There are several ways to eat a mini-cupcake: You can pop the entire thing into your mouth (unsubtle but effective); nibble at the frosting, then the cake, then the frosting, then the cake; bite it cleanly in two, so you get frosting and cake in your mouth at the same time; or eat the cake away from the bottom so that the lush decadence of the icing fills your mouth in a sugary rush. It's worth paying this much attention if the cupcake comes from Street Fare, housed at the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless, because baker Sarah Haas is an artist, philosopher and dedicated do-gooder who approaches her work with intense focus and creativity. She notes, for example, five places where you can insert flavor into a cupcake — though obviously you wouldn't use all of them for every cupcake you make: the actual cake, the frosting, a piece of garnish on top (whether a fragment of pretzel, a piece of dried fig or a candied pea), a filling, and — if you want to be completely decadent — a puddle of sauce at the base.
Haas brings five or six kinds of mini-cupcakes to the Boulder Farmers' Market every Wednesday and Saturday, and usually sells around 600 of them. The array includes such traditional flavor combinations as chocolate with orange or peanut butter, mango and coconut, and nuts and cinnamon, as well as some less common ones: lemon lavender, caramelized banana with chocolate, Haas's personal take on cinnamon buns and s'mores. There are the sweet-savory minglings we've come to expect in desserts these days — straight-up savories like cream cheese with capers and salmon or a Gruyère cake with parsley — and also cupcakes that are out-and-out sweet but still employ ingredients you don't necessarily think of when you're thinking of dessert. Like just about every other cupcake-maker in the country, Haas has the bacon-and-chocolate thing down pat, but she also makes a delicious morsel combining bacon with maple syrup, not to mention curried blueberry, garden peas with mint, and a gorgeous, meltingly smooth-sweet frosting that turns out to be a combination of sweet potato and avocado. Haas once baked quail eggs into her batter — delicious, she says, though also pretty silly — and now she wonders, not very seriously, how hummingbird eggs would work. Too hard to source, she points out, laughing.
"She's a genius," says Cupcake Man, a shelter resident who works with Street Fare.
At first glance, cupcakes and homelessness seem an odd combination — even, to use Haas's own term, "transgressive." Marie Antoinette's famous (and no doubt apocryphal) quote "Let them eat cake" comes to mind. "I know how detached one who lives in Boulder can be from social ills," Haas says. "People think there are no problems here, but Boulder's on a par with the rest of the country for its poverty level. There's a big wealthy class, and a big poor class because we have good amenities, and the middle class is forced to live in Louisville or Longmont. There's no connecting class. People always ask whether they should give to someone with a sign, and that brings up a lot about the person asking the question. You could respond by thinking, What a wonderful opportunity that person is giving me. But whatever you do, don't ignore him. Homelessness can be a devastating niche."
One that can be at least partially filled by mini-cupcakes, she believes.
The cupcake craze started three or four years ago in America, quickly followed by a steady stream of articles declaring that cupcakes were over, really, finally over. But in reality, cupcakes remain trendy because they're trendy, and because the country's vast and voracious food and chatter machine demands a constant stream of novelties. And what could be more cutely novel than a mini-cupcake, an adult finger food that evokes all the innocent joys of a child's birthday party? So mini-cupcakes came galloping along right behind regular cupcakes and proved highly profitable for bakeries. Customers liked them because they didn't want to appear greedy or consume a whole lot of fat and calories, though many of them would eat half a dozen at a time. Then, too, the idea of being able to mix and match flavors instead of settling for just one was appealing.
Haas began working with cupcakes when she moved to New York and got a job with Keavy Landreth's Kumquat Cupcakery. Although Landreth kept her actual recipes a secret, pre-mixing the dry ingredients, Haas did everything else, and she learned a lot. Mini-cupcakes, she explains, are not just shrunken regular cupcakes. If you use the same batter, they'll fall apart; to prevent that, you have to incorporate a lot of eggs and butter. (Haas is also working on vegan and gluten-free versions.) Minis have to be more intensely flavorful, too, and this is where her aesthetic tendencies come into play. "A flavor composition is not so different from an artistic composition," Haas explains.
She remembers an English professor once explaining that when you're writing an essay, you should collect ideas from everywhere, and also pay attention to the things you particularly notice. "I really notice blueberries," says Haas. "Then one day, someone mentions curry. It's not about being inspired. It's about paying attention, and listening to people's ideas and taking them seriously." She gets ideas for new combinations by listening to staff and residents at the shelter, as well as customers and other vendors at the market.
Haas grew up in Boulder and majored in art and philosophy at Whitman College in Washington State — where, with one of her professors, she authored a presentation titled "A Graphic Interpretation of Conformist Subjectivation in Emerson, Nietzsche, and Judith Butler." From there, she took a job as a teaching assistant with famed glass-blowing artist Dale Chihuly in Oregon. She left because she became disillusioned about the prospect of making a living in the arts, though she still creates installation pieces in her studio. The summer of 2009 found Haas working on a friend's organic farm in California, learning a lot about animals — and also about the power of farmers' markets. From there she was off to New York University, where she had been accepted into a dual philosophy and art program. Within two weeks, she realized she wasn't ready for eight more years of college.
By then she was working at Kumquat. Eventually, through a connection made by Landreth, she hooked up with a couple of idealistic entrepreneurs and opened a co-op storefront from which she sold bagels, scones, muffins and granola. "People were insane for those bagels," she says. "There were always long lines." But after only six months away from hiking, snowboarding and the Colorado mountains, she was ready to leave New York.
Haas had done an earlier stint assisting at the Boulder shelter, and when she returned to town, she approached shelter director Greg Harms with the idea of using the facility's clean, professional-grade kitchen off-hours to start Street Fare. Harms was receptive: The shelter's strategic plan actually called for the development of a business to help financially and provide training for residents. Street Fare began operations in April. Since then, the staff, which has grown from two people to seven, has baked at the shelter every Friday, then sold cupcakes at the market the next day. (Wednesday markets were added halfway through the summer.) Through mini-cupcakes, shelter clients are learning such valuable skills as baking, purchasing, packaging and delivering, new ways of interacting with the public, and how to deal with the inevitable crisis — like the Saturday when two trays of cupcakes, a third of what they had to sell, crashed to the ground. "We gave them to other vendors, laughed a lot, and made a lot of friends," says Haas. "We're also working on being accountable and supportive for each other. It's all about human relationships and using your hands to make something, and looking someone in the eye when you sell them what you've made."
"Kinship" and "community" have become buzzwords lately, but they are anything but clichés to Haas, who combines a caring heart with toughness, business acumen (special orders for the cupcakes are streaming in, and they'll eventually be available at selected stores), and the ability to frost a huge tray of cupcakes with ferocious speed. For her, the work is about the spiritual aspects of sharing food, and for this reason, she gets impatient with finicky souls who want the shelter to provide nothing but organic, seasonal and locally grown meals. What matters is the spirit in which the dish is put together. "It's easy for people on the outside of social programs to pontificate," she explains. "Being here, what matters is your relationship with people, the way the food is offered, creating a safe place to eat. One day we'll all be organic, but I don't think that's what matters right now."
Street Fare's connections are myriad and spreading. Ingredients are often donated by other food vendors, such as Rocky Mountain Salsa, Colorado Aromatics, Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy and Boulder Granola, and sponsors include Rudi's Bakery, Lolita's 24-Hour Market and First Western Trust Bank.
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Haas's epiphany about food and cooking came at a "crazy potluck" in Nevada City sponsored by the group Nourishing Traditions. This organization, flying in the face of what their cookbook calls the "diet dictocrats," preaches a gospel of meat, cholesterol and animal fat, and insists that health comes from eating every part of the animal: bones, liver, feet. A participant at the potluck had a question, Haas remembers: His niece had made him a rainbow chip birthday cake, and he wanted to know how to respond. Should he eat it? Should he try to educate her? "Any food cooked with love is holy food," said the Nourishing Traditions organizer. For Haas, who's now compiling recipes from "all the meals I've made for people I love over the years" into a cookbook written with a quill pen, the message resonated.
"That's driving what I do now," she says. "It set me on a track. I had all these noble ideas in college about what was good to do with your life, how to find truth, and now it comes down to not trying to make everything fit and make meaning. Trying to have fun, be grateful for who's around and what you have. I used to think it was more complicated than that.
"Now I'm settled," she concludes. "I've got roots. I was looking for home, and I found it where I left it."