Written By Cari Pierce
Roland Mesnier has been baking for 50 years. “That,” he says, “is quite a few cakes.
For 25 years, Mesnier made meringues and pies as the Executive Pastry Chef at the White House; baking for kings and queens, international dignitaries and political giants. His career in Washington spanned the terms of five presidents from Jimmy Carter to George Bush.
This past July, Mesnier entertained an intimate group at Starry Night Bakery in Westminster. He told tales of his early start with baking at age 12, his career success, his experiences in the White House kitchen and his lifelong devotion to baking.
For Shannon Clarke, the owner of Starry Night Bakery, Mesnier’s visit to her establishment was another benchmark in her own baking success story.
Like Mesnier, Clarke’s interest in baking began early. She recalls baking most Saturday mornings while she watched cartoons on television.
“I wasn’t even tall enough to reach the cabinets,” said Clarke, 30, a Carroll County native from Taylorsville. “I would drag the chairs across the tile floor in the kitchen, so, every Saturday morning, my parents were awakened by [that sound]. My dad always knew there was either going to be blueberry pancakes or blueberry muffins in about an hour.”
Today, Clarke is baking more than just muffins. Starry Night Bakery’s pastry case tempts customers with a variety of delicious homemade treats, including rich brownies and cookies, buttery strudels and danishes, sweet clairs and cream puffs and an assortment of fresh breads.
“Originally, I was the one who came in and was here from opening to closingÉ doing everything from the morning baking to brewing the coffee to taking cake orders and doing the books at the end of the day,” Clarke said. But with the bakery’s expansion into a coffeehouse in 2005, she puts the bulk of the daily baking into the capable hands of her pastry chef, Kelli Swift, who Clarke teasingly calls “mini me.” The establishment now has a staff of 11.
Swift, who received her culinary training at Baltimore International College, starts baking between 5 and 6:30 a.m. to prepare for the shop’s morning opening, Monday through Saturday. That frees Clarke to focus on cake decorating, which draws on her artistic background.
Originally, Clarke went to school for graphic design and digital imaging. Just 16 credits shy of graduation, she realized that a desk job was not going to be the right fit for her. So, getting back to the roots of those blueberry-muffin mornings, she enrolled in a pastry program at Culinary School of the Rockies in Boulder, Colorado.
“That was in ’99 and I opened here in 2002,” said Clarke.
And “here,” on Village Road in Westminster, is where she now applies her eye for design to decorating the elaborate cakes baked at Starry Night. Clarke can bake upward of seven wedding cakes and 40 to 50 birthday and anniversary cakes each week. (That’s a lot of frosting.)
Her favorite cake creations are whimsical: “All the ones that are kind of [Dr.] Seuss-ish,” said Clarke. “[with] bright colors and stuff shooting out of them.”
Her most decadent cake, to date, was a seven-tier, square wedding cake with stars and spirals bursting from it. Decorated with fondant and adorned with “really, really pretty flowers,” the cake, which cost about $2,700, served approximately 300 guests at the reception.
One of Clarke’s all-time favorite cakes was one she created for a flapper-themed wedding at Roops Mill last fall. To match the feather-adorned costumes of the bride and bridesmaids and to mimic the period suits of the groom and groomsmen, Clarke pinstriped the cake and detailed it with feathers and flowers.
But Starry Night Bakery has a cake for every budget, starting with a 4-inch custom pastry for $8.95 and ranging from cakes and specialty dessert trays to a daily assortment of sweets for individual sale. In fact, Clarke has made sure that she has something for everyone. That includes those with dietary preferences, nutritional restrictions and food allergies.
The bakery offers gluten-free cakes, sugar-free cakes and an entire line of vegan desserts-such as cupcakes, cookies and cheesecakes. “We have,” said Clarke, “an extensive menu.”
For those who crave caffeine, Starry Night also has a fix. When Clarke expanded the bakery, adding the coffeehouse two years ago, she sought a coffee roaster to supply the best.
“He’s as passionate about his coffees as I am about my cakes and baked goods,” she said.
On the menu are brewed coffees that are organic, fair trade, rain forest alliance and sustainable blends. Clarke says that the coffeehouse’s espresso is incredible, without that harsh, burnt taste you get at other places.
We’re really particular about training the counter staff to brew a proper espresso,” she said.
In keeping with the specialized, something-for-everyone offerings of her pastries, Clarke stocks the coffeehouse with a full line of regular and sugar-free Monin coffee syrups (among them fall favorites of pumpkin or maple spice), as well as choices of rice milk, soy milk and almond milk.
Starry Night offers cappuccinos, lattes and a bevy of other coffee-drink options.They also offer a line of all-natural fruit smoothies.
“[The smoothies] have no sugar, no preservatives and no artificial colors,” said Clarke. “If you drink a large one with a scoop of soy protein, you’re set for a couple of hours. You’ve got your protein and a healthy serving of fruit.”
Even Rover can find a treat there. The bakery makes all-natural dog biscuits, packaged in little Chinese takeout-style boxes. Cat lovers are also offered decorated cakes to celebrate Fluffy’s birthday. Clarke recalls decorating a 10-inch cake with kitty paws, although the confection was not for the cat. Clarke estimates that a cake of that size would serve 18-20 people attending the cat’s birthday party.
It is obvious that no cake-decorating challenge is above Clarke’s reach. Currently, for a wedding in December, she’s planning the details of a rehearsal dinner cake that will be a three-dimensional Christmas tree with real lights. Planning involves sketching her idea on paper with colored pencils to give the bride and groom a good visual concept of the cake.
Clarke credits her art background for the creativity of her pastries and cakes, but she’s committed to taste as well as graphic appeal.
“It doesn’t have to be one or the otherÉ I want both,” she said. “It can be really beautiful, but first and foremost, it’s food. It should be moist and flavorful.”
Now, adding to the motivations in Clarke’s life and career, she has the respect of Roland Mesnier, for whom she baked an apple pie, using his recipe, during the chef’s visit. Mesnier encouraged her to keep doing what she’s doing.
After baking for a world-renowned pastry chef and receiving his approval, many in her position might feel they reached an apex. After all, the bakery was named Carroll’s Best for Best Dessert in 2007 and garnered second place for Best Bakery and Best Coffeehouse. But not Clarke. She is eager to continue to expand the bakery and coffeehouse business; to be a valued meeting place for community groups and book clubs; to be the preferred dessert and coffee destination for local diners, as well as high school and college kids; and to be a lively place for art exhibits and entertainment, such as the live music Starry Night hosts on Saturday nights and the book signing and lecture given by Roland Mesnier last July.
Oh, the name: Inspired by a camping trip to Idaho in 1995, when the young Shannon, recently graduated from high school, looked up into the night sky and saw shooting stars everywhere. It was a defining moment.