By Grace Yek, CCC, MS

sweet nicaragua - jeannette baltodano-werleWhen you walk into Cake Rack Bakery, you quickly learn the spirit of Nicaragua is alive and well. That’s what I found when I visited Jeannette Baltodano-Werle, owner and head baker of Cake Rack Bakery at Findlay Market.

A Nicaraguan native, she’s been crafting international cakes and pastries here for seven years. The air in the bakery is sweet, and the display of cakes, tortes, and croissants tantalizes the eyes. The deck oven behind the counter is constantly busy turning pale apparitions of dough and batter into golden brown beauties.

This visit was special. Even though Baltodano-Werle has been in the United States all her adult life, she agreed to talk to me about some of the traditional Nicaraguan desserts of her childhood. Perhaps the holiday season brings out a little nostalgia in all of us.

sweet nicaragua - maduros en gloriaKnown simply as “Ms. Jeannette” by her employees, Baltodano-Werle pointed to a round pan of maduros en gloria, still bubbling in the oven. “It’s something very traditional. It’d be so typical for us to come home from school and have a warm maduros en gloria for a snack before our meal,” she said, referring to her childhood days in Nicaragua.

This “snack” is casserole-like, packing in layers of queso fresco (young cheese), brown sugar, heavy cream, and pan-fried slices of ripe plantain. I love how the brininess of the cheese balances the sweetness, and the way the mildly sweet, fleshy plantains add fruitiness to the ensemble.

sweet nicaragua - espumillasThen there are the espumillas—handful-sized mounds of meringue that look like grown-up ivory Kisses. “They’re made with egg white, vanilla extract, and sugar,” she explained. These are cookies Baltodano-Werle ate as a child, straight from the jar, off a piece of tissue paper. When I took a bite of the espumilla, the soft crunch was like taking your first step on powdery virgin snow. The airy and slightly toasty meringue practically melts in your mouth, leaving a lingering, sweet memory.

The tall, caramel cake layered with dulce de leche was next. “That’s the Hispanic caramel,” Baltodano-Werle explained. Dulce de leche is the product of a long and slow process of caramelizing sweetened milk. The cake is foundationally a butter cake, typical of the cakes in her home country.

sweet nicaragua - croissantsWe turned our attention to other more customary baked goods. Baltodano-Werle is known for her croissants, a delightful but time-consuming pastry to make. “It’s a labor of love,” she said with a sigh. The croissants come plain or filled. The wide assortment of filling includes ham and cheese, Belgian chocolate, praline hazelnut with chocolate, ambrosia (fresh bananas, chocolate, and coconut frangipane), and her most recent creation—apples with almond frangipane and pastry cream.

sweet nicaragua - russian tea biscuit“These are Russian tea biscuits,” Baltodano-Werle said, pointing to a plate of pretty pastry spirals. The biscuits are much flakier than their name suggests. The poppy seed filling is not only a striking visual contrast to the biscuit but it also adds a nectar-like sweetness and a slight crunch. “The biscuits can also be filled with a mixture of raspberry, walnut, and golden raisin,” she added.

Our conversation drifted back to the holidays, and I learned something unexpected: Nicaraguans celebrate Christmas a day earlier than Americans do. “The 24th is considered Christmas Day for us,” Baltodano-Werle said. The all-day celebration culminates in a big feast at a late hour on the 24th—typically around midnight—followed by the opening of presents. So what happens on the 25th? Not much. It’s more or less how we spend the day after Christmas here.

Baltodano-Werle tells me it is typical to line the holiday dessert table with espumillas, maduros en gloria, and other treats like polvorones (crumbly shortbread), and even arroz con leche (rice pudding). And in case you’re wondering, yes, she takes custom orders for these and other Latin-American desserts.


Baltodano-Werle’s story is a remarkable one. Find out more about the woman behind Cake Rack Bakery in our second installment coming soon to Polly Online.

Cake Rack Bakery
113 West Elder Street (in Findlay Market)
Cincinnati, OH 45202

Grace Yek, food editor at Polly Magazine, is a certified chef de cuisine with the American Culinary Federation, and a former chemical engineer.
Questions or comments? Connect with her on Twitter: @Grace_Yek.