Not for the sugar-shy

Photographs of Sift Cake and Dessert Bar by Daniel Bahmani

FORMER FILLMORE resident Andrea Ballus had been scoping out the neighborhood for a location for her fourth Sift Cake and Dessert Bar. She found the perfect setting when Dumplings & Buns abruptly left the cozy space at 2411 California, just around the corner from Fillmore, and opened her doors on August 23.

Ballus opened her first Sift shop in 2008. She says it is a business born of frustration and necessity.

“I got married in Sonoma around that time and I knew I wanted an array of desserts and fun flavors and brightly colored cupcakes,” she says. “Unfortunately, no one was doing that. There was a hole in the dessert marketplace.”

She opened her first shop in Cotati, then added others in Napa and Santa Rosa. A mobile cupcake truck, which she calls the Sifter, is equipped to cater events and festivals and parties on site.

Ballus, identified on her business card as a “Pastry Pushin’ Proprietress” who is “Frosting Obsessed,” credits her parents for her culinary bent, describing both as “bakers on the side.” There’s even a neighborhood connection: Her mother used to provide the cheesecake for Pauli’s Cafe, a longtime fixture at the corner of Fillmore and Washington that is now the home of Chouquet’s. Her father bakes artisan breads.

The new shop’s offerings, delivered daily from Sift’s Sonoma kitchen, include cupcakes with buttercream or cream cheese frosting for $3.25 apiece and large cookie sandwiches priced at $5.50. A number of sweet novelties, ranging from $1.90 and up, include “cruffles” — a blend of cake and frosting dipped in chocolate — and “frosting shots,” which are just what the name implies served up in a souvenir shot glass.

To chase them down, there are “cake shakes” — frosted cupcakes blended with ice and milk. “They’re the same consistency as a milkshake,” Ballus says. Nostalgic customers say they bring to mind childhood birthday parties where the ice cream used to melt into the cake on the same plate.

Ballus says her own allegiance shifted recently from the red velvet cupcake to the “Awe Snap,” a sandwich made of gingersnap cookies filled with lemon gelato.

The Fillmore shop — where Sift unveiled new branding Ballus describes as a “more elegant look,” with pastel prints and polka dots on a stark white background — will also offer pour-over coffee, each cup individually brewed. And soon it will be open at 7 in the morning on weekdays to offer commuters coffee, a cereal bar and oatmeal.

“I used to take the 1-California express bus from that exact spot — and lean against the wall where the shop is now,” she says. “I know people want a cup of coffee and a quick breakfast while waiting there.”

The shop’s offerings are not for the sugar-shy.

“We definitely believe you should simply work hard and then treat yourself,” Ballus says. But the shop offers gluten-free cupcakes on “wheat-free Wednesdays” and Sift bakers have dabbled with some low-calorie and vegan creations.

Sift also stocks other sweet-inspired wares: candles, journals and cookbooks, plus totes and lunchbags imbued with pastel prints. “The way I see it is that desserts are part of a celebration — anything from getting off work at the end of a day to having a birthday,” says Ballus. “And gifty items go hand in hand with desserts. Now people often give desserts as gifts.”

Ballus, who used to live around the corner from the newest Sift and worked as a nanny nearby, long had her heart on a local spot.

“I love it here. I knew it was a neighborhood I wanted to be in,” she says. “And people are professing their love already — promising to be our new best customers. That really makes work fun and exciting.”

For those who fondly remember the cheesecake served at Pauli’s, this is their lucky month. The September flavor of the month at Sift will be strawberry cheesecake. “It’s based on the very recipe my mom used to make for Pauli’s back in the ’70s,” Ballus says.

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