If there’s one thing Leland Riggan knows, it’s cakes. The founder and proprietor of Dessert Designs has been in business for over 50 years, and for very good reason. After all, if you’re a cake connoisseur, she’s the crème de la crème. Her caramel cakes are downright iconic, and if you’re planning a wedding in Music City, chances are, you’re hoping to snag a slot on her wedding cake schedule. Please welcome this week’s FACE of Nashville, the insanely talented founder of Dessert Designs, Leland Riggan.
How did Dessert Designs start, and what was the first cake you ever baked?
It all started because I like to eat cakes! My mother was a wonderful baker. She was a wonderful cook, in general, but I gravitated toward the baked goods. I would go somewhere and buy something, and I would think, No, mom does it better, so I decided to do what she did. Many of the recipes that I use are her recipes that I’ve evolved to make work in a bakery setting. I started to bake, and I had a wonderful, sweet friend who bought a cake from me — 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 planted the seed. I sort of stumbled along.
What officially launched the business?
I had a neighbor who catered, and she wanted me to bake for her. In the beginning, I started baking rolls and helping her with catering. Then, she showed me how to do wedding cakes and stack them, which got me going in the wedding direction. Before that, [making wedding cakes] hadn’t occurred to me.
My grandmother was one smart cookie and decided that baking rolls wasn’t a profitable thing to do. It’s very time-consuming; you spend all these hours for six pans of rolls or two loaves of bread. She said, “You need to get into cake decorating.” Her cousin was Mary Lyles Wilson, and she and her mother had baked cakes in Nashville. They’d even made cakes for presidents, and she wrote cookbooks. My grandmother invited her, my aunts, my mother, and me to a luncheon. I didn’t know what was going on. I just thought This is great! I get to have lunch with my grandmother and my aunts! Before dessert, my grandmother said, “Leland, go to the kitchen with Miss Mary Lyles.” Miss Mary Lyles picked up a pastry bag and showed me a few things, and I copied her.
I took the cake out there, and of course, what more appreciative audience can you have than your mother, grandmother, and aunts? They all said, “Oh, that’s so wonderful!” That gave me the courage to start decorating and use her recipes. She then invited me over to her house and taught me how to do her icing recipe, which was different. Back then, everybody did buttercream with Crisco and powdered sugar, but she used an egg white. At that time, it was called “boiled icing.” That opened up so many other things that I could do, because the icing was much lighter for decorating.
Family has a big impact on how you’re molded and where your interests lie. My daddy was a gardener and had a green thumb. He could keep anything alive and had a lot of seed catalogs around. I looked at those pictures of the beautiful flowers and what he did with his gardening, and I started thinking, I can make a chrysanthemum and sweet peas. Everybody makes roses, but I can do something different.
Have your recipes changed over the years?
From the time I met Miss Mary Lyles and switched to her lighter icing, my recipes evolved but didn’t change drastically. I had a really good chocolate pound cake and sour cream poundcake, which were my go-to recipes. Then, I added cream cheese pound cake and got into the truffle cake. That was extremely popular because who doesn’t love chocolate? Back then, it was all word of mouth — you get a good chocolate thing going, and you get a lot of word of mouth! That propelled things along. Then, we got strong into caramel, which was one of my mother’s recipes that evolved. Caramel is so tricky to do; when you start with the sugar and brown it, there are so many things that can go wrong. It took a while to perfect it, and we used to throw out as many batches as we kept.
How have wedding cake trends changed?
When we started in the ’70s, columns were huge. The taller the column, the better. But decorations have changed. Things are so much more natural now — the use of fresh flowers and patterns on cakes as opposed to a lot of fluff and folderol. Of course, when fondant came along, things took a backward step toward being less natural. Fondant is such a sweet and hard icing, and I’ve never liked the taste of it. I started doing fondant cakes when they first came along, but gradually I thought, A lot of people can do this better than I can, and I don’t need to do this. It’s not my specialty, so I backed out of it.
What’s the most extravagant or unique cake that you’ve ever created?
We’ve done several that were over-the-top extravagant with lots of icing flowers. Maybe 10 or 12 years ago, people wanted cakes to be really tall, which is hard to do, and have them stay straight, stable, and taste good! We did one wedding cake that was so big we couldn’t get it into the Schermerhorn. We had to wheel it around. 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 that I love — caramel, truffle, and sour cream pound cake, which is the oldest recipe that I have and still make.
What’s the secret to being so successful for over 50 years?
My husband. When we started, we were in it together. He was always a stickler for me being on time, and he saved our bacon so many times. He always insisted on quality. He would say, “No, you can’t go back to bed; you have to get up and finish that cake!” He wanted us to be a success, and he kept me on task. I miss him and all that he did, and I don’t think he’s gotten enough credit over the years.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
One day, I was stewing about something. Unfortunately, Joe Smith happened to be the recipient of my worries. Joe was an extraordinarily talented florist, but more than that, he was a stellar human being — one of the nicest people ever, and I loved him. We worked with him a lot. So I was stewing, and he said, “Leland, just keep your head down and keep working.” I think about that all the time. Don’t let yourself get up in the clouds about something. Just keep doing what you do. You can get so worried about tomorrow and what you did yesterday.
Faith, family, and friends notwithstanding, what are 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 photos.
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