BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
Valentine’s Day means love, wonderfully warm feelings, and doing something special for people I care about. How better to express those feelings than to give of myself by baking something sweet, beautiful and carefully crafted with loving hands. —Melanie Davis
Attracting customers seeking mouthwatering delights throughout the year, orders for Melanie Davis’s delectable cakes and bar cookies seem to crescendo on February 14th. The former partner with Heidrick Partners in Chicago has a created Mellie’s Lake Cakes, blending an entrepreneurial spirit with love-filled recipes she graciously shared with Classic Chicago.
To encounter Melanie is to see why this candid and creative enthusiast has cheesecakes selling like hotcakes—what fun it would be to join her in her kitchen.
Melanie grew up in Maine near the Canadian border, where her father ran a small paper company. Because of the area’s remoteness, she and her brother went off to school at an early age. It was at Abbott Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, that she encountered another elegant Classic Chicago contributor, Katherine Harvey, and their great friendship continues today. Following an early career in banking in New York, Melanie and her family moved to Chicago where she began a 35-year executive search career before retiring to Indiana.
Although she primarily sells to restaurants, wineries, and breweries in Michigan’s Harbor Country and northwest Indiana, she occasionally provides samplers for lucky family members, friends, and customers in Chicago.
“Valentine’s Day was always a special occasion in my childhood. My parents often traveled at that time of year, and the family I stayed with made a big deal about the day. We exchanged cards, and the husband of the family often teased me by sending an anonymous card implying that it came from the boy I had a crush on at the time. My spirits soared at the thought that my secret sweetheart had sent me a card and thus began my love affair with that romantic day!”
Melanie graciously shared tips on baking and entertaining:
“Baking is a unique undertaking in the creative arts. Contrary to cooking in general where you can add a pinch here and a drop of something there, baking is precise and each and every ingredient contributes to the whole.
“If liberties are taken with recipes, danger lurks in the final outcome. Many a disaster can be avoided by handling each step, each ingredient, temperatures, and baking pans only as directed. Do not shortcut anything and you will be a happy and stress-free baker.”
“A ricotta cake is very versatile and is unfrosted. It can be an understated ending to a fine meal or a breakfast sweet to start the day.”
Buttered 9” round pan
50 minutes baking time
1 ½ sticks unsalted butter at room temp plus more for greasing
1 ½ c cake flour
2 ½ t baking powder
1 t kosher salt
1 ½ c whole milk ricotta cheese
1 ½ plus 2 T sugar
3 large eggs
2 T amaretto
1 t vanilla
1 t finely grated orange zest
Confectioners’ sugar for dusting
Butter pan. Whisk flour, salt, and baking powder. Set aside. In another bowl beat ricotta, butter, and sugar until smooth, high speed. Beat in eggs, one at a time until just incorporated. Beat in vanilla, orange zest, and amaretto. Beat in dry ingredients in 3 batches until just incorporated. Bake. Cook on rack for 20 minutes, then unmold, freeing sides and bottom, and cool completely. Dust with confectioners’ sugar just before serving. Serve with strawberries and whipped cream if desired. Very good served without.
How did your interest in baking begin?
While home with children in upstate New York, I met a woman who supplied homemade cheesecakes to a number of restaurants in the area. It was growing beyond her ability to keep up with the demand. She was looking for someone to make cheesecakes for her that she would then sell. I eagerly raised my hand and thus began my lifelong interest in baking.
I brought in a friend to augment the cheesecake demand, and she and I began a separate business providing students at the local university with care packages, ordered by their parents to commemorate birthdays and other special events, as well as fortification for exams. My entrepreneurial spirit was a driving force in my 20s and continues to this day.
Tell us about your own dinner parties. As a chef there must be great expectations.
My menus vary with each dinner party I have—each event is an opportunity to venture into unknown territory. The advantage of cooking for many years is that I have become pretty well versed on what will work and what will not, what is a good recipe and what isn’t. Since I have a baking business and cheesecake is my signature project, I try to bake something new, yet, at the same time, I have a cheesecake on hand if its absence would disappoint my guests.
What are other tips for successful dinner parties?
Presentation is everything. I often have a variety of desserts for parties and make them visible to my guests on a dessert table in an appealing and artistic way. That table is near the bar, so everyone who comes there at the beginning of the evening is able to see what desserts will be served at the end. This vision is true whether I have a buffet, where desserts are within view as is everything else, or a dinner party, where the main course will not be known. Perhaps this approach is driven by the fact that desserts are very pretty, whereas a roast may be tasty but not necessarily attractive to the eye until it is served.
What other desserts do you like to serve?
I have tried many baking recipes, some successful and some not so much. Early in my life, I prepared baked Alaska and was very proud of the fact that I mostly succeeded. More recently I had great fun with bananas Foster, and my younger son orders it every time he sees it on the menu and compares it to mine. I think it is the flame that he likes so much, but I love the fact that he has a fond memory of something I baked. Experimentation has been my lifeblood, and I am sure there are many more mountains to climb.
Salted Nut Bars
350 oven preheated
Ungreased jelly roll pan: 15 ½ x10 ½ x1
10-12 minutes baking time twice
3 c flour (sifted)
1 ½ c brown sugar (packed)
1 c butter (softened)
1 t salt
½ c light corn syrup
2 t butter
1 t water
1 c butterscotch or caramel chips
2 c deluxe mixed nuts
Combine flour, brown sugar, butter, and salt; blend well. Press into ungreased pan. Bake at 350 for 10 to 12 minutes. In a small saucepan, combine corn syrup, butter, water, and chips. Boil for 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Sprinkle nuts over partially baked crust. Pour cooked mixture over nuts, making sure all nuts are covered. Return to oven and bake an additional 10 to 12 minutes or until golden brown. Cool and cut into bars of any size.
350 oven preheated
Greased 9” square pan
30 minutes baking time
1 c flour
½ c butter
1 t baking powder
½ cup raspberry jam
4 T butter
4 oz coconut
1 c sugar
1 t vanilla
Grease pan. Sift flour and baking powder into bowl. Cut in butter till mealy. Beat eggs slightly and stir into flour mixture along with milk. Mix well, spread dough over bottom of pan. Cover with layer of jam. For topping, melt butter, beat egg, then combine. Add coconut and vanilla; spread over jam. Bake for a half hour or until brown.
What are your favorite cookbooks?
I recently found a fabulous recipe in Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Chocolate Desserts, and it reminded me of a great friend of mine who talked about her all the time in the 1970s. This is the thing about cooking and baking: both present a time-honored process that will take you to many fond memories.
I also love Ina Garten and firmly believe that anything she includes in a cookbook will be successful and flavorful. Truth be known, I still have my Betty Crocker cookbook and refer to it multiple times a year. To me, it is the Bible of cookbooks.
Today, many good cooks often just use the internet for recipes, but I love to page through cookbooks, looking at pictures and imagining what I will make. I think it is that tactile thing that is repeated in the baking process itself. I love the measuring, sifting, mixing, and scraping. It is all a pleasure. To each his own!
Giving something you bake does seem like a great Valentine’s gift. Why is that?
A perfect treat is a gift and, as such, should be the result of knowing your audience. How many times have you purchased what you think is the perfect present only to find that it is received either with nonchalance or worse? Bake a Valentine’s Day treat that expresses knowledge and understanding of your loved ones—it will be perfect.
Melanie apologized for not sharing her cheesecake recipe:
I have to keep this close to the vest because it is my signature dessert. I had to share it with my mother under treat of ex-communication from the family. But that was the first and only time.
To learn more about Mellie’s Lake Cakes or to place limited orders, call 219-221-6072 or 312-288-1268.