Most of us enjoy food. Of course there are some folks, tedious as they might be, who like to remind the rest of us that they only consume food for fuel. Poor misguided souls.
Those of us who take our sustenance seriously don’t have to listen to the scolds who remind us about the nutritional perils of our choices. In fact, the term “foodie” arrived on the scene sometime in the 1980s, bringing comfort to cuisine connoisseurs who value every chance they get to explore exciting new cooking creations.
More recently, foodie fads have veered into the magnificent land of desserts. Whether you’re addicted to chocolate, can’t live without ice cream or have a sweet niche you need to itch, there’s a good chance you can satisfy your craving somewhere in the Triangle. A growing number of shops and e-commerce sites sell homemade treats. Many of these proprietors have fashioned their edibles out of curiosity, perfecting tastes that make us proud to have a sweet tooth.
Sweets by Shayda
Shayda Wilson’s sweet tooth was so out of sync with everyday Americans, she had only one option: Leave the country. “I always loved French patisserie,” she says.
Her affection for the foreign pastry tradition was so strong that she enrolled at the Le Cordon Bleu culinary institute in France. “I moved to Paris in 2013 for a year,” Wilson says. “I had been working in accounting and I pretty much saved up all my money. I loved it. The program was nine months, then I worked two months in an éclair shop.”
In January 2021, she opened Sweets By Shayda at 105 West Morgan Street in Durham. Her signature item, macarons, have a certain je ne sais quoi. “Macarons are a cookie made with almond flour, sugar and egg whites,” she says. “They’re filled with creams and ganaches. It was a very odd concept to do mainly macarons for a business. I did a farmers market, and a lot of people hadn’t heard of them. They were wondering why they were so small and so expensive. So I was trying to introduce the demographic to this thing that was hard to do.”
Wilson offers 25 flavors of macarons, along with croissants and French pastries. She has found a way to make her trademark treat appealing to her audience. “We make a lot of fun flavors that people like here,” Wilson says. “We have a red velvet flavor, a birthday cake flavor, cotton candy … a lot of fun, Americanized flavors.”
After years of renting a commercial kitchen for specialty orders, the bakery is catching on. Modeled after a French patisserie, the shop offers eight tables and serves coffee and espresso drinks. New and seasonal macarons—key lime pie in the summer, pumpkin in the fall—give her customers reason to keep coming back. “We use the best ingredients; we’re not skimping on costs,” she says. “We don’t rely on people walking by all the time. People just happen to find us.”
Ella’s Popcorn began as a simple birthday party favor. Jill Santa Lucia, owner of Catering Works in Raleigh, wanted a special popcorn for her daughter Ella’s safari-themed seventh birthday party. She came up with a recipe that included chocolate sandwich cookies and white chocolate drizzle. Zebra Pop was born. “All the moms loved it,” says Ella’s Popcorn marketing specialist Savannah Patinka.
“It was a hit, and it really took off. So they started featuring it for weddings and parties and things like that.”
But Ella’s Popcorn didn’t become a business until years later in 2020. (Ella is now a student at Elon University.) Santa Lucia and her sister, Lorin Laxton, are partners in the company, and have built a following across the state. The company’s reach is growing after three appearances on HSN (formerly the Home Shopping Network). “Our audience is very local to North Carolina,” Patinka says. “We’re also very popular in California and in Brooklyn (New York). Our audience is a lot of women, as we are a woman-owned, veteran-owned and family-owned business.”
Ella’s Popcorn’s 20 flavors cover the spectrum of sweets, including Campfire, Sin-amon Bunz and Coconut Cream. Popping the corn is a long process that involves using a “mushroom” variety that produces big, billowy fluffs. “After we pop the corn, we add some different mix-ins,” Patinka says. “Then we bake it, depending on the flavor, three separate times, adding more mix-ins. Then you let it cool. It gives that nice artisan flair to it. We don’t like soggy popcorn—it really has that perfect crunch.”
And to think it all started from a birthday party idea. “Kids really enjoy it. It’s a perfect party snack,” Patinka says. “But it goes from kids to people who want it at their weddings as a party favor. Once you try it, you’re going to love it.”
TikTok Sugar Lover Elena Brown
Elena Brown likes her sweets. It’s not enough, however, to just indulge in a few chocolate cookies or slurp a shake. In the age of social media, she has taken her love of sugary stuff to the social media platform TikTok. “One day, I randomly hosted a video, eating a Kit Kat bar in a quirky and unique way that I actually eat Kit Kat bars,” she says. “I eat around all the edges and eat layer by layer. It tastes better that way. It just does.”
After growing up in New York and later attending the University of California at Los Angeles, Brown initially focused on videos comparing bicoastal desserts. Now she has settled in Raleigh as part of the Team RAR YouTube collective, with a passion for finding and eating the Triangle’s most interesting desserts. More than 200,000 TikTok followers later, she’s on a roll. “I look for flavors I’ve never tried before, or unique food items,” she says. “I will drive any distance to get a dessert. I drove an hour and half to get a milkshake at a grand opening.”
Her live-for-the-moment hobby might be an affront to dentists and dieticians everywhere, but that’s part of the fun. She often wears a shirt emblazoned with “Eat Your Lettuce And Be Sad” as she chomps on a cannoli cheesecake cookie or polishes off a Nutella Smackdown.
So, how does the Triangle stack up when it comes to desserts? “I think there’s a lot more places up and coming,” she says. “And I’m in a food club now, so I’m able to explore.”
Want to know more? Explore Triangle treats with @elena_brown08 on TikTok.
Tonya Council was just a little girl when she learned her craft from a North Carolina legend. Council would often hang around her grandmother, the late Mildred Council, known widely as “Mama Dip” for her namesake Chapel Hill restaurant and a number of cookbooks. “It was cool to see how she interacted with other people who came in the restaurant. She never met a stranger,” Council says. “There were a lot of different life lessons outside the kitchen, but we were still in the restaurant.”
Before long, Mama Dip’s granddaughter tried her hand at making cookies, restocking the bakery cases when they were empty.
Her cookies sold, and her ambition grew.
“I decided I want to try to make a cookie that tastes like [my grandmother’s] pecan pie because that’s my favorite dessert of all time,” Council says. “Once I perfected it, she said, ‘Put it in the display case and let’s see how they sell.’” They sold out every day.
Council named the cookies Pecan Crisps and, today, the treats she perfected as a kid still hit the sweet spot. They are a bestseller, along with cranberry white chocolate, oatmeal raisin and other flavors. Tonya’s Cookies was featured on Oprah’s Favorite Things in 2021, boosting sales and exposure for the brand. “It was insane,” Council says. “I was probably walking out of my kitchen at 2 or 3 a.m. most early mornings, then turning back around to start back at 6:00 in the morning. I wasn’t getting much sleep.”
Council still likes to tinker with cookie flavors. “To be able to experiment and come up with something people like, that’s what my drive is,” Council says. “I played around a little and came up with a cookie that tastes like peanut brittle. That one was an accident, but most things are when you’re trying to come up with things in the kitchen.”
Mrs. Ruth’s Jams
Ruth Taylor works her jam business every day, whether she’s cooking, labeling or shipping her goods. And to this day, she’s still a bit surprised by it all. “I never, ever intended to do this,” she says emphatically. “I spent 30 years in corporate.”
It sounds like the makings of a Hallmark movie plot, but it comes with a tug at the heartstrings. “I got into making jam for my late husband,’ says Taylor, whose business is located in Apex. “He loved strawberry jam. His aunt would give him a few jars every summer, and we would run out. So I started making jam for him.”
Nevertheless, she was determined to master the craft. She and her husband frequently vacationed in Maine, where she befriended an innkeeper who made his own sweet spreads. “I would call him and say, ‘I’m stuck,’” she says. “And he literally taught me how to make jam over the phone.”
Even though she was never a big jam eater herself, she did enjoy good bread. And on her visits to La Farm Bakery, she did not live by bread alone. “So I would take my little Tupperware cup in my purse,” Taylor says.
“I finally told them what I was doing. They said, ‘If your jam is that good, bring us some.” So now I’m selling there 13 years later.”
Taylor also realized her creations had a restorative effect. After years of product management and writing software at IBM, she found a reason to step up her game. “Working in corporate, you never knew if you made someone happy, but you knew if you made them mad in a nanosecond,” she says. “But if you sell somebody jam, they’re going to smile and they’re happy. Kind of as a balance to the corporate world, I started making jam.”
After focusing on wholesale for years, Taylor found herself with plenty of time and inventory during the pandemic. That’s when her e-commerce site gained traction. While Mrs. Ruth’s Jams sell especially well in North Carolina, her products are now finding folks across the country. “I just shipped to Fairbanks, Alaska,” she says. “How they found us, I don’t know.”
Mrs. Ruth’s—a nod to the way her Sunday school students used to address her—offers variations on berry flavors, but also offers pepper, fig and mint jams. Her Belgian chocolate strawberry jam won a 2020 Good Food Award.
“I’m very curious,” she says. “I’ll take the base flavor—let’s say strawberry—and I will scoop out a little bit in a bowl and add some flavoring to it. I tinker with it until I like the flavor.”
When it comes to topping your foods, Taylor suggests thinking beyond the biscuit. The flavors make a good mix-in for yogurt or oatmeal, and they also work well as a rub for chicken.
So, which flavor does Mrs. Ruth like the best? Her eyes grow wide and she smiles. “Well, that’s like asking somebody who their favorite kid is, isn’t it?”
Big League Waffles + Scoops
Ramy Bahgat thought it was a bad sign when his lone dessert competitor in Raleigh’s Morgan Street Food Hall closed down after the pandemic. His Raleigh Rolls ice cream was a hit, but he pushed management to find another tenant that would give sweets lovers a reason to visit the hall.
When they found no immediate takers, Bahgat took the space and came up with a concept of his own: Liege waffles. He figured they would make a nice warm, wintertime option. “They are very different from Belgian waffles,” Bahgat says. “They are not made out of batter, they are made out of yeasted dough. They’re infused with pearled sugar that makes them nice and crunchy on the top but very moist on the inside. It’s more like a sweet brioche than regular waffles.”
It took a while to create the right recipe, but when he did, he had a receptive audience. On Valentine’s Day in 2021 he made the waffles, paired them with ice cream and passed out samples to Raleigh Rolls customers. “Everyone I tested it on said it was perfect,” he says. “I probably sampled it on 100 to 150 people.”
The only trick was the preparation. “From the start of making the dough to actually serving, it takes two-and-a-half to three hours,” Bahgat says. “It takes time to pamper the dough to make sure it’s perfect. Then we add the pearl sugar as people order it, and cook it right away. That’s how you get that nice crunch and pieces of sugar that haven’t melted all the way yet.”
While the waffles are a tasty treat on their own, patrons can pair them with ice cream, fruits and drizzles. Any way you like them, the owner says, will be a hit. “I personally love them the way they are without any drizzle on them,” Bahgat says. “Just a little powdered sugar and that’s it.”
Falling for Candied Apples
There’s no better fall confection than a juicy apple dipped in a delicious, colorful candy coating. Kandy Apples by K, located on Capital Boulevard in Raleigh, wraps tangy apples in 30 different flavors and more colors than you could ever imagine. Choose from options like carnival, pomegranate, watermelon, Jolly Rancher, cotton candy, white chocolate, candy grapes, Butterfinger and more. Perfect for your next fall event!