These days, Cakes by Liz is synonymous with special occasion cakes on the Island. But as with many Island businesses, she came from humble beginnings. Liz offers decadent and delicious wedding cakes, special occasion cakes, desserts, cookies, and pastries. Her baked goods are as beautiful as they are scrumptious, and she’s developed quite the reputation for them.
Liz attended culinary school at SUNY Cobleskill, a small state school in upstate New York. At the time she had entertained going to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), or Johnson and Wales, but the expense was just too great. The program at Cobleskill may not have had the reputation of those other schools, but she remembers attending the New York Food Show as a student, where she and her peers put their skills to the test, competing with other culinary schools. “After the event my instructor and I were both going around the CIA table counting their awards … We won more awards than they did,” she said proudly. A perfect example that the quality of education lies in what you take from it, and not how much you paid for it.
In 1991 Liz came to the Island, and like most, she fell madly in love. What began as a summer job at the Harbor View Hotel, turned into several years there, and along with honing her baking skills, she developed a deep appreciation for the Martha’s Vineyard community. Eventually the hotel was sold to a large corporation that, at the time, was focused on streamlining production. She heard through the grapevine that the other hotels owned by the new company did not have any pastry cooks on staff, and she saw the writing on the wall.
Liz hadn’t originally intended on making Martha’s Vineyard her home, but she was hooked. “I never thought I would stay here — an island? I didn’t want to live on an island, but I fell in love with it … it’s creative.” Liz channeled that creative and intrepid Island spirit and branched out on her own. She started producing pastries and desserts for local restaurants out of what was Lattanzi’s Restaurant, after hours. “I didn’t want to be in business,” she said confidently, but she wasn’t ready to leave the Island, and her pastries were in high demand, so she went into business anyway.
In 1995 Liz shifted her focus away from restaurants and founded Cakes By Liz, a custom special occasion cake business catering to the growing wedding industry on Martha’s Vineyard. “Everything changed after Clinton came here,” she told me, a sentiment that is often echoed in the community. With a growing number of visitors came a higher demand for catered events, so Liz began working largely with wedding planners and caterers, as well as working directly with clients. She also sold baked goods in general stores and shops Island-wide “Most of them are gone now,” she told me. Her new venture allowed for more creativity and customization than her previous baking work, and gave her more personal freedom. As weddings themselves have become less traditional, their desserts have too. Though many brides and grooms are still looking for traditional cakes, Liz has prepared everything from individual cobblers and key lime pies to French pastries for weddings.
Now, as the world continues to change around us, Liz is adapting her business yet again. When the pandemic began to become a worldwide issue, Liz and “sweetheart” Robert were in Anguilla, blissfully on vacation in a place that was minimally affected by the virus. At the time of writing this article their total case count is still only one. They found out that the airport was going to be closing to all passengers entering or exiting the country, and had to cut their vacation short in order to get home safely. She spent the spring at home enjoying the company of her Robert and running; “I run every day,” she said.
This season Liz is working exclusively with Premier Chef Services, a high end caterer on Island, and she’s also offering direct custom orders through her website cakesbyliz.com. She is also in discussions with a couple of select retail locations, so keep your eyes out for some of her masterfully prepared confections around the Island.
Twenty-five years after venturing out on her own, Liz is still adapting, and baking some of the best cakes and pastries you will find on-Island.
A Sweet Something from Liz Kane: Shortbread!
Preheat oven to 350℉
1 lb. salted butter (I suggest Plugra European Style Butter)
1 cup light brown sugar, packed
4½ cups all purpose flour (reserve 1 cup)
1 tsp. vanilla
Options to add:
2 Tbsp. lemon zest
2 Tbsp. lemon thyme (fresh if possible)
2 Tbsp. lavender
2 Tbsp. sprinkles
2 Tbsp. rosemary
Cream butter and sugar; add vanilla; add 3½ cups flour and mix until just combined.
Sprinkle another 1⁄2 cup of flour on the board; knead dough, adding as much remaining flour as needed to make a soft dough.
Dough should end up soft and pliable. You may not need all the flour. Work in optional flavors now if wanted.
Chill dough for about 30 minutes or overnight.
Roll out dough about 1⁄2 inch or less. Can cut into squares or cut into shapes (hearts, circles). Prick with a fork if desired.
Bake 10 to 15 minutes or until the edges are golden brown.
Gavin Smith is a private chef, fisherman, and writer. He is a frequent contributor to The MVTimes, and has launched a podcast, Food Minded Fellow.