Allison Hines, a self-professed bloodhound-like cupcake connoisseur, has been on the hunt for the city's best baby cake to serve at her looming holiday party.
"I've been all around town to all the bakeries sampling cupcakes," Hines said. "I've tried ones for 65 cents and ones for $3.50, and I am just not impressed."
That was, until she visited Sweet 16th, A Bakery, dubbed the "East Nashville sugar supplier," a 10-mile trip from her Richland neighborhood. There, at the sun-filled bakery run by husband and wife team Dan and Ellen Einstein, Hines' made the kill: she ordered 13 dozen or $208 worth of cupcakes.
"They are moist and the icing is a nice in-between, not too sugary and not too buttery — it has a nice balance," Hines said. "It's the perfect cupcake."
The Einsteins, who met in a Los Angeles Chinese food cooking class, moved to East Nashville 14 years ago and opened the bakery on the advice of Ellen's father, a Holocaust survivor, who encouraged the couple to take a risk on their dream.
Ellen, a former caterer and food stylist, is the self-taught baking wizard of the duo. She's back in the kitchen whipping up masterpieces like the Yazoo stout chocolate bread pudding, white chocolate cranberry cookies, cocoa swirl coffee cake, candy bar brownies and cheddar cheese scones, while, Dan, an ex-music business executive, mans the front of the shop, taking orders and winning the hearts of neighborhood babies.
What kinds of foods were you raised on?
Dan Einstein: Sadly, God rest my mother, she couldn't cook. My grandmother was from Russia and she cooked everything — lots of typical Jewish and Russian dishes. Her repertoire was narrow but really amazing. Even though my mother couldn't cook she wanted us to be exposed to food. I grew up in Connecticut and she'd take us into New York City, and we'd always go to very authentic restaurants — Turkish, Japanese — all kinds of international stuff. So, I got a taste for it. As a child, I never had any food phobias.
Ellen Einstein: Lots of chicken soup and noodles. My mom made chicken salad a lot. Steaks, potatoes. My parents are from Europe so a lot of European foods, like this stuff made from foot and knees of the cows. You cook it down, grind it up and add salt, pepper and garlic. I ate very Southern stuff, too, but it wasn't in my house. I ate pig tails and ox tails, pig feet. Black-eyed beans and collard greens. My dad had a grocery store so we had people who would come in and bring food.
How did Sweet 16th Bakery come to be?
DE: My wife had a baking business independently, and she did catering and food styling. It got to the point where it was only going to grow so far without a storefront. We needed to make a conscious decision to make it a full-fledged business or move on and do something else. We looked and looked for a place on and off for a couple of years, and Ellen's dad, who passed away in 2003, he said, 'If you don't try it, you'll never know.' Her parents were Holocaust survivors — talk about people who really value their time and what life is all about. He's the one who really encouraged us to try. He was the biggest single inspiration to doing this and doing it right. And, I had always said that when the music business stops being fun, I am getting out and it was a time for me to go. This was a good opportunity to take a break and get away from it.
What is it like working with your spouse?
EE: It's awesome! It was hard at first, getting used to each other's quirks, each other's working habits and expectations of what things should be, but it's gotten to be the very best thing I could ask for. We always kiss each other before Dan comes out front and I stay in the back, and I say, 'Have a good day.' And, we always kiss before we go to bed.
Which of your desserts are you most proud of?
EE: The chocolate cake.
DE: It's the best chocolate cake on the planet.
EE: It's our signature cake.
What is your creative process?
EE: I do a lot of reading in cookbooks and magazines and I watch a lot of the Food Network and I get ideas and combinations and I go for it.
DE: Traveling has helped us experience a lot of things I wouldn't think about mixing. And ice cream places are great for finding flavors.
EE: I do an Aztec brownie, which has brownie with cayenne pepper and chocolate and a cinnamon frosting.
What is your favorite ingredient?
EE: My favorite is garlic and onions. It's a standard in our house, we put garlic and onions on everything.
DE: I'll have to echo that one.
What is your favorite kitchen tool?
DE: God bless the person who invented the spatula. I never knew how much I could love it, and the bowl scraper.
EE: Mine is the KitchenAid mixer. I couldn't be without it.
What is your favorite cookbook?
DE: Joy of Cooking
EE: Ditto, and Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child.
DE: Enjoy yourself while you are cooking. Baking is such an exact science, and you have to make sure you are measuring everything as dictated in the recipe, but don't be afraid to try new things to push [the flavor]. Don't be afraid to step out and add new ingredients — that helps it be more fun and less of a task.
EE: Be patient. Patience is a virtue when you are baking. You have to let things rise and cool. You just can't rush things when you are baking.
What would I find in your refrigerator at home?
DE: Condiments. We are condiment people. We collect condiments. White wine and some lovely cheese.
What would I find in your CD player?
EE: KS Rhoads. It's awesome, awesome, awesome.
What do you eat on a normal day?
DE: I will start the morning off with granola and organic yogurt.
EE: Cereal, fruit, nuts.
DE: And, we go home and cook almost every night.
EE: Steak, chicken, salads.
DE: Depends on what strikes us that day and how tired we are after our 16-18-hour day, but we really do try and go home and cook for each other. It's a nice relief to sit down and have dinner and a little wine, recap the day, spend time with the cat. No kids, just one cat — Marbles.
What would you never eat?
DE: No live bugs.
EE: No worms.
DE: We went to France one summer on a bike trip with friends and they called it the "parts tour" because everywhere we went I was eating kidneys or livers or heart. There wasn't much to stop me.
What is your most memorable dining experience?
DE: La Grand Casade in Paris. From the beginning to the end, top to bottom, it was the food, the wine, the service and the people — we were with our very dear friends. I can tell you almost to the 'T' what we ate, what we drank. It was amazing and not snooty.
EE: Cinq Sentits in Barcelona. Again, it was the service, the food, the wine. This beautiful food and it wasn't little pieces of food, there was actually a lot of food on your plate. It looked amazing and tasted 200 times better than it looked.
Any kitchen horror stories?
DE: Once, we had a really busy Saturday and things going on and running all over the place. It was a particularly cold day, and I had danish proofing — rising — on top of the convection oven. I had it sitting up on a rack, and my wife closed the oven door too hard and the sheet pan went sliding down on the floor into a million pieces. That was the end of the danish for that day.
EE: Forgetting an ingredient. Once I made muffins and they came out looking really strange — off color and texture. I tried one and had to get some water. It was horrible. I put in baking soda instead of baking powder.
What is your guilty pleasure?
DE: Ice cream. Strawberry or Rocky Road. And, foie gras.
EE: Fried chicken. Popeye’s to be exact.
What is a little known fact about you?
Ellen on Dan: He's clever. He's quick-witted and can come up with things fast. If someone says something to him, he can come back with something that's pretty funny.
Dan on Ellen: My wife is a world champion sleeper. If she could sleep for days on end, she would. She'd rise occasionally for food and to peek out the window.
If you weren't a baker, what would be your dream job?
EE: I'd want to travel and be a food critic.
DE: I'd be a professional food taster, and I'd love to learn the real art of wine tasting and do that full on. I understand the principles and I've done a lot of winery visits, but that's something that has fascinated me.
Sweet 16th, A Bakery
311 North 16th St.