Monthly Archives: September 2010

VG’s Bakery, Farragut, TN

 

Thumbprint Cookies. Photo by Andrew Hock.

Everything made from scratch and no compromising on quality are the twin mantras practiced at this excellent bakery west of Knoxville.

by Bakery Boy

“Fresh ingredients are the key to baking from scratch,” says David Gwin. Photo by Bakery Boy.

Just  when you think you know thumbprint cookies, along comes VG’s Bakery to change your whole perspective on the matter. “We make ours four inches in diameter and thicker than most, then load them with icing,” says co-owner David Gwin. “Nobody has a thumb that big, but we call them Thumbprints anyway.” They sell for $1.25 each or $12 for a baker’s dozen. Yes, even as giant as they are and with a discount for buying in volume, VG’s throws in an extra cookie to sweeten the deal. How nice is that?

 

REASONS TO LIKE That’s just one of many reasons to like this bakeshop in suburban Farragut, Tennessee, just west of Knoxville. Others include:

Scones

• Big, soft, moist Lemon Blueberry Scones or Apricot Pecan Scones

• Cream Cheese Sweet Rolls almost the size of a pie pans

• Pies bigger than pie pans because crusts and whipped cream overflow the rims on Key Lime, Chocolate Cream, and Coconut Cream versions

Chocolate Cake

• Layer cakes ranging from Red Velvet to Caramel, Carrot, egg-and-dairy-free Chocolate Fudge, and more

• A series of cookies on the scale of the impressive Thumbprints, including Lemon Iced, Double Chocolate, Oatmeal Raisin, Chewy Ginger, and Peanut Butter

Multigrain Bread

• Pan breads including great-for-toasting English Muffin, hot-on-the-tongue Cheddar Jalapeño Cornbread, and whole-wheat cracked-wheat Multigrain with lots of seeds

• Muffins that rise from baking tins and crack open like blooming flowers full of blueberries or cinnamon or (in those dubbed Morning Glories) with carrots, raisins, cranberry-raisins, walnuts, coconut, and pineapple

Macaroons

• Almond Macaroons, Coconut Macaroons, Chocolate Raspberry Oat Bars, and miscellaneous other goodies that fill showcases depending on the baking staff’s creative mood on any given day

• Because they’re always experimenting with new baked goods, each visit hold the promise of a few pleasant surprises

 

Katie Gwin (left) and her mother Vanessa Gwin. Photo by Bakery Boy.

THE V.G. IN VG’S Vanessa Gwin—a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, a former sous chef, the daughter of a baker, head baker at VG’s (named for her initials), and co-owner along with her Knoxville-native husband David—makes everything from scratch. “That’s something Vanessa insisted on from the beginning, that we’d take no shortcuts and never compromise on quality,” says David, a former consumer-electronics engineer and tool-and-dye salesman who helped her launch VG’s Bakery in 1999. “It all has to be fresh-made from the best ingredients we can find.”

 

Katie with more Thumbprints. Photo by Bakery Boy.

A FAMILY AFFAIR Daughter Katie Gwin has worked with her parents in the bakery since her early teenage years. Now she has a journalism degree from the University of Tennessee and is working toward another degree while still helping at the shop. Son Riley Gwin, a high school senior, is currently “a skateboarding fiend, so we don’t see much of him around the bakery,” David says with a laugh, adding, “but there’s hope!”

FARMERS MARKETS The Gwins set up shop at as many as eight farmers markets each week during the spring-to-fall growing season. “We take some of everything we bake to each one, except for desserts that would melt outside in the heat,” David says. “Cookies and sticky buns sell best because they look good and smell good and can be eaten right out of hand. People also buy a lot of bread to take home to eat along with the produce they get.”

Sticky Buns

David serves as secretary-treasurer of the East Tennessee Farmers Association for Retail Marketing (F.A.R.M.). “That might seem surprising, a baker leading a farm organization,” he says. “But when you think about it, we use a lot of flour, and flour is near the end of a food system that starts with those who plow fields and grow wheat. The same is true for most ingredients.” Markets they stock include:

Multigrain Loaves

Knoxville Farmers Market, Laurel Church of Christ, Knoxville, Tuesdays & Fridays

Market Square Farmers’ Market, Market Square, Knoxville, Wednesdays & Saturdays

New Harvest Park Farmers Market, New Harvest Park, Knoxville, Thursdays

Dixie Lee Farmers Market, Renaissance Shopping Plaza, Farragut, Saturdays

Oak Ridge Farmers Market, Jackson Square, Oak Ridge, Saturdays

 

A salvaged jewelry case adds a special touch. Photo by Bakery Boy.

ABOUT THAT SHOWCASE One long wood-and-glass showcase adds an interesting element to VG’s Bakery. “It’s an awesome antique jewelry case we got for free from a coffeehouse we supplied baked good to that didn’t need it anymore,” David says. “We paid $100 to have it moved and then fixed it up to hold cookies and pastries. Makes a nice touch, don’t you think?”

ALL WORTHWHILE “We’ve been here just long enough that little kids who came in holding their mama’s hands are teenagers now and can drive here on their own,” David says. “They have fond memories of VG’s and get the same treats as always. It’s the kind of thing that makes all the hard work worthwhile.”

LOCATION VG’s Bakery, 11552 Kingston Pike, Farragut, TN 37934. Just west of Knoxville take I-40/75 Exit 373, go south on Campbell Station Road, then west on Kingston Pike to a shopping center on the left anchored by Kohl’s department store. VG’s is squeezed between an H&R Block tax preparation service and a Bahia Tans tanning salon.

HOURS Monday-Friday 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Saturday 8 a.m.-3 p.m.

INFO www.vgsbakery.com or 865-671-8077

[Special thanks to photographer Andrew Hock of www.visualdelicious.com for his close-up images of baked goods.]

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Bakery Boy Blog featured in Birmingham Weekly

Bakery Boy (aka Joe Rada). Photo by Owen Stayner.

The Birmingham Weekly newspaper has published a feature story about the Bakery Boy Blog.

Thanks, BW!

Click here to see the story in the September 16-23, 2010, edition.

Bakery Outlet Bargains

We pause in our pursuit of terrific bakeries to remember that, during tough economic times, we need terrific bargains too. Let’s see what $5 will buy at a bakery outlet store.

 

by Bakery Boy

 

For this website I usually seek out the very best bakeries. I don’t hesitate to shell out $5 for what promises to be a great loaf of, say, sourdough walnut raisin rye. In my book, a single fantastic napoleon is well worth five bucks at an independent bakeshop where craftsmanship rules and quality counts.

When price matters, go for quantity over freshness at a bakery outlet store.

But I also remember times—for me it was during college and between jobs, for others it might be after layoffs, divorces, or unlucky casino nights—when I had to stretch every penny. For some it’s an unfortunate daily fact of life. Maybe you recall such scraping-bottom times in your own life. Maybe that time is right now.

Well then let’s drop by the local bakery outlet store and rediscover bargains on staples as well as splurges. These won’t be oven-fresh works of culinary art, but simple square slices will suffice for a basic bologna-and-cheese or peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, and cellophane-wrapped sweet rolls will do, in a pinch, if dunked in strong coffee or warmed by microwaves.

I went to three different major-brand bakery outlets, one-story rectangular buildings sitting near large bakeries or warehouses with trucks backed up to loading docks. My mission: round up what $5 could buy.

 

Simply, sweet, and a bargain at 3-for-$1.

WHAT I FOUND At each place I saw 99-cent loaves of basic white or wheat bread, close to but not past their expiration dates. That’s five loaves for $5 with a nickel back, which could go toward paying sales tax in regressive states that still tax food. One outlet had some must-sell 79-cent loaves, which comes to $3.95 for five, leaving $1.05 to buy a trio of 3-for-$1 honey buns or cherry pies.

I saw six-packs of coconut-and-fluffy-icing snowballs at two for $2.50, an extravagance in this experiment but one that left half the budget for buying a couple of eight-packs of hot dog and hamburger buns marked $1.49 each. That leaves two cents to tip the register clerk who patiently puts up with bargain hunters, both the truly desperate and the merely curious. Most likely she’ll toss the pennies in a put-and-take tray to help the next customer who comes up a little short.

YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR Admittedly these aren’t the freshest baked goods. They’ve sat on supermarket shelves until, with sell-by dates approaching, they are transferred to outlet stores for one last chance at maybe breaking even on production costs or at least losing less.

Why the generic photos here? It seems the big bakeries don’t like publicity about their outlet stores. I wasn’t allowed to take pictures inside and was warned that if I showed their logos they’d have a problem with that. If I hadn’t already known where to find them, I wouldn’t have been able to look them up because they’re rarely noted in phone books or on companies’ websites. I guess their main objective is to sell as much as possible at the regular price through the chain stores they supply, not to promote the idea that you can buy for less at the outlet if you’re willing to sacrifice freshness.

I see their point. It’s a sound business decision. Banning cameras seems extreme, especially since giant signs with bright logos on 50-foot poles mark many stores. Anyway, I’m not trying to give free publicity, wanted or unwanted. I’m just testing my theory that, when needed, bargains can be had.

HALF-BAKED IDEA? I’m filing this essay under Half Baked Ideas, but maybe it’s not so half-baked after all. It’s more of a reality check. It’s about savoring a few dense yet somehow spirit-lifting powered-sugar mini-donuts on a Sunday morning after a week of fruitless job hunting. It’s an inexpensive loaf to get by on for now. It’s a chance to come home with something in a bag instead of nothing.

YOUR TURN If you feel inspired to repeat my experiment with your own $5 budget, please let me know what you decide to buy and why. I learned something about myself in the process, and you might too.

[Regular readers: With my next blog post I promise to get back to my usual pursuit of the very best bakeries I can find.]

Australian Bakery Cafe, Marietta, GA

Down Under bakers put the “g’day mate” and “good on ya” into an unrivaled bakery experience, especially if you like meat pies.

story & photos by Bakery Boy

Australian bakers Mark Allen (left) & Neville Steel. Photos by Bakery Boy.

You wouldn’t think to go to Georgia to hear Australian slang. Southern slang, yes, though not from quite that far south. Well, say g’day mate (hello, friend) to the fair dinkum (genuine) Aussies (Australians) making dinky di (honest to goodness) Down Under specialties at the Australian Bakery Café in Marietta. You’ll hear those phrases and more while having a cultural experience at this bakeshop northwest of Atlanta. When you leave with a belly full of meat pies and a box full of more for later, you’ll be saying good on ya (thanks) and righteo (yes).

The bakery faces Marietta Square.

“This might be the only Australian bakery in the United States and for sure the oldest,” says Mark Allen, co-owner along with Neville Steel of the bakeshop they’ve run since 2001 facing downtown’s Marietta Square. They make a variety of sweet Australian goodies—such as crunchy oatmeal cookies they call Anzac Biscuits, walnut-laced chocolate desserts known as Hedgehog Slices, and pillow-y discs of meringue topped with strawberries and whipped cream—but they are best known for meat pies.

Neville: “We make thousands of four-inch meat pies every week.”

MEAT PIES? “Righteo, meat pies, that’s what it’s all about here, mate,” Neville says while rolling out enough pie-crust pastry dough to go under and over more than 200 of the 4-inch-square pies he’s making during an interview for the Bakery Boy Blog. “Meat pies are an Australian tradition we introduced here.”

Picture a flaky, oven-browned square the length of a deck of cards and twice as thick as one. It fits in hand like a sandwich, but keep it over a plate to catch the delicious sauce that oozes out after you bite in. Australian Bakery Cafe makes more than two dozen varieties.

Murals , meat pies, accents—the atmosphere is 100% Australian.

The original meat pie involves chopped beef sirloin in seasoned gravy. Options include steak and cheese, steak and onions, steak and mushrooms, steak and kidney, steak and peppers, chicken and vegetables, curry chicken, curry lamb, spinach and feta, shepherds pie, and others. There’s a Ned Kelly Pie named for an historical Aussie figure, a mid-1800s bushranger seen by some as a violent outlaw and by others as a Robin Hood-style folk hero for his defiance of colonial authority. “The Ned Kelly is a outback tough man’s pie stuffed with eggs, cheese, and ham,” Neville says, “with an egg on top too.”

Down Under flags hang overhead.

With so many choices, Neville and Mark created a Pie Identification Chart to remember which is which. For example the basic Australian meat pie has a single hole on top, steak and kidney pie is sprinkled with black poppy seeds, buffalo-chicken pie has paprika and four holes. “Without that chart we’d just be guessing what’s inside and so would our employees,” Neville says. “Of course we’d enjoy them anyway, because they’re all good.” They make a separate line of sausage rolls, meat-filled pasties, and pork pies, which are easier to ID because they’re different shapes.

Flaky crust and tasty gravy make a just-right meat pie.

WHAT’S THE SECRET? The crust can make or break a good meat pie. That goes double for what’s inside. “It’s no secret, really. The trick is to have a good, flaky, buttery pastry (what you Americans call crust) and a thick, tasty gravy,” Neville says. “We perfected the pastry long ago, so now we focus on getting the best possible meats, veggies, spices, and other ingredients.”

FRIENDS IN HIGH PLACES Besides local customers, regulars include the Australian Embassy and the Australian Ambassador’s Residence in Washington D.C. “They order hundreds of meat pies when they want to impress visitors with some genuine Australian food,” Mark says. “We also supply a lot of famous Aussies living in America. Keith Urban the country singer, Mel Gibson the actor, Olivia Newton-John the singer and actress, Stuart Appleby and Wendy Doolan the professional golfers, Graham Russell of the rock band Air Supply, and others have placed orders. We ship frozen pies overnight anywhere in the country, and all people have to do is warm them and serve. For Australians, what we’re really delivering is a little taste of home.”

“I love experimenting with new pies,” Neville says, fitting pastry dough over hundreds in a batch.

CHILDHOOD FRIENDS Neville and Mark, now 50, have known each other since preschool. “We’re both from bakery families in the city of Boort, about 250 miles northwest of Melbourne,” Neville says. “We went our separate ways and then met up again while attending the bakery school at William Angliss Institute in Melbourne. We each worked in several bakeries in Australia. Mark moved to the States in 1991, I followed in 1999, and we opened our Marietta bakery in 2001.

LOVING IT “I love baking every day and experimenting with new meat pies,” Neville says. “Today I’m messing around with barbecued pork and different spices for the gravy just to see what I get. The good ones go on the menu. The not-so-good ones we eat anyway but don’t make again.”

Bluegrass instruments come out for Tuesday night jams at the bakery.

BLUEGRASS IN THE BAKERY This is not an Australian tradition, if you were wondering. Mark explains: “My ex-wife Wendy, who is our business partner, has a new husband, Greg, who plays bluegrass banjo. He started hanging out here with his music friends, and the crowd of people playing and listening kept growing. So every Tuesday we hold an Open Bluegrass Jam. Anyone can bring an instrument and join in, whether they’re already seasoned players or just beginning to learn. We keep the bakery open until 9 o’clock to feed them meat pies when they get hungry from all that pickin’.” For more information about the Bluegrass Jam visit http://aussiejam.wordpress.com

Australian stuffed animals for sale in the shop window include kangaroos, koalas, kookaburras, and wombats.

LOCATION Australian Bakery Café, 48 South Park Square, Marietta, GA 30060. A second store is in East Atlanta Village at 463 Flat Shoals Avenue, Atlanta, GA 30316

HOURS Mon-Fri 7 a.m.-5:30 p.m. (Tue ‘til 9 p.m. for Open Bluegrass Jam); Sat-Sun 8 a.m.-4 p.m.

INFO www.australianbakery.com or 678-797-6222

Breadgarden, Atlanta, GA

Atlanta’s guru of good bread waxes eloquent about the taste and texture of truly worthy loaves.

story & photos by Bakery Boy

Breadgarden produces a variety of crusty, slow-rising, tasty, aromatic breads. Photos by Bakery Boy.

When Catherine Krasnow starts talking about her favorite subject—baking bread—listen closely because you’re in for a treat. Founder and owner of Breadgarden, an artisan bakery tucked in the Virginia Highland area of Atlanta, she’s both an excellent baker and, on this topic at least, a bit of a poet.

“A proper sourdough starter and a long rise time, that’s how you bring out the best flavor in bread,” Catherine says. “Like good wine, you get the full flavor only when you take your time and do things right, though with bread it’s a matter of hours instead of days or weeks or even years.”

With that analogy, spoken as we sat at one of just two tables in the shop’s small retail area, she’s off and running.

Perfect baguettes include a careful balance of crustiness on the outside and softness on the inside.

“So much of what makes a good loaf of bread is about texture,” Catherine says. “Take a good French baguette: The crusty outside, the soft inside. The immediate flavor of the first bite, the ‘front taste’ you get right away, then the subtle ‘back taste’ that comes later. The slight sweetness of the caramelized crust and the chewy character of the soft inside, that’s what bakers look for.”

“You get all this marvelous complexity from just four basic ingredients: flour, salt, water, and yeast,” she concludes, smiling. “Isn’t it amazing?”

Yes it is. A loyal clientele claims retail loaves before they’re sold out each day, but far more of the bread goes to wholesale accounts. Breadgarden supplies such noteworthy Atlanta-area eateries as Café Lily and Watershed Restaurant in Decatur, Wisteria Restaurant in Inman Park, The Mansion on Peachtree (a boutique hotel) in Buckhead, plus other fine bistros and coffeehouses.

Bread shelves empty quickly due to popular demand.

BREAD LINEUP Here are some of the crusty, aromatic, and highly worthwhile European-style breads at Breadgarden, most loaves priced in the $4 range. Grab them early in the day because the supply tends to run out before closing time:  Ciabatta… Country Italian… Duram Semolina… Tuscan… Integrale (mixed grain)… Sourdough… Sourdough Whole Wheat… Sourdough Rye… Sourdough Raisin Nut Rye… Pumpernickel… Baguettes… Walnut… Onion… Spinach Garlic… Sun-dried Tomato & Herb… Rosemary… Calamata Olive… Onion & Cheese Focaccia… Challah…

It's all about good bread.

NON-BREAD A few non-bread items inhabit a small showcase. On a good day there are croissants, fruit Danish, currant scones, butter-cream-iced cupcakes, brownies, biscotti, muffins, chocolate torte, and a ham-and-three-cheeses quiche. Around mid-day you can order an Italian sub or Mediterranean vegetables-and-goat-cheese sandwich, emphasis on the bread they’re wrapped in. Sometimes a focaccia loaded with tomato, onion, feta, and herbs will make it partway through lunch hour. But these are afterthoughts. Breadgarden is primarily about bread.

CATHERINE’S STORY She doesn’t like to be in photos but did share some background. “I moved here from the Bay Area of California in 1990 and didn’t find a lot going on in the way of good artisan-style bread,” she says. “I saw an opportunity and started Breadgarden. I’m a self-taught baker—learned by reading books, experimenting at home, and visiting bakeries. My education and my previous career were in botany and bio-chemicals, which actually helped when I was learning the science behind baking, although I soon realized it’s as much an art form. My bread-making philosophy? It’s all about flavor, texture, and freshness. I bake at night so the bread is fresh every morning when people start wanting it.”

A basket of baguettes on the door welcomes Breadgarden guests.

HIDDEN TREASURE Breadgarden isn’t exactly easy to find in the little Amsterdam Walk business district on the eastern edge of Atlanta’s sprawling Piedmont Park. Loyal customers originally find it by word of mouth. There’s no  website. It’s not a hangout kind of shop. The utilitarian retail area encourages you to get in, choose some bread, pay up (cash only!) and go on your way.

DECIDE FOR YOURSELF I was shocked and a little amused to find online reviews citing Breadgarden for rudeness and, as one critic put it, “getting a slice of crazy with your ciabatta.” Maybe it’s a matter of expectations. I visited many times anonymously before introducing myself as the guy from the Bakery Boy Blog, asking to interview the owner, and sharing an hour of interesting bakery talk with her. The place is clearly focused on making good bread, not on creating a stay-awhile coffeehouse atmosphere, and I’m okay with that. I’d return even if the service hit a Seinfeldian “Soup Nazi” level, because the bread is worth it. Perhaps the resident breadophiles are a tad eccentric about their chosen field, but go decide for yourself—and let the bread do the talking.

LOCATION Breadgarden, 549-5 Amsterdam Avenue NE, Atlanta, GA 30306; from northbound I-75/I-85 in downtown Atlanta take Exit 248-C, go east on 10th Street past Piedmont Park, turn left on Monroe Drive, at the second traffic light turn left on Amsterdam Avenue, which ends at Amsterdam Walk with Breadgarden on the left.

HOURS Mon-Wed 9 a.m.-4 p.m., Thu-Fri 9 a.m.-6 p.m.

INFO Breadgarden has no website. It gets plenty of business through word-of-mouth and press coverage, including this Bakery Boy Blog mention, so why bother being online? Call 404-875-1166.