Mama Box Is Baking Some of the Most Exciting Pastries in Portland
Darla Shaffer’s home kitchen is filled with the rich, distinct smells of butter and flour. Her dining room windows allow the sunlight to illuminate crystallized sugar on the edge of pumpkin-pie crusts and fruit-filled galettes. Shaffer, owner of Instagram-only bakery Mama Box, is a savory line cook turned home baker whose treats currently have a monthlong waitlist. She offers both inventive and traditional treats, anything from a classic chocolate cake to lavender blondie bars. There’s no menu. Each dessert is made to order, by hand, out of Shaffer’s Portland home turned baking studio. The space is built to function with the same standards of a commercial kitchen.
“I basically treat it like a restaurant,” Shaffer says. “Everything is labeled. I have a whole separate fridge for everything that is related to the Mama Box, and I keep everything separated, like my equipment. I keep everything super clean like I would a restaurant.”
Though treats are her focus at Mama Box, Shaffer’s career in the kitchen did not start with sweets.
“When I was a dishwasher I just needed a job, ya know? I was like 17, trying to make some cash, but being in there and watching everyone on the line, I was, like, infatuated with it.”
Shaffer slowly moved up in the kitchen and eventually became a line cook, but her passion for pastries didn’t take off until she realized her infatuation for the foundation of many sweet things: the crust.
“It’s really simple and easy, but it's also very temperamental and everything has to be just right—the temperature, the amount you knead it.”
But it was more than the process—the childhood nostalgia that came along with it also drew Shaffer to baking.
“When I was a little kid, I used to play with Play-Doh all the time and I would pretend that I was a baker,” Shaffer says. “I really love rolling it out and putting it into the pie pan. It reminds me of that scene in Snow White when she’s making a pie and the birds crimp it with their feet. I feel like that every time I do it.”
Customers can discover Shaffer’s love for desserts through her Instagram. Each picture displays her vibrant and unique taste. Finished products include a citrusy lime huckleberry tart with perfectly toasted twists of meringue and fuchsia flower petals, Meyer lemon angel food cake with orange blossom strawberries, and a persimmon custard tart with crisp brûléed edges and fresh persimmon on top. Shaffer often documents her process, leaving followers entranced by dripping vanilla icing and thick layers of frosting.
“I love the people that order from me because they are just people on Instagram that just love to drool over pastries.”
Shaffer works best when she’s not under pressure and can enjoy the process, so she takes a limited amount of clients each month and sets a schedule. This means some customers may miss out if they don’t plan ahead.
“It’s important for me to limit myself, because at the beginning I didn’t. In December my body tapped out and I had a huge health scare. I actually passed out and was unresponsive for a minute.”
While Shaffer admits it’s nice to set her own schedule, running her own business means she is the baker, manager, and accountant. Shaffer, like many people in the restaurant industry, was laid off in the beginning of the pandemic. She had been working at Le Pigeon, and had just put her first dish on the menu. Right as her career was on the rise, Shaffer had to switch gears.
Shaffer started making birthday cakes for her friends who were spending their special day indoors due to the pandemic. Each dessert was unique and emulated the essence of the people close to her. One of her friends from Le Pigeon is a big fan of citrus and ginger, so she made him an orange-lemon tart with honey mascarpone whip.
Slowly, the demand for her desserts began to expand. With a positive response from her community, Shaffer began to realize that her passion had the potential to turn into a business. That’s when Mama Box was born.
“Honestly, word of mouth and Instagram [have] really blown Mama Box up, and I’m just stoked and super lucky for the community I am in," she says. "It's pretty much them that's moved it as far I’ve gotten.”
When Shaffer speaks about her community, she's talking about not only her customers, but also her peers. Shaffer works collaboratively with other bakers in Portland to draw inspiration for her cooking and also to stimulate positive change within her community. That's why Shaffer joined Bakers Against Racism last summer, a collective that puts on a bake sale once a month to raise as much money as they can to donate to a worthy cause each month. They've donated profits to local causes such as Don't Shoot PDX, Third Eye Books, and Rose Haven.
“We are all very supportive of each other, and we are all so inspired by each other. We will share our pastry pictures over text,” Shaffer says. “It’s not competitive in any kind of toxic way; it's competitive in a very inspirational, uplifting way with each other. I love it. These people inspire me every month.”
While Shaffer’s love for desserts never fades, she’s also working on perfecting savory baked goods like biscuits. As for the possibility of a storefront in the future? Shaffer won’t say no, though she plans to let her business grow at a manageable pace to maintain the quality of her baked goods. For now, her storefront will remain on Instagram, where viewers can continue to watch all the baking goodness happen.