Famed for their gourmet interpretations of American classic treats like Twinkies, Twix and Snowballs, as well as elaborate fondant-decorated cakes, co-owners Eric Setliff and Jim Genovese of the Chelsea bakery Empire Cake (112 Eighth Avenue; 212-242-5858) make a pumpkin bar that demonstrates what happens when a bake sale stalwart grows up.
“We use a traditional pumpkin-based custard in a graham cracker crumb crust, topped with a dollop of crème légère (pastry cream mixed with whipped cream), a drizzle of salted caramel and a sprinkle of crystallized ginger,” Setliff says.
“It’s traditional, but it’s not a cliché,” adds Genovese. “Pumpkin can get overdone, so we try not to go crazy with it as a flavor, but this is the one I love to eat it around Thanksgiving because it reminds me of my grandma. She was this amazing Swedish baker, and the recipe isn’t exactly what she would bake, but it has that feeling of childhood and home about it.”
“It has ginger and nutmeg and cinnamon in it, but it also really tastes of pumpkin,” says Genovese. “I think that’s what makes all the difference.”
It’s precisely this combination of nostalgia and a refined, deft hand with spicing that makes the bar a hit for the few weeks it’s on the bakery’s menu – fresh from the oven every day. Billowing, silky custard, with nubbles of bronzed, crumbly crust – this treat is exactly what you should be eating by the fire of an upstate cabin in the woods designed by Restoration Hardware.
“Baking is our passion,” says Genovese. “In fact, this is a passion project, a second career for both of us. I started out as a project manager, Eric was a lawyer, but we did a 180, and went to the French Culinary Institute. We opened the bakery in 2011, and honestly, we just love to be in the kitchen, making everything by hand. It’s really something to be thankful for.”