My roommate and I walked into Betty Bakery to cool off and get out of the Brooklyn heat. We split a slice of Betty's red velvet cake, and it was love at first bite. Rich, creamy and chocolatey, it was the best I ever tasted. I wanted to know the secret behind this recipe. I suspected I could weasel it out of Betty’s owners, Ellen and Cheryl. They shed some light on Jewish cuisine in the process. What was the inspiration for Betty Bakery? Ellen: Cheryl and I met in the 80s and as pastry chefs we ended up doing the same thing. We crossed paths again when Cheryl needed a partner and I needed more space. That’s what brought us here. Cheryl: We named the bakery Betty’s to honor our old baking teacher. She is still working and has more energy than I do and she’s eighty, but she’s so warm and loving. The name encompassed everything we wanted to do through food. Ellen: The name also evokes the 50s and Betty Crocker, which was a feeling that we were going for. We call our food “retro-modern.”
How has your Jewish heritage influenced your cooking?
Cheryl: Completely. Totally. Growing up I spent all of the holidays with family, and we’d throw the events at our house. It would be a crazy whirlwind of activity in our house, everything was fast and precisely measured, and everything would come out looking beautiful. It’s still like that, here at Betty's, deadlines and all.
Ellen: My taste naturally goes towards what my grandmother made— she had these wonderful cinnamon cookies that my brother, sister and I all loved. I look for that cinnamon flavor in everything.
Do you celebrate the High Holidays? Ellen: We try, in a food-related way. We offer special desserts for the holidays. For Rosh Hashanah we made pomegranate tarts, honey cake and “Happy New Year” cookies. Cheryl: I’m a bad Jew. I observe the holidays in my heart and give all of our Jewish staff the day off. How do you break the fast? Ellen: I eat left over honey cake. Cheryl: Cookies or cake.
What’s your last meal pre-fast? Ellen: I know that I’ll eat an apple. Maybe left-overs or dessert. Cheryl: It could easily be half a pound of cookies.
What’s the secret behind your red velvet cake? Ellen: The right ingredients done the right way. I never liked red velvet cake, I just kept working on it until I found something that I liked. What is your all-time favorite cake? Cheryl: Brides ask me that and I tell them that I am fickle. This is the land of plenty, what do I want today? Ellen: Cheryl’s lemon bundt cake is my now favorite cake. Cheryl: My favorite cake is Betty’s chocolate cake. There’s coffee in the icing— its homey and sophisticated.
And now for a question inspired by Anthony Bourdain. If you had one last meal, what would it be? Ellen: It would be something that I would think about after death. As many lobsters as I could possibly eat. Cheryl: I’d have a hodge-podge of all my favorite foods. For the appetizer I would have chocolate pudding. For the entrée I’d have chicken noodle soup done by my aunt. Then I’d have scalloped potatoes and to finish it off I’d have perfectly in-season raspberry and cherries. I could drop dead after that. Ellen: I’d also have to have something doused in garlic— more garlic than a person could reasonably eat, served with pasta. I’d have chicken soup— my mother’s which is beyond perfection with light as air matzo balls. It would have to be served with challah bread and maybe some Venezuelan chocolate for dessert.
After interviewing Cheryl and Ellen, I was very hungry. They served me a perfectly tall glass of strawberry lemonade with a slice of Verona chocolate cake, and I have to say, life couldn’t have tasted any sweeter. Betty Bakery 448 Atlantic Avenue Brooklyn, NY, 11217 (718) 246-2402
Michelle is a filmmaker and writer from San Francisco. She currently resides in Brooklyn.