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Sunday, August 9, 2020

Cake Monkey: Making a show-stealing babka

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Eight years is plenty of time to develop solid products and to know your audience. No wonder Cake Monkey’s first brick-and-mortar bakery, on Beverly Boulevard, proved an instant hit, following the success of the baked goods company’s wholesale business.

With an eye-catching pink exterior and cheerful details, the storefront is convenient for neighbors who want to grab a coffee and breakfast pastry as part of their daily routines. The gorgeous cakes, mini-cakes and signature desserts that riff off of classic American packaged goods (think: Ding Dongs, Ho Hos) draw customers from all over Los Angeles who previously could only special-order items from Cake Monkey’s commissary kitchen in North Hollywood. 

Business partners Elizabeth Belkind and Lisa Olin have wanted a physical neighborhood bakery “from the beginning,” Belkind said, but the team instead focused on its wholesale business and custom orders for many years. Then the right opportunity came along in the form of a compact space on Beverly, just east of Fairfax. 

Mini cakes. Photo by Staci Valentine

Childhood photos of Belkind and Olin hang on the wall near a pink neon light that reads “enjoy life eat cake.” Designer Paula Smail took pages from her grandmother’s cookbook and enlarged them to make the wallpaper. Even if this detail isn’t from Belkind’s or Olin’s family histories, it’s an element that further personalizes the space.

Pop pies. Photo by Staci Valentine

A graduate of Bard College in upstate New York who grew up in Mexico City until the age of 10, Belkind attended the California School of Culinary Arts in Pasadena (which subsequently became absorbed into Le Cordon Bleu network, but announced last year it is closing all 16 of its U.S. campuses). She landed a coveted position at Mark Peel’s legendary Campanile restaurant where, after a stint as “the grunt” in the main savory kitchen, she found herself drawn to pastry work. She also couldn’t help but notice then-Campanile co-owner and La Brea Bakery founder Nancy Silverton was keen on nurturing new talent. 

“We have very different backgrounds,” Olin said of her partner’s complementary skills and their different cultural points of view. Belkind’s Jewish-Mexican upbringing — her mother is American, and her paternal grandparents immigrated to Mexico from Poland and Russia in 1923 — meant she didn’t have the same attachment to the classic American treats Olin grew up eating on Long Island and then sought to reinterpret for a sophisticated audience. But with Belkind’s pastry skills, the product line of foil-wrapped, chocolate-dipped, individually sized desserts came together. Belkind and Olin also developed breakfast pastries for wholesale clients around the city, which they can now sell from their own cases, and offer along with locally roasted Forge Coffee. 

Although Cake Monkey isn’t certified kosher nor focused on traditional Jewish desserts, Belkind was recently inspired to re-create a beloved classic. “I saw a picture of babka that was so gorgeous, and was like, ‘We have to have this!’ ” The dense yet delightfully soft, eggy brioche-like cake lined with chocolate and topped with a serious hazelnut brittle is available by the slice. Or if you want to make sure to have an ample supply, order one in advance. 

Cake Monkey Bakery

7807 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles

(323) 932-1142

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