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Baking the best of it

Baking the best of it

Architect finds true vocation as a baker

Casey and Matt Steele's October wedding looked absolutely perfect.

Hair swept up in a swirl of curls, Casey wore a strapless, A-line dress fashioned from white lace. In wedding photos, she flashed a luminous smile alongside her new husband. Family and friends posed for photos and laughed with the handsome young couple.

But the bouquet of sunflowers Casey clutched hid a painful fact. Casey's right thumb was blistered and raw. In a fit of pre-wedding enthusiasm, she'd decided to make all her own flowers, decorations and desserts for the wedding. And because Murphy's Law loves to foil such ambitious aspirations, Casey had burned her thumb - badly - while stirring the caramel cake filling on the night before the big event.

Of course, the cake turned out wonderfully, the day turned out even better and the story of Casey's scalded thumb became part of the couple's wedding lore. A lesser woman might have sworn off ever subjecting herself to such stress again. Instead, Casey Steele had found her true vocation.

It wasn't long before Casey launched her own side business, Love in the Oven Bakery. The Fargo-based business provides sweet and wonderful treats for everything from weddings and birthday parties to corporate meetings. Casey loves what she does, although she knows it's an unconventional choice for someone who graduated from NDSU with an architecture degree in 2009. Back then, the self-proclaimed "bookworm" liked her architecture classes and loved school, but she sometimes felt like it wasn't exactly the right fit. >>

It didn't help that she graduated in the midst of an economic slow-down, which made it tough to find a job in her field. Instead, Casey took a position working in the YWCA Child Care Center. She was more apt to color-code crayons than do CAD design, but it indirectly led her to what she really wanted to do.

While growing up in Zimmerman, Minn., Casey had loved helping her mom bake. The family kitchen filled with the wonderful smells of pumpkin pie, sugar cookies or lemon poppy seed bread as they mixed, whisked, rolled and frosted their way to each big holiday. Casey carried that zest for baking into her young adult life. Whenever she wanted to wish someone a happy birthday at work or thank someone for a kindness, she made them a baked treat. People started telling her she should sell her goodies. Initially, she thought they were just being nice, but after a while the compliments became hard to ignore. She figured they might be on to something.

After getting the proper licensure in August of 2009, she began baking after work in the Y's commercial kitchen. She chose the name "Love in the Oven Bakery," to drive home the message that these were not mediocre, mass-produced goods, but personalized, from-scratch treats - many made from her mother's and grandmother's recipes.

Accordingly, her specialties were tasty and pretty - but simple. Some might expect an architect to build structurally complex, 12-layer cakes, but Casey will seldom plan a cake taller than three tiers high. "I tell people my car isn't tall enough, which isn't true," says Casey, demonstrating a wry, deadpan charm.

The fact is that Love in the Oven doesn't aim to compete with the already impressive roster of wedding cake artisans in Fargo-Moorhead. Instead, the business specializes in distinctive, carefully made confections like cake bites - cunning little cake rounds enrobed in a hard, petits-fours-style icing.

Casey's handiwork also demonstrates an eye for detail, which harkens back to her design background. Cake pops are swirled with perfect little curlicues of icing. Buttery shortbread flowers sprout from little shortbread pots filled with rich ganache. Fruit-studded, triangular scones are generously coated in a glossy glaze. "It's the only area in my life in which I'm precise," she says, laughing.

The world of architecture has proven surprisingly relevant to the world of the professional baker. Casey believes the former discipline's emphasis on problem-solving and out-of-the-box thinking can benefit anyone with an entrepreneurial streak. And she actually did get to design her own space when Love in the Oven relocated to a 3,200-square-foot, wood-framed building in an industrial neighborhood near downtown Fargo in 2012. Backed by the financial and emotional support of Matt, a software engineer, they transformed the large building into Square One Rental Kitchen and Event Center, a commercial kitchen available for rent, as well as Love in the Oven's headquarters. "Though I'm the one here all the time and Matt has a full-time job, he hears all my stories and concerns and offers up mindful solutions for our business," Casey says. 'He keeps me sane."

Today Casey's growing business has become kitchen central to numerous start-up caterers who needed Health Department-blessed preparation space. It's a busy place, filled with lots of activity and the smells of fresh bread. Amid all this, Casey continues doing what started it all: building masterpieces that aren't house-sized, but mouth-sized.

"I like simple things. It took me five years to figure that out," she says.

- Tammy Swift

Student Focused. Land Grant. Research University.