Jessie Oleson Moore has exactly as much personality as you’d expect in a girl who’s made a career out of cupcakes, doughnuts and unicorns. I learn this as soon as I send her an email about our upcoming meeting, telling her I’ll be wearing jeans and a polka-dotted shirt.
“Because I favor a subtle look, I will be wearing a unicorn sweater and hot pink tights,” Moore writes back.
She signs her emails “donut stop believin’” or “fond(ant) regards.” Like many Santa Feans, Moore has multiple jobs. Since 2007, she’s run
, a blog about all things dessert, in addition to testing recipes, creating dreamy illustrations and generally enjoying the sweet life. This week, Moore—who lives part-time in Santa Fe—kicks off the tour for her second book,
, which offers tantalizingly photographed recipes and the stories behind America’s classic baked goods.
SFR: How did you start your career?
Jessie Oleson Moore:
I used to work a refrigerator magnet company—naturally—and I was the product development/part-director person there. And after a while, I kind of felt like it was a great job, but it wasn’t quite fulfilling all of my creative needs, so I had a little sit-down with myself, and I was like, ‘Well, in an ideal world, what would you be doing? What do you truly love, Jessie?’ And things that came to me were artwork, writing and baked goods.
So I was like, ‘All right, how on earth do I combine all of those? Well, I’ll start a blog; I guess that’s what people do.’ So I started it, thinking that it would lead to whatever was coming for me, but it never really occurred to me at the time—and this was 2007—that a blog could be the stepping stone for everything else. But it has led to illustration, freelance writing jobs—and since 2008, it’s been my livelihood.
Lots of blogs probably aren't that successful.
Well, I think that it’s to my advantage that I do a few different things. Because, were I just an illustrator or just a writer or just making income from the ad revenue from my blog, there’s no way I could make it. But because I can cobble those things together, I think that has been the key to my being—not a millionaire, but occasionally a hundredaire. And paying my rent.
It's very typical in Santa Fe to do several different things. What's your life like? How much time to you spend on each thing?
I think the question reveals what’s hard: It’s time management. And it definitely does seem that some days I’m more of an illustrator than a writer, but it feels like it always just kind of naturally happens. Like, OK, I have custom artwork that I have to do for this person, so today I’m primarily an illustrator—but then between that, I have to come up with content for my website, so I’m baking a cake or trying out a recipe from this review copy of a book I just received. So, you know, it makes a really interesting way to break up my workday, because I can always take a break from one thing I’m doing to do the other. But then again, sometimes they’re at odds with each other, because if I’m, like, mixing my hands in batter, I don’t want to be doing artwork and getting greasy fingerprints all over everything. I’ve got to admit that time management can be a constant struggle, but it just seems to work somehow.
You clearly must have the personality for doing this, or you probably wouldn't have chosen it. But I would imagine that when you started, you did more pitching; now, are you able to sit back and let projects come to you?
I would definitely say that I am more reactive now than proactive, especially with doing artwork, because when you go to my website, it has a very big presence, and people seem to request that. When I have a book coming out, though—like right now—that’s the time when I’m reminded of having to be proactive. It’s like, all of a sudden you have that feeling of, Is anyone gonna come to my birthday party? So you’re reaching out, saying hey to people you haven’t talked to in years, you know, reconnecting with high school people, like, ‘Please come to my book signing!’ [laughs]
Does that work?
You know, it does! I had kind of an unusual book tour last time, because I did it all at bakeries rather than bookstores; I called it the Tour de Sweet. It was a great idea, I think, but I also think it was a little bit of a detriment because bakeries aren’t used to selling books, so a lot of them, you know, there is some weirdness with planning. But then, there’s always some weirdness. In Los Angeles, for instance, it rained, and nobody came. Like two people came to my event.
And when does it ever rain in LA?
Exactly! And at the time, I lived in Seattle, so I’m like, ‘You’ve gotta be kidding me! It rained, and you can’t come?!’ So this time, it’s a little bit more traditional. I’m leaving next week on my book tour at bookstores and so looking forward to that easy-ness.
Let's talk about the book. What about it was surprising to you?
So, it’s called The Secret Lives of Baked Goods , and the idea is that I’m delving into baked goods with interesting back stories. My personal, I guess, credo is that it tastes better with a back story. What surprised me was that there are just so many weird stories behind baked goods. Like Derby-Pie®, which is a famous one: So this is a pie that the inventors of it have had multiple lawsuits, and they have won basically every single one. And it’s proprietary; their recipe is closely guarded—
Yeah, multiple ones! And they even sued their own chocolate chip supplier for publishing a Derby-Pie® recipe on the package. So they’ve been ruthless with it, but it’s also made it kind of a legend. But of course, there are impostors; they’ll just call it something like Pegasus Pie or Race Day Pie. So the recipe in my book, I should say, is not for Derby-Pie®; it’s for—
Something kind of like Derby-Pie®
Who are these people?
It’s a family. They used to run an inn, and this pie became their signature item, and they kind of kept it going through the years.
Another one is this pink frosted cookie, which you don’t see everywhere, but in Seattle, where I used to live, it’s just ubiquitous—like, you’ll see them in 7-Eleven and stuff. I tried to find out the story behind it: Apparently, this guy went on this spiritual hike in the mountains, and he met this guy [who] gave him a vision to make people happy by making cookies. So there are some strange stories behind these baked goods, and I just think they’re really fun and quirky and gossipy and interesting.
Were there any you looked into that turned out to be really boring?
There were a few, and a few of them were cut as a result. Like Mexican wedding cookies: To me, it’s really interesting because every culture seems to have a variety of them, but really that seems to be the most interesting aspect of the story, all of the different names they’ll go by. So that one was cut. And then hummingbird cake was cut—do you know what hummingbird cake is?
Picture carrot cake, but you use bananas instead of carrots. It’s not exact, but it’ll give you an idea. And basically, that one kind of amounts to: people gravitate toward it like hummingbirds to nectar. So it’s interesting, but it’s more like a little blurb than a whole writeup.
You also include a recipe and back story for whoopee pies. How much did commercial desserts figure into this?
There is a chapter that’s dedicated to commercial treats, so I’ve got Oreos and animal crackers and things like that. But yeah, whoopee pies were an interesting one, because it’s one that two distinct areas claim ownership of, the Pennsylvania Dutch, and then in Maine it’s the official state snack.
That's really interesting—almost like evolutionary biology.
And I guess it is kind of biological, since desserts do have a lot of cultural significance.
Yeah, it is. One thing that I learned, too, is that as you follow—since most of them are US baked goods, as you follow the historical timeline, the baked goods follow it. I mean so do any foods, but it’s like, all of a sudden, when baking powder becomes easily available, the layer cakes that we’re accustomed to become part of our everyday lives. But what were birthday cakes before that? So they do follow the technology.
I'm curious what your childhood was like. For instance, as a child, I was only allowed to have one cookie a day.
God bless you!
But I mean, did you live a life of total cake indulgence?
No. Joking aside—and it’s actually funny, because that calls to mind—I was talking to a bakery owner who [had] had been a bakery in her family for like 100 years. I was like, ‘That must’ve been wonderful for a kid, like every kid’s dream!’ And she’s like, ‘No, we were allowed one treat every day.’ I do believe that moderation can play into baked goods being a pleasure.
So I wouldn’t say that it was all cakes, all the time, nonstop in the house, but my mother was an extremely skilled amateur baker—probably like a frustrated nonprofessional. For instance, for our birthdays, we would basically have the kid version of a wedding cake. So like my birthday cake—it would always be the same thing: it would be a three-tiered cake, vanilla, with pink frosting and roses all over it. So I was a pretty popular kid.
Yeah, that's kind of every kid's dream.
Yeah, totally. So I wouldn’t say that there was a lot of value on quantity, but I definitely had instilled in me a value for quality in baked goods.
And you're really tiny, too.
I know! What’s up with that? I’m a very energetic person, and I wouldn’t—I mean, I eat my fair share of baked goods, probably one a day. I definitely eat something sweet every day. I’m big on indulging fully, but not just eating for the sake of it.
How did you end up here?
My significant other, Compton, works in the film industry. So if he’s on a project, my schedule allows me to come with him.
How long have you been coming to Santa Fe?
The first time I came here was a little over a year ago. Right now I’m here on a three-month or so timeline. But also, his parents have a home here so there’s always something here.
So when I first emailed you, I wanted some advice on where to find a good wedding cake.
One thing I’ve learned is that a lot of bakeries will not do buttercream during the summer months in hot climates because it will melt. I believe the taste is superior to fondant, but fondant will hold up much better in the heat.
What are your favorite dessert spots here?
I’m very impressed with the baked goods here, overall, and I’ve tasted my fair share.
So in terms of cakes—I wouldn’t say that I have the most intimate knowledge of the bakeries here, but knowing what I do, if I were getting married next week, I would probably hit up
. I think they do very good work. And this is saying it with no budget in my mind: I think that they do very nice cakes.
If I wanted to do cupcakes for my wedding, I think that
—it’s like such a weird little spot. I remember the first time I walked in, I didn’t really have high hopes, to tell you the truth, but they’re so good. They’re SO good. I just die for their—it’s called the Santa Fe. It’s corn cake—not cornbread; it’s definitely a cake because it’s got that fine crumb—and it’s got a honey cream cheese frosting. It is so good! I just want to eat my weight in this thing. So delicious.
Where do you go for other pastries?
You know, one place—it’s on my mind because I just went there; it’s not a bakery, but I really enjoyed it—is the
. They make all of their own baked goods there. I think that they change it up, so I couldn’t tell you that they would have the same thing, but they have this kind of citrus poppyseed cake that is quite good.
One of my favorite desserts here, though, is a pie. It’s the banana coconut cream pie at
. It is so good. I love this thing. The last time I was there, they were out of it, and the guy came out to apologize to me because he knew of my deep love for this pie. And you know, I recently tried
, which you had
, and I was very impressed. And I’m not vegan or gluten-free. Sometimes when you have vegan, gluten-free baked goods, they’re like good for—you know, good, for vegan. But these I thought were just legitimately, on their own, good.
Later, Moore sends an email with a bit more information:
Regarding favorite haunts: One of my favorite one-two sugary punches in Santa Fe is the magic that is
. Whoo’s Donuts, I believe, are some of the best in the nation. Especially that lemon white chocolate pistachio business. Holey yum!
Regarding the new book:
I know that you haven't seen
, but my second is quite different. While the first one focuses on insane sweetness (Cadbury Creme Eggs Benedict, Doughnut Upside Down Cake, Birthday Cake French Toast, for instance), the second book is more like a love letter to the classics—telling their stories and sharing fairly straight-up recipes. I’m excited to wear a more “writerly” hat for this book.
By Jessie Oleson Moore