Because of his sweet tooth, the baker, Clayton Mayer developed a sweet talent.
“I think cheesecakes are wonderful, but I hate paying for them, so I learned to bake,” said Clayton, a Round Top native who is a heavy equipment operator for Fayette County Precinct 2.
Becca, his wife of 35 years, added with a laugh, “That’s the truth. He didn’t like paying $40 for a cheesecake at Central Market.”
As the youngest of five children, Clayton is no stranger to the kitchen.
“I remember standing on a chair to cook pancakes for the family,” said the 1978 graduate of Round Top-Carmine High School. “Through the years, I barbecued and grilled. I just never baked.”
That changed about 15 years ago, when he and Becca, fans of Reata Restaurant in Fort Worth, acquired Grady Spears’ cookbook, A Cowboy in the Kitchen. His first endeavor? A jalapeno cheesecake.
“Becca didn’t like it because she doesn’t like jalapenos, but other people did,” Clayton said.
Then, Becca bought him A Cheesecake Bible. Along with mastering cheesecakes, Clayton began developing his own style in the kitchen.
“I paid attention and learned the little tricks that make a difference like not overmixing the batter or slowly cooling the cheesecake in the oven with the door open,” said Clayton, noting that both of these techniques help prevent cracking.
And he began tweaking recipes.
“If you look at recipes for the same dish in different cookbooks, you’ll see that they’re almost the same with one or two little things different,” Clayton said. “Doing things in a different order or adding something special can make a big difference.”
“I like cheesecakes and cakes best,” said Clayton, adding that he makes a good pecan pie, too.
He continued experimenting with different techniques and ingredients and collecting his own secrets that elevated his cakes to the next level. For instance, he discovered that the gold-level bakeware from a national kitchenware company was worth the investment because the cakes don’t over-brown. Experience showed him that a spritz of baker’s cooking spray, the kind with flour, is the best insurance against sticking.
He found out that Greek yogurt makes good cakes even better and that a hint of almond extract is often a nice touch in recipes that include nuts. He now divides the batter into four layers because the cakes bake more evenly.
When Clayton is personalizing recipes, he approaches it like a scientist. When he’s recreating treasured favorites, he’s more like a detective. For instance, as a child, he always looked forward to birthday parties at the Sternadels’ house.
“Clayton called Mrs. Loraine [Sternadel], the Queen of the Red Velvet Cake,” Becca said.
When she died, Clayton acquired the beloved recipe from her children. Like many old family recipes, it was long on experience and short on details, saying things such as “stir a little bit, but not too much.” Clayton made the recipe over and over and over, changing it along the way, until her children pronounced it, “as good as Momma’s.”
“One of the keys was sifting the flour three times to get the texture just right,” said Clayton, who worked just as hard to perfect a coconut cake made famous by Becca’s grandmother.
He keeps a little black book of modified recipes and his notes. Don’t bother asking for the secrets.
“He doesn’t give anybody—not even family—the tweaked recipes,” said Becca, laughing.
According to Clayton, a great cake is separated from an average cake by three things.
Like so many things, practice makes perfect. For a long time, he and Becca, who claims to be chief taste taster and dishwasher, baked most of the cakes and cheesecakes for JW’s Restaurant in Carmine.
“Jeff [Wunderlich, the owner] is our nephew and we helped out when they were getting started,” Clayton said. “We don’t do it anymore because the nights of baking got to be too long with full-time day jobs.”
Word spread about Clayton’s cakes after Becca encouraged him to donate one to a fundraising auction.
“It sold for $500 and prompted other non-profits to ask him to donate,” said Becca, noting they support local fire departments, their church, the education foundation, the library and a host of other good causes. “Now, there are several people who regularly pay $1,000 for one of his donated cakes.”
For people who can’t wait for the next fundraising auction, the Mayers take orders. With three days notice, he will fresh-make cheesecakes (Savory Mexican, key lime, margarita, Meyer lemon, pumpkin and Super New York), cakes (Celestial Chocolate, butter, German chocolate, double coconut, carrot, banana and Italian cream) or a fruit tartlet. Most of the cakes are frosted with a cream cheese icing; they are not decorated.
“I get a lot of satisfaction when people take a bite, smile big and tell me it’s good,” Clayton said.
Although the Mayers built a separate kitchen with all of the components necessary to pass inspection for commercial baking, Clayton’s passion will remain “a hobby with a fan base” for the foreseeable future.
“Whatever it is, I think you have to like what you’re doing,” Clayton said. “When I’m working on big equipment, I don’t see it, I just feel it. When it comes to baking, I just do it until it turns out right, and makes me—and other people— happy.”
To place an order for one of Clayton Mayer’s sweet treats, call Becca Mayer at (979) 249-6167.
By: Lorie A. Woodward