After spending decades honing her skills back East, Willmar, Minn., new spot for woman's culinary mastery

Maybe it's the fresh-ground carrots in the batter or the extra cream cheese in the frosting or the desire to plea-se customers. Whatever the reason, Patty Murtaugh's tasty carrot cakes are a big hit. As a sideline during her regular working caree...

Leaving a tasty mark
Patty Murtaugh bakes a carrot cake Thursday at her home. The Willmar baker made a name for herself selling her cakes during the downtown Becker Market this summer. She began baking the cakes as a hobby when she lived on the East Coast. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

Maybe it's the fresh-ground carrots in the batter or the extra cream cheese in the frosting or the desire to plea-se customers.

Whatever the reason, Patty Murtaugh's tasty carrot cakes are a big hit.

As a sideline during her regular working career, Murtaugh, 63, baked carrot cakes for friends and family, sold hundreds through mail order, and owned a small Connecticut bakery for several years in the 1980s.

Even some of America's rich and famous people, such Malcolm Forbes, publisher of Forbes Magazine, NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw and former Major League Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth, have eaten her cakes.

Murtaugh thinks she's successful because she does what she says she's going to do.


"I think a lot of people can make a good cake. I just don't know. All I can say is if someone wants a cake mail-ordered to Aunt Bessie in Ohio, I do it,'' she says. "Whether I have to stay up all night, that person's going to get their wedding cake or their get their 300 cupcakes and I deliver them when I say. I think that's the key to anything, really.''

Murtaugh says great-uncle and mentor Clarence Francis inspired her to pursue her baking interest. Francis was a food industry visionary. In the 1930s he pioneered the sale of frozen foods, invented by his college friend Clarence Birdseye.

Francis, former chairman of General Foods, retired in 1954, but continued to have a company office and secretary until he died in 1988 at age 97.

"Years ago he told me to quit my real job and bake cake. It's your passion,'' Murtaugh recalls. "My family cringed, but he was so right about it.''

She says Francis and his successful friends encouraged her to have a vision.

"They were always giving me ideas,'' she said. "I would love to be a major employer in Willmar.''

Murtaugh, originally from New York City, has lived all over the country and attended school in the Midwest. She found her love of baking at 15 working in a little German Jewish bakery in Woodside, Queens, but her parents encouraged her to attend college. After college she worked at Union Carbide and, being fluent in French, became a money trader for a French bank.

When she was on Wall Street, she fell down the subway stairs and suffered neck and back injuries that required years of medical attention. She also received treatment for breast cancer and some other cancers.


She started baking in her two-bedroom condo in Stamford, Conn., in the late 1970s. She bought a $175, address-label size ad in Yankee Magazine for mail-order cakes. And being told she'd get about 100 orders was shocked to receive 2,300 orders.

"I called my mom in New York and said, 'Ma, what do I do?' She said not to worry. She'd get on the subway and help, just go buy the ingredients.''

Murtaugh couldn't pay the $900 bill, but the local supermarket owner said to pay him when the checks cleared and not worry about it.

"And that's how it call began,'' she said.

This past February, Murtaugh retired from work with New York City nonprofits and an office supply dealer and decided she'd either move to New England or the Midwest. She knew Craig Nelson in Willmar and had friends in the Twin Cities.

"It was so much more reasonably priced and I loved the people. I said 'I'm going to build my business out here,''' Murtaugh says. "I was sick of the dirty city and the subway and said I can't live like this anymore.''

She began baking in March in the kitchen of Nelson's home on Campbell Avenue Northwest and last week moved the baking operation to The Original Mr. B. Chocolatier on Litchfield Avenue Southwest.

She's made a name for herself by selling cakes at Becker Market and the Farmers' Market. She gives away cakes and samples, and she baked 357 carrot cupcakes for the Minnesota Teen Challenge drug and alcohol prevention event Nov. 3 in Willmar.


Murtaugh makes 2-pound loaf cakes, cupcakes, 9-inch cakes and wedding cakes and offers 12 varieties. The second-best item in Willmar is sour cream coffee cake, which is a very moist cinnamon and walnut or cinnamon and chocolate chip cake. Blueberry cake was popular this summer and people loved the rhubarb cake.

Coconut cake is a great standby.

"It was a recipe I published in a church cookbook and it's called George's Coconut Cake. My father was in the Pacific on a PT boat during World War II and my mother used to send that cake to him and it lasted the 30 day shipment without any preservatives,'' Murtaugh says.

"I don't use preservatives. The coconut cake is coconut, butter, sugar, eggs. Everything is like that and it lasts. I don't even recommend having the carrot cake for two or three days after I bake it. It seems to get better.''

Murtaugh didn't think her business would take off so fast; maybe a year and half.

"I'm surprised because they even eat my Irish soda bread and scones,'' she said. "I figured with all the Scandinavians most of them baked at home. But I guess this generation doesn't.''

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