‘Food is love’: Every week, this Philadelphia baker gives away desserts to her neighbors for free

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Jennifer Mora prepares a vegan orange cake in her kitchen in Philadelphia's Fairmount neighborhood. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Jennifer Mora prepares a vegan orange cake in her kitchen in Philadelphia's Fairmount neighborhood. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Neighborhood groups on Facebook can often be a source of strife — but they can also be a great way to connect with neighbors.

In Philadelphia, one woman is fostering that connection through the art of baking.

About once a week, Fairmount resident Jennifer Mora heads into her home’s creative haven: the kitchen. Surrounded by cookbooks from her favorite chefs, Mora pulls ingredients from the pantry, preheats the oven, and begins to bake. When her creation is baked and decorated, be it a pie or cake, Mora gives it away, in slices, on her Buy Nothing Facebook group.

“I really love giving cake away,” said Mora, “and I feel like I’m sending people off on a good journey, it’s positive vibes.”

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Jennifer Mora whips up a vegan orange cake in her kitchen in Philadelphia’s Fairmount neighborhood. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“You can spend your time on social media being really upset,” she said, or you can do something productive.

Mora channels her energy into giving back to her community. “I’m trying to right things in my part of the world, the best way I know how,” she said.

For Mora, that means food. Everything she makes is vegan — that means no animal products of any kind. She finds alternatives for typical baking ingredients like butter and eggs.

The 52-year-old baker estimates she’s given away about 100 different kinds of baked goods over the last few years, everything from Persian Love Cake and pretzel dogs to her latest creation: an orange cake filled with pralines, covered in chocolate ganache and toasted meringue — a recipe from one of Sarah Kidd’s cookbooks.

Jennifer Mora holds up her finished orange cake with praline filling, chocolate ganache and toasted meringue. (Photo courtesy of James Delgado Mora)

For Mora, baking is a creative outlet, a way to decompress after work. She works as an instructional designer and develops courses and curricula online. It’s not very creative work, she said, so baking satisfies that itch.

“I feel like I kind of get lost in making something,” she said. And even more so when she’s playing around and trying to figure out how to make a non-vegan recipe vegan-friendly. “I feel like that allows me to be more creative because it’s a challenge, and when it turns out well, I feel good about myself and I’m excited for the people that are going to eat it.”

‘Food is love’

Baking was a big part of Mora’s childhood. Originally from Atlanta, Georgia, she would enjoy southern classics like biscuits and cornbread with her family, cherishing the moments she could play a hand in creating the delectable treats.

“My journey started watching my mom and my grandma,” said Mora. Then she “got all excited” when her mom had her make blueberry muffins for the first time. Her passion led her to make a chocolate cake for her brother’s birthday one year. Her interest in baking has been growing ever since.

“I started baking for friends and just really enjoying the process and bringing stuff into work. Now that I’ve been working from home, I have this community in the neighborhood that’s close by that loves to share,” she said.

Jennifer Mora, known as the Cake Lady to her Facebook Buy Nothing friends, sets out to make a vegan orange cake. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Now, she bakes for them.

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Mora started baking and sharing before the pandemic, because she was part of an online Facebook community that would host baking challenges regularly.

“Food is love,” said Mora. “To do something like this that I feel like I have a gift with and I love doing … this is a really good opportunity to make a difference in the world.”

Her neighbors agree.

Rochelle Teachey is in the same Facebook group as Mora, and while she had seen the posts promoting free slices of cake, she had “resisted” grabbing one for herself. Then she saw the whoopie pies Mora posted. She had never eaten one.

“I tried it out and I’ve been hooked ever since,” said Teachey, who often bumps into other neighbors who are collecting slices.

The sweets exchange “brings a smile to your face,” says Teachey. “You sort of look forward to when she’s going to post up, when she’s going to have another offering. It’s just really a great neighbor bonding moment for all of us.”

Jennifer Mora whips up a vegan orange cake in her kitchen in Philadelphia’s Fairmount neighborhood. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Making sweets that bring people joy

Despite being an accomplished baker — she’s made six-tiered rainbow cakes, among many other desserts — Mora still gets a bit nervous when she shares a cake with neighbors.

A perfectionist and her own worst critic, Mora says she’s always striving to improve.

“I wanna get better at it,” she said. “You can’t get better if you don’t accept that you’re gonna make mistakes.”

After recently sharing a slice of cake with the group, Mora was overwhelmed when someone called it one of the best cakes she’s ever had. It was a Persian Love Cake with rosewater and rose petals.

“And she’s not vegan!” said Mora. She said she didn’t know how to respond to that kind of compliment. “I’m really glad I made someone happy, but at the same time, I’m just perplexed and thinking, ‘How is that possible?’”

So, she welcomes honest feedback from her neighbors who end up eating her desserts.

“There are a couple of people who are really good food critics,” Mora said. She shares specific items with them to see what’s working, what she should change. And in a loving and respectful way, they let her know what they enjoyed and what they didn’t. “I’m grateful for the honest feedback,” said Mora.

Over the years, Mora’s skills have improved. She’s better at decorating, and knows to wait until a cake has fully cooled before icing it. But no matter what she’s baking, or what it looks like, Mora relishes the baking process and how it’s connecting her to her community.

“I’m just really glad that the baking that I do is there for [neighbors], because I see it as love,” she said. “Even though I don’t know people that well, I feel like I’m giving them something that brings them joy.”

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