You never know where you are going to discover a place that has a fantastic slice of cake or a scrumptious cupcake. What I have found, so far, is high expectations have led to disappointment, while dubious encounters have yielded surprisingly delicious rewards.
Our next stop on “The Cake Quest” found me drawn to one of the things that I have never been fond of in New Jersey: the strip mall. An overload of commercial real estate purgatory situated somewhere between the mom-and-pop store of yesteryear and the towering, multi-floored carbuncles that are today’s consumer behemoths. With the advent of the internet, I thought that we would escape this blight but apparently not even Amazon can eradicate these odious linear edifices.
I made a right off of Nottingham Way onto George Dye Road and to my right was a small strip mall. I was not hopeful but there, between the cigar shop and the soon-to-be crispy fried chicken take out joint, was a cupcake-scented diamond in the rough. Tan’s Tasty Cakes sits tucked in between the aforementioned businesses, and if you’re not looking for it, you could miss it. Don’t make that mistake. This haven of sweetness looks unassuming enough that you could understand why you may not have heard of it, but after a taste of Tan’s peanut butter cup cupcake you wonder why you haven’t.
There are two things that strike you when you enter Tan’s. The first is that it is pink. Really pink. The next, and most important, is the cupcake filled display.
“We make 250 different kinds of cupcakes,” proclaims Shatan “Tan” McRae-Thompson proudly.
I needed a moment to fathom all the combinations and flavors that could possibly be made. Decorating the walls were clippings and the cupcake selections of the day. There was banana pudding, chocolate peanut butter cup, red velvet, sugar cookie, and caramel glazed to name a few. But her real pride and joy was a clipping from her appearance on the Food Network Show, “Cupcake Wars,” and if you have ever seen that show those competitors go hard!
“I made a cupcake called ‘stupid chocolate’ for that competition and one of the judges, the world renown ‘Queen of Cupcakes’ Candace Nelson, said she absolutely loved this cupcake and remembered it,” said McRae-Thompson.
With that, her daughter Alexxus stepped in the back and emerged with said cupcake. This was by far the best chocolate cupcake I have had on this tour, seriously. It was very dark, almost black, rich and moist and the cake itself was more of a semi-sweet chocolate so you weren’t laden down with sugar. The icing was a bit sweeter, and somewhere in between there was another layer of chocolate that gave this cupcake a depth of flavor that went beyond what I have come to expect from most chocolate offerings.
In all, I ended up getting 9 cupcakes – much more than I normally do, but I just had to try more than three. Her very-vanilla cupcake was also a standout. Most places seem to treat vanilla as a choice for the timid so no effort is made to upgrade its plainness. Tan’s vanilla cupcake was very homey tasting, like a favorite cupcake your mom would make, like you could taste the love in it. It was buttery and soft, with a light corn color- not the box-cake yellow that one might normally expect – and the vanilla was obvious but not overpowering. I ate the whole thing (something I don’t normally do). The red velvet cupcake was a bit of a surprise as I usually find that no matter where you go, they taste the same.
“I make my red velvet the southern way,” Tan informed me. “Most people up here tend to have a red cake with a hint of cocoa but I have a rich chocolate with a hint of red food coloring.” I removed the cupcake wrapping and saw a dark chocolate cake with a shadow of deep red just noticeable enough to get your attention.
With an eye to expand her “cupcakery“ queendom by creating cupcake boutiques in some neighboring towns, Tan shared with me how she began this sweet sojourn. “I took a home economics class when I was 17 that was taught by a Mrs. Cook (oddly enough) who taught me to bake cookies and cakes. I loved it,” McRae-Thompson gushed with a girlish grin spreading across her face. “And here I am, years later, taking a step out in faith and opening my first cupcakery.”
I asked her why she baked, as she was finishing up an order for a customer. “Baking is my therapy. I make something that people like and I see them enjoying it – it’s like giving them a part of me.”
A customer, Ed, chimed in after placing an order for over 75 cupcakes, “Fantastic. I come here all the time. Well, actually my wife comes here more than I do. We love these and today we are taking them to her parents.”
It is easy to taste why Tan’s Tasty Cakes has so many repeat customers and new people are discovering this little gem daily. “I can make just about any kind of cupcake you can think up. People come in all the time and say they want a cupcake that tastes like one their mother used to make or an aunt use to make. They describe it to me and I try to duplicate it .” said McRae-Thompson.
In addition to french macaroons, cookies, brownies, candied and caramel covered apples, chocolate covered strawberries, flans and regular cakes, Tan’s also makes “cocktail cupcakes” and they are just what they sound like (I bet suddenly we have a host of new cupcake fans!). You can special order lemon drop cupcake made with lemon bacardi or pete siroc, mudslide, margarita or a watermelon martini just to name a few. It seems like if you can drink it at the bar, Tan’s can make it in a cupcake for you. The phone rang non-stop and there was only a brief moment where we were alone in the shop. As I saw the selection in the display case begin to rapidly dwindle, I thought I should quickly choose a few cupcakes and make a tasty get away.
If you find yourself in the Hamilton area with a craving for some icing topped homemade oven-love, Tan’s Tasty Cakes on 29 George Dye Road should be programmed into your GPS, your Waze and most importantly, your memory. I don’t care how you get there just get there if you can (sounds like a song…). Boasting 250 flavors of cupcakes there are more than enough tastes for your “buds’ to satisfy any insatiable sweet tooth, so go get your keys. Don’t let the modest surroundings fool you, this is one place everyone should try. You should be in the car by now. I’ll tell you again, Tan’s Tasty Cakes 29 George Dye Road, Hamilton, New Jersey. Yum it up. Tell all your friends. www.tanstastycakes.com