How “What the Hell Am I Doing?” Brought On NYC’s Original Boozy Cupcakery
by Nina Bolka
(photos provided by Prohibition Bakery. Top photo from L to R: Brooke Siem, Leslie Feinberg)
For some, a mid-20s existential crisis could result in a career change or taking up a yoga practice, maybe even volunteering at some place in your neighborhood. But for Brooke Siem and Leslie Feinberg, baking cupcakes (plus adding a little alcohol into the mix) was precisely what dragged them out of their Birthright-trip induced reality check.
The two women met on their educational trip to Israel; after spending time with a slew of successful young professionals in their mid-20s, they both returned to the states with a burning question: ‘What the hell am I doing?’
Together, Feinberg, a long-time bartender and Siem, a classically trained chef, put their heads together to create Prohibition Bakery, New York City’s original alcoholic cupcake company in 2011.
In their small 200-square foot shop on Clinton Street, the two bake thousands of bite-sized cupcakes and gumdrops, fulfilling special orders and serving walk-ins. They also were recently included in Zagat’s 30 Under 30 2014 New York City feature, so rest assured—their fears of not doing something with their lives have subsided.
NB: So I had read that there was a bachelorette party-inspired cupcake that was like the “first cupcake.”
LF: It was a Cosmo. A cake for one of Brooke’s best friends, Heather—
BS: Who loved Cosmos. She was getting married; we made her a cake.
LF: But we both hate Cosmos. I, in particular, hate Cosmos, they’re stupid. It was just one of those things where we made it for awhile because people know a Cosmo and it just got to a point where we had enough other flavors, and we hate this one—let’s just get this out of there.
BS: It just wasn’t very exciting. Vodka doesn’t come through very well in cupcakes, so it just tasted like cranberry and orange. It was just silly.
NB: So most bakers start working in the middle of the night—what are your hours?
LF: The beauty of our product is that if you need it really early in the morning, you have a serious problem. So we get to start a little later than most bakers. We open at 11, so I would say the earliest we get here is 8:30, which for a baker is really late.
BS: We also have the ability to bake consistently throughout the day, which for a lot of bakers I think they do a lot of prep work throughout the day, but for us the oven is right here and—
LF: I just finished baking a batch before you got here.
BS: And the turnover is really fast too, like only about 45 minutes from start to finish.
NB: Have you ever baked your boozy treats hung over?
LF/BS: God yes! (both pause and laugh)
LF: Of course!
NB: How does that turn out?
LF: Fine? It’s just, it’s a rough process, but it’s fine. The hard part is just when you’re getting to the actual booze and you’re hung over and it’s rum!
NB: Well I just imagine if I were opening a handle of something, I’d be like ‘ughhh.’
LF: That part can be tricky. It also depends on the type of hangover
LF: Every hangover is a special flower.
NB: So, how did you come up with the name Prohibition Bakery?
BS: I came up with that. I had talked with Leslie about the idea because I had made the cake for the bachelorette party and it went over really well. Again, I was bored and unemployed, so I was doing things like spending hours on thesaurus.com trying to find an appropriate name for this hypothetical business that I didn’t really ever think would take off. So the word just came up and it stuck and—
LF: Cute and catchy. Theoretically easy to understand, although we still have people come in all of the time who don’t understand what it means. “Why is it called Prohibition!?”
NB: How does liquor licensing work since you don’t serve any rail drinks or beer/wine?
LF: We benefit from ratios. Because of the ratio of food to alcohol content, we don’t have to have a liquor license. That’s also why we make minis. If they were full-sized, they would basically have shots in them, in which case we would need a license.
NB: Why cupcakes and gumdrops?
LF: Cupcakes lend themselves very well to cocktails, especially the way we do it. I think with the gummies, it’s just another recognizable, fun childhood item that we could pervert a little bit.
BS: We just wanted to create a new product and we had experimented with every possible food thing.
LF: You could do one- and two-ingredient drinks with (the gummies).
BS: Yeah, like a rum and coke.
LF: Like you could never make a rum and coke cupcake. I mean, you can, but it’s not going to taste like a rum and coke. It’s not going to be good.
BS: We just wanted a different product that could last a little longer and didn’t have a shelf life of like a day, and it’s nice to make something else other than cupcakes every once in awhile.
NB: How many do you make a day? I know you bake throughout the day, so it’s probably a little sporadic.
LF: Yeah, it really varies from day to day, but I would say for the most part 300 to 500 during the week, more on the weekend.
NB: What’s your go-to drink that you make at home?
BS: I make the trip to the liquor store and buy wine (to drink at) home. Or, someone brings me beer.
LF: For me, it’s an Old Fashioned or any bourbon neat.
NB: And which cupcake would you pair that with?
LF: An Old Fashioned.
BS: I don’t really drink beer as much unless someone brings it to me. I’ll seek out a margarita or anything else tequila-based. That is my favorite cocktail in general, especially Leslie’s. I pair a lot of things with the “Pretzels and Beer” (cupcake) too.
LF: It’s very versatile.
BS: That cupcake can just lend itself to anything. Like if you have the munchies; it’s great. If you’re hung over; it’s great. If you’re hungry and there’s nothing else around; it’s great.
LF: It’s a good breakfast cupcake!
BS: It is a good breakfast cupcake.
LF: It’s a real asset.
BS: It’s good if you’re trying to win someone over. It’s really just the crowd pleaser.
LF: Yeah, bestseller.
NB: So where do you go out and get a drink in NYC?
LF: That’s a tough one. I think it depends on what the occasion is and who my company is. There’s a great dive bar just down the road—Parkside. We’re both big fans of (it), and they’ve got ski ball and pool tables and cheap drinks. There’s another bar around the corner, Subject, that I love. They make their own everything. They make their own soda! They make everything; it’s really great. And they think about cocktails more than most people do, which I really respect. And there’s a great new speakeasy that opened up called Dead Drop that’s not too far from here that’s amazing. They’re doing really wonderful things with cocktails.
BS: If it’s around the area, there’s a little place called Second Floor on Clinton, which is almost like a restaurant in that when you order your drink you’re not going to get it for like 15 or 20 minutes because that’s all they do and each one is so handcrafted and pored over that it takes awhile. It’s quiet and you can just sit and have a long conversation with someone. They do all sorts of old-fashioned stuff that just doesn’t happen anymore.
LF: It’s also a really unique environment. Most speakeasies now are shiny, and they’ve got fun music and they’re loud and they’re sexy and all that. And Second Floor on Clinton is really like an old school speakeasy. It’s like drinking in your aunt’s living room. There are just old upholstered chairs everywhere, and lamps, and it’s just much more contained. It’s very unique in that regard.
BS: The one I go to most is Salvation Taco because they’ve got really great tacos, great atmosphere, delicious margaritas. I can get drunk a block from my apartment; it’s just great.
NB: So how do you guys conceptualize the cupcakes together?
LF: I wouldn’t say we do it together, for the most part one of us will say, “I’ve got a thing, try this thing.” And either we like it or we don’t. We’re both pretty good at giving notes in that regard, like too sweet, too sour, more this, more salt, whatever. But yeah, for the most part we kind of work independently and then taste, swap.
BS: And that’s kind of the fun part about it, too. It’s hard to create something that’s totally creative and your idea until you get 90 percent of the way there. And the rest of it you can get some help with if you need it.
That said; there have been ones where we have had an idea that we loved and we both tried it and it just failed. Or ones that we really wanted to do and just couldn’t do it and the other one gets it on first try.
NB: As cofounders and bakers, you’ve spent a lot of time together. What’s the biggest thing that you have learned from one another?
LF: Well, Brooke taught me to pipe, which is pretty essential to what we do everyday. When we first started discussing this idea, I was like “Oh, I know how to pipe, too!’ Because you know, I knew how to squirt some stuff out of a bag. And then we started and I was like, “I don’t know how to pipe.” So yeah, it’s hard.
BS: In that same vein, she’s taught me a lot about booze. A lot more. I never really drank liquor before we started.
LF: Yeah, you really didn’t, or you’d just get martinis for the olives.
BS: I’m the person who gets a cup of olives on the side of a martini. But now I really only really drink cocktails, wine or scotch.
NB: Do you have any funny stories about having to bust someone underage for ordering?
LF: Yes! I have busted a couple of people. There are three girls who come in here a few times a week, and they’re high schoolers. We have virgin flavors, so they come in and get the virgin flavors. But the first time, one of them came in by herself and almost ordered the whole menu before I looked at her and was like, “You’re wearing a lot of makeup, I’m pretty sure you’re underage under that.” Got her ID and she’s fifteen. She’s just really good at makeup and she’s fifteen! And I explained it and now she comes back all the time and gets the virgin flavors, so it’s adorable.
ABOUT THE CUPCAKES:
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From a sweet White Russian to the bolder Old Fashioned, the bite-sized cupcake menu at Prohibition Bakery makes it clear what to expect (that is, if you’re somebody who knows cocktails). Each one is crafted with individualistic and subtle garnishes, designed to eat in one bite where the flavors come to play.
The alcoholic ingredients are certainly there, but not by any means overpowering. The Bee’s Knees (made with gin, lemon, honey and orange) initially tasted like any other citrusy cake, but once all flavors joined together and the refreshing pine-needle taste soaks through, you understand Prohibition’s edge in the saturated cupcake market.
There’s a childlike indifference to moderation when consuming these alcoholic gems; maybe it’s because they’re quarter-sized (as Feinberg said, if they were full-sized, they would each have a shot in them). Or maybe it’s because the Old Fashioned mirrors the real thing so well that you cannot help but want to make a reference to the 3-course meal stick of chewing gum in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
The bestseller, the Pretzels & Beer (Six Point Ale, Pretzels, Nutella, White Truffle) was the least alcoholic tasting one I sampled. As the beer makes it way through the cake, it has a bizarre kinship to financiers (those pretentious light and moist French cakes you’re too embarrassed to order because you have no idea how to pronounce it). Perhaps it’s the Nutella which evokes this comparison, but as someone who could pound back a few financiers in one sitting, I think I could easily do the same with Prohibition’s Pretzels & Beer.
Nina has written for various publications and organizations, freelanced in events with Vogue, and worked as a chef’s apprentice in Florence. Her passion for writing has led her toward a role in integrated marketing at Rodale, where she ideates and executes programs for a variety of NY and Chicago-based accounts across multiple Rodale brands.
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