Elizabeth Halen could’ve gotten a doctorate. Instead, she bakes Elvis-inspired cakes. And loves it.
Elizabeth Halen has a problem. A disorder, really.
“I have a special form of attention disorder,” says the Temple sociology doctoral candidate-turned-full-time-baker. “I’ll try to sit down and watch a movie, but 20 minutes into it, I’ll get bored, get up, go to the kitchen and start softening butter so I can make brownies.”
Which begs the question: Can we come over for a movie?
If you’ve had Halen’s brownies or her fluffy oatmeal whoopee pies or her blackberry muffins—served at Home Slice and A Full Plate Café in Northern Liberties—then you know they’re worth being forward for. But Halen, who also caters, bakes special orders and chronicles her chocolate-frosted adventures on her blog Foodaphilia, also didn’t plan to become a baker.
Halen arrived in Philly in 2003 a graduate of Ripon College, a small liberal arts school in Ripon, Wis.—“ironically home to a cookie factory”—to get her sociology Ph.D. from Temple. When she wasn’t working on her dissertation, the self-taught baker was whipping up mint-chocolate bundts and peanut butter-pretzel pies for friends and classmates. “I finished with classes, passed my thesis and comp exams, too. I have a master’s and [put] years of work toward a final dissertation—just never finished it,” she says. “[Graduate school was] not a place that ever made me feel good or appreciated in the way I do when someone swoons as they bite into a piece of my cake.”
Cornbread was the gateway. While still in school, Halen’s friends Shannon Dougherty and Liz Peterson were looking for a baker to make cornbread for their new neighborhood cafe on Liberties Walk, A Full Plate. Halen volunteered, and cornbread was the beginning. “Now I try to have four or five different things available on any given day and at least one that is vegan,” she says.
“I did enjoy teaching, and during my time at Temple I worked on a great project, but the time spent on those things felt like a chore or work, even though it was enjoyable. I’d find myself thinking about what I was going to bake at home later, or what I could do with bananas that week at the cafe instead of my dissertation.”
Speaking of bananas, the fruit figures into one of Halen’s most popular inventions: Elvis Cake, which is always available at A Full Plate. This named-for-the-King confection marries chocolate chip-studded banana cake with thick waves of peanut butter buttercream frosting. When people swoon over it, the way Halen likes, she’s the one saying “thank you very much.”
A seminal moment in Halen’s decision to quit Temple and put all her efforts in baking was when she met James Barrett from Metropolitan Bakery. “James invited me over for a tour and I spent nearly four hours there talking with his staff and getting some hands-on training,” she recalls. “He would show me how to fashion the shape of their baguettes and let me help their baker make cookie dough. I remember very clearly thinking that all of these people I was meeting spend their whole day close to food, concerned about its production and the ultimate product they’re working toward creating, and they were happy about it. And I was jealous. Because that’s what I wanted.”
And she’s got it now, even if baking is still only a part-time profession. Halen bakes at A Full Plate two full days a week—the day before we spoke, she was “up to her elbows in cookie batter”—and can often be found in their kitchen baking for commercial and personal purposes and for special catering gigs.
So will we be seeing Halen in her own bricks-and-mortar bakery soon? “The idea of having my own place is definitely appealing, but I’m not in a financial position to make that big of a step yet,” she admits.
Which means one thing, thankfully, for all of us: More Elvis cake. ■
PW's Taste of Philly 2014