The layout of Brown Sugar Bakery seems specially designed to invoke all five senses in the gustatory experience. Pressing your hands and face to the counter, witness a veritable feast for the eyes, while a tantalizing aroma wafts in from the kitchen, and owner Stephanie Hart chats with customers about her decadent desserts. As she spoons out samples of her caramel cheesecake, exclamations gush forth, but any praise falls short of fully capturing each creamy, sugary mouthful. Despite its richness, the cheesecake only stimulates our humble appetite: we carry an extensive selection of baked goods back to our table.
Brown Sugar Bakery recently moved to its current location at 75th and Calumet and expanded the space to include a comfortable seating area. With free Wi-Fi, it’s easy to spend a whole afternoon taking in the smells; the caramel- and chocolate-colored walls reflect the palette of Hart’s delicious creations. “This is my best seller,” she states proudly as we pick out a slice of caramel cake. It’s easy to see why the four-layer concoction is so popular: each layer is topped liberally with a caramel as sweet as it is creamy, whose consistency lies somewhere between a dessert sauce and an icing. The gigantic single-serving is only $3.50–a bargain, especially if you get several kinds to share among friends. “I make all my cakes from scratch,” Hart continues. These days, when the yellow cake we’re most familiar with comes in a box, Hart’s back-to-basics approach comes as a welcome treat.
There are still some new tricks to be found up Hart’s sleeves. “Oh, you liked my cupcakes?” she asks as we lick the last crumbs of one from our fingers. “I’m thinking about injecting them,” she smiles. The cupcakes are already larger-than-life, and come in several varieties. Each one is less than $2, and is easily split between two people. We opted for the “Turtle,” a swirl of caramel and chocolate icing topped with chopped pecans. This permutation also comes in cake form: four vertiginous layers of alternating chocolate and yellow cake. Seated temptingly nearby were the red velvet and strawberry shortcake variations.
But what is this unassuming fellow tucked between the banana and bread puddings? “That’s sweet potato pie,” Hart explains. “I don’t mess around with that.” A thin buttery crust is home to a spiced filling that only remotely resembles what one has seen on Thanksgiving tables past. Hart has mastered the exact ratio of cinnamon to cloves, and the result is too fabulous to be limited to one piece. We watched as our group recreated Zeno’s paradox on a single serving of sweet potato pie, until someone was bold enough to steal the last tiny morsel.
When a place has so many options, you’d be nuts not to ask for a recommendation. Hart was an expert guide: “If you want to know my favorite, it’s the pineapple coconut cake.” Another four-layer yellow cake, this one is segmented with pineapple filling, covered in a cream-cheese icing and sprinkled generously with coconut flakes. It was a subtler, less overpowering flavor combination than the ever-popular chocolate and caramel, and it effectively demonstrated Hart’s ability to satisfy a wide range of tastes.
Both Hart and her sister, Shonda Stuart, stress the idea that Brown Sugar is an enterprise. Hart calls herself “a businesswoman” above all else, even more than a chef or baking enthusiast. The bakery was busy filling catering jobs and other orders as we ate, and even is available for wedding cakes. Her sister, Shonda Stuart, notes the important role that the bakery serves in the community: “We’re giving people products that they love.” Perhaps because of this business of “spreading happiness,” she describes working at Brown Sugar as “a respite.”
Brown Sugar Bakery, 328 E. 75th St. Monday-Saturday, 11am-7pm. (773)224-6262.Â brownsugarbakerychicago.com