When Natalia Akst texted to let me know she’d just put together a sampler for me, I was excited. I had already spent time aplenty on her website, browsing page after luscious page of her pastries, bonbons, cookies and cakes of all kinds: signature cakes, sponge cakes, cupcakes—my mouth watered at the prospect of trying some of her beautiful baked creations. And while Charleston has no shortage of first-rate bakers, Akst has an approach that sets her apart, and that may change the way you think about dessert.
Born in a small town near the Ural Mountains, she graduated from university with a master’s degree in psychology, but she recalls the influences that set her on an entrepreneurial path. “I have this clear picture in my mind; I was about 5,” explains Akst. “We had a pretty big kitchen, and I was sitting at the table, begging my mom to make my favorite dessert, a soft, layered bonbon rolled in crispy Italian-style waffle crumbs.”
Hers was a family of professionals. Her mother was an accomplished ob-gyn, yet they always found time to gather around the table together—a highly valued part of family life. “My mom cooked everything at home; we never went out to eat,” says Akst. “After work, she always came home and cooked supper for us.”
In 2006, Akst did a one-year stint in the restaurant department of a major cruise line that used Charleston as its port of call, which secured her a foothold, and friends, in the United States. She spent the following eight years in Moscow and crisscrossed the ocean several times before she found her way back to the Holy City in 2016.
“Every year, my mom made a special cake for my birthday—it’s become a family tradition—that’s how I started to bake when my daughter was born,” says Akst. “Initially, I just cooked and baked, did a lot of savory stuff. One day it came to me to have a place called MyOrganicBakery.” She then describes the linchpin that brought the entire enterprise into focus: “When I was around 20, I entered a fitness competition and won Miss Power and Beauty in my city, Izhevsk,” she says. “My diet changed significantly. I ate healthy, very simple food and limited sweets. But there are events in our life where we can’t avoid sweets, and I persuaded myself that it’s OK. But if I allow myself to have some sugar, if I eat dessert, I will incorporate organic ingredients, make it healthier.”
An advocate for healthful food options myself, I was eager to taste Akst’s desserts and see how her approach played out in her baking. Her sampler box beckoned with thick slices of icing-laden cake and a plump cupcake in a lovely origami-style presentation.
I gobbled down the cupcake in a single sitting. A carrot cake recipe, and her most popular, it’s loaded with carrot—more, says Akst, than flour—three different spices and it’s light on sugar. Incredibly moist, its center is caramel filled; on top is a cream cheese frosting that she says further offsets the sweetness. Akst uses only pasture-raised eggs in her batters.
The cakes—rich, multilayered affairs—held their moisture over the several days it took me to savor each one. My first bite was of a warm, spicy Thanksgiving edition that truly reflected the flavors of the season. Next came the vanilla cake slice—if pressed to choose, it was my favorite—made with heady Madagascar vanilla, the gold standard. Akst says it has a bright yet mellow flavor that reminds her of custard. Lastly, I tried a slightly spicy honey cake, sweetened with raw honey and a touch of sugar that was flavorful and not overly sweet—pitch-perfect.
Akst continually experiments with techniques and ingredients and says she wants to work with local farmers. One of the first cakes introduced by MyOrganicBakery was her novel spinach sponge. “It’s a very moist cake,” explains Akst. “I’ve been told by customers, ‘It’s your signature cake.’ I use fresh lemon to flavor it, which also overrides the spinach taste.”
She cites her brother, whose palate she loves to please, as the other major influence in her life. “He’s a successful businessman,” shares Akst. “I cooked for him in Moscow when he was on business trips, but it was his wife who told me he enjoyed my recipes. We Russians aren’t very expressive of our feelings.”
On this side of the planet, she is pleasing palates, getting recognition for her unique fare and making a healthy difference in lives. *
Wendy Swat Snyder is a Charleston-based freelance writer. You can read her work at sweetgrassandgrits.com.