Let me eat cake

I am the product of an English teacher who cooked but seldom baked. The result: I have zero knack for pastry and I tend to overanalyze a simple set of instructions.

The instructions for Sweet Neecy’s Original Cake Mix are simple: Combine the enclosed dry ingredients with two sticks of softened butter, four eggs and a cup of milk. “Beat on medium for 3 minutes,” it continues. Absent more instruction, I am filled with questions. Do I cream the butter first? Should I separate the eggs? I do both and overmix the whole thing. The cake—though the perfect shape of a Bundt pan, which the instructions suggested using—emerged dry and tough.

I returned to Weaver Street to purchase a second bag of mix—this time chocolate, requiring chocolate milk. I also wrote to Annette Council for backup. “Put everything in at one time and mix for 3 min[utes],” she responded.

I ran into Council the next afternoon at Whole Foods Market in Chapel Hill. She was demonstrating three variations on her mixes: a chocolate cake with chocolate and mint icing, a spice cake with carrots and a layer cake with lemon icing.

“How did your cake turn out?” she asked. A taste of her chocolate cake confirmed that I am a novice baker. The thing I’ve learned about a from-scratch simple cake mix compared with a Betty Crocker mix is that the chemicals aren’t there to save you. Nothing is foolproof. Practice—or some inkling of instinct—helps.

I’d trade Sweet Neecy’s any day for the processed stuff. And I’d give anything for another piece of Council’s delicate lemon layer cake. So this weekend, armed with a recipe from Council’s website, I’ll don my baker’s cap and try again.

Annette Council had 20 bucks and a business plan. Most would see the combination as unpromising, even laughable. But Council saw possibility in it, and why not? In 1976, she watched her mother, Mildred Council, turn $64 into Mama Dip’s Kitchen, a national destination in Chapel Hill for Southern home cooking that will celebrate its 35th anniversary in November.

“The things I’ve learned from my mom and my entire family that’s worked [at Mama Dip’s] is that we’re creators,” says Council. “We just always watched my mom create things, so she inspired us to go out and do things.”

Also this November, Annette Council’s home-launched business, Sweet Neecy Cake Mixes, will turn two. Since 2009, Council has sold 4,000 dry cake kitsbutter, chocolate and spiceand secured contracts with several groceries in North Carolina, including Whole Foods Market, Weaver Street Market, A Southern Season and Earth Fare, where her product is one of a few, if not the only, local cake mixes available. Council is poised to do much more. She will soon be one of the first occupants in the region’s new Piedmont Food & Agricultural Processing Center, a business incubator and commercial kitchen with rentable space and equipment that will allow farmers and small businesses to process food. The spacea collaboration between Orange, Durham, Chatham and Alamance counties that is set to open sooncontains kitchen and labeling equipment that will let Council increase production in ways that were limited in her home.

Council, like many of her siblings, spends most of her days as a full-time employee at Mama Dip’s. She does the restaurant’s books and oversees its front-of-the-house service. But on Thursdays, her day off, she creates Sweet Neecy’s line of mixes and conducts in-store demonstrations at groceries across the state. “When I’m doing Sweet Neecy, it’s like therapy to me,” she says of fitting her own project into an already overworked schedule. Sweet Neecy functions as an outlet from the family business. But it’s also an extension of it.

Initially, Council baked cakes to sell to her friends, but that process proved to be too much. “I couldn’t keep cleaning up all of this mess after working at the restaurant all day long, six days a week,” she says. “You know, coming home, making these cakes and then having to clean up this mess was just totally crazy. It just didn’t make sense to me.”

Council abandoned cake making for six months before deciding to attempt a less messy cake mix that people could use as a base to make a cake from scratch at home. The only additional ingredients needed would be eggs, milk and butter. “Then I thought, ‘Am I crazy?’ I don’t know how to begin to make a cake mix,” Council says. A year later, she decided to give it a shot. “Something said, just try it.” She studied Duncan Hines and Betty Crocker boxes at her local grocery, invested $20 in a few pounds of flour and sugar, and put the simple ingredients together based on instinct.

Mildred Council writes about a similar style of preparing fooda tradition known as “dump cooking”in Mama Dip’s Kitchen. “After I left home, I had no measuring cups or spoons in my kitchen (salt and pepper were used right out of the container) until my children began to cook,” she says. “Even then, I encouraged them not to rely on measurements too much. I would tell them to try learning to pour salt or pepper into their hands and then dumping it into the pot.”

The method worked for Annette Council, even when applied to the precise and often persnickety process of baking. Upon tasting her first cake, she says, “I went out on my porch and was screaming because it was so good.” The original mix makes a moist, buttery cake that can be served plain in the manner of a pound cake, or cut into layers and iced.

To turn the mix into a business, Council relied on skills she acquired from her mother. “We’re basically all entrepreneurs,” she says about her family. “It’s just the environment we were brought up in since we were little kids.”

Council applied for a business license, selected silver pouch-packaging that would stand out on a shelf next to ubiquitous cake mix boxes and enlisted the help of her daughter, Millen Umoh, to design a label. Umoh also coined Sweet Neecy’s motto: “Make it Batter from Scratch.”

The first store to stock Sweet Neecy was Whole Foods Market in Cary. Since then, Council says, her business has steadily increased, and with the new processing center, she wants to do even more. “Hopefully with that being in place I can go to larger stores because I will be able to process more,” she says. “I want to be part of making this economy better.” Council says success will be providing “one, two or three jobs” for others.

“You can create anythingall you have to do is try,” she says. “And with Mama being 82 now, we have to continue to be creators to keep this legacy going. We have to keep creating more things and make it better. This is my portion of keeping the legacy going.” But of course, her work at Mama Dip’s is an important part of that, too. The two roles merge with similar purpose.

As Mama Dip’s nears its significant date, Sweet Neecy is a reminder that the local restaurant has been much more than a place to simply dine. It’s been something of a business incubator itself, a place where Mildred Council has fostered a sense of community and a hard work ethicnot the least of which includes the Council family. “My children came up through the grassroots,” she says.

On a Tuesday at lunch, Council seats customers and runs the register. Mildred, who has been limited in her ability to do light prep work at the restaurant since a fall three months ago, sits in her booth and watches customers file in. “I hadn’t even thought about that,” she says of the upcoming 35th anniversary. “That’s something, ain’t it?” She pauses. “Maybe I’ll make a cake.”