The Queen of ‘Pop’: How an innovative KC pastry chef developed an iconic treat

Helen Jo Leach, creator of the Cake Pop/Photo by Caleb Condit and Rebecca Norden

From chicken wings to oxtail to burnt ends, a number of iconic American recipes started as a creative way to upcycle scraps. Add cake pops to that list.

Starbucks didn’t invent the cake pop; they just stuck it on a stick. The ball-shaped treats were originally made from small scraps of trimmed cake at Milk Bar, a wildly influential New York bakery that spun off from David Chang’s Momofuku restaurants. At Milk Bar, which has locations on both coasts and in Canada, they’re called cake truffles

If you want to be even more specific about it, the cake pop was the brainchild of Helen Jo Leach, a pastry chef who used to work at Milk Bar and is now at the Hotel Kansas City’s dining operations, including Town Company, Nighthawk and the slept-on Lobby Market.

Leach, a Chicago native, first encountered a ball-shaped cake at a bakery in her native Chicago. They were Chicago-sized and nothing like the cute bite-sized bonbons that rose to popularity throughout the Obama years.

“They were like giant cake balls—bigger than a tennis ball—and I was just like, ‘Wow, that’s crazy. How did they do that?’” she says. “In my head, I was like, ‘I bet I could figure it out.’ When I got back to work [in New York], I decided I was going to utilize all this cake scrap we had and make cake balls, but Munchkin-sized.”

And so she did. The first bite-sized balls of cake were “smooshed together” with the help of vanilla milk, then refrigerated and dusted “in ground-up cereal that we had at the time—like Lucky Charms or whatever we had.” (The flavor “Cereal Milk” is a trademark owned by Leach’s former boss, Milk Bar don Christina Tosi, who has made a career out of nostalgia-baiting Millennials.) 

“Eventually people were like, ‘You should make more of those,’ and I was like, ‘You should sell those,’” Leach says. “Christina asked me, ‘What should we call them?’ and I said cake truffles because [they’re] kind of enrobed in chocolate and have a coating, but the inside is cake.”

The name did not last as well as the concept—most people would probably call them cake pops even if they’re off the stick—but the idea itself spread. Before long, Milk Bar ran out of scraps to meet demand and had to make cakes to cut up and turn into balls.

At Hotel Kansas City, the cake truffles (known as cake bonbons) make occasional appearances on the menu. But Leach and her team are always working on something new, often with a whimsical twist. Many of Leach’s pastries use Asian ingredients, and she’s always looking to keep things as seasonal as possible. 

At the Lobby Market, you’ll find fresh pastry concepts from Leach and her staff including a new gooey butter coffee cake—inspired by St. Louis-style butter cake that’s turned into a pancake-inspired coffee cake—and a gluten-free power bar known as the Zenergy bar with black sesame paste, goji berries and puffed brown rice.

And who knows: You may encounter the next cake pop there.

“I’m trying to use the Lobby Market as a place to feature things developed by my staff and give them a shout-out,” Leach says. “I have someone on my staff who focuses on bread, and I really want to do a kimchi focaccia bread. I can be like, ‘Do you want to work on that?’ I’m blessed to have a team that gets really excited about new projects and wants to own it.”

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