Butter, cream notes : Santa Ynez woman starts own label -- of wine cupcakes
DAVE MASON, NEWS-PRESS STAFF WRITER
Uncorked! Amber Joy Vander Vliet, right, in background, recently opened a cupcake shop inside the tasting lounge at Saarloos & Sons in Los Olivos, owned by the family of Keith Saarloos, left, in background. Mrs. Vander Vliet recommends pairings of her cupcakes with Mr. Saarloos' company's wines, including this glass of syrah with a vanilla bean cupcake filled with honey and Meyer lemon cheesecake. She even incorporates the wines into some of the creations.
Mrs. Vander Vliet pairs Purper Hart, a syrah, with her Chocolate Blackberry Syrah cupcake. The cupcake is filled with dark chocolate Belgium fudge and is topped with blackberry frosting and a syrah-soaked blackberry that's rolled in sugar crystals.
Amber Joy Vander Vliet operates Enjoy Cupcakes in a room at the Saarloos & Sons tasting lounge in Los Olivos.
One bite leads to an unexpected zing and a shocking discovery. This chocolate cupcake is spiked! Yes, Amber Joy Vander Vliet adds syrah to the batter and soaks a blackberry overnight in the same wine, then rolls it in sugar crystals. It's all for her Chocolate Blackberry Syrah cupcake, which features the wine-soaked berry on top. You have to be 21 or older to try one. Just kidding! The alcohol disappears during baking, but the distinct flavor of the wine remains. (Although there is that berry.) That's the kick to the chef's creations at Enjoy Cupcakes, her business that recently opened at the Saarloos & Sons winery's tasting lounge in Los Olivos.
The syrah cupcake is filled with dark chocolate Belgium fudge and topped with blackberry frosting, but somehow it's not too sweet. The flavors balance each other out.
Mrs. Vander Vliet's cupcake business, which opened in March, is the latest evolution of her and husband Kevin Ray Vander Vliet's catering business. Mrs. Vander Vliet, 31, is the chef; Mr. Vander Vliet, 38, is chief executive taster.
Mrs. Vander Vliet's creations include:
- A citrus sauvignon blanc cake with a lemon-lime core and sauvignon blanc in the frosting.
- A chardonnay pomegranate cupcake with Meyer lemon pudding filling and lemon zest, and chardonnay in the frosting. "It's crisp and intense. It's a good marriage (of flavors)," Mrs. Vander Vliet says during a recent day at the tasting lounge. "People aren't expecting to see the pomegranate seeds (on top of the cupcake)."
- A milk chocolate syrah cake. "The filling is a berry cheese cake, and the frosting is milk chocolate with grenache in it," she says.
- Blueberry lemon chardonnay cake. It has a creamy Meyer lemon filling and is topped with blueberry cream cheese frosting and a wine-soaked glazed blueberry.
"The possibilities are endless. I've been here three weeks, and I'm constantly experimenting," Mrs. Vander Vliet says. "I experimented with another wine cupcake this morning. It's a chardonnay cake with a creamy vanilla bean filling. The frosting is fused with chardonnay, and it has a raspberry on top that was soaked in chardonnay.
"It's a nice sweet-and-sour combination," adds Mrs. Vander Vliet, a Santa Ana native who grew up in Walnut Creek, near San Francisco.
She came up with the idea for the wine-infused cupcake business after moving to Santa Ynez last year.
"When we moved here at the end of October (from Oxnard), we were in wine country. It seemed like a no-brainer to me," Mrs. Vander Vliet says. "I was surprised no one else was doing it. I thought, 'Let's throw the wine into the cupcake.' "
So Mrs. Vander Vliet took Sweet Ride, the catering business that she started in October, and turned it into Enjoy Cupcakes, which consists of both the cupcake business and the catering service. She transports her baked goods in a 1964 green and white Shasta Airflight trailer.
She bakes her cupcakes Thursdays through Sundays, the days that Enjoy Cupcakes is open, at a Santa Barbara kitchen and takes them to Saarloos & Sons in Los Olivos, where they are on display in a glass case.
She takes orders and delivers cupcakes as far south as Carpinteria and as far as north as the Santa Ynez Valley. She travels farther for large orders; in June, she's bringing her cupcakes to a bridal party in Los Angeles.
Enjoy Cupcakes is a good example of how new businesses start in the tight-knit Santa Ynez Valley, Mrs. Vander Vliet says. "I have very good friends who live here, Pam and Alan Martin of Santa Ynez. We told them how we wanted to open up a cupcake lounge." Mrs. Martin is friends with Heather Saarloos, wife of Keith Saarloos, whose family owns Saarloos & Sons, a business with wineries on two 100-acre Santa Ynez Valley vineyards. Mrs. Martin knew Mr. and Mrs. Saarloos wanted to have gourmet foods for a new tasting lounge. Mrs. Martin told Mrs. Vander Vliet about that, and the chef met with Mrs. Saarloos on Feb. 14, the day of the tasting facility's soft opening. Mr. and Mrs. Saarloos liked the idea of cupcakes, and in late March, Enjoy Cupcakes had a soft opening. A grand opening is planned for May 13.
There are two components to Mrs. Vander Vliet's cupcake business. One is her addition of wine to the batter and frosting of some of the cupcakes. Another is her recommendations of pairings of wines and cupcakes.
For the wine-flavored cupcakes and pairings, reds such as syrahs tend to go well with chocolate and whites such as chardonnay are suitable with vanilla, Mrs. Vander Vliet explains.
Recently, she recommended these pairings of Saarloos & Sons wines with her cupcakes: Purper Hart, a syrah, with her Chocolate Blackberry Syrah cupcake; the 194Five The Union, a syrah-cabernet sauvignon blend, with the Honey Easter Bunny cupcake; Daughters, a chardonnay, with the Pomegranate Chardonnay cupcake; the Ring Effie Unk 2, a merlot that also contains cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc, with the Vanilla Bean Creme Brulee cupcake; the Extended Family, a pinot noir, with the Boston Cream Pie cupcake, and the 0 and 2, a syrah, with the Peanut Butter Cup cupcake.
"I've put a lot of work into them," Mrs. Vander Vliet says.
She serves six flavors each week, rotating them so that the selection varies. She serves both wine-infused cupcakes and regular ones, namely for customers who aren't big wine enthusiasts and children. All the alcohol content disappears during baking, although Mrs. Vander Vliet notes alcohol remains in the wine-soaked berries on top of the cupcakes. A small amount of alcohol is in the wine-infused frostings.
Her non-wine cupcakes include Creme Brulee, Black and White Chocolate Cheesecake, S'mores, Vanilla Caramel Peanut Butter, Lemon Cream Vanilla Bean, Brown Sugar Banana and Chocolate Mint Fusion.
For each cupcake, wine-flavored or otherwise, she removes the core and replaces it with a creamed or whipped filling.
"We don't use any artificial flavors or colors. For the decorations on top, I try to use the real thing," she says. So she tops the cupcakes with blackberries, raspberries, peanuts, pomegranate seeds and more.
Mrs. Vander Vliet sells the wine-infused cupcakes for $4 each and the non-wine cupcakes for $3.25. Smaller versions sell for $2.25 and $2, respectively.
Customers can buy a tasting platter of four petite cupcakes for $7.
The wine-infused cupcakes and cupcake and wine pairings have proven to be popular with customers. "People are so curious about the wine and cupcakes. People like things that are new and different," Mrs. Vander Vliet says.
Her cupcakes taste different, in part of because of that extra zing -- that's the best word for it -- from the wines. And they look unique with the gourmet decorations.
Mrs. Vander Vliet says she knew she had something unusual when she saw the colors produced by adding the syrah to the batter for a cupcake she made in November for her Sweet Ride company. She had just uncorked her first wine cupcake. "It was dark black with a hint of purple. I love color; I love design," says Mrs. Vander Vliet, who managed the art design studio at Flavia, a Santa Barbara art licensing company, from 1999 to 2006.
In addition to the syrah, Mrs. Vander Vliet cored out the cupcake and filled it with Belgium fudge. "When I tasted it, I just liked the unexpected flavor that you get," she says.
Wines have their own special character, and so do Mrs. Vander Vliet's cupcakes, explains Mr. Saarloos, sitting across from her at a round table in the tasting lounge. "Calling what Amber makes a cupcake is a disservice to Amber," Mr. Saarloos insists. "It's a fine pastry that happens to be in the shape of a cupcake." He says the cupcakes are in keeping with the feel of the tasting lounge, which is in a house, and was a good addition to his business. "We're a family vineyard. This house is kind of like a home. A cupcake is the best thing possible for our kitchen," he says. "With Amber's cupcakes, you taste it and you like it. "And like any good artist, Amber is using the palette of her environment to enhance her product," Mr. Saarloos explains, referring to Mrs. Vander Vliet making wine-flavored cupcakes in wine country.
When asked how she discovers the ideal blends of cake and wines, Mrs. Vander Vliet just smiled. "I just experiment, and when things work out, it's good. Sometimes there may be a science to it if there's a distinctive flavor I'm trying to bring out." She says both her chardonnay and syrah cupcakes are blends of sweetness and tartness. "It's not overwhelming. It's subtle." It's not just about taste. "I try very hard to have a very moist cake," she notes.
Her success with Enjoy Cupcakes is the realization of a lifelong dream. "Ever since I was a little girl, I wanted to do cakes," Mrs. Vander Vliet says. "When I was 15, I was in the Regional Occupational Program (through Las Lomos High School in Walnut Creek)." She worked as a pastry chef intern in 1994 at Lafayette Park Hotel in Lafayette, in the Bay Area.
She earned a bachelor's degree in business management in 1999 at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where she had been accepted on a cross country team scholarship. She decided to study business management in preparation for the day she would own a bakery.
She has helped her husband coordinate corporate events such as soapbox derbies, "Iron Chef"-like cooking competitions and more through his company called Interact Inc., now based in Santa Ynez. "His tagline is 'recess for grown-ups,' " she says.
The two have a daughter, Opal, who's almost 2. "You'll see her running around here," Mrs. Vander Vliet says.
Her creativity hasn't stopped with wine in cupcakes. She also sells cupcakes on a stick; they look like lollipops. She calls them -- what else? -- "lollicakes."
Enjoy Cupcakes is open 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays at the Saarloos & Sons tasting lounge, 2971 Grand Ave. in Los Olivos. For pre-orders, which can be delivered, call 451-0284. For more information, go to www.EnjoyCupcakes.com or www.SaarloosandSons.com.
Would you like a glass of syrah with that cupcake? Here are a few choice pairings featuring Saarloos & Sons wines and Amber Joy Vander Vliet's cupcakes:
Mrs. Vander Vliet recommends the Daughters chardonnay with the Pomegranate Chardonnay cupcake. The cake features a Meyer lemon pudding filling with pomegranate seeds and a cream cheese frosting. It's topped with pomegranate seeds, lemon zest and candy pink pearls. Mrs. Vander Vliet says she likes pairing the crispness of the chardonnay with the tartness of the pomegranate seeds.
The Purper Hart syrah goes well with the Chocolate Blackberry Syrah cupcake. The cake is filled with dark chocolate Belgium fudge and is topped with blackberry frosting and a syrah-soaked blackberry that's rolled in sugar crystals. The chef says the chocolate and blackberry bring out the flavors of the syrah.
Ring Effie UNK 2, a merlot that also contains cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc, goes well with the Vanilla Bean Creme Brulee cupcake. The brown sugar cake is filled with vanilla bean creme brulee and topped with Swiss meringue buttercream and caramelized sugar chunks.
The Extended Family pinot noir is a good match for the Boston Cream Pie cupcake, which is a vanilla cake filled with a decadent pastry cream and topped with a dark chocolate glaze, Mrs. Vander Vliet says. She explains the cake's rich chocolate, combined with the pinot, "grabs you at your first bite." But she adds the vanilla cake and its creamy pudding pleasantly mellows out the strong first taste.
Mrs. Vander Vliet recommends the 0 and 2 vintage, a syrah, with the Peanut Butter Cup cupcake. The chocolate cake, which has a creamy peanut filling, is topped with chocolate frosting, chopped peanuts and chocolate sauce. The chef says 0 and 2 is a strong wine that suits the distinct cupcake, which she calls "a peanut butter cup on steroids."