If there’s one thing Leland Riggan knows, it’s cakes. The founder and owner of Dessert Drawings has been in business for over 50 years, and for very good reason. After all, if you’re a cake connoisseur, she’s the cream of the crop. Her caramel cakes are downright iconic, and if you’re planning a wedding at Music City, there’s a good chance you’re hoping to land a spot on her wedding cake program. Please welcome this week’s Nashville FACE, the incredibly talented founder of Dessert Designs, Leland Riggan.
How was Dessert Designs born and what was the first cake you baked?
It all started because I love to eat cakes! My mother was a wonderful baker. She was a wonderful cook, in general, but I turned to baked goods. I’d go somewhere and buy something, and think, No mom does it better, so I decided to do what she did. Most of the recipes I use are his recipes that I developed to make them work in a bakery setting. I started baking and had a wonderful, sweet friend who bought me a cake – it was a Raggedy Ann cake, which was very popular at the time. She bought it for her daughter’s first birthday around 1971, and that’s what sowed the seed. I kind of tripped.
What officially launched the company?
I had a neighbor who took care of the caterer, and she wanted me to cook for her. At first I started baking rolls and helping her with catering. Then she showed me how to make wedding cakes and stack them, which got me moving in the direction of the wedding. Before that, [making wedding cakes] hadn’t occurred to me.
My grandma was a smart cookie and decided that the buns weren’t a profitable thing to do. It is very time consuming; you spend all those hours for six loaf tins or two loaves of bread. She said, “You have to get into cake decorating.” His cousin was Mary lyles wilson, and she and her mother had baked cakes in Nashville. They even baked cakes for presidents, and she wrote cookbooks. My grandmother invited her, my aunts, my mom and me to lunch. I didn’t know what was going on. I just thought It’s good! I can have lunch with my grandmother and my aunts! Before dessert my grandmother said, âLeland, go to the kitchen with Miss Mary Lyles. Miss Mary Lyles took a pastry bag and showed me a few things, and I copied it.
I took the cake there, and of course, what more grateful audience can you have than your mom, grandma, and aunts? They all said, âOh, this is so wonderful! It gave me the courage to start decorating and using her recipes. She then invited me over to her house and taught me how to make her icing recipe, which was different. Back then, everyone made buttercream with Crisco and powdered sugar, but she used egg white. At that time, it was called âboiled icingâ. It opened up so many other things for me that I could do as the frosting was much lighter for decorating.
Family has a big impact on how you are shaped and on your interests. My father was a gardener and had a green thumb. He could keep anything alive and had a lot of seed catalogs around. I looked at these pictures of beautiful flowers and what he did with his gardening, and I started to think, I can make a chrysanthemum and sweet peas. Everyone makes roses, but I can do something different.
Have your recipes changed over the years?
From the moment I met Miss Mary Lyles and switched to her lighter frosting, my recipes evolved but didn’t drastically change. I had a really good chocolate pound cake and a sour cream pound cake, which were my go-to recipes. Then I added a cream cheese pound cake and went into the truffle cake. It was extremely popular because who doesn’t love chocolate? Back then it was all word of mouth – you get a good chocolate thing and you get a lot of word of mouth! It got things done. Then we got strong in caramel, which was one of my mom’s recipes that evolved. Caramel is so difficult to make; when you start with sugar and brown it, there is so much that can go wrong. It took a while to perfect it, and we used to throw in as many lots as we kept.
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How have wedding cake trends changed?
When we started in the 1970s, the columns were huge. The higher the column, the better. But the scenery has changed. Things are so much more natural now – the use of flowers and fresh designs on the cakes as opposed to a lot of lint and folderol. Of course, when the fondant arrived, things went backwards and became less natural. Fondant is such a soft and hard frosting, and I’ve never liked the taste of it. I started making fondant cakes when they arrived, but little by little I thought, A lot of people can do it better than I can, and I don’t have to. It’s not my specialty, so I retired.
What’s the most extravagant or unique cake you’ve ever created?
We made several that were extravagant with lots of frosting flowers. Maybe 10 or 12 years ago, people wanted cakes to be really tall, which is hard to do, and to stay straight, steady, and taste great! We made a wedding cake so big we couldn’t put it in the Schermerhorn. We had to roll it over. It was quite a challenge!
If you could only make and eat one cake for the rest of your life, what would it be?
The Firefly cake! It has everything I love – Caramel Truffle Sour Cream Cake, which is the oldest recipe I have and still make.
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What is the secret to be so successful for over 50 years?
My husband. When we started, we were together. He was always demanding of me to be on time, and he saved our bacon so many times. He has always insisted on quality. He would say, âNo, you can’t go back to bed; you have to get up and finish this cake! He wanted us to be successful, and he kept me on task. I miss him and everything he’s done, and I don’t think he’s had enough credit over the years.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
One day I was up to something. Unfortunately, Joe Smith turned out to be the recipient of my worries. Joe was an extraordinarily talented florist, but more than that, he was an exceptional human being – one of the nicest people ever, and I loved him. We have worked with him a lot. So I was simmering, and he said, âLeland, keep your head down and keep working. I think about it all the time. Don’t get caught up in the clouds over something. Just keep doing what you’re doing. You can worry about tomorrow and what you did yesterday.
Despite faith, family, and friends, what are the three things you cannot live without?
Books (I read all the time), sweets (I love my sweets!) And lists. I couldn’t function without making a list and having the satisfaction of scratching things off.
Thanks for speaking with us, Leland, and thanks to Leila Grossman for the pictures.
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