Courtney Rich found joy, a career and internet fame in baking cakes

Courtney Rich found joy, a career and internet fame in baking cakes

When she was a young wife and new mother, Courtney Rich felt the joy of starting a family and building a career as a media consultant — but also struggled, as she had for years, with anxiety and depression.

Rich, then 26, decided to make a cake from scratch for her son Westin’s first birthday — partly to impress her in-laws. She found a recipe in Bon Appetit magazine for a peanut butter cake with chocolate frosting, bought new pans and ingredients and, she said, “just went for it.”

It looked like, Rich said, “honestly, a train wreck,” describing it as “a big brown mound with sprinkles and a candle.” But it tasted amazing. And the act of baking it and sharing it made her feel happy and at peace.

“I think it’s because I was pouring myself into something that was just for me. Something that gave me an emotional, mental stability,” Rich said. “It just, it filled this void.”

So she baked another one. And another. And she hasn’t stopped.

“I’m all about, ‘If I can do it, you can, too,’” she said in the first episode of “Courtney: Beyond the Cake,” a podcast she launched in May. “There’s so much satisfaction in starting something new, learning along the way, and realizing, ‘I can do this.’ I want the kitchen to become your happy place. I want it to be a space for you to turn to to feel peace and to feel joy.”

Rich is completely self-taught, relying on recipes and tutorials she collected from cookbooks she and her mom owned, magazines, Pinterest and other websites. She would compare cakes, noting the differences in texture, taste and more.

“It just became this fun hobby, to research the baking process behind cakes, and then to just dive into it in my kitchen and take notes and try to figure it out just by getting my hands dirty,” Rich said.

Within five years, Rich began developing her own cakes. In the winter of 2014, she and her family — her husband, Ryan; son Westin, now 11; and daughter Avery, 7 — moved from California to Utah County. (Rich is an alumna of Brigham Young University.) Her friends and family back in California would ask her for recipes and encouraged her to share them online.

Rich was hesitant at first. She didn’t know much about blogging or building a website. She didn’t have the right camera, and she believed the food-blog market was saturated. But she thought about her time moderating focus groups — and how people said they would make time for good content.

She decided, “I’m just going to try it and hopefully my recipes speak for themselves, and I can learn to do pictures and I can learn the blog and I can learn the website stuff. And then I just kind of dove head-first into it.”

Teaching and a partnership

On some early Instagram posts, Rich tagged Orson Gygi Co., the Salt Lake City kitchenware business where she bought supplies. That drew the attention of Heather Smith, Gygi’s culinary director. At the time, a cupcake craze was dominant in baking, and Smith was sick of it — so she gravitated toward Rich’s simple, 8-inch cakes.

“I loved that she was able to create flavors that we were not used to seeing and, really, what I love most about it is that she focuses as much on flavor as she does the decoration,” Smith said. “Of course, her personality and kindness were an extra bonus.”

Smith met Rich, and soon asked her to teach at Gygi’s annual chocolate extravaganza. Rich, who had taught a couple of classes to “total strangers” in her home, jumped at the opportunity.

Rich’s creation — a triple chocolate cake finished with a chocolate drip and small chocolate doughnuts — was a hit. Smith realized people were looking to learn to make cakes, and a hands-on class was the best way to teach them.

The first classes filled up quickly, so they added more. Soon, Rich offered four to eight classes a month through Gygi — all of which sold out minutes after posting online. Bakers have come from as far as Dubai, United Arab Emirates, to learn from Rich, Smith said.

But they fought the urge to expand the classes beyond 14 students, Smith said, because “everyone deserves that one-on-one feeling.”

Gina Smith of Chino, Calif., was a novice baker when she found the Cake by Courtney online tutorials. Watching those and following Rich on Instagram, she perfected her own techniques. She also learned about Rich’s classes; she said she tried for six months to get into one.

She finally lucked out in 2018, snagging a spot in a class for German chocolate cake (her favorite). The entire experience, she said, was awesome. She particularly loved having access to Rich, who showed her how to stack cakes correctly and remove the cake disc properly.

“It was just a really nice place to be with other women,” Gina Smith said. (There was one man taking the class, she noted.) “Just to be in camaraderie with other people doing the same thing that you love, it’s just a feel-good [thing].”

That’s the atmosphere Rich and Heather Smith had hoped to forge, Smith said. “We wanted to create a place where women were cheering each other on and telling each other, ‘Oh, my gosh, look how great you did!’ And ‘This is your good side. Look at this,’” Smith said.

With more travel and TV appearances threatening to cut into family time, Rich felt she was spreading herself too thin. In 2018, she left media consulting and went all in with her baking business, preparing to launch an e-commerce site.

She opened the Cake by Courtney store that December. At first, the only products on the site were an acrylic cake disc and subscription cake boxes. Since then, she’s added more decorating tools, which she designed.

The subscription boxes — called Courtney’s Cake Club — were her mother’s idea. Much like recipe services such as HelloFresh or Blue Apron, the boxes contained the dry ingredients and instructions; the subscriber supplied the refrigerated ingredients. Gygi offered Rich warehouse space, and family and friends pitched in to package and ship the boxes.

In mid-2019, Courtney’s Cake Club got what appeared to be its big break: a spot in “The O List” in Oprah Magazine. But “the Oprah effect” didn’t materialize, despite months of work trying to expand the service. Rich realized she wasn’t giving her best self to everyone, including her family.

“We looked at it and we thought, ‘OK, we’ve grown, but we’re not growing that much,’” she said. “‘And where is our time and attention best spent? Is it the 600 subscribers, or is it the other 300,000 followers and readers on the blog and social media?’” She canceled the subscription service.

In the last two years, Rich’s company has partnered with Utah companies. She licensed her recipes to the now-defunct Last Course Dessert Studio. She teamed with Chip Cookies Co. on a cookie of the month, based on her popular Biscoff cakes. And, through Gygi, Rich formed a relationship with My Mind’s Eye, a North Salt Lake paper goods retailer, that led to a collaboration on a collection of cake toppers and other products. (The products are featured in the Cake by Courtney section at Gygi, with the rest of her branded merchandise.)

‘You can always change your course’

In 2020, Rich has kept busy baking cakes — she planned one for each week before the year started. It takes three to six hours to make a cake, depending on how many elements are involved; she loves fillings and texture. But she bakes and assembles them over multiple days.

She’s also been maintaining her social media accounts and producing her new podcast (available on Apple, Spotify and other streaming platforms), all from her home in Utah County. She hasn’t taught a class since March because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last year, Rich produced an online course, a condensed version of her in-person classes, to teach basic skills like the key to a delicious buttercream frosting. This year, she added a next-level course, for those who have mastered the basics.

Rich said she can’t wait to get back in the classroom, once it’s safe. “Being able to connect with people in person that way, it’s just been one of my favorite things that this whole cake journey has brought,” she said.

She’s especially grateful, she said, for the relationships she’s developed with Utah businesses. “I feel like they took chances on me, and they, at times, believed in me with things that I maybe wouldn’t have had the same confidence,” Rich said.

Heather Smith said Rich tends to downplay her strengths; she works hard, stays focused and understands her voice better than anyone, Smith said. And Gina Smith said taking Rich’s class gave her the boost that “just really gave me the courage to think, ‘Man, I could probably, really do this.’ And I did.”

That’s a lesson Rich hopes to keep teaching.

“You can always change your course,” Rich said. “Sometimes we don’t give ourselves credit or don’t think there’s the time, or we think we’re too old or we don’t have the skill set that we think we need. I just feel like, no, that’s not true.”

Rich said she still struggles with anxiety and depression — but she’s in a much better place today, with the knowledge and tools to better handle both. She remembers her turning point every day by wearing a gold, half-moon necklace that says “cake.”

Baking, Rich said in her first podcast, “brought me so much joy, a personal joy I hadn’t felt in a long time. So I kept doing it. … The limits I had spent years setting for myself started to disappear, and I started to feel stronger in so many ways.

“Each of our gifts and abilities are unique. They are meant to be different, and more importantly, they are meant to be shared, maybe just for the benefit of one or maybe for the benefit of many. The number doesn’t matter. It’s the impact that does.”

BAKE WITH COURTNEY
Courtney Rich shares her recipe for Biscoff strawberry cake: Biscoff cake layers with Biscoff filling and cookies, paired with strawberry buttercream frosting and fresh strawberries.
Ingredients for the cake:
• 18 Biscoff or Speculoos cookies
• 2 cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
• 1 3/4 teaspoons baking powder
• 3/4 teaspoon salt
• 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
• 2/3 cup granulated sugar
• 1 cup brown sugar, packed
• 4 large eggs, at room temperature
• 2 cups buttermilk, at room temperature
Ingredients for the filling:
• 1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
• 1 cup Biscoff spread or other cookie butter
• 1 cup powdered sugar, sifted
Ingredients for the frosting:
• 2 cups unsalted butter, slightly chilled
• 4 cups powdered sugar, measured and then sifted
• 1/2 cup pulverized, freeze-dried strawberries
• 1/4 cup strawberry jelly or jam
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1/3 cup heavy whipping cream
Instructions for the cake:
1. Preheat your oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Spray two 8-inch pans with nonstick cooking spray, line the bottoms with parchment and spray again. Set aside.
2. Place the Biscoff cookies in a food processor or blender and pulse until the cookies are finely ground and resemble flour.
3. In a medium bowl, combine the Biscoff crumbs, all-purpose flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Whisk until the ingredients are well blended.
4. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugars on medium speed until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.
5. With the mixer on low speed, add 1/3 of the dry ingredients and mix until combined. Slowly add half of the buttermilk and mix until incorporated. Continue alternating the flour and buttermilk until it has all been incorporated. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and slowly mix for another 20-30 seconds.
6. Divide the batter evenly among your pans and bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with a few moist crumbs on it. Cool 10 minutes on a wire rack before inverting onto cooling racks to cool completely.
Instructions for the filling:
1. In a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the butter and Biscoff spread or cookie butter on medium speed until light and fluffy.
2. Gradually add the powdered sugar and beat for 2-3 minutes.
Instructions for the frosting:
1. In a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream the butter on medium-high speed for about two minutes.
2. With the mixer on low speed, slowly add the sifted powdered sugar and freeze-dried strawberries until incorporated. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and continue to mix for another minute.
3. Add the jelly, cream and vanilla and increase the speed to medium-high and beat the frosting for five minutes, until light in color and texture. If the buttercream seems too thick, add a couple more tablespoons of jelly and cream.
Instructions for assembly:
1. Divide each cake layer in half to create four thin cake layers.
2. Place the first cake layer on a cake board and top with 1 cup Biscoff filling. Crumble three cookies into small pieces and press into the filling.
3. Place the second cake layer on the Biscoff filling and evenly spread 1 cup of strawberry buttercream over the cake layer. Slice fresh strawberries and place them over the buttercream.
4. Place the next cake layer on top and cover with another cup of Biscoff filling and more cookies.
5. Gently place the final cake layer, top side down, on the top.
6. Apply a thin crumb coat around the cake and chill for 10 minutes in the freezer to set.
7. Finish frosting the cake with the strawberry buttercream and garnish with fresh strawberries.
For the more information about the recipe, visit cakebycourtney.com/biscoff-strawberry-cake.

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