A Piece of Cake

Terra Nelson did not taste the sweet sensation of sugar for the first time until she was 4 years old. Making her way to her aunt Carol’s house, Nelson remembers returning home to tell her parents about “the best bagels she had ever tasted.” They were in fact donuts. Her parents – old school hippies intent on enforcing a sugar embargo – had not allowed her to taste any sugar before that point.

“I remember thinking that the taste was the most delightful thing in the world,” laughs Nelson. “Then I remember feeling very energetic.”

Terra Nelson.

Terra Nelson.

Today, Nelson is a baker – one of the best in the city and owner of Bourbon Line, a company that produces desserts that use one of her favorite ingredients – bourbon.

But for Nelson, the journey to becoming a baker takes root not in lifelong goals, but instead via a happy accident, when cooking with care and passion was a necessity. Mired in laboratories, during her undergraduate degree in biology, Nelson decided to go backpacking before her senior year.

“I spent a summer in Greece, volunteering to build a road in a town leading to a church. And during that time I lived in a house with 12 other people, and cooking dinner was part of our duties at the end of the day. Being in Europe and cooking for all these amazing people, I just came back home and said, ‘Well, I’m going to go to culinary school!’”

Happily enrolled at Sullivan University, Nelson also very quickly found her niche was baking, a nod to her previous years of dissections and labs. The little things such as making the perfect pie crust became triumphs, and soon, run of the the mill skills.

“The first time I made a pie dough and baked a pie without any pre-made ingredients, I was so proud of myself. But mine always turned out wonky; it was my Achilles’ heel, and I could just never get it right.

But it’s this drive for perfection, as with most individuals working with food, that led Nelson to conclude baking was her calling.

“Baking is a science so it fits in with that side of me,” explains Nelson. “It’s never anything I thought I could make a career out of, but I love it. The thing about baking is that it’s very precise, it’s a science and takes perfectionism, but still has an artistic outlook, which fits my personality well.”

Her next calling was Blue Dog Bakery where she spent six years honing her craft, around like-minded passionate people at one of the city’s favorite outposts for baked goods.

“Everyone there loves what they do, and that’s really important to making a great environment to work in, explains Nelson. “When you’re around so many people who are creative, love what they’re doing and take pride in it.”

Since leaving Blue Dog Bakery, Nelson has taken on a full-time position at Jefferson Community and Technical College teaching baking – a way to pass on the passion that she found by accident in Greece a decade ago. Along the way, Nelson has followed in the footsteps of her best friend and Food Network star Damaris Phillips, by competing on the Food Network’s “Holiday Baking Championship” last November, where she placed fourth overall. A few weeks of shooting in television studios in Los Angeles have given Nelson the bug to branch out beyond baking, and explore the avenues of television, food styling and production.

“The competition was humbling, because you realize you can always keep improving yourself, and it’s why I started my business Bourbon Line,” adds Nelson. “It’s bourbon-inspired, bourbon-made desserts. The goal was to make desserts without that overpowering boozieness, and instead giving you the taste and flavors that that accompanies that spirit.”

In the end though it’s just a chance for Nelson to keep doing what she loves best, baking, and giving people the chance to get a taste of home.

“It’s just going back to your roots. You’re raised around bourbon your whole life, if you grow up in Kentucky. I love sweets and I love Kentucky, and so they seemed like a natural pairing.” VT

For more information visit www.bourbonline.com. 

Old Fashioned Butter Cake

All purpose flour (3 cups) • Granulated sugar (1 1/2 cups)
Unsalted butter (3/4 cups) • Whole milk (1 cup)
Eggs (3 whole) • Vanilla extract (1 1/2 teaspoons)
Salt (1/2 teaspoon) • Baking soda (3 teaspoons)

  • When I do a butter cake recipe, I find that if you cream the butter with the sugar first it just doesn’t mix in as well at the end so I like to put the dry ingredients in first until it gets mealy, and then I add my wet ingredients.
  • You should mix on a lower speed because you don’t want too many air bubbles in it as it over develops the gluten and you’ll get a tough cake.
  • Once beaten, line two cake tins with parchment paper and lightly oil with some spray. Pour the batter in the tins, then use a cake spatula to even the batter.
  • Bake in a pre-heated oven at 350° for 18 minutes. To check that it’s ready press the center lightly with your hand. You want it to spring back a little bit. If it leaves a divot and doesn’t come back up, then it needs to go for another minute or two. Don’t poke it with a toothpick, as you will lose some of the steam, and it can dry out a bit. Allow the cake to cool completely before icing it.

Bourbon Buttercream Icing:

Butter – softened (2 cups) • Whole milk (1/3 cup)
Powdered sugar (4 1/2 cups)
Woodford Reserve bourbon (2-3 tablespoons)
Vanilla extract (1  1/2 teaspoons)

  • Beat butter at medium speed with an electric mixer until creamy.
  • Gradually add powdered sugar alternately with bourbon and milk, beating at low speed until blended after each addition.
  • Stir in vanilla extract.