Bent Fork Bakery in Highwood sweetly celebrates 17-year cicada phenomenon with special cakes

People heading into Bent Fork Bakery in north suburban Highwood may typically be looking for cupcakes, pies or other traditional sweet treats. But this year, for the first time in 17 years, they may be on the hunt for something a bit more unique.

“Cicada cakes” are back.

Before some of you gag or recoil, they don’t actually include the real bugs. The small cakes — one of the bakery’s most popular items this season — are simply made to look like the insects that are invading the area this spring. And they’re just as delicious as any other cake or cupcake available in the store.

“We wanted to make them look as close to an actual cicada as possible,” said Liz Bearwald, who owns the bakery with her husband Michael. “But also, taste [was important].”

This year’s batch of real-life, springtime cicadas are different than the annual insects that emerge each year in late summer. The upcoming invasion boasts the type that stay underground for 17 years before emerging, buzzing, mating and dying over the course of six weeks or so. They are beginning to emerge in some of the southern suburbs.

In 2007, the last time the periodical cicadas made their appearance in Illinois, the Bearwalds’ bakery was just three years into its 20-year history. The bakery, then located in a much smaller site, has been the bakers’ vehicle for expressing their culinary creativity and showcasing tongue-in-cheek indulgences.

“You look back and go, ‘Oh gosh, a lot has changed over the last 17 years,’” Michael Bearwald said, gesturing to the bright pink walls inside the bakery. “But also, not so much.”

Back in 2007, the couple was brainstorming ways to incorporate the rare phenomenon when they realized they had a pan lying around that resembled the shape of cicadas.

The resulting cakes, around four inches long, are baked with either chocolate or yellow cake batter, then dipped in semi-sweet chocolate and covered in chocolate ganache. At this point, they basically look like a delicious lump of chocolate. But when the bakers add red eyes made out of frosting or M&Ms and handmade chocolate wings, the cakes come to life.

Karen Fructuso, who’s worked at Bent Fork for 15 years, is largely focusing on the cicada cakes these days, which at first, well, bugged her.

“I was so angry at them for a minute,” she said about the labor-intensive process of making the cakes. “And then I was like, ‘They’re really good.’”

Customers coming in without knowing about the cicada cakes are often taken aback by the bug-eyed treats staring back at them from the display case, the owners said.

“They squeal,” Liz Bearwald said. “They say, ‘Oh my God, they look just like them!’”

But plenty of people specifically come to the bakery for the cicada cakes, which typically sell out of the 200-300 cakes they bake each day. And those people come in with a purpose.

“They’re either really fascinated by cicadas or they want to terrorize someone,” she said playfully, noting that customers’ Mother’s Day dessert pranks were part of the mix last weekend.

And while the cakes are fun, Liz Bearwald said she, like many other folks out there, is not a fan of the real bugs. “We hope [the invasion is] quick and swift and they get out of here,” she said.

Last year, the Bearwalds offered cookies inspired by the “Barbie” movie. They also sold cookies featuring an image of former Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot and her message telling residents to “stay inside” during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re sarcastic,” Michael Bearwald said. “It’s a way for us to express our creativity. Some people get it, some people don’t. … Customers expect it of us. They want to see innovation.”

Cicada cake orders can be made by calling (847) 926-4438 or visiting the bakery at 335 Waukegan Ave. in Highwood. The cakes are too fragile to ship, but they can be delivered locally.

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