Cupcake interview with Sheela Namakkal of Miel y Leche

I've already raved quite a bit about Minnesota cupcake company Miel y Leche, but allow me to do so once again. I first heard about them via Ericka, aka Flickr user surlygrrrl, who is also a Miel y Leche fan. Then my friend Aaron introduced me to Sheela and gathered a group of us (pictured below) to enjoy Miel y Leche's cupcakes.

May I also mention here that in addition to being delicious, they are the perfect size? Because as I travel and try many cupcakes, I find that he overly large ones tend to do themselves a disservice. You love them and devour them but then are too full and resent having stuffed the equivalent of two or one and a half cupcakes in your mouth. Err on the smaller side, people! I'd honestly rather pay $3 for a Miel y Leche cupcake than a gigantic monster of a cupcake for $3.50 or $4 (more on this soon), unless I'm sharing these. These were perfect for, uh, not sharing, which is how a group of six of us all (I think) walked out with our own boxes of cupcakes. To summarize: so good! Totally worth $3/cupcake. Twin Cities residents: don't miss out!

L to R: Eda Cherry, Max Sparber, Aaron Landry, and Alexis McKinnis

For those in the Twin Cities, be sure to check out her cupcakes tomorrow at Golden Fig and/or Saturday at Letterbox Creative. Stay tuned to the Miel y Leche blog to find out which flavors are being offered!

Photo by Sharyn Morrow/Flickr user massdistraction

Name: Sheela Namakkal
Age: 31
Location: picture-esque Saint Paul, MN
Occupation: Baker and social butterfly

How long have you been baking?

Well, I have been cooking for as long as I can remember: my whole family are amazing cooks. After I went to undergrad (women's studies from the u of mn) I decided to go to culinary school. There, I discovered, MAN! I am so not a baker. My cakes fell, everything was a mess. However, a few years later, I had the urge to start honing my baking skills: kinda a challenge to myself. Lo and behold! It took this time. So, to make a short question really long: I have been baking for about 3 years.

How did Miel y Leche get started and where does the name come from? What made you decide to focus on cupcakes with Miel y Leche?

The name came from my desire to have 2 kittens: a white one named leche (milk) and an orangey one named miel (honey). That never happened: but when I was doing a project for business school I had to write a proposal for a made up business and BAM! There it was!

The cupcakes were kind of a fluke: I have always loved them: how can you not? They are the perfect bite of cake and a great vehicle for frosting. Plus, as a perfectionist, I love the decorating aspect of cupcakes. Everything in miniature!

Carrot cupcakes with cream cheese frosting and marzipan carrots
Photo by Sharyn Morrow/Flickr user massdistraction

How do you decide which of the 50 flavors you offer you'll feature each week at Golden Fig in St. Paul and Letterbox Creative in Minneapolis? Are any of them specifically related to Minneapolis/the Midwest? Which of your flavors are your own personal favorite?

I usually let the owners of those establishments pick the flavors each week, but I really do like to do things seasonally. It is not easy to get really good strawberries in January in Minnesota, you know? There aren't any super specific to the Midwest, although I do use local dairy, local fruit, and any other local ingredients as much as I can. As a small business, I want to support other small businesses!

My favorite: YIPES! That is tough. I get that question a lot. I think I would have to say in the chocolate world it would probably be chocolate with peanut butter mousse and for non chocolate it would be the limoncello (super lemon crazy!).

Limoncello cupcakes (lemon cake with cream cheese frosting)
Photo by Sharyn Morrow/Flickr user massdistraction

How many cupcakes do you sell per week at each location, and how fast do they sell out?

That varies a little: but on average it is 6 dozen at The Golden Fig and 12 dozen at Letterbox. They sell fast! Usually within a couple of hours of opening the doors (10am on Fridays and noon on Saturdays).

You plan to open your own bakery in Minneapolis. When do you expect to do that and what types of baked goods will you offer?

I am working on it right now! Just trying to get all the ducks in a row. As for baked goods: pretty much anything you can imagine! I am always thinking up new crazy stuff, so it will be a surprise every day!

You told me that many of your cupcake flavors are inspired by customers. Do you welcome flavor suggestions? How often to do you test out new flavor ideas?

Oh yes: I love suggestions. I take them as a challenge: and I LOVE a challenge. I probably try out new flavors a few times a month.

In addition to your weekly cupcakes, you do custom cupcakes for weddings and other events. How far in advance should someone book you and what services do you offer? Do you prefer to get input from customers or have free reign?

For weddings: at least a few months in advance is necessary. I have to make sure we can get everything together, talk with the location, etc. I offer full catering, but the cakes are for sure where my passion lies!

For weddings: I feel like this is the client’s day. They should have the most say. I am not going to change my recipes, obviously, but when it comes to decorations or foil colors, they have full say on that!

What's been the best event you've catered so far?

Oh man, all of the weddings I have done have been pretty great. I have had the extreme fortune of working with some amazing couples! I did mini cupcakes for Miss Minnesota a few months ago as well. That was pretty great :)

Photo by Sharyn Morrow/Flickr user massdistraction

Who would your dream catering client be?

Yikes, that is a tough one! I just love cooking for people who appreciate food!

What are your favorite and least favorite parts of running Miel y Leche?

I love being my own boss. It is nice to be able to not have to answer to someone else (other than clients, of course!) Least favorite, I guess the stress can get to me, but that is all part of the game!

You're in touch with others in the "punk rock cupcake" community, such as Michelle Garcia, owner of Chicago's The Bleeding Heart Bakery, and Isa Chandra Moskowitz, co-author of Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World. Do you feel part of a cupcake community, either locally or otherwise? What do you think fellow cupcake bakers have to teach you, and vice versa?

Yeah, I think I do feel like I am part of the community! I have been to Michelle's place in Chicago; it is fantastic. And I have Isa's book and she has been a great inspiration for me to work with more vegan ingredients. I think we can all take inspiration from each other, we are all working in different markets, but can come together with such creativity and passion for what we do. It is pretty great!

Almond joy cupcakes
Photo by Sharyn Morrow/Flickr user massdistraction

Why do you think cupcakes have become so popular?

Well, I don't want to say Sex and The City, but...nah, I just think they are so great and cute and have such possibilities: people have just taken to them. It is not a big slab of cake; a couple of perfect bites and you are satiated. Hurrah!

And now for some personal questions.

How often do you eat cupcakes?

Oh man. Too much! At least a few a week. Gotta make sure the quality is there!

What's the best thing about eating cupcakes?

Portion. A good cake to frosting ratio is what it is all about!

S'mores cupcakes - next time I'm in town, I'm asking Sheela to make me these!
Photo by Aaron Landry via Flickr

What's your favorite type of cupcake?

Depends on my mood! But I do have to say I love the Franklin Street Bakery’s turtle cupcake. YUM!

How do cupcakes compare/contrast to other baked goods for you?

They are pretty high on the list. Although I LOVE LOVE LOVE pie. Man oh man. Pie.

Is there any innovation you'd like to see made to the cupcake that would improve it for you?

I think cupcakes are like Mary Poppins: practically perfect in every way.

Do you bake your own cupcakes? Or (even better) have someone who bakes them for you?

Oh god yes.

What's your first cupcake-related memory?

My mom making cupcakes in ice cream cones. They were the BEST!

Photo by Sharyn Morrow/Flickr user massdistraction

What's the most fun you've ever had with a cupcake?

Halloween for sure. I love love love making wacky stuff with marzipan and making body parts was the best! And Mexican sugar skulls. And chocolate ghosts. MAN! I love Halloween.

Do you have anything else to add?

Cupcakes rock!


Alexis said…
That day was sugar overload. I ate all four of my cupcakes within the span of as many hours. The coconut strawberry was definitely my fave.