When she was 8 years old, Sumayyah Bilal received a piano for her birthday and an Easy-Bake Oven for Eid al-Fitr, the annual festival that marks the end of Ramadan. Both gifts would shape the course of her life.
“I started taking music lessons and baking the same year,” the former music teacher, now bakery-shop owner, recalls with a laugh. “I was fascinated by cheesecake. It wasn’t like a cookie. It was rich. Luxurious. My brother, who is two years older, and I were Army brats and ‘latchkey kids,’ and we weren’t allowed to use the oven or stove after school, but I could use the microwave and learned to make cheesecake in the microwave,” the 31-year-old explains.
As a tween, she’d sell slices of her cake in the summer and make $80 on a good day. She continued her baking exploits through high school, experimenting with recipes and ingredient combinations while raising money for various causes. In college, she kept baking pans and cooking utensils in the truck of her car—whipping up desserts for friends in their apartment kitchens for fun—but her academic interests leaned more toward the concert hall than the kitchen.
She played clarinet in school, and later trumpet in the Baltimore Ravens marching band. Along the way she fulfilled her dream of becoming a music teacher, first at the Clara Muhammad School, a former Islamic school in Park Heights, and later in the Howard County public school system. All six of her siblings and both parents are teachers in some way. Then, COVID hit.
Teaching virtually because of the pandemic and without a school band to direct, Bilal increasingly turned to her other passion: baking. Ironically, she doesn’t have much of a sweet tooth, but she finds baking to be a stress reliever. “[And] I’ve always had to unload a lot,” she says with a chuckle.
In the fall of 2020, she quit her teaching job and launched Codetta Bake Shop, working out of Mindpub Café’s commercial kitchen in Federal Hill. Codetta is a term for a concluding piece of music, a small coda, in other words, and an homage to both her desserts and love of music. She’s focused mainly on catering and online sales to date—selling everything from cheesecakes, of course, in playful flavors (eggnog and nutmeg with a shortbread crust and a whipped creaming topping, for example) to one-of-a-kind cakes, cupcakes, and homemade ice creams (browned butter pecan), crème brûlée, and tres leches.
However, with the assistance of co-owner and life partner, Chris Burgess, a former mail carrier and South Baltimore native, Bilal’s also been operating a lively afternoon and early evening walk-up business, now in front of the Light Street Presbyterian Church from Thursday thru Saturday in Fed Hill. Bilal has expanded into wedding cakes, including baking a four-tier tower for a close friend’s recent big day.
“That one was two white tiers and two navy-blue tiers,” Bilal says. “Cardamom spice in a pistachio butter cream for the white layer, chocolate cake and raspberry puree for the navy-blue layer.” Bilal and Burgess placed the teetering cake in the back of Burgess’ minivan and drove it them- selves to the ceremony in Connecticut.
Earlier this summer, Codetta was one of five Black-owned businesses selected for a Downtown Partnership grant program designed to help Black entrepreneurs, and Bilal expects to open a bakery and café in Charles Street’s central business district fairly soon. (One of the other small businesses, NKVSKIN, a skincare salon owned by Nikia Vaughan, recently signed a Charles Street lease.)
Meanwhile, Codetta’s sidewalk stand business, which requires assistance from a pair of Bilal’s nieces and several friends to handle down-the-block lines, remains something of a scene. Codetta now has more than 8,000 Instagram followers and Bilal’s desserts have become a hit among local food bloggers.
On one recent weekend afternoon, cupcakes and frozen cheesecake pops (cookies-and-cream cheesecake dipped in chocolate and drizzled in white chocolate is Bilal’s personal favorite) are immediately pulled from their small bags and boxes after purchase, either for social media pics, quick bites, or both. Same day return customers are not unusual, either.
“I’m back,” says a fan in a Ravens’ jersey not long after the team’s big win over the Chiefs earlier that day. “Third time today, Carlos?” asks Bilal, smiling.
“Every time I get home, people keep stealing my stuff,” he says, grinning in half-hearted defense. “Let me have a pint of cookies-and-cream ice cream this time.”