For Carmen Rodriguez, cupcakes are all about family.
Rodriguez, 45, runs a bakery in Williamsburg, along with her sisters and cousin. The space is modern and sparse, with 300 square feet of kitchen in the back, and a few pieces of graffiti artwork to add some color to the walls. This is Brooklyn Cupcake, the newest arrival to the local cupcake scene.
From the moment this family-run business opened its doors three weeks ago, Rodriguez’s cupcakes were embraced by the neighborhood she’s called home since birth. “We had family and friends coming out and saying ‘let’s get this done,’” she recalled lightheartedly over the phone while making frosting.
Rodriguez’s Puerto-Rican and Italian roots have been the catalyst for the nostalgic flavors that give life to the classic vanilla cake in her cupcakes. One is filled with a creamy dollop of golden flan, another offers a thrilling surprise with a spongy milk-soaked heart, a third is filled with a burst of ruby guava jam and topped with a shiny cream cheese crown. All of her Latin-inspired cupcakes— flan, tres leches, dulce de leche, guava con queso, coquito—have the power to transport you to Puerto Rico, Argentina, or Mexico, but they’ve also become the cornerstone for this Brooklyn family.
“So many people, mom, tias, everybody got hit by the recession,” said Rodriguez, recalling the difficult times that followed her own layoff. However, she turned to baking, her hobby, and started catering events around the neighborhood. “It’s time to reinvent the wheel,” she told herself. She started getting more and more orders, and soon realized that it could potentially be a viable business for the family. Her mom cashed in her 401k and her aunt offered her another lump sum to set up the shop. All along, Rodriguez was driven by her natural optimism, moving forward with “just a hope and good feeling that this was going to work.”
When she first started her business, this self-proclaimed “weekend home-baker” didn’t set forth to create something different. She found a recipe she liked for vanilla cake, started tweaking it and taking it apart. Her process was simple. “It was more like common sense, what can I do to this vanilla cake to make it different?” she said. She started experimenting with familiar flavors from her own kitchen, flan she tasted in Miami years before, Mexican tres leches dessert, and coquito, the coconut-based Puerto Rican holiday drink. She also began offering “a little something different” on the weekends, infusing her cupcakes with other inventive flavors like tiramisu, key lime, and mojito.
Customers like Christine Ortiz, 25, seem to like it. Ortiz has been to the shop three or four times since opening day, and has made it one of her favorite cupcake places. For Ortiz, the secret is in the frosting. “I’m not a frosting person but their cream is amazing,” she said. “It’s the perfect level of sweet, not too over the top.”
So far, so good. The women sell about 400 cupcakes a day at $2.25 per cupcake. baking them overnight, and during the day. Carmen Rodriguez has the overnight shift, and leaves at 5:30 a.m. Her sister Gina Madera who arrives shortly afterwards for the day shift, described their cupcakes as “urban”. They epitomize the working-class immigrant Williamsburg of the past, when the neighborhood was predominantly Puerto Rican. “We are so not pink and fluffy,” she said with a smile.
For Carmen Rodriguez, the cupcake shop is her chance to prove that she can be successful. “At this point in my life, I didn’t take the time to go to college and get a degree,” she said. Now she feels that it’s time to show the world what she can do.
“I was destined to be somebody.”
335 Union Ave., nr. Maujer St., Williamsburg; 347-762-2253
Karina Taveras is a cook who loves to write and a writer who loves to cook (with sazón!). Her stories have appeared in Saveur magazine, Islands magazine and the NY Daily News. She’s the Publisher and Executive Editor of Latinfoodie, a bilingual blog about food and travel. Her earliest food memory includes pairing saltines and condensed milk to fuel an afternoon of hopscotch in the yard. She lives in NYC with her husband and dreams of living by the sea.