When Jeremy Sher got lonely during the state’s stay-at-home order, the veteran pastry chef did what he knows best.
“I was really isolated, living alone, and it hit me pretty hard,” he said. “I just started baking.”
He would deliver cakes, eclairs and other desserts to friends’ doorsteps a way to connect from 20 paces away. Eventually, while they enjoyed seeing him, they said he didn’t need to give them any more cake. Undeterred, he baked a cake anyway and went online to find a beneficiary.
“I just said, who needs this?" he recalled. "Who’s overwhelmed, isolated, depressed, stressed out? I want to send this cake to that person, and I’ll send it to them from you.”
Sher also improvised a hashtag, “#cakeitforward” and posted it.
His quarantine distraction caught on quickly, since people would request cakes (and a price), and the recipient would post pictures.
“I wanted to empower people to keep reaching out to each other, and then it took off," he said. "I really had no aspirations with it, I just wanted to keep connecting with people and helping them connect to each other."
He received unsolicited donations from out of state. People in town ordered cakes to be sent to family, friends or workplaces they appreciated. He might bake three to five cakes in a day.
Recently, he decided to make the venture official as Missoula Cakes, a one-person dessert company where he bakes cakes by order out of a commercial kitchen. You can still "cakeitforward," but as always he doesn't mind if you buy one for yourself or your household.
He described his style his “neoclassical” — he likes to take classics and put a spin on them, although never so far that they’re unrecognizable.
“My desserts are always less sweet, less heavy, and I say 'flavor forward,' which means if you call something an Earl Grey soufflé, you have to taste the Earl Grey quickly. It shouldn’t be an afterthought.”
The quarantine was a time for free exploration with recipes he’d never tried before, like those eclairs. For Missoula Cakes, he’s designed a menu of seasonal specials (a pumpkin chiffon cheesecake and a “Crantasia” for example) along with staples of the dessert world.
His chocolate mousse cake is his No. 1, and chocolate “should always be the best-seller unless you’re doing something really wrong,” he said.
His take is a chocolate cake with ganache, dark chocolate mousse and fresh berries, topped with a mirror glaze. Last week, he demonstrated a colorful mirror glaze, a technique he taught himself during the pandemic. First he freezes the cake, since it needs to be cold and solidified. Then, he heated up three color glazes to pour together.
“It’s different every single time,” he said, as the glazes rushed toward the edges of the cake and down the sides in a marbled finish. He compared it to shooting on film — it’s exciting because you’re not totally certain what you’ll see after it’s developed.
He then decorated the top with handmade pieces of tempered chocolate — snowflakes and pleasing abstract shapes, to give it the look of a small sculpture.
So what’s it like to get a cake unannounced? One of the early recipients of Sher’s handiwork is a friend, Kendra Potter. She and her husband, Tyler, were quarantined before the stay-at-home orders because their kids, ages 7 and 3, contracted the flu.
It was an emotionally trying period. She knew people in New York City and Los Angeles who had contracted COVID, and one person who died, early in the pandemic. Many of her friends in those cities were struggling, so she started teaching yoga online five days a week for free. People sent her homemade items frequently as a way of saying thanks.
One day, Sher showed up at her house with “an unbelievably gorgeous cake,” she said. The family had “three or four days of delicious pieces of cake, and feeling really seen.”
She had been trying to stay upbeat publicly, so the offline gift was welcomed.
“It just felt really nice that someone found a way to be supportive from a distance,” Potter said.
Her family then sent eclairs to some friends, who in turn sent dessert to others, eventually looping back with more cake sent to her family.
What she learned, is “that my community’s love language is pastries. So many people in my life got excited.”
Sher’s kitchen background is “all over the map,” he said. “Geographically, but also within the industry. It’s like high-end hotels, local bakeries, fancy restaurants.”
He studied pastry-making in college, and worked in a succession of places like the Four Seasons Olympic Hotel in Seattle, where “everything has to be perfect, 100% of the time,” while executing huge events, such as making enough cake to serve a wedding banquet for 500. He also worked in a schnitzel house in Munich, and a backpacker cafe in Ecuador, while he was trekking through the Andes.
“Every job has been formative in its own way, you know. I really learned a wide range of different things at each place,” he said.
A stint at the St. Mary Lodge in Glacier National Park brought him to Montana, where he moved permanently. Here in town, he’s worked with Posh Chocolat, Scotty’s Table, Tandem Bakery and the Camino. If you enjoy theater, you may have seen his original production, “The Dirty Sexy Chocolate Show,” which combined a fun cabaret show with dessert service. He’s also appeared in the Montana Repertory Theatre’s adaptation of “The War of the Worlds.”
He started his own cupcake bakery in Chicago, where he and three others cranked out thousands of cupcakes in a day.
Those experiences are part of the reason why his “cakeitforward” project and Missoula Cakes are designed the way they are, with a personal touch and less intense pace. During earlier phases of his career, as valuable as they were, he logged 12-hour shifts six days a week.
“I’m going to take my time and structure this in a way that still gives me joy,” he said.
With Missoula Cakes, he can support himself and still encourage people to “keep connected.”
It’s intentional, and he’s happy to get to come to work with his hands and deliver the finished goods.
“I love cake," he said. "Honestly, I could eat it every damn day. I am making it every day and I’m not sick of it.”