Company grows from love of life, cake and healthy eating

This story is by Vivian Henoch of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, and originally appeared in My Jewish Detroit, an online magazine.

Jane Imerman in her home kitchen.

Jane Imerman in her home kitchen.

This is a story about hope, courage, inspiration, patience and cake batter. A lot of cake batter.

It’s a story that begins in Jane Imerman’s kitchen in Bloomfield Township, Michigan, where her passion for baking and healthy food collided with the reality of cancer.

Jane always had been a firm believer that the purest foods are the healthiest. But years after her youngest son, Jonny, was diagnosed with testicular cancer at the age of 26, Jane has taken health-conscious cooking and baking to a whole new level, learning everything she could about organic food and developing her own recipes.

Jonny regained his health, turned his energies to advocacy and, in 2006, founded Imerman Angels, a worldwide cancer-support organization, based in Chicago, with the mission to provide one-on-one connections among cancer fighters, survivors and caregivers.

Finding a passion

Jonny had Angels. Jane had recipes. Jeffrey Imerman, Jane’s oldest son, had the vision to start the Imerman Cake Company: Why not market Jane’s delicious organic coffee cakes and share them with the world, then donate a portion of each sale to Imerman Angels?

A former TV anchor/reporter, Jeff was practicing law at a big firm in New York City when he had the notion to change the course of his life, leave his job, return to Detroit and partner with Jane to create Imerman Cake Company.

“I loved the excitement in New York, enjoyed working with my colleagues and the challenges of litigation, but I didn’t feel that I wanted to stay on that path for a lifetime,” says Jeff.

Describing the moment in 2010 when the idea crystallized, Jeff recalls a conversation with his brother.

“It was 2 in the morning and I was still at my desk at work, and my brother was sitting at his desk in Chicago, still working alone, launching Imerman Angels, and I said, ‘Jonny, I don’t know if I want to do this forever,’ and he said to me, ‘Jeff, find your passion. If that’s not where you are today, then look for something positive and fulfilling. Because I see people die every day – at age 7, 25, 62. You don’t know how much time you have, so make a change now, it could all be over tomorrow.’”

Jane and Jeff Imerman

Jane and Jeff Imerman

A dialogue with the founders

Jeff: I wrote a 50-page business plan, inspired by my brother’s fight against cancer. After he survived, we did a lot of food research and learned more about what we are putting into our bodies and how that affects our health and well-being. We learned about organic foods and the benefits of eating organic. . .

Jane: . . . and we didn’t find any organic desserts in the marketplace.

Jeff: I knew we could create something in our local community that we could be very proud of.  So we started in my mom’s home kitchen, took a cake recipe that she had made since our childhood, and we streamlined it to make it even more pure and organic.

Jane: We spent a lot of hours baking, taste-testing and tweaking the recipes, one cake at a time. As many as eight cakes a day. We spent about a year.

Jeff: Using all organic ingredients, gram by gram, we took out as much as we could to lower the sugar, cut the fat and reduce the calories to make the cake as lean as possible without sacrificing the flavor.

Jane: We took out the nuts too because of all the nut allergies. For instance, in the cinnamon cake, we now use toasted rolled oats instead of the original walnuts. We also switched to a Neufchatel cheese from a cream cheese to lower the calories.

Imerman Cake Company's cinnamon and chocolate chip cakes

Imerman Cake Company’s cinnamon and chocolate chip cakes

Jeff: But we knew the one constant was quality, and the bottom line was the taste. That couldn’t change.

Learning the ropes

“We had to learn our business from the ground up,” observes Jeff. “We didn’t know the food industry. We couldn’t just rush out into the marketplace. We knew we had to be patient. And everything took longer than we anticipated.”

Getting it right, Jeff and Jane took another year or two traveling to food shows and seminars all over the country, doing demos, taking classes, learning from experts in the field. “We were surprised to find how collaborative the food industry is. We were amazed to meet people so willing to take us under their wing and offer guidance. There were people who had built up very successful companies — like Dave Zilko of Garden Fresh and Mike Marsh of Flatout Bread  who became great mentors to us.”

After three years, Imerman Cakes are on grocery shelves in high-end markets in Detroit and Chicago, in both cinnamon and chocolate chip flavors, available in a two-pound size and a mini half-pound size. The cakes are still hand-mixed, one at a time, but because they carry the USDA Organic seal, production has moved out of the Imerman household to the Achatz Handmade Pie Company, a certified organic facility which is also a local family-owned business.

“We are still in our infancy,” says Jane. “2014 was our first full calendar year of sales.”

Even the boxes are eco-friendly at the Imerman Cake Company.

Even the boxes are eco-friendly at the Imerman Cake Company.

New recipes are in the mix, new flavors and sizes are on the way. And the criteria for the ingredients remain strictly organic: free from artificial preservatives and sweeteners, high fructose corn syrup and genetically engineered ingredients. No ingredients come from crops exposed to harmful pesticides or fertilizers, and the dairy products come from animals that have not been given antibiotics or growth hormones.

Even the boxes are eco-friendly, fully recyclable with a window film that is biodegradable.

“Because our family name is on the box,” says Jeff, “The product reflects back on you, your values.

“You need to be proud of what you are providing, and we wanted to provide people with a totally positive food option: better tasting, better for the body, better for the environment, and a help in the fight against cancer. Overall, it’s an indulgence people can feel good about.”

Jane and Jeff didn’t want to provide a cake recipe, since selling them is their livelihood. But they were happy to provide a recipe for mac and cheese that Jane has made for years. Jeff says he and his siblings loved it while they were growing up. I know we published a mac and cheese recipe last August; this is another version that’s lower in fat and calories.

Stalking the ordinary celery

celery via Wikimedia Commons

Rabbi Louis (Eli) Finkelman

Rabbi Louis (Eli) Finkelman

A NOTE FROM YOUR HOST BOBBIE LEWIS: This week’s blog is by guest author Louis Finkelman (aka Eliezer) Finkelman, rabbi, scholar, teacher and freelance writer as well as a gardener, cook, home brewer and vintner and assistant to the cheese-maker with whom he shares his Southfield, Michigan home. It originally appeared in My Jewish Detroit, an online magazine published by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit.

I found a cookbook that describes a classical French combination, mirepoix, as a finely-diced mixture of onions, carrots and celery, simmered or sautéed. The writer explains what each ingredient adds to the mixture. According to this sophisticated expert, the celery adds texture, but does not add much in the way of flavor, since celery basically has very little flavor.

Go to the supermarket and you can find celery that proves his point. In fact, you cannot find any other kind of celery in the supermarket. The thick, heavy stalks of celery, with their creamy color, just barely green, gently whisper the secret information about their flavor, “we taste of celery.” The green leaves have a strong, bitter flavor, but who uses the leaves of celery?

Visiting my son and his family in Israel, some years ago, I made the trip to his local Shufrasol supermarket. The celery there did not look like American celery. It had little, thin stalks, all a deep dark bright green. When we got home and used the celery in recipes, it did not taste like American supermarket celery either: rather than whispering, it shouted. It yelled, “I AM CELERY! HEAR ME ROAR!” In a soup, in a stew, in a casserole, a few snips of celery sufficed to make a bold statement.

Photo by Trinimusic via Flickr Creative Commons

Photo by Trinimusic via Flickr Creative Commons

My growing affinity for celery

I started growing celery at home, in my little backyard vegetable garden. My garden celery comes up much more like its assertive Israeli relations than the kind in American supermarkets. It comes up small, but powerful. It has an attitude.

This year, during my annual trip to the farm supply store to pick up my vegetables, I got a quick lesson in why we have such different versions of celery. The manager of the store directed me to find “ordinary celery.” I commented that “it does not seem ordinary to me. It does not taste like supermarket celery.”

American commercial growers (according to the manager of the farm supply store) irrigate their celery heavily to get those big, bland stalks. I read somewhere that growers even put shades on parts of the celery plant so that it does not develop too much flavor.

I thought about that quest for celery without too much flavor. That goes along with preferring white bread to rye or whole wheat. It goes along with cutting off the crust of sandwiches. It resonates with preferring white meat to dark. Turkeys raised for meat usually have been bred for so much white meat that they move about awkwardly. Their huge breasts so limit their motion that they need artificial insemination. All this happens in the search for less intense flavor. It all goes together. It rhymes.

Appearance over substance

In a way, that quest for less intensive flavor matches the quest for perfect appearance. No doubt, the big, creamy, thick celery has a certain visual appeal that the small, thin, dark green stuff cannot match. The huge red strawberries in the market all look beautiful; sometimes they taste like strawberries, too. The only apples available in the supermarket look like wax models of apples: big, flawless, shiny. They come in bright red or bright green. Though growers have identified hundreds or thousands of different varieties of apple, our selection at the market usually gets restricted to the three or four prettiest. I will not even mention tomatoes. Some of us do not share the preference for bland and pretty. Those who seek intense, complex flavors have to look for produce at ethnic shops, or farmers’ markets or just grow our own.

Mirepoix, photo courtesy MyJewishDetroit.org

Mirepoix, photo courtesy MyJewishDetroit.org

When it comes to people, too — do I have to spell this out? — we might make an effort to overcome our resistance and put up with people who have too much flavor and too imperfect an appearance. We might find our best companions, our wisest guides and our most promising students. They might make our lives more interesting.

Editor’s note:  A mirepoix is a mixture of two parts onion, one part carrot and one part celery, roughly chopped and cooked slowly in a bit of oil until the onion is translucent. This recipe, from a contributor named Gordon on the allrecipes.com website, uses a mirepoix with braised chicken breasts. You can cook up mirepoix ahead of time and use it to add to soups or stews. The photo with the recipe is by naples34102, another Allrecipes contributor.