By Mario Ziino Published Dec 15, 2003 at 5:29 AM

{image1} Debbie Pagel was a dreamer like other 12-year-olds growing up in Greenfield. While many dreamed of someday making money as teachers, doctors and lawyers, her fantasy was rolling in the dough in other ways.

In her neighborhood, Pagel was known as the little baker. She found pleasure preparing homemade birthday cakes for her friends. And when the word got around, she'd whip up cakes for all comers and occasions.

"I used to make character cakes," Pagel recalls. "I remember parents of my friends asking my mom if it would be okay for me to make birthday cakes for the children. I guess part of the fun of baking cakes back then was to watch others enjoy them."

Pagel now satisfies more than just the neighborhood kids. Today, her new business, Eat Cake! is a sweet addition to Vliet Street. Eat Cake!, 4303 W. Vliet St., is an alternative for those looking for extraordinary treats for those special occasions.

And, anyone who tastes one of Pagel's creations, instantly wonders how she does it. Very simple, Pagel says, it's all in the preparation.

"I do everything from scratch," she states. "It's more time consuming, but I believe cakes taste better and I know customers truly do appreciate cakes that are made from scratch."

For those who can't remember what cakes made from scratch taste like, don't worry, you're in the majority. Today, most cakes are made from a mix. Cake mixes are a more consistent product. It takes some of the guess work out of baking. It's certainly a safer way to bake, especially if someone isn't very experienced in the kitchen.

But if you do remember scratch cakes, and loved the texture and flavor of those fluffy pastries, then you understand why Pagel chooses only to create this way.

"I've always been into scratch baking," Pagel adds. "There weren't too many outlets for that in the business. I realized that there was a market for my specialty cakes."

Pagel has an artistic background. While attending the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, she would make wedding cakes on the side to help pay for school.

Self taught and always interested in baking, Pagel decided it would be more profitable to utilizing her talents, so she answered an ad for an assistant bakery chef at the Milwaukee Metro Hotel, five years ago.

"I thought, it would be a dream job," she says. "I owe a lot to Mary Lou Simmelink, the cake chef there at the time. She gave me an opportunity, even though I didn't have the professional training. I had no real experience, but she hired me because she could see I had a passion for it.

It didn't take Pagel long to realize this was what she wanted to do. After moving on to another job, Pagel found herself back with Simmelink, this time at Shorewood's premiere bakery, Jean-Pierre.

"I was so glad to be working with her again," Pagel says. "She was such a great teacher as well as a great friend. While working at Jean-Pierre and realizing that there is a market, I wanted to create my own cakes. I like doing traditional cakes, but I also wanted to do my own designs.

"I think because I had painting, drawing and sculpturing in my background, I've always liked being creative. I also loved baking, so it was a natural for me to get into this business."

And in the short time Eat Cake! has been open, Pagel business has been brisk. "I get people from the neighborhood that stop by all the time," she explains. "They thank me for opening up a store here. I'm finding that my calendar is getting full. I guess that's a sign that things are also going well."


Pagel says customers give her inspiration when discussing an order.

"I guess because I wasn't trained in a traditional bakery setting and because I have more of an art background, I take inspiration from many different sources," she adds. "I really like to have that contact with the customer. I'll talk to them, try to understand the event, try to get a feel for what they like and incorporate everything into the cake."

Pagel cited one woman who came in to order a cake. "We talked for a while until the woman mentioned that her fiancé was Chinese and they were looking to do a themed wedding," she points out. "I told her, 'that's your cake.' So I worked from there and added the colors of the wedding dresses. She was so thankful because she thought that wedding cakes had to be traditional white."

Not at all, Pagel says. In fact, cakes should reflect the customer's personality and the more information provided, the better it will be. Pagel can prepare traditional cakes, but her specialty is in her unique ability to make a one-of-a-kind design.

"Some people say the ball's in your court," Pagel begins. "They trust me and whatever I come up with will be fine. Others want to have a bit of personal involvement and to me those are the cakes that leave a lasting impression. "We'll do a sample miniature cake and let the customer actually see how the creation will come out.

"To me time isn't the issue. What's important is getting it right for the customer. Sure it may take longer to create a cake from scratch but it's worth it. Quality is very important to me."

Pagel does made to order cakes. Right now, she prepares two wedding cakes per week. "If it gets to be more than that, then I'd need to bring on more help," she adds. "My calendar does fill up quickly, but most people, especially planning for a wedding, know to allow themselves several months to order a cake.

Other cakes, like birthdays, or those that are not so elaborate, usually can be prepared with a week's notice. There are exceptions, too.

Though she prefers staying with stack cakes, Pagel has made elaborate multi-tiered wedding cakes. She warns, though, too many things can go wrong with cakes that defy gravity, "And, it has nothing to do with baking," she chuckles.

Her scratch creations are butter cakes. "The most common are white, chocolate, yellow and marble," Pagel says. "One cake that is gaining in popularity is lavender. It's a white cake with organic lavender pedals that are baked into the cake. It has a wonderful floral flavor.

"I use real fruits for fillings, like strawberries and carrots, which are the most popular."

Pagel's signature cake for a non-wedding occasion is a flourless chocolate cake. For years, she surprised a good friend with this chocolate cake for her birthday. So Pagel guarantees that anyone who orders it, "well, let's just say, you won't stop at one bite."

Though, do Debbie a favor. When you order a cake, take it home and devour it, then, let her know what you thought of it. You see, she misses not knowing, like she did when she was a kid.

"Now, doing it for a living, I seldom can watch people enjoy the cakes," Pagel smiles. "You know, I drop them off at a wedding or someone comes in to pick up a birthday cake and I'm not able to see their reactions."

To make an appointment to plan for a specialty cake, call Debbie Pagel at (414) 324-2223, Monday-Friday after 10 a.m.