Oysters and Champagne, tacos and tequila, port and cheese — when it comes to food and drink, some pairings are unbeatable. When Prohibition Bakery (9 Clinton Street, 646-596-8294) owners Leslie Feinberg and Brooke Siem opened doors to their Lower East Side brick and mortar in June of 2011, they added their own contribution to this list: cupcakes and booze. “Leslie and I never had a grand plan to open up a boozy cupcake shop,” Siem explains. “We just started baking and drinking in my apartment to pass the time, and it grew organically from there.”
Here, the duo chats about how the Cosmo started it all, whaand how they “respect the booze,” and what they’re pouring themselves mid-bake shift.
Where are you from originally?
Feinberg: I was born in Elmira, New York, best known for it’s glamorous prison. I grew up in Sarasota, Florida, which is a gorgeous beach town and about as far from Elmira (culturally speaking) as you can get.
Siem: I’m originally from Reno, Nevada. If you’ve ever been there, you know why I left.
How did you two decide to open the bakery together?
Siem: I’ve worked in the food and wine industry for the entirety of my career. At one point, I tried to find a job outside of the industry, and found I was literally qualified for nothing. That was the point where I decided I may as well go forward with the boozy cupcake idea, because I could no longer work as a professional chef due to a back injury, and no one else was going to hire me. By the time we opened our front door, we had no idea if we would be able to sell enough to pay rent, let alone feed ourselves.
Feinberg: I moved to New York for college, stayed to pursue a career in publishing, and then transitioned into bartending after getting laid off. Brooke and I met on a trip; we were both bored and under-employed, and had jobs (or lack thereof) that allowed us to get drunk (and bake) on a Wednesday night. We thought this would be a fun way to make some extra cash. Hilarious to think about that now.
Why boozy cupcakes?
Feinberg: Because it’s New York’s two favorite things, and because it’s fun and playful while still being sophisticated. And because the format of a cupcake is ideal for translating cocktails. We generally treat the cake as the mixer, and then the frosting and our signature boozy core bring the booze.
Siem: The idea was born from a cosmo cake. It became clear very quickly that cupcakes would be easier. Not long after that, we ditched full sized cupcakes for mini ones. Cakes have three components — cake, filling, and frosting, so the cupcakes did too. Also, cupcakes don’t taste like anything unless you make them taste like something, which means you can effectively do anything with them (almost).
What was your very first flavor, and what inspired it?
Siem: The cosmo. If I remember correctly, I believe I made the cake and had leftover batter so I made a few cupcakes as well. That’s when I filled it with cranberry/vodka, and Leslie told me to use triple sec as the frosting. Voila! Cosmo cupcake…that we immediately ditched.
What are the most important things to consider when creating boozy cupcakes?
Feinberg: I think the most important thing is balance, just like when you’re making a delicious cocktail. Also, work with flavors you like, but don’t be afraid to think outside of the obvious choices like Baileys and Kahlua (although they are both delicious). Bitters makes a great frosting, beer makes a super moist cake. Have fun with it.
Siem: Have respect for the booze and understand what its purpose is. The point is not to get drunk off of a cupcake, or any other confection with liquor. The purpose is to highlight alcohol in a new way and bring an unexpected, sophisticated flavor profile to the humble cupcake. Our goal has never been to knock the customer over the head with booze, just as a well mixed cocktail also shouldn’t be overpowered by the booze. It takes finesse and restraint.
Which liquors/liqueurs have proven the most challenging to work with?
Siem: Beer is surprisingly hit or miss. Beers that drink really well don’t tend to translate well in baking. The subtle qualities get lost and the flavor profile comes up flat, and distinctly unlike beer. Meanwhile, beer cakes made with PBR are fantastic and wonderfully beer-y. Conundrum.
Feinberg: I won’t name names, but one of our most difficult custom orders was this really herby, bitter European liqueur, and the client wanted it paired with all of our least favorite flavors. It took a lot of tries to find a way to make a delicious cupcake out of that one while still allowing the flavor of the product to come through. And the taste testing process was like, “If you liked these things, would you like this thing?” which is not ideal. Worked out well in the end, though.
Have any flavor combinations really surprised you — for better or worse?
Siem: For the most part, no. I either know the flavors will work together or have had the corresponding cocktail and know what it’s supposed to taste like. That said, our conceptual cupcakes can be surprising. We played around with a michelada, and Leslie made a cake out of Fritos that was fucking fantastic. Unfortunately, the frosting for that never came together in a way we were happy with, so the whole thing got scrapped.
What liquor/liqueur has proven the most fun or versatile to work with?
Feinberg: We can do, and have done, so much with whiskey and rum. They’re probably the most fun to play around with, because they’re just so versatile. Whiskey, in particular, can work for any season. Plus the leftovers are so tasty.
Siem: I personally like working with Scotch the best. There’s so much variation in Scotch, and it can handle flavors that might otherwise overwhelm a one bite dessert. I think my palate inherently understands Scotch as well, which makes it fun for me. I can break down flavor notes in a Scotch much more easily than I can for beer or wine. There are beer bars all around the bakery, and people are always bringing us samples and talking about the light coconut notes and essence of lavender. I’m just like mmmm….beer….good beer…at 3 p.m. on a Tuesday.
How much booze works its way into one of your cupcakes?
Siem: Enough so you know it’s there, but not enough to break any laws.
What flavor combinations have required you to exercise a light hand, or a heavier hand, on the alcohol?
Siem: Like any cocktail, some cupcakes are just stronger than others. The old fashioned, for example, is both a strong drink and a strong cupcake. The birthday cake, though, is based on a birthday cake shot, which has a little vodka, lemon, and lots of delicious (but relatively low alcohol) Frangelico. It’s naturally a less boozy cupcake.
Any fun stories from carding your customers?
Feinberg: I tend to card like I did at the bar, if you look like you go to NYU, I’m going to card you. If you show me pictures of your grandkids, I’ll assume you’re legit. I’ve only really had one ridiculous incident where a girl gave me a passport (very illegal!) that was for someone who was easily 20 years older, 100 pounds heavier, and an entirely different race. C’mon, kids!
Siem: I’ve had people request to be carded, simply because they wanted to be carded to buy cupcakes. I also turned away two Swedes who had read about us. They were so excited, but they were only 19 or 20. In Sweden, they’re legal. They were so disappointed. That wasn’t fun, though.
What do you pour yourselves when baking?
Feinberg: I’ll often make myself an old fashioned, or just straight whiskey. It depends on what we have around the bakery. I miss aspects of bartending, namely coming up with fun drinks, so I play around when I have time. We’re doing a pina colada for summer, meaning lots of rum and pineapple around. I’ve mixed up some dark rum, pineapple juice, and St. Germaine a few times recently. Mighty tasty for summer.
Seim: I mostly just talk Leslie into making margaritas, because hers are the best. If Bubbly is around I’ll always pour a little off the top for myself.
Is there any reason that guests are limited to just one of the scotch & cigar offering?
Siem: It just makes you want it more, doesn’t it? Oh, and the nicotine thing.
What flavors are you thinking of offering next?
Feinberg: We’re always coming up with new ideas. I’ve been really hung up on making an aviation for a couple of years now. I just love Creme de Violette. But we’ll see. We try to take into account the season, drinking trends, and what sort of ingredients are available at that time of year. We don’t use any artificial colors or flavors, so if mint is bad, we’re not making mojito.