Further evidence that flavorful cakes and cookies are as popular as ever in the foodservice sector can be found in Manhattan, Kansas, where a unique concept that is part small-plates restaurant and part production bakery, known as Bourbon & Baker, is stirring up plenty of excitement in this Midwestern college town.

Led by pastry chef Kirsten Spear, who trained at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, the bakery at Bourbon & Baker features such amazing desserts as The Birthday Cake, a golden buttermilk cake filled and iced with a choice of bittersweet sour cream ganache or Swiss buttercream and finished with rainbow sprinkles.

Other cake favorites are the Chocolate Chocolate (bittersweet chocolate ganache poured over a four-layer dark chocolate cake filled with truffle ganache and salted caramel sauce) and the Purple Pride (golden buttermilk cake filled with blackberry jam, iced with Swiss meringue buttercream and finished with purple sprinkles). The latter pays homage to Kansas State University, based in Manhattan and home to the purple-and-white Wildcats.

Opened five years ago, Bourbon & Baker is the sister restaurant to fine-dining Harry’s Restaurant, a longtime fixture in Manhattan’s downtown business community. Spear started as pastry chef at Harry’s in 2010 and now oversees breads and desserts at both restaurants.

“When we opened five years ago, we decided it would be fun to put a production bakery in the back,” Spear says. “For our dessert menu, it’s more bakery focused.”

Kirsten Spear of Bourbon & Baker

Dessert choices include inventive cookies like the Snack Attack, which is made with all sorts of sweet and salty ingredients: chocolate chips, crushed pretzels, Corn Flakes, potato chips, mini marshmallows, rainbow sprinkles and a pretzel on top. There’s also the decadent chocolate truffle ganache sandwich cookie. “Sweet and salty is really fun, and people love them,” Spear says of the Snack Attack, a playful cookie meant to remind you of hanging out with friends on a summer sleepover.

She loves to examine and interpret culinary trends on a regional and micro regional level. After moving from California to Kansas (her husband is in the military), “I’ve been intrigued to learn that buttercream frosted sugar cookies is a huge thing in the Midwest,” she says.

Spear also bakes the breads for the small plates menu (inspired by Southern and Midwestern influences) at Bourbon & Baker, where patrons can order a cornbread slider with smoked pulled pork, cotija cheese, poblano peppers, Menonita cheese and a piquillo pepper coulis. One doesn’t necessarily think of cornbread for a sandwich, but Spear makes it with a yeasted cornbread recipe to add some fluff. The result is delicious.

For the dessert menu, “I love to mix it up with the seasons,” she says. “I will do a butternut squash panna cotta with toasted oat shortbread. It’s really fun to experiment with different grains. Toasting grains brings an interesting depth of flavor.”

Growing up in California and working in San Francisco restaurants, Spear gained a deep appreciation for fresh seasonal produce, reading cookbooks by noted chef Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California. “My passion is a love for fruits and vegetables. Everything we do here is about using real ingredients. Every Saturday, I head to the farmer’s market. High quality makes such a difference. A really good frosting is important to me.”

Spear believes in the importance of presenting every dessert or dish in a way that people are comfortable with, but also adding a pleasant surprise of flavor or texture. “Living in a college town, we have an amazing international market,” she says. “I will add mukhwas (a popular snack in India) on cookies, which adds a licorice flavor. It’s surprising and fun.”