Delectable Desserts: Susan Morgan’s Elegant Cheesecakes
by Heidi Trilling
What do seashells, city skylines, roses, Juicy Couture handbags and Nikon digital cameras have in common?
They have all been made into scrumptious specialty desserts by the Queen of Cheesecakes, Susan Morgan.
Elegant Cheesecakes, Morgan’s company, offers cakes that are exquisite works of art. Created for weddings, birthdays — any special occasion — they will surely be the riveting centerpiece of the celebration.
So how are cheesecakes shaped into animals, bouquets, and landscapes? The secret is chocolate paper — white, milk and dark — which can be molded like clay. Add a rainbow of food colorings and human artistry, and voilà: limitless possibilities!
So ring the heart-shaped bell, open the pink and gold door, and step into the stylish lime-green parlor of Elegant Cheesecakes. Immediately, you’re in for a treat: The scents of Belgian chocolate, freshly baked cakes, and fresh fruits will make you swoon.
“Customers usually find us by smelling us!” Morgan says.
A self-taught pastry chef, chocolatier and sculptor, Morgan dates her first culinary moment to getting an Easy Bake toy oven when she was a child. She credits her mother for cultivating creativity in all five of her children. “My mom always let us be adventurous in the kitchen and make a mess,” Morgan explains, “as long as we cleaned it up. And so, we were able to explore.”
It was years later, in 1988, that Morgan started her company, after baking her sister’s wedding cake and being showered with compliments.
“It was actually an ugly cake,” Morgan says, laughing. “Chocolate sauce dripping down the side with no particular design. Raspberries tumbling down here and there. Ugly, but really, really delicious! The guests couldn’t get enough, and I thought: Hmmm … this is a good idea!”
But, as Morgan explains, beauty and the way the cakes were to look, were important to her. “I grew up in Burbank,” Morgan says. “It was smoggy and not very pretty. I wanted to be where it was green, where the surroundings would inspire me. I thought that would help me create.”
And so, she moved up north, and eventually settled on the coast, in Half Moon Bay, where the ocean, the flora and fauna, and virtually everything else became inspirations for her extraordinary cake creations.
“When you are happy, you are inspired and motivated,” Morgan says. “And I have the good fortune to work with amazing people. Each one is so talented, so dedicated, and we’re constantly kicking around new flavors, or new ideas for cake designs.”
The flavor descriptions on the Elegant Cheesecakes website are dreamy and mouth-watering: vanilla cheesecake with toasted coconut and mango swirl on a macadamia nut crust; chocolate decadence; pistachio; champagne-infused white chocolate, and more.
Head baker Kevin Dong explains that the flavor combinations are a passion of his. “Since I don’t do the decorating, I can’t take credit for that,” he says. “But when the customers say that the cake not only looks amazing and unbelievable, but it’s the best cake they ever tasted, that is rewarding for me.”
As for the cake designs, Morgan says that her customers call with all kinds of custom requests. Then comes the exciting part: experiencing the challenges and delights of turning a customer’s dreams into edible reality.
“We get some really off-the-wall requests, which get our creative juices flowing,” Morgan says. “You wouldn’t believe the wonderful things that our customers have requested.”
“Oh, we’ve had leather jackets and open suitcases with passports, and stacks of pillows. The pillows are really fun, because they are different shapes and different textures — like real throw pillows, with tassels and buttons.”
Morgan and her staff photograph every cake they create. They have a library of thousands of images, and the Elegant Cheesecakes website is a treasure trove of magical, whimsical, majestic — and even hilarious — one-of-a-kind cakes.
Castles, sleeping gnomes, electric guitar amplifiers, towering wedding cakes festooned with butterflies, cakes that look like newspapers or children’s storybooks — even a fish sautéing in a frying pan! Cakes like shoes and hats embellished with Hawaiian hibiscus flowers. Cakes that look like the porcelain jewel box Easter eggs created by Carl Fabergé for the Russian Czar in the 1900s. The list goes on and on and on. Each one is truly an unbelievable masterpiece.
“I think the really interesting part is trying to channel new ideas by picking up elements from other arts,” Morgan says. “Fabrics, for example. Textures. Metal. Architectural stuff. What people are using for wall finishes or fencing. … We also use the garden. If we’re doing flowers, we look really closely at them and dissect them so we can really get the detail right. It’s time consuming, but worth it.”
No wonder Morgan is considered an icon in the cake decorating world.
Featured on broadcasts such as The Food Network and Good Morning America, in Gourmet and Bon Appetit Magazines, and in discriminating catalogues from Nieman Marcus, Sur la Table and Horchow, among others, Elegant Cheesecakes has a devoted international clientele. Its local client list includes The Ritz-Carlton, the Oceano Hotel & Spa, and a host of restaurants including Sam’s Chowder House, La Costanera and Crab Landing — which offers Elegant Cheescakes desserts exclusively.
“We’ve been fortunate to be able to cater to everyone,” Morgan says. “Families, newlyweds, kids’ parties, celebrities, major league baseball players, upscale retailers. … Everyone loves cheesecake!”
Devotees of Elegant Cheesecakes post passionate online reviews and sing the praises of Morgan’s customer service, and the fact that the cakes can be shipped, too!
Described as a “mail order miracle” by Morgan, her Elegant Cheesecakes shipping system is part science, part logistics, and part magic.
“We did a lot of tossing over the balcony when we first started testing,” Morgan says. “Literally, we tossed cakes around, to see if they’d survive FedEx! But the technique we developed — with foam and a collaring system — really works. … In the first year of doing this we shipped 1,100 cakes!”
Since then, Morgan says she has lost count, but the number is in the high thousands. Perhaps even tens or hundreds of thousands.
“I do a lot of the local deliveries,” says Kyndra Myers, Morgan’s assistant, “and so I get to see people’s reactions. Their amazement. It’s really satisfying that way. And working here is really fun and challenging. I love the creative aspect of it, the brainstorming, and then realizing the final product.” Myers laughs. “And we’re all goofy here, and we have a great time. There’s never a dull moment.”
Allie Lynch, assistant to Morgan and Myers, agrees: “I love sweets and cakes, and creating something that is the center of attention at a party, that everyone wants to keep instead of eat. … I think that’s great. These cakes are unique and delicious. Edible art!”
On a busy Friday afternoon, Morgan paints edible gold leaf with a tiny brush on a miniature San Francisco skyline made of white chocolate. It’s part of a custom cake that will surely delight its recipient. The detail is breathtaking.
“I love this detail work, the art project quality of it,” Morgan says, “and interacting with clients, helping them make their ideas come true. There is a sense of creative accomplishment here. Everything is made with love. And that’s the best ingredient of all.”
Elegant Cheesecakes is located at 103 Harvard Avenue, Suite 2, in Half Moon Bay. You can call 650-728-2248 for more information.
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