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Spotlight: Local woman dubbed ‘incredible cupcake maker’

BY MADISON BENNETT | APRIL 12, 2011 7:20 AM

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An Italian bistro seems an unlikely place to find the perfect cupcake.

But that’s exactly where customers with a sweet tooth can find Erin Allen — at Monica’s, 303 Second St. in Coralville. The “incredible cupcake maker” churns out more than 500 beloved deserts a month.

Allen’s baking skills started early while growing up in Waco, Texas, watching countless hours of cooking shows.

“I knew who Julia Child was. I knew who Graham Kerr was. I knew who Jacques Pépin was. I knew who every PBS cooking-show guy was, but I had never seen ‘Fraggle Rock’,” the 28-year-old said. “I didn’t even remember what ‘Sesame Street’ was. But I knew cooking shows, which was just weird.”

And after her parents opened the Starving Artist Bistro when she was in junior high, she got the opportunity to start making deserts. Her parents now own Hemingway’s Watering Hole.

Allen, with curly red hair messily tucked under a worn hat, still has a subtle Texas twang, sometimes going in and out of drawling her vowels and dropping her Gs.

She and her husband travel back to Texas occasionally to visit family. When that happens, the restaurant management at Monica’s starts to panic. And though the owners have tried to recruit other staff members to make the cupcakes, Randy Larson, the owner of Monica’s and Bob’s Your Uncle, said no one’s come close to Allen.

“We’ve just given up now,” he said. “If she doesn’t make them, we don’t have them.”

Allen said her cupcakes are so good for a combination of two reasons.

“It’s partly an ingredient thing,” she said, specifying that while most cake recipes simply call for water and oil, she uses whole milk, butter, and buttermilk.

However, she attributed the moist perfection of her cupcakes to the convection oven, a small contraption tucked in the corner of Monica’s kitchen.

When Allen started working at Bob’s Your Uncle, her third restaurant, it was on the bandwagon of individually portioned deserts. Cheesecakes and crème brûlé were tasty, but she was looking for something homemade when she started noticing cupcakes pop up in newspaper articles, eateries across the country, and television shows such as “Cupcake Wars.”

“I just thought, ‘Good lord, cupcakes are so popular, they’re doing shows just about cupcakes … that’s weird,’ ” she said.

She then persuaded her boss to test them out. But no one expected they would take off, knowing most patrons don’t bother to look at the dessert menu.

“We liked the cupcakes enough to put them on the menu,” Allen said. “And lo and behold, I started baking 600 cupcakes a month.”

When Bob’s switched locations with Monica’s, Allen stayed on as the cupcake maker, selling about 20 to 40 a day for $2.50 each. But the process of making cupcakes is pretty normal. Allen portions out the ingredients and washes dishes and makes the frosting while they’re baking.

The cupcake workspace shares an area with tomato sauces, spices, traditional Italian ingredients, and the chefs that use them. Typically having to share space for two completely different things would create discord, but Allen, who occasionally tests her cupcakes on her coworkers, has the upper hand.

“If there’s ever any extra, I’m usually the one that gets one,” said Lynn Kadner, a line chef at Monica’s. “So I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut.

Triple chocolate, lemon, cherry chunk, even strawberry lemonade are just a few flavors in Allen’s repertoire.

And even though she’s developed a knack for cupcakes beloved by many, Allen is open about the future. She says maybe she’ll own her own bakery one day but leaves open the possibility of becoming a librarian or even a computer programmer.

“I have so many varied interests, it’s just hard to peg any one thing down,” she said.

But she says one thing’s for sure: As long as she is in Iowa, she’ll make cupcakes.


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