A career in cakes

Dee Stillwell

Photo By Lilly fuentes-joy

Move over, Paula Deen! Dee Stillwell has a Pumpkin Gooey Butter Pie that will give your cakes a run for their money. A stickler in the kitchen, Stillwell has satisfied many a sweet tooth in her years as a bakery owner in Citrus Heights. Now that she’s retired, she sticks to sharing her recipes online at www.justapinch.com.

What inspired your pumpkin pie recipe?

Well, it’s a spinoff of Paula Deen’s Pumpkin Gooey Butter Cake. I originally baked it in the 9-by-13 pan like she requests, but it leaves a very thick crust. I don’t like pie crusts, so I decided to put it in pie tins and turn it into a pie instead of a cake. I use less sugar and double the spices than she does. It’s actually my 9-year-old grandson’s favorite pie.

Describe your mama’s cooking.

My mama wasn’t exactly the best cook. By the time I was 10 years old, I was cooking full meals in my home. My dad would come whisper in my ear and say, “Could you please make the meatloaf?” He was always teasing my mom at Thanksgiving dinner, “Mama, you cooked the juice right out of [the turkey]!” She would always overcook her meat.

Have any recipes been passed down in your family?

Yes! Pop’s molasses-taffy popcorn balls. That recipe has been passed down for over 100 years. My father was born in 1917, and his mother used to make taffy the old-fashioned way, with a taffy hook … that she put in the doorjamb in the kitchen and pulled the taffy. We always knew it was fall when we got to make popcorn balls and taffy.

Have you ever thought about opening a bakery?

Been there, done that! I was a cake decorator and a bakery owner for 30 years. I used to own Cake and Candy Specialties [in Citrus Heights]. I had to sell in ’99 due to health reasons that required me to be off my legs. The business is still thriving and in the same location since 1976. They just took out an ad in the Clipper Magazine, so I was able to see some of the work they’ve done, and it’s just beautiful. It makes me happy to know I sold it to the right people.

Any unusual cake decoration requests?

I’ve been asked to make everything from airplanes to toilets—all out of cake!

Have you participated in any cooking competitions in Sacramento?

Yes, I won first place in Arden Fair’s 18th birthday cake contest. That was before I started making cakes professionally. The cake I made was a big plate, and on it I had a foil baked potato, a steak, lobster complete with butter sauce and lemon wedge, a big cupcake for the dessert and another small cake made into a salad bowl with salad, a glass of champagne, and I piped the utensils as icing. All this was made out of cake, of course.

Tell me about a time when things went horribly wrong in the kitchen.

I was wearing sandals and delivering a three-tiered wedding cake. I tripped and got icing all over my neck, but managed to save the cake from collapsing underneath me. It was a Saturday, late afternoon, and I frantically tried to reach my bakery friends, but no one was available. I ended up driving back to my bakery, fixed it and delivered it just as the wedding ceremony was starting.

Name three dishes of yours that people just cannot seem to get enough of.

Just three? Well, my Kahlua truffles … my barbecue ribs that I rub with Alton Brown’s barbecue sauce, my mom’s cabbage rolls and my carrot cake! Actually, my carrot cake was about 50 percent of my sales at Cake and Candy Specialties. Every time I would sell my carrot cake, I got double the people coming back for more. I make it from scratch and put coconut and pineapple and pecans in it.

I know you’re retired, but if you decided to open a restaurant, what would you name it, and what cuisine would you specialize in?

Comfort food, of course. And it would probably be called DeeLaine’s, a cross between my name and my best friend Elaine. She passed away a year ago in July, and I’m missing her still. We were friends for 15 years. She used to work for me at my bakery. Bless her heart. She came into my bakery looking for chocolate frosting, which I only made special order. I was very busy, so I had to tell her no, and she kept insisting she had a cake-order emergency (she was a cake decorator) and then offered to help me later that night after her cake emergency. She showed up later that night, helped me with everything I had to do, and we were best friends ever since.

Advice for new cooks?

Always follow a recipe until you learn how to cook. Then you can adjust cooking and seasoning to your own taste. But the first thing to do is to learn how to cook by following a recipe. That’s the secret to learning how to cook.