2019-03-01 / Dishing

Sweet Treats

Family recipes and fond memories influence Melissa Stitzer’s baking. Soon, you’ll be able to try her desserts at The Cakery’s shop in Bellefonte.
By Michele Marchetti | Photos by Ruth Harpster

Credit for Melissa Stitzer’s sugar cookies goes to her Grandpa Howard.

Seven years ago as she was experimenting with recipes, she brought some sugar cookies to her grandfather on one of her regular visits. Howard took a bite and opened his eyes wide. “These remind me of my grandmother’s cookies,” he said. From that moment on, Stitzer vowed never to tinker with the recipe.

After Howard was diagnosed with lymphoma, doctors restricted his sugar and salt. At first, his granddaughter played by the rules. But eventually, Stitzer decided to keep bringing him cookies. “I thought, I need to look at this differently: He only has a year to live. It didn’t make any difference … he didn’t die any sooner. But he was happy.”

When he died in 2015, Stitzer stopped baking sugar cookies. “It was too hard.”

Stitzer gets her sweet tooth from her grandfather, but they shared something else: A nostalgic craving for connection. It’s what brings Stitzer into the kitchen and is a big reason she landed on baking as a career choice. This month, she opens The Cakery, her new bakery store in Bellefonte at 135 W. High St., featuring a range of sweets, from homemade chocolate espresso truffles and French macarons to cupcakes iced with exceptionally flavorful frosting made with ingredients like organic strawberry jam.

Some of her treats are either riffs on family recipes she grew up baking with her mom and great-grandmother or desserts that recall her childhood, like Scotcheroos, decadent and highly addictive variations of a Rice Krispies Treat. After Stitzer and her husband, Mark, began dating, she attempted to introduce him to the dessert, a highlight of her family reunions. “You have to try these Rice Krispie Treats,” she told him. “Those are Scotcheroos,” he said, immediately recognizing the dessert. “My grandmother used to make them.”

“This is Dot,” Stitzer says, wrapping her arm around a KitchenAid stand mixer, one of three in her kitchen. Unlike the other two, Stitzer talks to Dot (aka Grandma Great). “I’ll say, ‘C’mon Dot, let’s get baking.’ My Grandma Great was a special woman — I had her for 18 years. Not a lot of people get to say that.” Separated by three generations and connected by the kitchen, the duo spent countless hours making homemade ice cream and Christmas cookies.

On a recent January evening, Stitzer spooned out the batter for a wedding cake. She wiped her hands on a well-worn polka-dot apron she purchased when she started teaching cake decorating at CLC Charter School. Since 2009, she has worked as an administrative assistant at the school while balancing her career as a baker.

Last year, as one half of M&C Cakery, Stitzer was working with her partner out of the commercial kitchen inside the Corner Cafe & Grill in Pleasant Gap — “essentially living out of our cars, moving things back and forth” — gaining a loyal fan base with custom cakes. Think BB-8, unicorns and just about anything else a birthday boy or girl wants to bring to life with fondant. They even fulfilled a request for a Great Gatsby-inspired cake, which was so heavy it took both women to carry. They also baked for local restaurants like the Red Horse Tavern, a partnership that continues today.

When the Corner Cafe closed its Pleasant Gap location and Stitzer’s partner applied to graduate school, Stitzer thought once again about the vision board she created after buying her first decorating tips. Pinned to that board is a picture of a quaint cafe in Paris. Stitzer, a self-taught baker who spends her free time going to cake conventions and trading tips with cake decorators worldwide, wanted to create her own version of that cafe in Bellefonte.

Around the same time, she and Mark were house hunting and found a listing for a Bellefonte home with an apartment. They moved in and used the apartment for her commercial kitchen. When a storefront on High Street opened up, she didn’t hesitate; four and a half months later, she began renovations. Collaborations with Bellefonte businesses quickly followed: State Burger Co. ordered cupcakes for its one-year anniversary and TM Beauty Bar hired her to bake treats for a Valentine’s Day promotion.

Stitzer is looking forward to greeting her first retail customers, but will continue baking out of her commercial kitchen, a sacred space that pays homage to the family members who inspired her to pivot from degrees in criminal justice and liberal arts to a professional life as a baker.

Featured in the corner of her kitchen is a memory box, a gift from Stitzer’s mom, displaying three of Dot’s cookie cutters and her measuring spoons. Two chairs with chipped paint, salvaged from Grandpa Howard’s workshop, offer a front-row seat to Stitzer’s baking. A recipe box holds instructions from Mark’s grandmother for the perfect pie crust — one that Stitzer has repeatedly baked, filled and sold to customers.

Baking evokes powerful memories of family, like the time Stitzer watched Grandpa Howard stealthily move a jar of his granddaughter’s cookies out of eyesight after a friend showed up at his house.

“Grandpa, why are you hiding your cookies?” Stitzer asked.

“Because he’ll eat them all,” he replied.

This spring, Howard’s sugar cookies will be in the cookie jar on top of the new custom-made bakery case at The Cakery.

Enough time has passed. Now, those cookies just make Stitzer  smile. •SCM

1 cup white sugar
1 cup Karo syrup
1 cup smooth peanut butter
6 cups Rice Krispies
1 cup butterscotch chips
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips

Combine sugar and Karo in saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently until mixture boils. Remove from stove. Stir in peanut butter and mix well.
Put Rice Krispies into a large bowl and pour peanut butter mixture over them. Stir until blended. Pour into a 9-by-13-inch pan that has been buttered. Do not refrigerate.
Melt butterscotch and chocolate chips in double boiler over hot water (or in a glass bowl in microwave at 30-second intervals, stirring in between until chocolate is all melted).
Spread over Rice Krispies mixture.
Cut into squares when chocolate is firm. Do not refrigerate.

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