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'The Secret Is Out,' Says South Side Baker Appearing on Food Network Show

By Mina Bloom | November 7, 2014 5:24am
  Brown Sugar Bakery owner Stephanie Hart has worked hard to perfect her cakes over the last 10 years.
Brown Sugar Bakery
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GRAND CROSSING — It's been a decade since Stephanie Hart opened her own South Side bakery. In that time, she's consulted countless traditional southern bakers to perfect recipes and traveled near and far to try hundreds of cakes. 

That attention to detail, among many other things, have kept South Side customers coming to Brown Sugar Bakery and leaving with armfuls of sweet potato pie and caramel cake.

They considered the Grand Crossing bakery, 328 E. 75th St., their delicious secret.

But now, as Hart puts it, the secret is out.

Hart was chosen as one of eight bakers to appear on the Food Network's Holiday Baking Championship, which will premiere Sunday at 8 p.m. central time.

 Stephanie Hart shared her signature pound cake recipe with DNAinfo Chicago. Pictured: Hart's caramel pound cake, available at Brown Sugar Bakery
Stephanie Hart shared her signature pound cake recipe with DNAinfo Chicago. Pictured: Hart's caramel pound cake, available at Brown Sugar Bakery
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"I was doing what I do and the phone rang and someone was on the other end and said 'We’d like to know if you’d be interested in auditioning for this show,'" Hart, 52, said. "I really didn’t think it was real."

The show, which is hosted by Paula Deen's son, Bobby Deen, will feature Hart competing with seven other contestants by baking holiday treats over the course of six weeks.

While Hart says she has been eating traditional Southern desserts made by her grandmother, aunts and other women in her life for as long as she can remember, most of those recipes were not preserved.

She said she taught herself how to bake, picking up recipes along the way from friends of friends.

Hart grew up in Detroit, Michigan, was raised in suburban Downers Grove and moved to Chicago as an adult in 1985.

For 20 years, Hart owned and operated a technology company in Downtown Chicago.

But when her grandmother passed away in 1997, she realized that her grandmother's traditional Southern baking might fade unless she made a bold career move.

"Food was really big in my family," Hart said. "Food was love. It was prepared and cared for. It was how people showed they cared for you: by presenting their best when they cooked."

So Hart began trying cakes everywhere, searching for the most traditional, perfect pineapple cake—a cake her late grandmother used to make.

"I started playing with baking," Hart said. "Which was an awful disaster in the beginning. It took about 6 months before I magically turned into a baker."

Once she got it down, she decided to open Brown Sugar Bakery in 2004 as an homage to the women in her life who cooked with their heart and soul.

Today, customers can order a variety of cakes, including caramel cake, lemon pound cake, pineapple coconut cake, red velvet cupcakes and an "Obama cake" — a four-layer cake made with red velvet, chocolate, and yellow cake topped with cream cheese frosting, chocolate drizzle and pecans.

Always eager to learn more, Hart says she has tried "hundreds" of recipes and traveled to numerous places, including Mississippi, where an older southern woman taught her how to bake the perfect caramel cake, which is now her best seller.

In fact, one day a customer came in, tried the sweet potato pie and said: "Baby you know what, if you listen to me, you'll make a really good sweet potato pie," said Hart, adding that the woman taught her how to improve the crust and custard.

Markeetia Joiner, 26, ordered a lemon pound cake Thursday morning, and Brown Sugar Bakery employee Cherita Whitehead immediately offered her a taste of the taffy apple cake. 

"If I pull something out that's new, [they'll say] 'Just give it to me, I know it's good," said Whitehead, who has been working for the bakery for two months.

Joiner, who lives in Englewood, has been buying sweets from the bakery for the last five years.

When asked which cake was her favorite, she couldn't choose just one; she said she loves the cheesecake, lemon pound cake and red velvet cupcakes.

Customers can also buy Hart's cakes at MacArthur's on the West Side and in Woodlawn at Robust Coffee Lounge, among other places.

Brown Sugar Bakery is among one of many successful African-American-owned businesses on East 75th Street in Grand Crossing, which is the main reason Hart chose the location.

Arguably the most famous South Side barbecue joint, Lem's Bar-B-Q is down the street. As is Original Soul Vegetarian, a restaurant that has called East 75th Street home for more than 30 years.

"I wanted to be around a community [where] the traditions that I wanted to project were already established," said Hart, who also hosts Brown Sugar Artists Market in December for local artisans.

She added: "We defy the stereotype of what's going on the South Side, and I'm all about that."

During the Food Network show, Hart said she gets to do what she likes best: expose people to the traditions she grew up with.

"[The show] was a great opportunity for me to do that," Hart said. "I’m really stoked about seeing it and experiencing it from the other side."

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