If there’s one thing Instagram and Pinterest have taught us, it’s that classic layer cakes are beloved. They stir in us a kind of nostalgia and warmth that harken back to old wedding photos and childhood birthday parties. As much as we love videos about how to make superhero and princess cakes, it’s hard to beat the feeling of joy when you’re about to enjoy a slice of a classic chocolate or caramel cake.
Pictured center: Telia Johnson
Southerners have a particular loyalty to classic layer cakes so it’s no surprise that Telia Johnson thrives here, and over the past three years, has become a favorite in the Market at Pepper Place community. Her story is a familiar one. She grew up in Homewood, spending hours in the kitchen as a child, measuring, stirring, tasting and learning to cook from her grandmother and mother. It didn’t take them long to see she had a knack for baking. “Baking was the one thing that came naturally and interested me,” she says. “The more I baked, the more obsessed I became. In middle school, I was always making brownies and chocolate chip cookies. In high school, I became obsessed with cheesecakes. I loved the complexity of the layers and they came out so beautifully. I didn’t make my first chocolate layer cake until I was in college, and I fell in love (with the cake). Chocolate cake has been my favorite ever since.”
Telia planned to major in liberal arts, but took off a college semester to be join the new intern program being offered by Southern Living Magazine. She worked hard and “learned five new things every day,” she says. “It was amazing!” When she returned to college, she changed her major to Food & Home Economics, and never looked back. “All my friends made fun of me at first, but when we were all out in the world and I was the happiest, they wished they’d done the same thing.”
As soon as she graduated, she went to work full-time in the test kitchens at Southern Progress (later Time Inc. and now Meredith), the publisher of Southern Living, Cooking Light and Oxmoor House Books. “That was the best culinary education I could have ever gotten, especially at that time. Everyone worked really hard there. Because the focus was on home cooks, I learned to love the classics and perfected techniques that have been really useful to me throughout my careeer. When I got married and had kids, I moved to free-lance, but I still work there a lot now. These days it’s mostly baking and styling for photo, video shoots, and advertising.”
“I’m actually a savory person,” she continues. “But baking is my true love. It’s the one thing I can do literally around the clock and be happy. When I bake a cake, or make sugar flowers for wedding cakes and they come out perfectly, I feel so much pride. Sugar flowers are so labor intensive and delicate. When they come out right, it’s wonderful, Sugar is just magical!” she says wistfully.
Telia is making a bride cake and a groom cake for a big wedding this weekend. Except for a short stretch in the winter, she bakes wedding cakes 3 out of 4 weeks a month. “A typical wedding cake around here serves 300 people, with an 18” base and up to 7 layers that step up to a tiny top layer. During the early days of COVID, brides cut back to backyard weddings, so the cakes were smaller. Now things are coming back a bit, so I’m getting orders for cakes like the ones this weekend, that serve 180-200 people.” She continues, “I stick with traditional designs and flavors, nothing trendy. I love the classics, simple and elegant, with great flavor. My cakes go way back. Maybe I’m stuck in the past, but to me, the old styles and recipes are better and prettier.”
Normally Telia bakes the layers, makes the frosting and decorations (sugar flowers etc.) and then assembles and decorates the cake at the wedding venue. “You can’t trust a cake to hold up in the car when you’re travelling, especially in this heat,” she says. “Sometimes I’ve had to deliver a cake two states away. Can you imagine what might happen to it, if it were all put together and sitting in the car for hours on a sunny day? Delivery disaster! Much better to do it there. I keep my designs uncomplicated, so I can put the whole thing together in an hour.”
What are some of the craziest things she’s ever done? “A few years ago, I had to bake 2000 biscuits for Southern Living for a biscuit contest in Tennessee. The only way to make them consistently was in small batches. That was exhausting. This past Easter, I got this idea to lift people’s spirits during COVID by offering 3 different cakes. I got orders for 80 cakes! It was fun but it took me three weeks to get over that!”
Craziest request? “I’ve been invited to make the wedding cake for a couple getting married in Colombia next year and I think I’ll do it. I think I’ll take my own ingredients and equipment with me, fly down and bake and assemble it there. It should be amazing.” Couples usually taste, decide on and order their wedding cakes a year in advance and Telia says, the formal tastings are some of the most fun and memorable. “If anyone makes a strange face, I know something is wrong! But brides and grooms usually really enjoy it and talk about it years later. They’re definitely not going to be noticing how the cake tastes on their wedding day!”
Telia has a few tips for home bakers. “Always use quality ingredients. Make sure your sugar is 100% cane, not some weird type or off-brand. Follow recipe instructions and use ingredients at the proper temperature. If you try to rush a part of the process, you could ruin everything. Some cakes can be frozen, but it’s safer to freeze layers and frost later.” (Telia does not freeze her cakes.) Finally she adds, “The most important rule is, believe in yourself. Don’t be a follower. Make the foods you love, and make what you are meant to make.”
Telia and Telia Johnson Cakes have been doing just that for years now, happily making cakes of all sizes, styles and flavors. (Customers call or text pre-orders which must made be at least 2 days in advance.) Fans line up for her caramel, strawberry and coconut cakes. But the most popular flavor and the one she declares is the cake she is meant to make is her classic chocolate cake. When she comes to the Market at Pepper Place, it’s the only one she brings, in two sizes: a full size, 2-layer, frosted chocolate cake of your dreams, and a single layer, “personal size,” beautifully wrapped up in cellophane with a bow, what she calls “the weekender.” “My chocolate cake is always at the forefront. It’ll be on my tombstone. It’s the real me.”
Telia Johnson Cakes’ tent will be set up in the Walk-Thru Market in the big parking lot this Saturday, so make sure to stop by, say hello and take home a chocolate cake for your family or just yourself. As a member of Les Dames d’Escoffier’s Birmingham Chapter, she’ll also be helping out with the Market’s month-long tribute to Women in Food in September. Remember it’s not too soon to order from her for upcoming birthdays and special occasions like the holidays. “People order cakes for all the holidays, but Thanksgiving is huge, for caramel and chocolate cakes especially,” she says. Thanks to Telia, planning for the holidays just got a little a little easier and sweeter.