Northern Ireland is known for its love of all things sweet. After all, we’re the proud home of the delicious sheet cake – those gooey, sweet, delicious concoctions (which, oddly enough, don’t often require the use of an oven) that have been a staple served with a cup of tea for decades.
Imagine how delicious a Fifteen (a concoction of mashed digestif, marshmallows and cherries combined with condensed milk and finished with grated coconut) is for someone outside of our beautiful country, and chances are it will draw a stunned look.
But now we’ve elevated our love of baked goods to a night out, and the proof is in the pudding. Well, in the dozens of dessert bars popping up faster than a popcorn seed across Northern Ireland – from Lisburn, Banbridge and Magherfelt and beyond – all strive to capitalize on our devotion to sweet treats by exclusively serving only desserts.
The trend of dining only on desserts began in the United States before hopping across the Atlantic to London, where in 2016 the first venue dedicated exclusively to what was traditionally the third course opened – the Cafe Royal Hotel in the Regent Street.
Most recently, renowned French pastry chef Cédric Grolet unveiled his seven-course cakes for a stunning £135 at hip luxury café The Berkley in the English capital.
So it was only a matter of time before savvy hospitality foodies would see an opportunity this side of the Irish Sea to offer a sweet-themed sit-in experience.
After all, people in Northern Ireland spend the most of any UK region on their favorite sweets and snacks every week – 23% more compared to England, Scotland and Wales, according to the latest official figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
But it seems Northern Ireland wants its sugar in a more casual setting than London’s fine dining – at least so far.
And since the cupcake fad is long gone, donuts seem to have filled the remaining “hole” by becoming the go-to choice for sugar addicts.
From Taboo to Black Box to Guilt Trip – a donut chain founded by former Ulster rugby players Darren Cave and Calum Black that opened its ninth store on trendy Lisburn Road in south Belfast, making it the perfect independent retailer -Vibe from BT11 – Northern Ireland – certainly exaggerated the round dough enjoyment.
But the taste doesn’t stop there. Also on Lisburn Road is Brew & Bake, which has been a popular destination for sweet treats among those in the know since it opened in September 2018.
In less than four years, the spot has amassed nearly 13,000 followers on Instagram, and fans scroll at the end of each week to find out what his “weekend cake” or “weekend bun” will be — a caramac cake layered in golden sponge cake with topping frosting? Or a chocolate fudge brownie with chocolate mousse frosting and fudge chunks combined in a tempting sweet roll? The customer’s answer is simply: “Both, please!”
Brew & Bake is the brainchild of owner Danielle Wong, who dreamed of opening her own café long before coffee culture ushered in the emergence of independent coffeehouses and tearooms.
“I traveled to Australia and Southeast Asia where I visited many cafes and grew my love for coffee, brunch and pastries,” she says.
“After moving back to Belfast and working in a few cafes I finally took the plunge and decided to open my own. I’ve always loved to bake, so baking everything around the house was an important part of the business.
“I also wanted to offer something different and decided to focus on tea – we have over 20 loose-leaf teas – and that’s how Brew and Bake was born,” she says. Danielle believes the people of Northern Ireland have a special affinity for sweet treats, something that is – and excuse the pun – “seasoned” into our daily lives.
“I’m addicted to sweet treats, cake, cake and sugar! I think it’s the culture. We grew up with a biscuit with coffee, cream rolls from the baker, dessert after dinner, and treats in between.
“Getting together with friends and including family treats is such a big part of our lives. There’s always someone who brings treats to work. Treats when you’ve had a rough day, when you need a little something… There’s just always a reason to have a sweet treat.”
And there are no signs that this will change in the foreseeable future, emphasizes the entrepreneur.
“We’ve seen these trends in the sales of our baked goods. We get orders for all occasions: birthdays, graduations, anniversaries, baptisms.
“Every weekend we have customers who come to get their box of cakes. It’s a habit that has become routine. The people of Northern Ireland love sweet treats.”
Brew & Bake saw that firsthand last summer, when a long line gathered outside before opening its door as it unveiled its Strawberry Cream Cruffins – a hybrid of an American muffin and a croissant – on its social media platforms. Demand was so great, orders were limited to two per person.
“It was crazy. I knew I loved Cruffins and I was excited, but I didn’t expect everyone else to go crazy about them,
“There was a huge demand for our cruffins. We lined up before it opened and for most of the day,” Danielle recalls.
“Our social media post on the Cruffin definitely got people drooling.
“The cross section showing the layers of dough and the jam filling oozing out was beautiful. Cruffins are a relatively new thing in Belfast as only a few places offer them. A lot of people have never heard of them or tried them, so I think it sparked a bit of interest.”
She says the emerging trend of dessert-only venues is “amazing,” adding, “It’s great to have a place to go that’s dedicated to creating the dreamiest, most decadent, most delicious desserts.
“I think it’s exciting and such a treat to be able to go out and have a whole experience based on desserts!
“Desserts and sweet treats are clearly in demand. We’ve seen sales of baked goods and cakes really grow. Many customers come in just for the treats. Customers love seeing what the weekend cake and bun will be like. Pre-order lots of goodies for the weekend to make sure they get their dose.
“Social media and baking programs like Bake Off have really sparked a love for baked goodies.
“The lockdowns got people into baking and appreciating the skills behind it and also created a line of bakers. The industry is growing! There is always room for dessert.”
Clearly a sentiment shared by many considering that just a few doors down is Sticky Fingers, a late-night dessert joint that bills itself as a place that serves “world-class desserts made with locally sourced ingredients created.
His nearly 50 Google reviews, giving him an overall score of 4.8 out of five, suggest his clientele is okay with their stomachs.
Food writer John Mulgrew has noticed the rise of sweet spots in recent years, but he admits it’s not his acquired taste.
“I don’t really have a traditional sweet tooth — for me it’s all about the savory,” he notes.
“But there are times when sweetness, done well, can transcend and become the star of an evening – our top pastry chefs, from the team at OX to Blank and Deanes, can dazzle and amaze. To me, when I order a pudding, it has to be something so alien to the skills of a home cook like me.
“There’s a growing interest here in casual yet artisanal things when it comes to cute things — from good ice cream shops to cupcakes and donuts.”
In particular, he highlights donuts, which have influenced the food scene.
“Some of my friends have a serious addition to the ‘gourmet’ varieties — they leave with boxes full of flavor combinations, twisted donuts — from lemon meringue to raspberry ruffles to candied bacon,” adds John.
“You only have to look at the growing proliferation of high-end venues on our high streets to see how popular they are.
“But even though there’s definitely a time and place for her, give me an old-fashioned gravy ring every day.”
Old-fashioned with a twist, however, is Nellie Jay’s sweet treat café in West Belfast. Named after the first cow to fly in an airplane over the US state of Missouri in 1930, the dessert spot pays homage to the traditional 1950s ice cream parlor (often found in parts of Belfast, but also in the sea). Sub-resorts like Newcastle, Portrush and Bangor) but with modern touches.
Nellie Jay’s manager Briege McDermott says it’s the venue’s ability to evoke nostalgia — and recall fond memories of the old-school ice cream parlor — that’s part of the dessert joint’s compelling appeal.
“People are mesmerized by the overall decor of the place; it brings many parents back to their childhood.
“A lot of grandparents come in and say they love it. It’s like a diner from the 1950s,” she explains.
“It’s also a fascination with the range of desserts we offer. From the moment you walk in the door, you’ve got the pick n mix, the slush puppies and we’ve got 18 flavors, you’ve got your scoops, you’ve got your cones.”
The list goes on: “They’ve got brownie bowls, cookie dough, cookie bowls, cookie sandwiches — a counter full of cakes, buns and sheet cakes and cheesecake, bites, banoffee, lemon meringue.”
Briege continues: “The possibilities for milkshakes are endless.
“Waffles are the most popular choice right now — they’re huge waffles with all the sauces and toppings, but people love a sundae with the big, tall glass with the sauces with the ice cream on top and a flake and a waffle.”
Lockdown has created demand for those wanting to satisfy their sweet tooth with dessert home deliveries and it’s a trend that has continued, only now people can make it a weekly outing, reveals Briege.
“Darren, who owns Nellie Jay’s, thought outside the box and wanted something different. He noted that families want to spend more time together as a family in order to offer them a different, more child-friendly place.
“It’s definitely a gap in the market and Nellie-Jay’s is definitely helping to fill it. We are planning further openings in the coming months.”
Now she usually notices that families of different generations come to Nellie Jay.
“A lot of grandparents came at half-time and said it was so beautiful here,” she says.
“And they get a piece of cake and a coffee. I love it when customers come back. I always remember the faces. People are always surprised when I remember their faces, but I do.”
https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/life/weekend/northern-ireland-and-our-traybakes-having-our-cake-and-eating-it-41410951.html Northern Ireland and our sheet cakes: Having our cake and eating it