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Food & Drink

How Aunt Mona’s Baked Gardens Grow

Cake maker Micheli Vazquez creates new, edible worlds with Puerto Rican flavors.

Aunt Mona's Cakes

Imagine yourself in a lush forest full of mossy rocks and dewy blades of grass. You lay your head down on that squishy forest floor and look across the landscape—what do you see? A determined ant climbing a fallen tree trunk? Bulbous, orange mushrooms sprouting from the damp soil?

These are the things that inspire the one-of-a-kind culinary works of Micheli Vazquez, owner and operator of Aunt Mona’s Cakes, whose baked goods embody the colorful landscapes of the natural world around us. 

Aunt Mona's Cakes

“I would describe myself as an artist, but before I started doing this work, I didn’t really know what it really meant to feel like one,” Vazquez explains. “But that was just me thinking that I needed to be a certain type of artist. When I got into cake decorating, I kind of realized it was a new art form that I never even considered, and I’m glad that I figured that out.”

Growing up in Binghamton, New York, wasn’t always easy for Vazquez, but they found comfort and self-expression through the exploration of different art forms, starting with poetry.

“I was always a writer,” Vazquez recounts. “The first thing I ever wrote was a poem on my walls when I got grounded in my room. I wrote about how I was stuck between four walls. And that’s why I move around a lot—I hate feeling stuck somewhere. I hate feeling tied down.”

Vazquez stayed true to her wanderlust, moving to northern Minnesota for college to study cultural anthropology and creative writing while working as a cake decorator. She studied abroad in several countries throughout her college years, including Tanzania and Japan, where Vazquez landed their first kitchen job and solidified their pursuit in the culinary arts.

They moved to Minneapolis in early 2020, a time when the Twin Cities food industry had hit a breaking point in the swell of the COVID-19 pandemic. Once restaurants started reopening, Vazquez landed an executive chef gig at the recently opened Fhima’s in downtown Minneapolis.

While the position was “a good foot in the door,” Vazquez admits she had to push herself in different ways, and found it a challenge to express her creativity within the structure of the modern kitchen environment. She worked at Fhima’s for a year, then bounced around to a few other restaurants, encountering the same issue wherever she worked.

“I really struggled under authority. I don’t love authority because I think some people confuse authority with respect,” Vazquez explains. “And as someone who now owns a company, I could never imagine treating my employees any way that I’ve ever been treated in the past. So when I was going through that experience and continually feeling not respected, [I decided] I’m just going to quit and I’m just going to jump the gun and try my own work.”

Photo by Boyu Huang

At the time, Vazquez was a home baker and already had friends inquiring about custom cake orders. So, they created an Instagram profile, posted some photos, and the orders started flooding in. To their surprise and delight, Vazquez was almost immediately fully booked for two months. At the time she had no logo, no cards for her company, just a business license and a dining room table full of piping bags and cake rounds.

It was in Binghamton where Vazquez first found her love of baking with the help of an influential figure in her life.

“Aunt Mona was my mom’s best friend. She really played as big a role as my mom. I have a lot of gaps in my childhood, but the positive memories always included her,” Vazquez recalls. “I was always a really anxious child; she could always tell. She didn’t exclude me for being anxious, she just worked her little magic to make me feel better.”

Vazquez says Aunt Mona was a baker herself and a true inspiration, so she named the company after her when she started Aunt Mona’s Cakes in 2022. The hope was to create things that no one had seen before and to use their platform to promote the causes they believe in.

“My work is creative work. It is also food. And food is a very political product,” Vazquez says. “With the state of our world right now, especially with the genocide in Palestine, I feel that it is so important for a business to vocalize what they stand for. Having an income is important, but human life is more important to me than paying my bills. Free Palestine. And Congo. And Puerto Rico. Free all oppressed people.”

Aunt Mona's Cakes

Today, you can order a beautifully intricate lambeth-style heart cake (above) for any occasion or go for Vazquez’s signature style: miniature nature-scapes, complete with foliage-like textures and edible flowers. 

For their gorgeous dome cakes, Vazquez starts with a round cake base then delicately places smaller chunks of airy green cake on top to create the “moss.” 

“That’s the best part about being in a kitchen, you kind of just get to play around a little bit. It’s fun work,” Vazquez explains. “When I was younger, my mom always used to yell at me for playing with my food. And now I get to do that for a job.”

While they’re almost too beautiful to eat, you cannot miss out on the bold, tropical flavors inspired by Vazquez’s Puerto Rican heritage. Their most popular combination by far is a toasted coconut cake with mango compote and bright, beautiful hibiscus frosting. She also hopes to bring a sweet plantain flavor to the market sometime this summer.

As a self-described “big dreamer,” Vazquez wants to eventually open a space that is a full-service bakery and cafe by day, and a lesbian bar by night. She says she could keep Aunt Mona in the name as a double-homage, as Mona’s 440 Club was the first lesbian bar in San Francisco.

She doesn’t rule out the possibility of this venue opening in Minneapolis, as her four years here are the longest she’s stayed in one place since growing up in New York. Fingers crossed she finds the right spot in the Twin Cities.

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