Just Desserts

Originally published in Lake & Sumter Style, May 2010
• Photo by SCOTT A. MILLER

If you’re on a quest to put a delicious exclamation mark at the end of your meal or to find the best stand-alone sweet indulgence, you can save time with these tempting culinary codas.

If you see me at the fitness center more often these days, I have a really good reason. While many of you were working to keep your weight-loss resolutions in the new year, I was indulging in an assignment too good to pass up. Lake & Sumter Style Editor-In-Chief Dean Blinkhorn asked me to find the best in-house desserts with a homemade touch.

We began looking for places where you could top off delicious meals with special desserts or where you could meet friends to share a sweet treat over a cup of coffee. But we found much more.

Life is short and so are deadlines, so I ate dessert first in most cases. My excuse was that I needed a clean palate for the serious duty of reviewing desserts. If I did have a meal, I often took a selection of desserts home to enjoy later. I wanted to savor every morsel of the cakes, pies, strudels, and pastries that came my way. And I can attest that the Lake and Sumter area has some of the best bakers and pastry chefs in Florida.

So with my stretchy pants on and my running shoes laced up, here’s what I found in my quest for delectable desserts.

‘We’ve Created Cake Addicts’

Cheeser’s Palace Cafe , Clermont

Amanda Walsh and her mother, Carol Kayser, greet customers like family. Their storefront cafe on Montrose Avenue is a cozy extension of the catering business they began in 2006 and is the namesake of a gourmet shop that Carol owned in Ohio in the 1970s.

It would be easy to get off subject here and talk extensively about the wonderful selection of cheeses and the cheese mongers’ classes at Cheeser’s Palace Cafe. In addition, the variety of items on the breakfast and lunch menus is second-to-none.

But Carol’s one-of-a-kind desserts and handmade chocolates are the real showstoppers. She arrives at the cafe before anyone else to prepare her strudels and special-order cakes. Every day a side table is loaded with a delectable assortment of sweets. And you can’t stand too long at the register without pressing your nose to the candy case that houses her handmade confectionaries, like dark chocolate pistachio crèmes or the top-selling chocolate-covered pretzels.

Carol’s cakes, though, have “followers,” which she describes as customers who don’t let a week pass without ordering one of her unique creations.

“We’ve created cake addicts,” says Carol with a laugh. “They can’t get some of these flavors, like key lime or mango, anywhere else.”

Carol’s passion for baking extends to “figuring out recipes that have been passed down through families.” Customers have brought in decades-old smudged cards and asked her to recreate the item.

Daughter Amanda says that Cheeser’s Palace delights in preparing comfort foods like grandmas used to make.

“There’s nothing more comforting than a cup of our homemade Tomato Florentine soup,” says Amanda, quickly adding, “followed by a piece of freshly baked cake.”

TAKE A SEAT: Try to choose the “Secret Chair,” designated by the staff each morning. If you sit there at the right time, your meal is free and your picture will be taken for Cheeser’s Facebook page.

‘Made From Scratch’

Tierra Del Sol Restaurant & Country Club , The Villages

Blame Peter Tokas’ retirement for bringing his pastries to The Villages. The Connecticut baker and restaurateur thought he was ready to hang up his apron, but shortly after moving to Florida he and wife Jacqueline—along with their son Jimmy—bought Tierra Del Sol Restaurant on San Marino Drive.

Within weeks of opening in December 2008, word quickly spread about Peter’s homemade crème puffs and chocolate éclairs. They aren’t your generic store-bought pastries, but rather light, airy creations. The best news? They’re free with every meal.

“Retirees are always looking for a bargain,” says Peter, who spent 45 years as a baker. “I like to see my customers happy. Then they’ll return.” And return they have. The once-maligned restaurant bustles almost every night with a packed parking lot and live music. The regular menu includes sandwiches, pastas, steaks, and seafood, including fresh lobsters that are flown in three times a week.

Dessert time at Tierra is a little different because it has no defined menu. What Peter makes for that day is what you’ll get.

Tierra’s Sunday brunch is the time to experience Peter’s culinary talents. The dessert table is heavy-laden with not only his famous crème puffs and éclairs, but also with strawberry shortcake, chocolate chip brownies, homemade Danish pastries and muffins, Black Forest cake, pies, and Napoleons.

Whatever the sweet treat is, though, customers should know that all of the ingredients are fresh.

“Nothing is boxed,” explains Peter. “Everything’s made from scratch, including the crème and chocolate.”

No small feat when you consider that Peter makes between 2,400 and 2,700 chocolate éclairs a week and 400 crème puffs for a Sunday brunch alone. And what happens if he runs out? “I’ll make something quick,” he says
with a wink.

A BRUSH WITH FAME: When Peter Tokas was a young man, he worked as a steward aboard Aristotle Onassis’ yacht in Greece. He was responsible for buying produce, cigarettes, wine, and other staples that the Greek tycoon might need. Peter never met Jackie O, however, because he had already immigrated to America by the time she married Onassis.

‘Southern Surrender’

The Cotillion Southern Cafe, Wildwood

Forty years have passed since I’ve tasted my grandmother’s made-with-love coconut cake, and I had lost hope that I’d ever find one to compare… that is until I tried Kathi Hall Vincent’s melt-in-your-mouth coconut cake at The Cotillion Southern Cafe in Wildwood.

Friends call Kathi the “new queen of Southern Cuisine,” and with good reason. Her authentic recipes—many of them belonging to her grandmother and great-grandmother— have captured the hearts of present-day Yankees and Confederates alike at her two-year-old restaurant. She has customers who drive hours to order entrées like her Last Chicken in Atlanta Pot Pie, Twelve Oaks Pork Platter, or Low-Country Shrimp and Grits.

However, it’s Kathi’s dessert-laden sideboard at the back of the dining room that captures your attention the moment you walk in the door. You’ll find no reprieve during the meal as the towering layer cakes seem to stare right at you the entire time. The fact that her homemade desserts are center stage in the charming, antiques-filled restaurant is no accident.

“When my husband and I came up with the concept for The Cotillion, we knew desserts would be important,” says Kathi, who begins baking by 7am each day. “We started with the dessert menu.”

The Cotillion offers eight to 10 dessert selections daily, including the topselling coconut cake and her fudge cake, the runner-up.

“I add everything I can think of that’s chocolate,” says Kathi. “I call it ‘Southern Surrender.’”

Her “Jefferson Davis” pies made with buttermilk are also big hits. And she always has bread pudding in the kitchen for those who are able to resist the cake temptation. Very few customers leave without trying at least one of her desserts.

A ninth-generation Floridian, Kathi’s love for antiques and family heirlooms is apparent as soon as you enter The Cotillion. Surprisingly, the mother of six grown children readily shares her cooking secrets. She’ll tell you that sour cream and oil, not butter, are the ingredients that keep her cakes moist. In fact, if you want the entire recipe just pick up Miz Kathi’s Cotillion Cookbook that sits on every table and make yourself at home.

HISTORICAL CONNECTIONS: The Cotillion Southern Cafe is housed in the former Bank of Wildwood on Main Street. The bank was owned by George O. Watkins, who was the great-grandfather of Kathi’s daughter-in-law, Natalie Boone Vincent.

‘A Comfortable Gathering Place’

Olivia’s Coffeehouse & Bistro, Eustis

Some days it’s hard to get a piece of pie at Olivia’s. That’s because customers see her homemade tempations on the cooling rack and want to buy the whole thing before the lunch crowd arrives. Seriously, early birds are rewarded with the best selections of lemon meringue, coconut custard, and apple caramel pecan.

Don’t despair if the last slice of pie has gone out the door, though, because O’s Sinful Crustless Ricotta Cheesecake, homemade pound cake, and several layer cakes are always on the menu.

Olivia Spilotros moved from Miami just over three years ago to be closer to her parents in Ocklawaha. She had her sights set on Ocala, but stopped in Eustis for a musical event and immediately fell in love with the lakeside city. A short time later, she opened Olivia’s Coffeehouse & Bistro in the former art gallery next door to the Bay Street Theatre in Eustis.

“In the back of my mind I thought the space would make a great coffeehouse,” says Olivia, who is also a licensed agent with John Roberts Real Estate. “When the gallery didn’t renew its lease, everything just fell into place for me to open Olivia’s.”

She serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner in addition to catering special events. She uses many of her mother’s time-tested recipes, especially for her dessert menu.

“When I run out of pie at lunch,” Olivia says with a laugh, “it’s not unusual for me to call my mom and ask her to make a couple more for the dinner crowd.”

Along with her partner Fred Ledden, she has created a coffeehouse and bistro where folks gather for delicious food and desserts, a unique wine list, and amazing acoustic music.

“I wanted to create a comfortable gathering place where people could relax and have a nice conversation,” Olivia says. “People may come in as strangers, but they’ll leave as friends.”

A SWEET NOTE: Olivia’s is packed for live entertainment on Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons. In addition to local artists, visiting musicians have included singer-songwriter David Mallett, who penned tunes for Arlo Guthrie, Emmylou Harris, and Pete Seeger, and internationally known blues artist Michael Pickett, who has shared stages with Bo Diddley, John Lee Hooker, and Muddy Waters.

‘Baked To Order’

Donna’s Dream Cakes, Dallas (near Summerfield)

For months, I had passed a handmade sign for Donna’s Dream Cakes on Highway 301, a mile south of Highway 42. Curiosity got the best of me and I spontaneously pulled into the long driveway that led to a small house. I was greeted by Donna Maynard’s mother who welcomed me like a long-lost friend. She called back to a commercial-size kitchen for Donna to come out and meet me.

You’ve probably had one of Donna’s fancy cakes and just didn’t know it. She is the baker for an area restaurant, and she supplies desserts for many club functions in The Villages.

The good news is that she bakes for the public, too, although customers must call in advance for her elaborately decorated cakes and delectable party trays. Even better news is that she always has lemon and fig bars in her freezer in case you need to pick up a quick dessert for a party. The moist and gooey fillings are encased by a flaky crust that she calls her mother’s “famous pie crust recipe.”

Theresa and George Hackney are immensely proud of their daughter who has been a professional cake decorator for 18 years. Six years ago, the family added a separate commercial kitchen to their home and became licensed to open Donna’s Dream Cakes, which serves customers in Lake, Sumter, Citrus, and Marion counties.

“I make 25 to 50 cakes a week, not including wedding cakes,” says Donna. “Everything is fresh and baked to order.”

She says there is not enough time in the day to create a website for the business, and besides, she likes discussing ideas with her customers face-to-face, especially brides.

“Brides want to be involved in designing their own cakes,” she says. “And I always enjoy hearing new and creative ideas.”

DESIGNING WOMAN: Customers have made some unusual requests for cake designs, and Donna is always up to a challenge—as long as it’s not too risqué. A popular theme has been the bikini birthday cake in the shape of a woman’s torso.