For a lawyer by day, baker by night, a 7UP pound cake side hustle is an exercise in healing
Norristown native says she’s “dreaming out loud” after 40 years of sure bets.
Cassandra Burnett has a lot going on. The 42-year-old Norristown native is in her 17th year as a practicing attorney, supervising 12 lawyers as an assistant section chief for the New Jersey Attorney General’s office. She’s a Girl Scout mom, an adjunct professor at Camden County College, and the founder of a women’s empowerment conference.
But what Burnett really wants to talk about is cake, and love.
It starts at her childhood home. Burnett remembers the house on East Marshall Street as having its own heartbeat, maybe because it contained so many within: She was the middle of five children; her parents, Herbert and Elizabeth Rhodes, were foster parents; and her mom ran an in-home day care. Burnett estimates 60 children came in and out of the five-bedroom twin over the 25 years they fostered, and yet somehow it felt huge. There was only one bathroom, but she doesn’t remember feeling rushed. Somehow the house was big enough to hold everyone comfortably.
“I don’t want to use the word magic, because it was real for me,” she says. “But now that I think about it, it feels a bit magical how my parents raised us in a household of love.”
Food often conveyed that love. Elizabeth Rhodes cooked every day but Saturday (called “every man for himself day”). When her kids missed dinner, they’d come home to find a neatly prepared plate waiting for them on the stove. If they were home when she was cooking, though, they were enlisted to help.
“My brother and sister and I, the older three, we were the mixers in the house,” Burnett says.
This was never more true than when Rhodes made her famous 7UP pound cake. It was often requested by neighbors and church friends — even community centers — for birthdays, baby showers, wedding showers, funerals, and other events. She would make up to 20 in a day, all out of one oven, four cakes at a time.
On those days, the Rhodes kids would form a mini-assembly line, measuring out ingredients and whipping up cake batter in various bowls. Burnett remembers beating flour into the batter with a wooden spoon, how it would get harder to mix with every spoonful. She remembers graduating to hand-powered mixers. “We were cooking with gas with that.”
It’s been 10 years since Elizabeth Rhodes passed away unexpectedly at 68 on Sept. 26, 2012. (Herbert, who came to live with Burnett after her mom’s passing, died two years later, almost to the day.) Burnett was determined that every table at Rhodes’ repast have a 7UP cake, but when she went to bake them, they came out wrong. They were lopsided, ugly.
She knew why. “I always say, when you’re creaming the butter, sugar, and eggs, you’re pouring in whatever you’re emoting or feeling … [Those cakes] were just sad, because that’s what I was feeling.”
A childhood friend from the Norristown track team, who flew in for the funeral, took over and made the cakes for Burnett. “She went through 7UP pound cake boot camp … learned all the tricks of the trade, because the emotions I was pouring into it were not conveying love at all. I just could not do it.”
“That’s one of those moments where I understood the power of emotion when you’re cooking or baking,” she says.
In the years after her parents died, Burnett leaned into being busy. She took in her youngest sister, who was in high school when her mom passed. She had two kids. She kept working full-time. Sometimes that hustle came at a cost. Shortly after her dad died in 2014, she had a ministroke at age 34.
Still, it wasn’t until the pandemic that Burnett really changed, she says. The forced pause made her realize, “Oh my goodness, this is nice.” She took up meditation and learned how to say no to work or appointments she couldn’t take on. It opened up new possibilities: She had law school friends whom she admired who had started their own practice, but she never thought she’d run her own business.
“I’ve always been a sure-bet type of girl,” she says. “I don’t play lottery. I don’t gamble.”
But in November 2020, Burnett launched Lizzie’s Love Cakes, a tribute to her mother’s beloved pound cake. The idea was born out of a memory of a conversation Burnett had with her mom a few years before she died. Rhodes had always resisted the idea of selling her cake; she told those who wanted to pay to buy the ingredients instead. But Burnett cornered her, she says, and started probing the idea of what the business might be named and how much they might charge customers.
That conversation lingered with her, and when the pandemic rolled around and she began assessing what she wanted to do, she realized, “You’re living for everybody else. You’re living for your family or your friends. You’re always the number one cheerleader for everybody else. What about you?
“Really, what I wanted to do was to heal from the loss of my mother,” she says.
That’s how Burnett has come to sell her mom’s lemon zest-laced 7UP cake, plus seven other flavors created in honor of her mom’s sisters and mother. The bundt cakes are never flipped, so that they retain the chewy-crunchy crust that forms on the bottom while they’re baking. She donates $1 of every cake sold to a nonprofit organization with a focus on children. “It comes from my roots of my parents giving back to the community.”
While Lizzie’s Love Cakes has held pop-ups in Philadelphia and South Jersey — at Old City Kitchen, Juana Tamale, the Germantown farmers market, various Sisterly Love markets — this weekend Burnett is coming home. She’ll be selling mini-bundt cakes Oct. 8 at the East Norriton ShopRite, one of the three supermarkets her family shopped in.
“I’m calling it my homecoming pop-up,” she says. She’s looking forward to seeing folks who still remember her parents, and to setting an example. “I’m doing all these things out of my Norristown roots, and it’s really significant for me to come back.”
Burnett’s new business has helped her realize what she’s gained in the wake of her parents’ death: guardian angels watching over her, she says, as well as a legacy of strength and love. She wants to pass that down to her own daughters, and let them know they don’t need to wait to live their dreams.
“Time is not forever and tomorrow’s not promised, so let’s do it. Start dreaming out loud.”
Lizzie’s Love Cakes homecoming pop-up will be Saturday, Oct. 8, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., at the East Norriton ShopRite, 55 E. Germantown Pike. All of Burnett’s flavors will be available in mini-bundt cakes, $8 per cake.