ANNAPOLIS — Baking a seven-layer caramel cake, a traditional Southern confection, is anything but, well, a piece of cake.
Not only is it an all-day process, but outside factors like the weather can quickly turn the cake from a scrumptious treat into a sticky mess, said Caroline Ragsdale-Reutter, owner of Caroline’s Cakes in Annapolis.
“If it’s too humid, the caramel won’t do what it’s supposed to do,” Ragsdale-Reutter said. “There are times when I’ve ended up with caramel slush.”
But that must not happen too often, if Ragsdale-Reutter’s fan base is any indication. The Annapolis woman counts Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jackie Collins and Marvin Hamlisch as some of the more famous of her 100,000 customers.
Now, the dessert has really gone Hollywood.
Ragsdale-Reutter’s creation will take center stage in the movie “The Help.”
The movie, starring Emma Stone, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, is based on the best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett. Set in Jackson, Miss., it’s the story of black maids working in white households in the early 1960s. One of the maids’ specialties is a caramel layer cake.
“There’s this line in the book — that when you sat at my grandmother’s table and ate a piece of her caramel cake, you knew it was baked with love,” Ragsdale-Reutter said. “A caramel cake with good, smooth caramel icing that was such a badge of honor in the South.”
Her caramel cake has been featured on “The Today Show” and The Food Network, but its spot in “The Help” is its debut on the silver screen.
Ragsdale-Reutter, a fan of the book, read online last year that DreamWorks Studios was producing the movie.
“The caramel cake is mentioned in the book about seven times,” she said. “I immediately started Googling.”
A spokesman for DreamWorks was unavailable for comment, but Ragsdale-Reutter said she shipped 16 cakes with press kits to studio officials, figuring she might as well try. Her move paid off.
“We got three to five minutes on screen,” Ragsdale-Reutter said. “In the movies, that’s a long time.”
She couldn’t buy better advertising, said Jack Gerbes, director of the Maryland Film Office.
“People everywhere are going to want to know where that cake is from,” Gerbes said.
A native of Lake City, S.C., Ragsdale-Reutter grew up eating her mother’s caramel cake. In 1982, when her son Richard was christened, Ragsdale-Reutter served a caramel cake that her mom brought from home.
“People just started going bananas for it,” she said.
Word of mouth spread, and soon Ragsdale-Reutter was selling the cakes to friends as far away as Alaska and Hawaii. At first, Ragsdale-Reutter worked with a baker in South Carolina, Then the baker became ill, and she had to decide whether to continue with the business.
It wasn’t a hard decision to make.
“I was just so passionate about it,” Ragsdale-Reutter said. “It’s a difficult recipe to achieve correctly. But I wanted to keep alive a time-honored recipe that was dying.”
For years, she ran the business out of the basement of her Annapolis home, baking the caramel cakes along with other layer cakes — chocolate, coconut and lemon, to name a few. Most of her signature cakes have seven layers.
“Seven really is the most perfect number in the universe,” Ragsdale-Reutter said. “Some people make the cakes with 10, 14 layers, but I think that’s almost like protesting too much.”
The turning point for Caroline’s Cakes came in 2000, when Ragsdale-Reutter got a call from a Palm Beach, Fla., financial services company. Its officials had heard about the caramel cakes from a friend of Ragsdale-Reutter’s, and they wanted to buy 2,000 of them to give out as holiday gifts.
A few years later, Ragsdale-Reutter moved the business out of her home and into a 2,500-square-foot storefront in the Bay 50 shopping plaza near the Bay Bridge. A year later, she opened the second part of her business, Caroline’s Gourmet Take it Away, a catering service a few doors down from the Caroline’s Cakes headquarters.
The business really took off around then, said Ragsdale-Reutter’s son Richard, now 30 and working for his mother full-time. And the caramel cake still reigns as the shop’s most popular dessert.
“Even if you combine all our other cake sales — the caramel still just dwarfs it,” he said.
Like her other customers, Ragsdale-Reutter’s high-profile fans discovered her cakes through word of mouth. Veteran TV actress Louis-Dreyfus, for example, is originally from Montgomery County; her mother comes into the shop frequently, Ragsdale-Reutter said.
“The celebrity following, it just kind of happens by surprise,” said Laura Strawberry, Ragsdale-Reutter’s marketing coordinator. “They just find us.”