I’ll miss June when it’s gone. It’s Pride Month and Juneteenth is on the calendar. In New York City, actual Spring is in the air, even if only for a few days. We’re all sneezing as we admire the flowers, because these bouts of beauty are too fleeting to miss and we’ll inhale as much Flonase as necessary to enjoy the moment. The sun stays with us longer, so we get multiple happy (and happier) hours — plural, and spritzes outside.
Of course, there’s also my birthday, and for me, that means birthday cake, a food that radiates and delivers pure joy.
This is what I look for in a birthday cake: a tall, stacked, round layer cake, with a tender, plumped moist crumb and a rich, smooth filling like a ganache or a curd, covered in frosting, preferably of the buttercream variety, as creamy as ice cream but with an aerated texture that lies somewhere between whipped cream and softened butter.
At Red Gate Bakery, Greg Rales does exactly this and does it better than anyone else.
In the last month of 2019, on East First Street off First Avenue, Rales opened a shop that tapped into his childhood summers on his family’s former potato farm in Nantucket, which had a distinctly red gate that became his Rosebud; he named his bakery after it.
Red Gate Farm was where, as a kid, he began baking, and loving it, auditioning his creations for his patient, willing tester of a mom. Rales taught himself by watching food TV and digging through the archives of family recipes.
After high school, he moved from his hometown of Washington, D.C., to Manhattan to attend Columbia University. He’s been in New York ever since, but before he was in the food industry, he wanted to be a screenwriter and made a detour into TV production at AMC. Back then he was already baking for people on the side. “Through some happenstance and a couple of opportunities that came along,” he says, he ended up leaving TV and starting a catering company out of his apartment at the end of 2015. It was, as Rales describes, a pandemic-mode business four years before the pandemic actually hit — and it was a success.
He saw the potential to build a national brand but attempts to adapt his products for the prepackaged market left him stymied and deflated. In 2017 he went back to square one, landing a job with Amirah Kassem, who was opening Flour Shop.
Being part of the bakery’s opening gave Rales the chutzpah to strike out on his own. His next step would be a neighborhood storefront where he could “dispense feelings of warmth and safety while keeping your head cocked,” he says. His best vessel for this? “I like a healthy combination of familiarity and newness, which a layer cake gives me very, very much.”
He found a business partner who wanted to start something from scratch in a friend from college who was working at Angie Mar’s West Village Beatrice Inn, now closed, and knew she wanted to start something from scratch: Patricia Howard of British-inspired spots Dame and Lord’s, which she currently co-owns and runs with her husband, chef Ed Szymanski. (She is no longer involved in Red Gate, but she and Rales remain friends.)
Only four months in, COVID blew into town, and all the momentum Rales and Howard had built with the opening suddenly meant nothing. Still, those who lived in the neighborhood or within walking distance found comfort (and inspiration) in Rales’s baking; others found it in his Instagram account. In January 2021, he started shipping his lineup of cookies across the country. Through it all, the cakes have remained the anchor.
Rales has a permanent cake roster for occasions like birthdays. Along with the classic-but-epic vanilla with chocolate sour cream frosting or the chocolate-on-chocolate Li’l Pudding, the menu of celebration cakes includes a Toasted Coconut Banana Bacon and a Ferrero Rocher candy-inspired option.
Every weekday, he picks one to serve by the slice in the bakery. He also has seasonal weekend specials, but it’s not just cakes that are the draw. I often stop by for his other staples. The PB&J with pickled Concord grape jam and a miso-shortbread crust is Rales’s favorite of the bars for good reason. But the brown butter carrot loaf with pistachios and one of the better cream cheese frostings around town beckons on certain days, too.
The cookies are a whole other mood. Thin and bendy, they come in flavors that confound expectations, including a grapefruit white chocolate and the Cannibal, made with crushed homemade Oreo cookies.
In the last few months, he’s found a new canvas: the cinnamon bun. In Rales’ world, unsurprisingly, a cinnamon bun doesn’t always have to contain cinnamon. Like the cake specials, these are only available on weekends; they’re as maximally imaginative as you’d expect, and they go fast. I was lucky to get my hands on one a few Fridays ago — the Lemon Bruléeberry.
But it’s the cake that will always have the strongest hold on me.
Last year, I ordered the Chocolate Peanut Butter Pretzel beauty for my birthday; this year, I went custom. I told Rales I loved Staten Island-based Sedutto’s mocha almond fudge ice cream when I was a kid, and left the rest up to him.
When I picked it up, I walked past the “Be Gay, Eat Cookies” sign that points to his values as well as what’s on the menu. “Every decision I make, every move I make each day of the world is informed by my homosexuality — and whether that results in a bit of kookiness in a baked good or not, that’s what informs what goes on the menu at Red Gate,” he says.
In June — Pride Month — New York City takes on an exuberance, becoming sparklier, more vibrant. Everything’s coming up rainbows; that final weekend, you could swear a dance track is backing every step. In the middle of the month, Juneteenth celebrations amplify that ebullience; the city vibrates with it. This is peak Spring Fever and the wonder of June, a month defined by and anchored in festivities of freedom and joy.
You may not believe in St. Valentine or the Great Pumpkin, but freedom and joy? These are reasons to rejoice: for me, that means cake. A big, luscious-looking, flavor-bouncing, frosting-slathered cake that’s even better than nostalgia.
And if joy isn’t reason enough, well, there’s always my birthday.