Sprinkles' Candace Nelson On Baking For Oprah, Gluten-Free Tips, And More - Exclusive Interview

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Cupcake connoisseur Candace Nelson is kind of a pizza prophet. The genius behind Sprinkles, inventor of the cupcake ATM, and judge on the hit shows "Cupcake Wars" and "Sugar Rush" also co-founded the Michelin Bib Gourmand-winning Pizzana (Biggest restaurant pet peeve? "Too loud of a dining room," Nelson told Mashed). She's not just a perfectionist, which is why Sprinkle's cupcakes have such impeccably proportioned frosting. Nelson is probably also incapable of doing things halfway. 

As an entrepreneur, a balanced day is impossible. Nelson admitted to Mashed that even the idea of one "throws me into a tizzy." Instead, if you're trying to turn your passion project into a career, Nelson advises that you find balance "over a period of time." She wasn't always an entrepreneurial guru. Long before Katie Holmes, Jaime Lee Curtis, Blake Lively, and the rest of Hollywood unanimously swooned over her cupcakes, Nelson used to spend her time on her couch, binging on Oprah and dreaming. 

In her soon-to-be-released book, "Sweet Success," the cupcake queen opens up about her journey, to give you a roadmap to making your own business ideas profitable. In this exclusive interview, she reflects on the successes and hurdles in her career, her friendship with Reese Witherspoon, and gives us some cupcake frosting tips along the way. 

The chef that amazes Candace Nelson

One of the things "Sweet Success" emphasizes is the importance of mentors and experts. In your podcast "Live to Eat," you had conversations from with everybody from Jaques Pepin to Carla Hall to Fred Savage. Was there a conversation that really made a mark on you?

I was thinking about this earlier and Carla Hall is the conversation that stands out most to me just because I know Carla through food, but she is so much more — as we all are, multifaceted beings. I spoke to her during the pandemic and something she was doing at the time was getting on Instagram and, every day for 10 minutes, doing something she called "recess." It was this injection of fun and play and exercise and sunlight — if you could get outside. 

During the conversation, I uncovered that Carla had gotten so into her health. Here she is in her [50s] and I believe she said that she was training for a weightlifting competition. That's how seriously she was lifting weights and caring for her body, and it shows, right? She's cut ... I was amazed by her spirit, it's so indomitable and the idea that in your mid-50s that you're training for a weightlifting competition, you think of that as something that 20-year-olds would do. This idea of the second chapter of life is so full of opportunity, regardless of what you've done before. I loved her spirit.

Candace Nelson talks self care

How do you take care of yourself when you've got X number of businesses, when you've got X number of public appearances? ... How do you find that balance?

I like to think of balance over a period of time, not within a day. The idea of having a balanced day to me throws me into a tizzy because I'm like, "I can't find balance in a day most of the time, so what am I doing wrong?" I've given myself a little grace, because a lot of times, I'm working on creative projects that really involve so much energy and so much time and effort. 

If you're trying to birth something new into the world, it is going to take 150%. You can't say, "I'm going to have my 45-minute workout today and check in with my friend and my therapist and have full quality time with my family." It's not realistic, and I don't want to tell people that it is, because then they have that nagging feeling of, "What am I doing wrong?" You're not doing anything wrong. To create something out of nothing takes herculean effort...

There is light on the other side. Whenever I was spending weeks away from my family, when my kids were really young and I was filming, it was hard. The days that I left for set and they were still asleep and I came back and they were already in bed and I felt like I missed a day of their life, that was really hard for me. What was great was after filming, I doubled down on being present with them and showing up at all of their classroom parties and doing special things. [I] held steadfast to the idea that I was modeling a certain work ethic for them and that in itself was important.

Candace Nelson and Reese Witherspoon are good friends

You talk about building a strong support network of entrepreneurs. You have a vibrant relationship with Reese Witherspoon. She once quipped that you were the best person to sit next to at a dinner party, which was super sweet! How did that friendship come to be and what have you guys taught each other?

We met through mutual friends in Los Angeles. It's funny because I tell her now, "The first time I met you was in the store." She came into Sprinkles to order some cupcakes and she was as sweet as could be. She was trying to keep a low profile because there were still ... a lot of paparazzi around at the time, but [she] wanted to engage in conversation. 

[She] asked me about the new seasonal flavors. She was so lovely and I'd always admired her. When I became friendly with her, through friends, I was even more impressed by what an amazing friend she is. She walks the walk in terms of showing up for women in her life, but also in the world in terms of uplifting their stories. The way that she has inspired me is ... we're stronger together and inspiring and encouraging me to show up for other women in whatever form it may be — in mentorship, in friendship, as an investor in female-founded businesses.

[There's also] the way that she embraces ambition. When I was coming up in the career world, [women] didn't want to be thought of as "ambitious," because that was a dirty word. She has scrubbed that word clean for me. Of course you're ambitious. You want to make things happen in the world, you want to create change. You want to see your visions come to life. She is unstoppable in that way. 

She's such a creative mind, it never stops. She's always got a million projects going on, but she always still makes time for her friends and her family. I don't know how she does it, but she's endlessly inspiring to me. The "best person to sit next to a dinner party" comment came about because ... She has an amazing sense of humor, and so do I, so we have the best time laughing together. We can get silly together and have so much fun.

The time Candace Wilson brought 350 cupcakes to Oprah Winfrey

You talk about your breakthrough moment as getting a call from "The Oprah Winfrey Show" to bring 350 cupcakes ... That must have been such an overwhelming time in your career.

Oprah had been so inspiring to me in terms of getting off the couch when I was unemployed, and there wasn't the vast universe of resources available to me at that time that there is now in terms of podcasts and all of these masterminds and these courses and all these things you can do to get inspired. There weren't a ton of female entrepreneurs out there to even use as a model. 

I found inspiration through "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and through "The Martha Stewart Show." For this to happen, for Harpo Studios to call and say, "Oprah loves your cupcakes and wants you on the show," was [a] full circle moment for me. I was like, "What? How did this happen? I used to be on the couch watching her show and now I am getting on a red-eye with my cupcakes because she loves them and she's going to tell the world about them."

The experience was funny because it was ... January and we'd just gotten through our first holiday season. We were completely exhausted because we'd done all of the gift-giving for all of the major studios and agencies. In LA, a lot of people were on cleanses, so it was a brief moment of peace and quiet and we were able to catch a breath. Sure enough, it was late in the day, we were turning off the ovens, starting to clean up, thinking we were going to actually go home at a reasonable time for once and the phone comes in and our caller ID says, "Harpo Studios."

I figured if she had a studio in Santa Monica, maybe they were calling for delivery, but it was one of those producers saying that those cupcakes had to be in Chicago the next day. I was like, "Hold one moment, please. Fire up the ovens! Turn those back on, we need them!" It's one of those moments where you say yes. You're not sure how you're going to do it, but you say yes because there's no other answer to give. [We had to] explain to her that we couldn't possibly give our cupcakes over to a courier. They couldn't go underneath the plane, they'd get squashed. We hand-carried them — my husband, his brother, myself — on a red-eye to Chicago and protected them with our lives.

The next day, we were backstage watching Oprah shower our company with praise. It was a love letter to Sprinkles. She talked about how Barbara Streisand had sent them to her. We had this double whammy of Barbra Streisand's endorsement with Oprah Winfrey's endorsement ... being in her presence is an out-of-body experience anyway, so it was really magical.

Candace Nelson on why imposter syndrome is a good thing

You talk a lot about imposter syndrome in your book. One of the most poignant pieces of advice that you give to people is saying, "You're not alone." What were your last confrontations with imposter syndrome?

I don't know that I can speak to a specific moment, it strikes me from time to time ... I started Sprinkles because I was passionate about baking. It was business meets baking, and it was this beautiful combination that took off. Very quickly after we opened the store, our success was news around the country where there were all these media outlets covering the lines down the block and this cupcake phenomenon. People immediately started to think of me as a female leader in business. 

I wasn't ready to embrace that role yet. I was invited on a lot of panels and I didn't feel ready, even though what I had done was disruptive and innovative and definitely spoke of leadership.

I would sit around in these panels and look to my left and to my right and think, "I do not belong here." What I didn't realize at the time was that I did belong there because, first of all, I was asked to be there. It wasn't like I was knocking down someone else's door. You have to own your own story. All I have to do is show up as myself ... Show up as yourself authentically every time and also realize that sometimes imposter syndrome is a good sign because it means you're growing. 

You're stretching yourself outside of your comfort zone. The imposter syndrome, I've learned to feel it. Know I'm not alone, feel the fear, and do it anyway. Reframe it as a signal that I'm being courageous and I'm growing and I'm evolving and not resting on my laurels.

The bakery Candace Nelson loves

As part of the market research you did for Sprinkles, you spent a lot of time [traveling around the country sampling baked goods]. What are the big warning signs in a bakery now?

The baking industry has come a long way. I was shocked when I first was exploring the bakery and café scene in L.A., but elsewhere as well. The concept of fresh-baked meant "within the last few days." That can make sense for something like a cake, which retains moisture, but for a cupcake or cookie or treat like that, there's no point to me in eating it unless it's been baked that day. 

It was this idea of freshly baked that was so paramount to me and the quality of ingredients. In terms of what entices me in a bakery, I like small bustling bakeries that look like there's been effort put in, but there's still a mom-and-pop feel to it. There's something that is sweet about the neighborhood bakery. I'm always looking for great craftsmanship and beautiful ingredients and the number one thing is that they're baking fresh.

What was the last bakery you walked into that really inspired you?

I love Persephone Bakery in Jackson Hole. That's a really special bakery [because of] the quality of the baked goods. What they're doing is  quite difficult and they're executing it flawlessly. The whole experience is very sweet. It's special. It feels homey but elevated.

Candace Nelson gives us the keys to cupcake frosting

You put a lot of thought into the presentation and proportions of a cupcake and its frosting. You have judged and eaten more than your fair share of cupcakes on both "Sugar Rush" and "Cupcake Wars." What is the perfect frosting-to-cake ratio?

I'm more of a cake person than a frosting person, but I knew that there were a lot of frosting people out there, so we had to meet in the middle. The more important metric for me was that the frosting-to-cake ratio was equal across the cupcake. The cupcake's frosting style at the time was more production style with a piping bag where it swirled and piled high on the top. With the offset spatula, we smooth it out. It's more like spreading butter on toast. With that technique, you  get the frosting from edge to edge all the way around, and it's essentially the same ratio so you have that same experience in every bite.

For somebody who is starting off on their frosting journey, can you give us tips about how to find the perfect balance of sweetness?

Yes. American-style buttercream is actually still the preferred style of frosting in this country, but a lot of people find it too sweet. It is the simplest to make. If you're just starting off on your frosting journey, I would start there. I would add the salt. Salt is important in baking. It doesn't make things salty. It balances out the sweetness and the flavor. Don't be afraid to add salt to balance out your frosting. If you don't like sweet, I would recommend a chocolate ganache-style frosting with chocolate and cream — super luscious, luxurious. If you like chocolate it couldn't be yummier, and that is not too sweet, ever.

Candace Nelson's pizza dough tip

You have also ventured into the world of pizza. What's the number one thing that your pizza chef, Daniele Uditi, taught you quite a bit about the art of making a good, homemade, pizza?

I work with dough, he works with dough, but we work with different types of dough. I am so used to a rolling pin. I think of dough and I think of rolling out my pie crust. He had to teach me how you treat pizza dough. It's more about a gentle pressing, coaxing the dough into shape, letting it do the work itself and being really gentle with the pressing. 

You can also hang it over your hand so gravity will help shape it, and then you hang it over another hand and gravity helps shape it. There's so much that goes into our slow dough and our crust, but because I'm so used to rolling out dough, I've learned how important it is to use those special techniques to press a pizza dough into shape.

One of the series you're doing on Instagram, or have done, are your restaurant pet peeves. What is your biggest pet peeve in the world when you go into a restaurant now?

Speaking from the restaurateur's perspective, this is challenging, so it's not an easy fix. I don't mean to be judgmental in any way, but as a patron, and this maybe shows my age too, there's a fine line between having an energetic vibe in a dining room and not being able to hear anything the person you're sitting next to is saying. Sometimes, I'll come into our restaurants and I'm like, "Oh my God, you could hear a pin drop in here. Let's turn on some music." Other times, I'm like, "Huh?" 

Going out to dinner is a special, meaningful moment of connection in my mind and you want that energy, but you still want to be able to hear the people at your table when you're having a conversation. The pet peeve would be just too loud of a dining room.

Candace Nelson's gluten-free baking advice

You nearly opened a baking school, or were on the verge of buying retail space for that. Looking back, are you glad you didn't? If you were to do so today, what techniques or courses would you bring to the table?

Am I glad I didn't? Yes. Everything happens for a reason. I have had the most incredible journey with Sprinkles. It's been wild and fun and unexpected so I wouldn't change a thing. I would've had fun owning a cooking school, too. 

If I were to do it today, there would be an emphasis on getting into more gluten-free and grain-free baking. I've been having fun with that. One of the things I wanted to dig deeper into as well when I was at pastry school were cake decorating techniques, because those don't always go with the pastry program. It's more about the foundational baking, and then the cake decorating is a whole other education. I know those are two very disparate things, grain-free and gluten-free baking.

Grain-free and gluten-free — because that's a big thing in a lot of people's lives now — Thanksgiving pie season is around the corner. What's your big tip for making a gluten-free pie crust, if you have one?

Gluten-free pie crusts are challenging. I have a lot of tips in my pie course, and if you pre-order my book, you will get access to my pie course. Not to throw you a curve ball there, but stay tuned for more. It takes practice, but there are a lot of tips for how to do it and it can get sticky, so there are things you can do in terms of working with plastic wrap and rolling between sheets of plastic wrap or parchment paper. If you find gluten-free pie dough challenging, you're not doing anything wrong. It is challenging.

Sweet Success: A Simple Recipe to Turn Your Passion into Profit is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or your local bookstore. The book is available for pre-sale now and will be released on Tuesday November 8, 2022.

This interview has been edited for clarity.