If Bre’Anna Johnston asks what you love about a cake, chances are she wants to know about everything but the cake. As a self-proclaimed “food nerd,” the 26-year-old baker studies a person’s relationship with dessert — its aroma, its texture, the ambiance of the room you’re eating it in. All of these factors, she says, play important roles in our food memories. Johnston gathers this information to help develop recipes for plant-based desserts intended to conjure nostalgic memories of some of our fondest dessert experiences.
Out of Proud Mitten Shared Kitchen based in Plymouth, Johnston operates Blck Cocoa Bakes, a high-demand bakery that delivers vegan desserts to customers in the Detroit area.
“I don’t necessarily try to recreate flavors,” she says. “Sometimes, when you try to make something taste just like what you used to have, it puts you in a box.” Instead, Johnston elevates nostalgic pastries with unexpected spices, creating complex flavors. “You can make something like what your grandmother used to make, but with new ingredients that add another layer.”
Johnston elevates such classics as a German Chocolate Cake, with a sunflower-safflower oil blend, coconut milk, and organic apple cider vinegar as alternatives to dairy products. Fresh strawberry sauce spills over a creamy Strawberry Cheezecake made with cashew-based cheese and organic coconut milk, and her crispy-chewy Signature Gluten Free Chocolate Chip Cookies are made with rice flours, potato starch, and tapioca flour; sweetened with organic maple syrup; and dotted with hunks of dark chocolate chips.
What’s more is that not only is Johnston reimagining childhood and special-occasion sweet treats with plant-based ingredients, she’s sourcing ethically while she’s at it. Johnston says that in many ways, the baking industry as a whole hasn’t progressed much from the days when it depended heavily on slave labor to cultivate sugar cane, coffee, cacao, and other crops often used in pastry recipes. Though farmers today are compensated, Johnston recognizes that plantations often rely on illegitimate workers and pay them less than fair wages for their work.
“It’s not always about how cheap you can get a product for, but rather how much are you willing to pay to make sure that it’s cost-effective for you and equitable for your fellow human companion who’s producing it for you,” she says. “As a baker, it’s important that people know that I care about all the ingredients that I’m putting into your food, because I know that they’re people, too.”
Though she hasn’t had the opportunity to travel outside of the country to visit them in person, Johnston has spent countless hours researching plantations around the world to track down establishments whose values align with her own, leading her to trusted companies housed in Ecuador and Peru, among other places — including some within state lines. “The least I can do as a consumer in America who has access to all this information is to be considerate about where I’m getting things from. I try to make a conscious effort because it matters.”
Locally, you’ll find Johnston’s products at metro Detroit establishments with similar commitments to fresh ingredients, sustainability, and equity. Her moist cakes — take the fluffy Chocolate Orange Ginger Cake with chocolate ganache frosting she raves about, for example — fly off the shelves at Folk, and chunks of her gluten-free, dairy-free cookie dough top silky soft-serve vegan ice cream cones at Detroit’s Cold Truth.
“These have been natural partnerships,” Johnston says. “We’re small-batch, local businesses trying to figure out how we can work with each other and lift each other up so that we can keep each other going and offer things to people in different ways.”
Visit blckcocoabakes.com for orders and more information on Blck Cocoa Bakes.