurrected over the years, from family and from the historical record.
“I collect a lot of old cookbooks,” she says. “I don’t mean Betty Crocker from the 50s. I mean late 1800s, that kind of thing. They’re a window into another time, what people were eating and trying to socialize and serve guests. For me, it’s kind of fun to look at it from a historical perspective.
“When we first opened, I took some super-old recipes, made them the way they were made back then, and then said, ‘Well, that’s nice, how can we take the essence of this recipe and modernize it and make it something people can appreciate now and give it resonance for today?’ ”
Rare Sweets is seasonally programmed. This winter’s menu includes double chocolate cake with sour cream icing, a black and white cake with chocolate crumb and orange-blossom icing, a coconut and cream cheese cake, and a German chocolate cake with pecans and coconut, alongside seasonal confections like eggnog and vanilla bean cake, and one with pumpkin, bourbon and cocoa.
But Tomason says far and away her most popular historical recipe is the red velvet cake, once the subject of one of the most famous urban legends. Tomason’s recipe comes from 1918, and she says the origin of the colour of the crumb was a sugar shortage that had people using beets for sweetening.
Meanwhile, the signature ginger and lemon is an original – it’s all Tomason’s. The crumb – that’s what cake-bakers call the cake part of the cake – is spicy gingerbread made with molasses and coffee and what Tomason refers to as “a bunch of spices.” She says some other bakers scoff at her batter for this one because it looks like pancake batter. It’s also a delicate bake, Tomason says. “The cake rises in such an interesting way. If you open the doors to the oven too soon, it actually deflates like a cheesecake.”
The icing is a standard buttercream icing except Tomason leaves the egg yolks in, whereas most use only the whites. “I like the unctuousness you get from adding the yolks,” she says. “It’s a little bit of extra fat, bit buttery or oily, but in a rich way.”
Those other bakers can scoff. No one’s going to hop a plane just to eat a slice of their cake.
963 Palmer Alley NW., 202-499-0077