Now open: Pink Diva Cupcakery and Carol’s Cheesecakes. 

Cassi Conyers

Justin Fox Burks

Cassi Conyers

Vegan cupcakes aren't supposed to taste this good, right? They're supposed to have those weird little fibers in them; they're supposed to taste kind of like banana.

Forget what you know. Cassi Conyers, who is the mastermind behind Pink Diva Cupcakery, is baking some of the best cupcakes in town — vegan or no.

A bit of background. When it comes to baking, eggs pull a lot of weight. They moisten; they leaven; they bind. So the trick to vegan baking is finding a good egg substitute. Most recipes call for things like flaxseed, silken tofu, and banana. Hence those weird little fibers.

But when she set out to build a recipe, Conyers ditched years of vegan wisdom and struck out on her own. Her secret?

"Think back to middle school science class," says Conyers. "What did you use to make your volcano? Baking soda and vinegar."

click to enlarge JUSTIN FOX BURKS
  • Justin Fox Burks

That may sound too good to be true — but trust me, try the cupcakes. Moist and fluffy, they taste like your sixth grade birthday party. Priced at $3, they come in flavors like Bluff City Blueberry and Crosstown Unicorn Patrol. And — best part — they look as good as they taste, topped with rococo swirls of confetti-colored frosting.

Honestly, I expected to like Snickerdoodle the best. I'm a big cinnamon guy. But I've got to give it to Cookies and Cream. These chocolaty little wonders are almost too moist to be real.

Also? I've got a hard job.

Of course, it hasn't always been cake and frosting for Conyers. Last year, she tried to open a vegan restaurant on Jackson, but the project never took off. Conyers says she learned a lot from the experience, including how to build a business model and market herself. Plus she's found a willing partner in Midtown Crossing Grill, from whom she leases space.

"I'm a late bloomer," admits 33-year-old Conyers. "I'm like Jesus. This is my resurrection."

This new venture started last December, when Imagine Vegan Café asked Conyers to pinch-hit for their pastry chef, who was vacationing in England. Her first batch of cupcakes sold out in 24 hours, and soon she was baking 4 to 5 dozen per week. On the strength of that success, she launched Pink Diva in February.

It's an impressive story, especially when you consider that Conyers is a single mother who, until recently, was working full-time as a chiropractor's assistant. Check her out on instagram (@pinkdivacupcakery), where she routinely pairs her cupcakes with themed manicures from stylist Kandace Redmond.

It's almost eerie how many Memphis chefs learned to cook at the elbows of their Italian grandmas. That's where Michael Hudman and Andy Ticer of Hog & Hominy got their chops. Same goes for Jason Severs of Bari Ristorante.

click to enlarge Carol and Drew Minneci - JUSTIN FOX BURKS
  • Justin Fox Burks
  • Carol and Drew Minneci

Well, you can add another name to that list: Drew Minneci of Carol's Cheesecakes, which opened in October. Although Minneci didn't come to cooking the way you might imagine. For 30 years before he opened Carol's, he was a long-haul trucker.

"Three and a half million miles without a single accident," he crows. "I think that's pretty good."

It all started in 2008, when Minneci, an amateur baker, brought a slice of his cheesecake to work.

At the time, he was a part-time security guard at Kroger. After trying a bite, his co-workers promptly started ordering cakes of their own. And the rest, as they say, is history.

click to enlarge JUSTIN FOX BURKS
  • Justin Fox Burks

I recommend the mini-cake sampler ($5.95), a 12-pack split between two different flavors. I enjoyed the red velvet — pleasantly sweet and piquant — and the chocolate with chocolate ganache. Interested in a full slice? Try the Peanut Butter Cup. You can't go wrong with chocolate and peanut butter.

I was also pleasantly surprised by the Cheese Puppies ($4.95), a deep-fried hybrid of cheese fritters and hush puppies. Crispy on the outside, warm and gooey on the inside, these little artery-cloggers are downright munchable, especially with a dollop of honey mustard. In the coming months, Minneci says he will unveil a new cheesecake pop.

So who is Carol? She's Minneci's wife, who first had the idea to bake a cheesecake with Bailey's Irish Cream. It has since become one of the shop's signature desserts.

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