Emily Nejad and I met last spring when we sat next to each other at a Forth Chicago event for female entrepreneurs. When I sat down and realized who she was, I immediately began fangirling. I had never had one of her cakes, but I had already been following her on Instagram for months, regularly admiring her colorful, textural masterpieces. I asked if she would be interested in sharing a family recipe with me, and I’m so pleased that she said yes!
If you live in Chicago or the surrounding areas, you may already know Emily as the powerhouse behind Bon Vivant Cakes. Emily grew up in southern Indiana, attended Ball State for musical theater, and moved to Chicago. A musician before she was a baker, she and a friend started a band called Celine Neon, whose bright and theatrical videos and energetic electro-pop sound could easily be considered the sonic version of one of Emily’s cakes.
Even though her cakes might seem the product of years of baking experience, the Bon Vivant story is only about two years old. “I was baking for friends and it occurred to me that there might be a market for the cakes I was making. I put up a website and started an Instagram account and went from there,” she says. She was still waiting tables at the time, but after making a cake for a baby shower for a well-known Chicago blogger, her business blew up.
Elegant, whimsical, and each totally unique, Emily tries to ensure that her cakes represent the person ordering them. When you order a cake on her website, she wants to know everything about you. She describes her method on her site: “I want to know your hobbies, your passions, and your favorite band so that I can blast it in my kitchen while I’m baking your cake.”
Emily insists that she does not come from a long line of amazing cooks. “My maternal grandmother is not known for her culinary skills,” she says. “She used to make something called ketchup salad. Holy cow, it is BAD.” Emily’s mother, Penelope, however, has been cooking since she was young. “My mom was the sixth of nine kids. By the time she was a teenager, she was making meals for her whole family.” During college, Penelope met her future husband, an Iranian engineering student with, as Emily describes it, “a gregarious personality and a purple velvet disco suit.” They were married and the couple settled into their roles of bread-winning dad and stay-at-home mom. But in 2009, when the family hit some financial hardships, Penelope decided to go back to work. With her experience cooking for her family and baking during college, she decided to open a restaurant. Emily emphasizes that her mother decided to this “with no experience, in a bad economy, in a one hundred-year-old building, in southern Indiana.” Needless to say, things could have gone badly. “There are many reasons that this was risky, but she did it anyway, because her kids needed health insurance and a college education. So she went to work.” Things have grown quickly for her mother, just as they have for Emily. “Today she owns 3 restaurants, has around 50 employees, and works harder than anyone I know,” says Emily proudly.
The recipe that Emily wanted to share is not a long-held family recipe. Instead, it’s her mom’s banana meringue pie that her mother used to make for holidays and Emily’s birthday. It originated from a recipe in a Presbyterian cookbook from Knox, Pennsylvania, that her mom has tweaked over the years. “Banana cream pie is my favorite pie, hands down,” Emily says. “My favorite time to eat it is at breakfast. There is nothing better than waking up and knowing that there is leftover pie from the night before.”
Penny’s Banana Meringue Pie
2/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/2 tsp salt
3 cups whole milk
4 egg yolks, slightly beaten
2 tbsp butter, room temp
1 tbsp, plus 1 tsp vanilla
3 egg whites
1/4 tsp cream of tartar
6 tbsp sugar
1/4 tsp vanilla
Make 1 pie crust of your choice and set aside. (Emily says she prefers an all-butter pie crust. I prefer, and almost always use, this recipe.)
Mix sugar, cornstarch and salt in ½ quart saucepan, making sure that the sugar and cornstarch are mixed thoroughly so that they don’t clump once heat and liquid is added. Add milk.
Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly until mixture thickens and boils. Boil and stir one minute.
To make your pudding, you’ll temper the hot mixture into the egg yolks: stir half of the hot mixture gradually into the egg yolks, being very careful not to scramble the eggs. When the yolks are warmed, add the hot mixture back into the saucepan with the rest of the hot mixture. Boil and stir one minute.
Remove the pan from heat and stir in butter & vanilla.
Right before you add the hot pudding to the pie shell, add the sliced bananas to the bottom of the pie crust.
Pour pudding into pie shell to set; press plastic wrap over filling.
Refrigerate at least 2 hours but no longer than 48.
After the pudding has set, add the meringue to the pie. Make whatever swirly pattern you’d like with the fluffy meringue. Bake at 375 for no longer than 5 minutes on the bottom third of the oven, checking constantly. It can burn really easily. It’s done when the peaks of meringue start to brown.
Beat egg whites and cream of tartar, add the sugar 1 tbsp at a time until very stiff and glossy, and then stir in the vanilla. You must use very clean stainless bowl and stainless whisk.
Seeing as how Emily and her mom both started their own businesses around food, I wondered if her mom had influenced Emily as an entrepreneur. She says, “My mom and I started growing as entrepreneurs at relatively the same time. There were a lot of parallels in our lives. The advice we pass back and forth to each other is, ‘Trust yourself. Trust your vision. You have something special.'”
If you want to keep up with Emily, follow her on Instagram @BonVivantCakes, where she showcases her cakes, and new creations, like cookie dough chocolate pops (WHAT?!), which you can sample this Saturday, September 23, at Chicago’s West Elm on North Avenue. AND she will be creating edible art for the MCA’s 50th Anniversary celebration on Oct 21st!
Emily, thank you so much for sharing your story, your mother’s story, and this delicious recipe with me! I’m so excited to see what’s next for you!