There’s nothing quite like making a discovery in your own hometown, something completely unexpected and hidden. A place that feels like you need a secret knock to get in.
Cakes and sweet treats are a passion of mine, and those of us that love to bake, we can be a funny lot. There is a certain quirk about people who bake, as in my mind baking is more of a precise science, with a creative flair. I love the detail and I do have perfectionist tendencies. I think this translates well into the act of measuring out precise quantities of ingredients, keeping an eye on cooking times along with being anal about presentation. We who bake can be a bit mad, but there is nothing quite like producing a beautiful cake, the alchemy and the passion all come together in one big sweet treat. And of course the main pleasure is in the eating.
That’s why I was so excited to hear about a new cake outfit on Queens Street in Belfast. Cakes by James, run by brother and sister duo, James and Dawn Watson, have been creating a real buzz in Northern Ireland and have built up a strong reputation for ‘out of this world’ custom design cakes for all occasions.
With so many lack lustre cupcake shops out there, peddling over sweet, luminous iced monstrosities, it is reassuring to see a real professional set up showing how it should be done. For too long now faux cupcake shops have been selling sugar laden cheap excuses for cake, it’s time for the pros to make some elbow room.
The beauty of their set up is that if you just fancy a slice of cake and cup of tea, you can call into their shop and take the weight off.
The shop really is a hidden gem in the truest sense, with nothing but a small black, white and pink door sign marking the spot, Queen Street in the city centre, on the second floor of a typical old red brick Belfast city centre building.
It was Saturday and afternoon cake was calling! Once we had battled our way through the throng of bingo players out for their cigarette break in between ‘two little ducks, 22’ and the next full house, we tentatively rang the buzzer, the door clicked open and we were in.
It felt very exciting to have been let into a building which I ‘ve probably walked past thousands of times, up a long narrow flight of stairs, unsure if we were going in the right direction. But we were relieved when we made our entrance into a bright modest room of wooden floorboards and white wooden walls, two large windows surveying Queen Street below, and a couple of wooden tables and chairs. A counter to our right was full of tarts, cheese cakes, cakes, biscuits, gingerbread men and cupcakes. We were definitely in the right place.
The atmosphere is very informal and we were invited into take a seat, offered mugs of tea or coffee and then told that we could just help ourselves to the counter of goodies. There is a good view into the adjoining room where James and Dawn are hard at work surrounded by giant whisks, sieves, wooden spoons, big bowls and other baking paraphernalia you would expect.
There was a small chalkboard over the counter listing the days offerings, so I went for the Stout and Ginger Cake, while my co-conspirator went for the Key Lime Pie.
The Key Lime pie was made up of three layers, the first a crunchy layer of buttery biscuit, the next a thick layer of whipped cheese cake lime mixture, which was full of zingy sharpness of the lime and had an added hit from some fresh grated zest, all topped off with a thick layer of lightly whipped sweet cream. I haven’t tasted many Key Lime Pies in my time, but I can safely say after tasting this one, it has shot up to my top five desserts. This was beautiful, it was light, rich, creamy, tangy, sweet and had good texture from the crunch of the biscuit base.
The Stout and Ginger Cake was dark, moist, quite heavy with an almost fudgey consistency, with a background hint of ginger that lingered on the back of your palate as you ate each mouthful. It was decadent and dense, and stuck gloriously to the roof of your mouth, which every good cake like this should do, topped with a sweet buttery cream, this is definitely one for the grown ups.
We sat devouring our way through our cakes, giggling with giddiness at the delight of the morsels that we were putting into our mouths, to the Amelie soundtrack playing quietly in the background. Could this cake experience have been anymore perfect? This was pleasure, it’s simple, cake equals pleasure – forget the foreplay where’s the cake?
The goods at Cakes by James take you right back to your comforting childhood, with a pure sense of fun and unadulterated pleasure.
It’s so great to see people such as James and Dawn who have returned home, with the balls to set up a business like this. This is just the kind of entrepreneurial foodie spirit and passion Belfast and Northern Ireland needs to grow and encourage a strong food culture, which seems to be sadly lacking in this part of the world.
On the far side of the wall there is a very tall chalkboard marked up with the full range of cakes which can be ordered, we sat drooling as we read down the list – Pumpkin Pie, S’more Pie, Chocolate Lavender Torte, Red Velvet Cake, Brownies, Victoria sponge, Carrot Cake, Chocolate Orange Cake, Limoncello Cupcakes, Banana Bread – the list goes on, and makes for some of the most mouth-watering reading. There is a definite American slant to the style of baking, but it would be nice to see a few more familiar Irish treats on there.
Not only is there an extensive range of cakes and pie on offer, but Cakes by James will also design you a bespoke cake. While we were in there was a lady collecting a fairy tale cake which included a Rapunzel tower! Another couple arrived just as we were leaving, who were getting stuck into a plate of cupcakes for wedding cake research.
Our slices of cake were only £2.90 each and you might think that ordering whole cakes or custom designed cakes is expensive, but actually their prices are very reasonable, especially if you’ve ever baked your own, you’ll know how dear it is to buy all the ingredients.
Judging by the steady stream of customers, Cakes by James is on the up and up. If you love cake or you know someone else who loves cake, then you need to get in here. You could even try out one of their masterclasses for cake or cupcake decorating.
The baked goods in Cakes by James are the real deal, this is the good stuff, made with passion, perfectionism, fun, a little bit of madness and unbridled eccentricity – the magical ingredients of the mix.
Cakes by James
37 Queen Street
t: 028 95 438545