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Whole Foods’ berry chantilly cake is a hit. Here’s how to make it.

Ever try to discover the true origin story of a certain dish? It can be tricky. There’s plenty of lore about a dish as ubiquitous as, say, Caesar salad, and while we can get the gist of the story — we know the salad was first served in Tijuana, Mexico — specific details are murky. But sometimes we get lucky and not only find out the where, when, how and by whom a dish was created, but also get to talk to its creator.

For a few years now, I’ve been secretly obsessed with the berry chantilly cake at Whole Foods Market. (Whole Foods is owned by Amazon, whose founder, Jeff Bezos, also owns The Washington Post. Interim CEO Patty Stonesifer sits on Amazon’s board.) Tall and striking, it boasts three layers and gleaming-white whipped cream topping elegantly garnished with a cluster of berries. Slice it, and you discover more berries and cream inside.

Get the recipe: Berry Chantilly Cake

The cake looks festive but not so fancy that it seems impossible to make. And it tastes really, really good. Delicately sweet cake is offset by rich but light frosting and brightened by juicy fresh berries. It feels like a celebration cake that doesn’t make you want to take a long nap afterward.

Since I got introduced to this cake — I can’t remember how it came into my life — I’ve preferred it over many pricier ones from fancier bakeries. In fact, while this cake is not exactly cheap, it is still very reasonable, especially when you consider how much effort goes into making any from-scratch cake. Spending less than $40 for a cake that can serve up to 20 that’s as delicious as it is beautiful — and that you can just pick up on a moment’s notice — seems to me like a pretty great deal.

I had already discovered that the internet obsession with this cake has resulted in many DIY versions. And then I learned from a colleague that the woman who created it for Whole Foods is Chaya Conrad, who now runs the beloved Bywater Bakery in New Orleans.

In 2005, Conrad was working at the Arabella Station Whole Foods on Magazine Street when she created the cake, which was an immediate hit. Within a couple of years, the cake spread to Whole Foods locations throughout the South and Southwest, then nationwide. During this early growth spurt, Conrad went through a couple of revisions to ensure consistency.

The cake’s popularity grew, resulting in the inevitable copycat recipes online.

Conrad, who speaks with a warm, welcoming, almost songlike voice, told me the inspiration came from her grandmother, who made something similar when Conrad was growing up. But when developing the recipe, Conrad put her own spin on the cake by adding stabilized whipped cream frosting, so it could be displayed in the bakery case without weeping.

After leaving Whole Foods in 2009, Conrad went on to work at another popular New Orleans grocery store, Rouses Markets, before opening Bywater Bakery in 2017 — and has made a version of this cake at each stop. At Bywater, Conrad now makes the cake with white almond cake layers, but the original layers were yellow cake, which was what I was after.

Conrad promptly sent me both versions, and I got to work.

It was immediately clear to me that the cake Conrad originally created for Whole Foods — while still delicious — has been modified quite a bit. While the original cake was all butter, a careful tasting as well as a scan of the ingredients label confirmed that the Whole Foods version relied on oil. The layers of frosting of the Whole Foods cake I buy are thinner than what Conrad described in our interview and how she makes it in her bakery, with each layer of frosting as thick as the cake layers. Likewise missing is a generous layer of berries that Conrad’s recipe features. Instead, my local Whole Foods uses what tastes like raspberry jam.

Conrad is sanguine about the changes. As a former grocery bakery department head, she understands about mass production and working within a budget. Butter is expensive, oil is much less so. And using less frosting, especially because mascarpone and heavy cream are pricey, could also be a cost-control measure.

But she insists that abundant berries are nonnegotiable — the bright, acidic note complements the rich, thick, dairy frosting. (On the store’s website, the picture still shows a cake generously festooned with fresh berries in between the cake layers, as Conrad described to me. A picture of a cake purchased at a New Orleans Whole Foods by friends showed lots of whole berries as well.)

Armed with Conrad’s recipe, I set out to make the original. That meant tweaking it slightly to work more easily for the home cook, replacing some of the butter with neutral oil for a moist, tender crumb; using whole eggs instead of separating yolks and whites; and slightly upping the baking powder for a little more rise.

For the frosting, I made sure to follow Conrad’s careful instructions, which led me to pillowy clouds I wanted to tuck myself into. Her vital advice: Keep everything — ingredients, mixer bowl and the attachments — as cold as possible for as long as possible. If you have space in the freezer, use it. Take the ingredients out of the refrigerator as you need them, and not a moment sooner. And if, as you’re whipping the ingredients, you find that the bowl is warming up, as I did, slide a smaller bowl of ice water under the mixer bowl (if your stand mixer allows for that).

It’s likewise important to not underwhip the frosting; you want to whip it until it’s the consistency of stiff whipped cream — almost like Marshmallow Fluff — when you try to spread it. When frosting the sides of the cake, the whip should stay put, not move even a hair. If you don’t whip enough, the frosting will weep.

While the idea of a frosting layer as thick as cake is jaw-droppingly impressive, to make it work in a home kitchen in my non-industrial-size KitchenAid mixer — what’s a girl gotta do to get a Hobart around here? — I had to decrease the ingredient amounts slightly, keeping their proportions the same. Even with this reduced quantity, the frosting layers were still generous.

Having re-created Conrad’s nearly original version, I shared my small changes and asked for her take on all the versions of this cake out in the world.

“It’s fun to watch this happen,” she said in a phone interview, and I could tell she was smiling. “I love it — it’s fabulous. It’s wonderful to have people enjoy something you’ve had a hand in. It’s a beautiful thing.”

Does Conrad feel even a little wistful to have it not be attributed to her? “Look, it’s my cake, but I’ve written thousands of recipes by now. … It’s just food.”

As to what makes the cake so popular, Conrad thinks it’s the classic combination of whipped cream and berries. “Buttercream is too sweet,” she says, but the texture you get with mascarpone, cream cheese and heavy cream is an ideal foil for the tart, juicy fruit.

And while I am well aware of the cake’s popularity, I’m still blown away by its reach. To wit, my husband had an appointment with our ophthalmologist a few weeks ago and was chatting with her about what I’ve been working on. He mentioned a summer-long cake exploration.

“This wouldn’t be the Whole Foods berry chantilly cake?” she asked. When my husband told her that, indeed, it was — admittedly, he was a little speechless from the randomness of her guess — she told him that her family loves this cake so much, they buy only a small slice of it per week, which they all share. “Otherwise,” she said, “we’d be eating an entire cake on a weekly basis.”

While I’m delighted to be able to make a version close to Conrad’s original, I’ll still be tempted to slip the Whole Foods one into my grocery cart when the craving hits and I’m short on time. I suspect that would be just fine with Conrad. “I just want everybody to enjoy it,” she says.

Get the recipe: Berry Chantilly Cake

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