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Wandering Whisk Bakeshop serving bright cakes, cookies, macarons out of a home in St. Petersburg

Strawberry Cupcakes from St. Petersburg home bakery Wandering Whisk Bakeshop.
Published Mar. 27, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG

It happened by accident.

Jennifer Jacobs, 29, made red velvet cookie sandwiches for Valentine's Day and brought them to her office at HSN in St. Petersburg.

People went nuts.

"They were offering me money for them," Jacobs said.

She made more batches at the request of her co-workers.

"All these guys I worked with would buy them for their families, and the cookies would never make it home."

Six years later, Jacobs is churning out a wider repertoire of confections: cakes, macarons, fruit tarts and, yes, those cookie sandwiches. She has turned a hobby into a business, the Wandering Whisk Bakeshop, working under Florida's cottage food laws to make and sell sweets from her home.

Jacobs, who still works at HSN as an associate producer, bakes whenever she has the time. She competed in the Morean Arts Center's annual Great St. Pete Cupcake Contest two years in a row, winning first place in the People's Choice Category in 2015 with a banana nutella flavor, and in 2016 with a chai latte cupcake with brown butter mascarpone buttercream. You may have seen her on WTSP-Ch. 10's Great Day Tampa Bay segment, talking about easy homemade pastries for the major holidays.

Growing up in Palm Harbor, Jacobs baked with her mom, who would make 20 different kinds of Christmas cookies that Jacobs' friends would come over to eat under the guise of hanging out with her.

But baking professionally wasn't something she fantasized about as a kid. After studying hospitality at the University of Central Florida, Jacobs moved to a 450-square-foot apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and got a job at Madison Square Garden, where she worked in marketing with groups like the Rockettes. In her spare time, she cooked in a kitchen with an oven that wouldn't even fit a full baking sheet.

An interest in music led to a job at Sony, and to the rapidly changing record industry, which she soon realized wasn't for her.

Back to Florida, and to baking.

While living at home, she took cake-decorating classes at the local Jo-Ann Fabrics store, checked out Le Cordon Bleu books from the Palm Harbor Library.

"Those books are how I learned about the technical aspects of cakemaking," she said. "But the first cake I made, it probably took me eight hours to make."

And she left parchment paper between the layers, something her brother still teases her about.

She was determined to learn from the pros.

In early 2016, she flew out to the San Francisco Baking Institute for a weeklong high-intensity baking course called Cakes, Bases and Creams. She learned the science behind baking techniques, and how to develop recipes.

"That was the most pivotal part of my baking career," she said. "My grandma, a very blunt and realistic woman, told me after San Francisco that I had to decide whether I wanted to do this as a career or for fun."

Since then, Jacobs has been focused on nurturing her business, which has grown almost entirely through self-promotion.

Her brother designed her website, wanderingwhiskbakeshop.com, the primary way customers place orders. (Cakes start at $60; cookies, cupcakes and macarons are sold by the dozen.) She said she gets most of her business from her Instagram account, where she posts photos of her confections, usually in some shade of eye-popping pink.

"I want to create a unique product that people can't get everywhere in this area, things that they have to come to me for."

After the first few sales, she took an online pricing course that helped her figure out what to charge for her products. There is a tendency to undervalue your work when you're just making stuff at home, she said. Jacobs is also part of a Facebook group with other cake designers, and the Entrepreneurial Academy, offered through St. Petersburg's chamber of commerce. She hopes to open a brick-and-mortar bakery near the downtown area.

Jacobs is inspired by cake designers around the world, many of whom she discovered on social media. And she loves to travel; it's where the "wandering" in her company's name comes from.

A lemon lavender cake was inspired by a visit to Napa, Calif.; cookie butter experiments came after a trip to Brussels. She planned a trip to Vancouver around a cookie-decorating class led by Tessa Sam of Sweet Bake Shop, someone she found on Instagram.

"I went to Paris a few years ago, by myself, literally just to eat pastries."

She speaks highly of Australia's baking culture, which she said has a different vibe than the one in this country and has led to some of her standout creations: neon drip cakes, brightly colored macarons. She has a wide variety of flavors, from Lemon Lavender and Peanut Butter Cup to Pink Peppermint and Strawberry Yogurt. On her list of things to try is a salt and pepper cake.

"I was pretty intentional about the modern aesthetic I have," she said. "I don't use fondant, and I'm pretty strict about that. I want every part of the cake to taste great."

Jacobs' signature is her buttercream frosting, which is much more tangy than the average buttercream. She won't reveal her secrets, but allows that it is a cooked buttercream that involves more work, as opposed to the standard uncooked combination of butter and powdered sugar.

"I've had people who don't like frosting at all tell me they love my buttercream," she said. "It's not so sweet like what we're used to."

In the Morean's 2016 cupcake competition, Jacobs actually won two awards: one for her cupcake, and the other for best buttercream, a category judges invented that day.

"I love it, too," she said. "I kind of eat it by the spoonful."

Contact Michelle Stark at mstark@tampabay.com. Follow @mstark17.

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