Jessie Oleson: Capitol Hill's Cake Concierge

Photo courtesy of Jessie Oleson
It's a job description most of us wish we had: seeking sweetness in everyday life. It's a niche Jessie Oleson has carved for herself to envelop her love for sugary treats, illustration, writing, and baking. Not only does Oleson have a super-popular blog called CakeSpy (it gets about 15,000 hits a day), she also owns a CakeSpy shop on Capitol Hill where she sells her art. Oh, and she just wrote a book slated for release this fall.

To describe this New Jersey native is like trying to relay what birthday-cake ice cream tastes like: The packaging is innocent enough, but when you dig into the soul of what makes it tick, you are greeted by swirls and ribbons of unexpected delight. Jessie is a slight, petite woman with a dry wit and such a strong, sincere respect for sweets that when you're done spending an hour listening to her talk about desserts, it's her that you end up craving the most. Exhibit A:

SW: How bad is your sweet obsession?

Oleson: Once I was flying to New York and I heard that there was a single bakery left in the entire city that made this treat that kind of had its hey-day in the '50s called Nesselrode pie. Turns out the bakery was in Canarsie, Brooklyn, so I flew to New York and--instead of going to my parents' house or my friends' house or anything--I continued staying up after the red-eye flight, went to Canarsie, and was the first customer there trying to find this pie only to be informed that they only made it in the winter.

What motivates you to do this kind of stuff?

God, if only I knew.

What do you tell people when they ask you what you do for a living?

Sometimes I like to mix it up. I recently referred to myself as an Agent of Delight, but my job is Head Spy at a dessert detective agency called CakeSpy-dot-com where it is my job to seek sweetness in everyday life and share it with the world.

Tell me what CakeSpy is all about.

I got the concept for CakeSpy when I was about to get married in the summer of 2007. I was running around town tasting all of these wedding cakes and seeing which one would be the best for my wedding. I was also, at the same time, an art director at a local refrigerator-magnet company. True story. And I was thinking to myself, "I really want to move on to the next step. I'm doing something artistic already, but what else do I love? How could I combine all of the things that I love?" So then I made a list of all of the things I loved: writing, illustration, and cake. I had previously written for Daily Candy, and so, in my mind, it was kind of like that same concept of sharing little finds with the public, but all of mine would be cake- and art- and sweet-related.

Are people surprised you don't sell cakes in your store?

All the time! Actually, I would like to officially announce myself as Capitol Hill's Cake Concierge because when people come in and are disappointed I don't have cupcakes, which I can understand because if you're hungry you're hungry, I am more than happy to act as their dessert matchmaker, which I have on many occasions.

Which part of the country has the best sweets?

I always say that my party trick is that I can pinpoint regional specialties. So if somebody comes into my store and they're from Michigan, I can say, "Oh, the land of punchki!" (a type of Polish doughnut, usually jam-filled).

Photo by Mike Hipple
What is the Northwest known for?

In my opinion, there are a couple of things. One is the pink frosted cookie, which is kind of ubiquitous and people from around here wouldn't notice it as a regional specialty, but I know it to be unique to this region. The other one is fruit-and-oat-type bar cookies. Sometimes they're called Mazurka bars. They were an item that was popular around the same time the espresso carts were starting up in Seattle, and that kind of made them an enduring coffeehouse or bakery kind of treat.

Where do you like to go in Seattle for a sweet fix?

I might border on having a problem with Macrina Bakery. Sometimes I'll alternate which one I go to so they won't judge me. My fray is generally their buttermilk biscuits, both the jam-filled ones and ham-and-cheese ones.

Is there any treat you won't eat?

Flan. I would say with flan it's definitely a texture thing but also a flavor thing. Flan is like the opposite of flan-tastic to me. It just kind of tastes like nothing.

Are cupcakes really going out of style?

When people ask me, "Are cupcakes on their way out?" I'm like, well, that would be to imply that there was ever a time when they were "out" and then back "in." I know I'm being a little jerk when I say that, because certainly there has been a big proliferation of cupcake shops, but cupcakes will be out of style when happiness is out of style.

Did you know how big your sweet tooth was before you adopted the CakeSpy alter ego?

Oh, yes. My mother, and she's a trustworthy source, tells me that my first word other than mom and dad was chocolate. And when I was 2 or 3 years old, my favorite hobby was to steal a stick of butter from the fridge, dip it in sugar, and hide under the table and read my story books with my snack. And you know what? I might do it again today.

Do you have a favorite sweet?

Crumb cake. Now this is something we don't really see in Seattle. Crumb cake is not a fancy thing; it's usually found in delis in the mid-Atlantic region. There's this one place in New Jersey that makes something called Colossal Crumb Cake, where it is roughly nine parts crumb to one part cake. This is to me what heaven must taste like.

For someone who's never had crumb cake, what would you compare it to?

A stick of butter dipped in brown sugar.

Check back tomorrow for part two of this week's Grillaxin with Jessie Oleson.

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