1043 N. California


On a sunny Wednesday morning a Humboldt Park resident stopped by her new neighborhood bakery, Tipsycake, for a treat for her husband. She chatted with the owner, Naomi Stepanek. “You got to make me a German chocolate cake,” she said. “But don’t make it too good. ‘Cause, see, I don’t want him craving for your cakes more than he craves for mine.” She was also there to pick up some more of Stepanek’s scones. “I put it this way: she got me hooked,” she told me.

Stepanek, a 33-year-old native of Sydney, is something of an ambassador for Aussie and English sweets in her new hood. One of several unusual specialties she offers are lamingtons, jam-filled rectangles of sponge cake soaked in chocolate and dredged in dried coconut. They’re about the size of a doughnut and “just as common” in Sydney pastry shops, she says. She also offers pavlova, a meringue shell filled with fruit and whipped cream and claimed by both New Zealanders and Australians as a national dish; a Hungarian pancake pie, which is a nod to her mom, who left Hungary for Australia during World War II; and her personal favorite, banoffi pies and cakes, a traditional English recipe featuring a rich banana-caramel custard made with condensed milk and brown sugar.

Tipsycake, too, is a traditional English dessert, a sponge cake soaked in bourbon or brandy with pastry cream, preserves, whipped cream, and almonds. Stepanek found it listed in the Oxford Dictionary of Food and Nutrition while searching for a memorable name for her bakery. Then she learned how to make it. “It’s a man’s cake,” Stepanek says of the not-so-sugary dessert. “We’re doing an order this Friday for a 50th birthday party for men only.”

Stepanek came to Chicago from Australia in 1999 to move in with James Stepanek, whom she’d met in a Yahoo chat room and stayed in touch with by phone and e-mail for three months. (They’ve now been married six years.) For a time she continued working as a sales rep for a toy manufacturer, but in 2004 she vowed to find a way to be her own boss. “I realized I didn’t want to work for crusty old men again,” she says.

Baking had always been a passion, so she enrolled in the Illinois Institute of Art’s professional pastry program. While still in school she launched Tipsycake as an online business, selling made-to-order cakes, pies, and specialty treats for delivery in Chicago; James, a graphic designer, came up with the Web site. At first, Stepanek says, most of their customers were out-of-towners ordering for friends and family in Chicago.

As business trickled in, Stepanek, who was renting cooking space, searched for a permanent home for the bakery. Eventually she happened on a Craigslist ad offering ovens for sale and found that a former bakery owner was also looking to sell her two-flat on a stretch of California Avenue that–with a handful of eateries and a bar in place already–didn’t take much imagination to envision as a bustling commercial strip in the coming years. In May, Stepanek and her husband bought the building. They opened Tipsycake for walk-in business in early September, offering Caffe Umbria coffee, Mighty Leaf teas, and a daily selection of fresh pastries. What you won’t find is a display case of layer cakes and pies to go: each one is made to order and typically takes a day to turn around.

Stepanek is quick to credit Adriana Carrillo, her executive pastry chef, with being a better baker than she is. For her part Carrillo, also an IIA grad, acknowledges having become possessive about the kitchen. “I kicked her out,” Carrillo says, smiling. “It’s for her own good, you know; she’s got things she needs to do.” Stepanek nods. “It’s hard for me to tell you she’s a better baker than me, but there’s one thing I bake that no one else can: scones.” Sure enough, her scones are wonderfully craggy mounds, buttery rich and barely sweet, with a perfect crumbly texture. For 50 cents more Stepanek sells them with a daub of jam and fresh whipped cream.

Stepanek insists on high-end, imported ingredients–Callebaut Belgian chocolate, Austrian preserves, and a French brand of coconut (the American stuff’s too sweet, she says). But she’s also happy to churn out novelty cakes for kids’ birthday parties. “We can be upscale, and we can be good quality for the neighborhood,” she says. She’s befriended mothers from a nearby nursery school and is planning a weekly “brownies and books” storytelling session. One of her employees–who comes to cake decorating from mural painting–took trays of samples to Norwegian American Hospital and various businesses in the community. “People came in from the currency exchange,” Stepanek says. “They’d never had a scone before.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Rob Warner.