BY NICOLE FLEMING / PHOTOS BY KATIE NOBLE
When Helen Coates arrived in the United States in 1980, during her very first meal she committed a faux pas. In the home of the Jewish family with whom she would be living as an au pair, she chased her roast beef sandwich with a glass of milk.
She was 19 years old and had never been away from Llantwit Major, a small coastal town in Wales, for more than a couple of weeks. Everything in the New York ranch-style home was unfamiliar: kosher traditions prohibiting the mixing of meat and dairy, a table right in the kitchen as opposed to only in a separate dining room, rye bread, even pasteurized milk. Coates missed her Welsh cakes and her parents back in Wales, but she loved the US, and stayed.
More than three decades later, after the death of her mother was followed immediately by being laid off from her job in the corporate sector, Coates went back to her roots. She did what she and her mother had always talked about doing: a bakery—Copper Kettle Bakery specifically, named after a particular kettle in a cafe in their hometown—starring Welsh cakes using her mother’s recipe.
“My mum was a great cook and a great baker,” says Coates, an infectiously enthusiastic woman with reddish-maroon glasses and no trace of a Welsh accent. “She cooked more for the reaction of other people than for herself.” She carries a photo of her mother in a notebook everywhere.
Welsh cakes are a traditional part of Welsh cuisine but mostly foreign to the United States. The flat discs of dough are cooked on a griddle, palm-sized and about a half-inch thick, rich with a hint of cinnamon and allspice. They taste like a cross between a scone and a biscuit, says Coates.
Copper Kettle Bakery is a single-person operation that Coates began in November 2013 out of the kitchen in her Westwood home. She has since moved to a professional kitchen in Dedham. The bakery sells ready-made Welsh cakes as well as cake mixes at farmers markets and in over a dozen retail locations in Massachusetts.
Flavors offered by Copper Kettle Bakery include the currant, common in Wales; cranberry “because we’re in New England”; and chocolate chip “because we’re in America,” says Coates.
She notes that her 82-year-old father, who still lives in Wales, is humorously offended by her bastardization of their cultural staple by the addition of chocolate chips. In Wales, the cakes are typically served plain, with currants, or savory with cheese, sage, or onion.
But introducing a foreign food to her Westwood community yielded an unexpected result. Because her customers had no preconceptions about tradition, they began experimenting and reporting back on the various ways they were eating her cakes: straight out of the freezer, with ice cream, crumbled in a bowl with milk.
Coates finds it fascinating. She is not afraid to allow her childhood favorite to evolve in its introduction to New England.
“My favorite way to eat a currant Welsh cake is slightly warmed, with a little bit of strong cheddar cheese and a little bit of hot pepper jelly,” says Coates. “Not traditional at all, but very tasty!”
She finally realized her longtime culinary dream after losing her mother, Eileen Whitelegg, to dementia in June 2013. After having a brain tumor removed as a teenager, her mother suffered strokes in her 40s.
“She taught herself how to write again, how to read again, how to speak again,” said Coates, her voice cracking. “And if you ever met my mother, she was the happiest person, and she never ever complained about anything.”
Her first year in business, she cried every day.
But Coates was far from alone. She had her partner of more than 20 years and twin sons, now 15, who supported her takeover of the kitchen in their home; neighbors and friends, who pushed her to make her Welsh cakes into a business; and her customers, many of whom knew loss too.
As the start of a recurring phenomenon, her first customer at her first farmers market had read an article about Copper Kettle Bakery in the Boston Globe and shared how her husband had just passed away a month earlier.
“We cried together. And then the next farmers market I went to, someone else came up, and we cried together. It got to the point where my kids would say to say to me, ‘Did you cry today in the farmers market?’” Coates laughed, still crying.
People remember the article, she says, and tell her their personal story of loss. Food is intimate like that.
And while Coates’ story of following dreams after losing a loved one gets some customers to stop by for a first visit, it’s the food that keeps them coming back. Copper Kettle Bakery doubled its sales in the second year, and is on track to double again this year.
Next steps include finding an additional manufacturing partner to meet demand, adding more retail locations and eventually taking Copper Kettle Bakery nationwide, while maintaining the high quality that her customers value, says Coates. She wants to make her mother proud.
Copper Kettle Bakery’s Welsh cakes are available at retail locations including High Street Market in Westwood; Brothers Marketplace in Medfield and Weston; Fruit Center in Hingham and Milton; and Volante Farms in Needham. For a full list or to order online, visit CopperKettleBakery.com.
Nicole Fleming is a metro correspondent for the Boston Globe and columnist for WGBH’s Craving Boston. She also writes “The Girl Who Ate Boston” food blog. She can be reached at TheGirlWhoAteBoston@gmail.com.