Monthly Archives: August 2011

Louisa’s Bakery, Montgomery, AL

Say hi to Missy (there’s no Louisa) at this bakery in Montgomery’s Old Cloverdale neighborhood.

story & photos by Bakery Boy

Missy Mercer with fresh challah at Louisa's Bakery

I’ve never seen a baker use a bread thermometer as much as Missy Mercer, owner of Louisa’s Bakery in Montgomery, Alabama. And I mean that in a good way. She’s pleasantly obsessed with gauging every batch of bread she bakes. “That’s really the only way to get a consistent product,” she says, plunging the pointy end of her trusty thermometer into the center of a loaf to decide if it’s done. “Going by how brown the crust gets or by thumping the bottom just isn’t good enough. I make sure the artisan loaves reach 160° in the center. The larger bread we slice for sandwiches—some weigh two pounds—are done when they reach 180° at the center.”

Artisan Bread

Missy's thermometer

Judging by the beautiful olive bread, walnut wheat, Italian baguette with rosemary, braided challah (for which she infuses sugar with a touch of vanilla to produce a unique sweetness), focaccia rounds, and sourdough I saw, smelled, and in some cases tasted during my visit, Missy makes a good point. There wasn’t a single reject in the mix, her usual Friday lineup. (Mondays feature cranberry bread, and on Wednesdays she bakes spinach feta pagnotta, country-style bread rooted in her Italian heritage.)

Dark Chocolate Creme Pie

Cakes, pies, tarts, muffins, biscotti, and intense brownie-like creations she calls Dream Bars all passed inspection with flying colors too.

Since visiting Louisa’s, located in the city’s historic Old Cloverdale neighborhood, and watching Missy work, I find myself using an oven thermometer more than ever. I bake bread twice a week at home, and I’ve been more satisfied with how my loaves turn out now that I’ve caught the temperature-taking bug. You can teach an old baker new tricks—and I’ll take good ideas wherever I can find them!

ARE YOU LOUISA?

Missy Mercer

No, she’s not, but Missy gets that question a lot. People naturally expect the person working in plain view behind the counters and directing helpers must be the owner and namesake. An explanation: A woman named Louisa once ran an antiques store in what later became Cafe Louisa under a different owner. Missy bought both Café Louisa and the space next door, where she now has Tomatinos Pizza & Bake Shop. “Cafe Louisa was well established with a good reputation, so I saw no need to change the name,” she says. “When I added the bakery behind the two restaurants, I extended the name Louisa to it too.”

ENOUGH FOR US TOO

Carrot Cake Cupcakes

“Originally the bakery was just meant to supply baked goods to our two restaurants,” says Missy, whose husband, Browne Mercer, is her partner in all three operations.  “We’d make a little extra of everything, so our customers could take some home. That part of the operation grew and grew. Now the bakery has surpassed the coffee house in the amount of business it does. The pizza parlor is still our biggest operation. It’s been open since 1995 and has a great following.”

Dream Bars

Tomatinos makes pizzas, calzones, focaccia sandwiches, and breadsticks, all emphasizing organic-whole-wheat-flour dough made daily. The Margherita (basil, garlic, Roma tomatoes, mozzarella) and the Supreme (pepperoni, sausage, white onion, green pepper, mozzarella) are the most popular. The Bianca (white sauce, Canadian bacon, red onions, roasted garlic, mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, mozzarella) and the Summer Garden (basil pesto, squash, sun-dried tomatoes, red onions, mushrooms, red bell peppers, black olives, broccoli, mozzarella) have loyal followings too.

Strawberry Poppy Seed Scones

Café Louisa makes all kinds of sandwiches on whole wheat and rye bread fresh from the bakery. There’s a Grilled Portobello Reuben (roasted mushrooms, sauerkraut, Dijon mustard, Swiss cheese, and something called “goddess dressing” worth asking about). Grilled Panini sandwiches (such as a stacked-high smoked turkey version and a simple-yet-elegant Capri made with tomatoes, basil pesto, and a slab of mozzarella) and bagels (including my choice, cinnamon raisin with cream cheese and fruit preserves) also take full advantage of the onsite bakery.

Rosemary Bread

Besides supplying its sibling operations, Louisa’s Bakery produces a full gamut of baked goods. Already mentioned: crusty artisan breads. Also available:

  • Muffins ranging from blueberry to banana nut, lemon poppy, double chocolate, and a Morning Glory Muffin packed with carrots, apples, wheat bran, coconut, and pecans
  • Cakes including coconut, carrot, peanut butter, sour cream pound cake
  • Pies such as key lime, apple, pecan, lemon meringue, dark chocolate cream
  • Scones teeming with strawberries and poppy seeds, apples and cinnamon, orange and walnuts, golden raisins, or blueberries
  • Cookies sporting chocolate chips, espresso, peanut butter, oatmeal
  • Cranberry Almond Biscotti

    Biscotti loaded with cranberries and almonds, lemon and pistachios, or chocolate and hazelnuts, each drizzled with decorative chocolate sauce

  • Tarts featuring almonds, seasonal fruit, dark chocolate caramel, or caramelized onion and Alabama goat cheese plus Prosciutto ham
  • Granola laced with a tropical blend of oats, raw sugar, organic fruit juice, syrup, nuts, and dried fruit
  • Monogrammed iced sugar cookies—customized with your initials if you’d like

THE COOK & THE CONTRACTOR

Tomatinos and Cafe Louisa

Missy, from Montgomery, and Browne, from Mobile, both claim accomplished cooks and bakers for grandmothers, key sources of their inspiration.

Missy’s career path clearly pointed to a foodie life. After earning a finance degree at Auburn University, she studied at the California Culinary Academy (now part of the international Le Cordon Bleu culinary education network) in San Francisco and worked for seven years as a cook in the Bay Area. “I cooked for Wolfgang Puck and at the famous vegetarian restaurant Greens in the Fort Mason area,” she says. “My bread mentor was the baking author Peter Reinhart, who is an instructor now with Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, North Carolina.” She also cooked in Telluride, Colorado, at the independent Rustico Ristorante and for dining rooms at The Peaks Resort.

Her husband, Browne, took a much different route to the culinary world. After studying at The University of Alabama, he was a construction worker and building contractor when they met through mutual friends and married. As he helped remodel locations for her various ventures, his skills transferred surprisingly well to restaurant and bakery duties. Years of spreading drywall putty on sheetrock, for example, proved to be great training for frosting cakes. He also oversees maintenance, repairs, purchasing, and pizza production.

DUELING COOKBOOKS

Browne (left) and Missy sign copies of their dueling tailgate-party cookbooks celebrating his University of Alabama and her Auburn University.

Missy and Browne recently published matching cookbooks honoring their home state’s famous college football rivalry and meant to fuel tasty tailgate parties. Missy developed 30 recipes for her Auburn University Cookbook. Browne developed the same number of recipes for his The University of Alabama Cookbook, both from Gibbs Smith Publishing. (Click here to see a separate Bakery Boy Blog post about the two cookbooks, including sample recipes.)

The couple gets along fabulously in every aspect of their work and home lives, with one glaring exception. “We can’t watch the Auburn-Alabama game together,” Missy says. “We’ve tried. It just gets too stressful. We each love our team too much.”

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Louisa’s Bakery

1039 Woodley Road

Montgomery, AL 36106

334-356-1212

louisasbakery.com

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Got a bakery-related story idea for the Bakery Boy Blog? Email a note to Bakery.Boy@att.net.

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House Divided Cookbooks Turn Auburn-Alabama Rivalry Into Tasty Tailgate Parties

Dueling cookbooks by a married pair of bakers/cooks with opposing college football loyalties stir up pregame flavors for Dixie’s most fabled rivalry.

by Bakery Boy

Click here to see a separate Bakery Boy Blog post about Louisa’s Bakery, co-owned by cookbook authors Missy & Browne Mercer

Browne and Missy Mercer, signing their dueling tailgate-party cookbooks at The Alabama Booksmith in Homewood, AL. Photo by Bakery Boy

In Alabama, the term “house divided” has outlived its reference to the Civil War. For decades it referred to families splitting to side with the Union or the Confederacy. Now it more often refers to households that support opposing football teams—either The University of Alabama’s Crimson Tide or the cross-state rival Auburn University Tigers.

The latest battlefront in this House Divided saga: otherwise happily married bakers/cooks Missy and Browne Mercer. They work together at a trio of businesses they own in Montgomery, two restaurants and a bakery in adjoining buildings. They love their alma maters. And they have written cookbooks, each splashed with their school’s colors on the outside and each packed with 30 school-themed tailgate party recipes inside.

AUBURN UNIVERSITY COOKBOOK by Missy Mercer (Gibbs Smith Publishing, $14.99)

Her book gets Auburn fans charged up for games with Kick ’em in the Butt Big Blue Chili, Sis Boom Bah! Sausage Balls, Rah Rah Rah Corn and Avocado Salsa, Roasted Red Beat-The-Tide Hummus, and Roll Over The Tide Chicken Wings. Aubie’s Heart-of-Dixie Caviar—Aubie is the school’s tiger mascot—involves no fish roe but plenty of peppers, onions, corn, and black-eyed peas. Desserts include The Tiger’s Den Lemon Bars, Tiger Paw Cookies, and Old South White Chocolate Pecan Blondies (see recipe below). Wash it down with swigs of Orange-and-Blue Passion (with vodka, orange juice, ginger ale, and Blue Curaco) or Fourth Quarter Whiskey Slush (with Jack Daniel’s Black Label Whiskey, black tea, lemonade, and orange juice).

THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA COOKBOOK by Browne  Mercer (Gibbs Smith Publishing, $14.99)

His book stokes Alabama fans into game-days frenzies with Bama Bourbon-Glazed Park Tenderloin, Drown ’em Tide Brisket, Rammer Jammer Baked Beans, Rollin’ with the Tide Salsa, Capstone Coleslaw, and Give ’em Hell Alabama Deviled Eggs. He carries the theme forward with Dixie’s Football Pride Potato Salad, Crimson Flame Black-Eyed Peas (cayenne pepper packs a punch), Got Thirteen? Chili (a reference to the football team’s impressive total of 13 national titles), and Roll on to Victory Lemon Pound Cake. The Big Al’s Peanut Butter Bars (see recipe below) are named for Alabama’s raging elephant mascot and symbol.

TRUCE AT HOME?

Missy adds "War Eagle!" to the copies she autographs. Photo by Bakery Boy

So, do these two school-spirited foodies get along, despite all this football-based conflict? Yes, they say. Not only do they live together and work together—jointly running Louisa’s Bakery, Tomatinos Pizza & Bake Shop, and Café Louisa in Montgomery’s historic Old Cloverdale neighborhood—they even do book-signing events together when they promote their dueling cookbooks.

Browne adds "Roll Tide!" to the copies he autographs. Photo by Bakery Boy

People who show up as such signings aren’t always as cordial as the couple. I’ve seen people totally ignore one or the other, even though they’re sitting side by side at a signing table. Some fans will purposely speak only to the one who shares the same team interest while getting books autographed. This rivalry can be that way.

The one thing Missy and Browne don’t do together is to watch the Alabama-Auburn game. “We’ve tried that,” Missy says. “It just gets too stressful. We each love our team too much.”

Here’s one dessert recipe from each book. If you have a dog in this fight, as we sometimes say around here, choose one or the other accordingly. If you’re neutral in this ongoing turf war, feel free to try both.

OLD SOUTH WHITE CHOCOLATE PECAN BLONDIES from Auburn University Cookbook by Missy Mercer

Old South White Chocolate Pecan Blondies. Photo by Zac Williams from Auburn University Cookbook by Missy Mercer. Reprinted with permission from Gibbs Smith.

1 cup butter

1 pound white chocolate, half chunked and half chopped

4 eggs

1 cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 pinch salt

2 cups flour

1⁄3 cup pecan pieces

8 ounces semisweet chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Line an 11 x 14-inch pan with parchment paper. In a medium bowl over a hot water bath, combine butter with chunks of white chocolate. In a large bowl, whisk eggs, sugar, vanilla, and salt. Add chocolate mixture to egg mixture and stir in flour. When cooled slightly, add chopped white chocolate, pecans, and chocolate chips. Pour into prepared pan. Bake for 30–40 minutes or until skewer or toothpick comes out clean when tested.

BIG AL’S PEANUT BUTTER BARS from The University of Alabama Cookbook by Browne Mercer

Big Al's Peanut Butter Bars. Photo by Zac Williams from The University of Alabama Cookbook by Browne Mercer. Reprinted with permission from Gibbs Smith.

2 cups flour

1⁄2 cup brown sugar

1⁄4 teaspoon salt

1⁄4 cup butter, room temperature

1 cup peanut butter

1 egg

1 cup milk chocolate pieces

1 teaspoon butter

1 can (14 ounces) sweetened condensed milk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine flour, brown sugar, and salt in a large bowl. Add 1⁄4 cup butter, peanut butter, and then egg to make a thick batter. Press 2⁄3 of mixture into bottom of greased 9 x 13-inch baking pan. Melt chocolate with 1 teaspoon butter and milk in a small saucepan. Pour over peanut butter mixture in the baking pan. Sprinkle the remaining peanut butter mixture over chocolate mixture. Bake for 20 minutes or until golden brown. Let cool before cutting into bars.

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Find both books in Alabama bookstores or through Gibbs Smith Publishing of Layton, Utah; 800-835-4993

For more about Missy & Browne’s bakery and two restaurants in Montgomery:

Louisa’s Bakery, 334-356-1212

Tomatinos Pizza & Bake Shop, 334-264-4241

Café Louisa, 334-264-4241

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Click here to see a separate Bakery Boy Blog post about Louisa’s Bakery

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Got a bakery-related story idea for the Bakery Boy Blog? Email a note to Bakery.Boy@att.net.

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Vintage Bakery Sign Restored in Bessemer, AL

A 3-digit phone number. Coke for a nickel. Simpler times. A vintage sign recently restored on the side of an Alabama building recalls Square Deal Bakery circa 1922.

story & photos by Bakery Boy

The phone number with just three digits and the nickel Coke got my attention. I’m not old enough to remember when either was common, but somehow the combination hit my nostalgia button.

A recently restored 1911 commercial sign filling the side of a small building in downtown Bessemer, Alabama—the city immediately west of Birmingham—brings to mind simpler times. Based on a newspaper photo from 1922, the retouched brick wall at the corner of 19th Street North and Alabama Avenue features the words Square Deal Bakery prominently at top center, along with a Coca-Cola ad, a giant 5¢ symbol, and the name Sam Raine & Co., a former owner of the single-story structure. Bright green, red, yellow, and white paint true to the period make it stand out in a district of less-flashy red brick shops, offices, and warehouses.

My favorite part is the message “FRESH BREAD & CAKES” followed by “PHONE 983” in the top right corner. Aside from the unintended double meaning (were fresh bread and cakes supposed to call?) it’s funny to think of such a short phone number. But then, with today’s cell phones, whereby frequent contacts are preset to as little as one speed-dial click, maybe we’ve gotten back to simpler times after all, even if through a far more advanced technology.

Dr. Richard Neely, a historian who teaches at Indian Springs School and a member of the Bessemer Historical Homeowners Association (which bought paint for the project), completed the task earlier this month with help from his brother, actor John Neely, and other volunteers. Both men love history and have time on their hands during the summer, so they’ve made a hobby of restoring vintage signs. Adjacent to the Square Deal Bakery sign, on a defunct freight depot, stands last summer’s project proclaiming a century-ago wine and whiskey distributor in equally bright colors. Other Neely-brothers efforts include building-size ads at historic Sloss Furnaces in Birmingham and a 1913 ad in Marion County.

“We volunteer our time. We don’t get paid. We just enjoy doing this,” says Dr. Neely. “Our history is fading out all around us. We take a little bit of time, if people will let us, to restore some of these historic signs.”

One of the aims of the Bessemer Historical Homeowners Association, he points out, is to preserve historic structures. Outdoor advertising was a relatively new part of the culture of the early 20th century, so preserving such signs is appropriate.

Exactly when the building, located next to busy railroad tracks, was constructed isn’t clear, possibly around the turn of the century. The restoration mirrors the sign as seen in the background of a 1922 newspaper photo that appeared with an article about a man getting electrocuted on overhead power lines. (That’s a whole ’nother story.  If you’re interested, see the original photo preserved at the Bessemer Hall of History Museum in the old Bessemer Depot directly across Alabama Avenue from the restored sign.)

Square Deal Bakery has been gone for decades but is not forgotten. As I photographed the sign, an elderly man asked what I was doing. He then told me, pointing south across the railroad tracks, that he’d grown up in a house just a few blocks away. He recalls fondly that as a child he could walk from his home to the bakery and two movie theaters nearby. “In the 1930s,” he said, “19th Street on a Saturday night was so busy that the sidewalks would overflow and people spilled out into the street. Of course, there weren’t as many cars then, so that wasn’t a problem.”

The building currently holds four small storefronts, but Square Deal Bakery and the John Raine Co. aren’t among them. Instead there’s River’s Tailor Shop (alterations), Cal’s Ego (clothing), Just About Everything (faxing, typing, and laminating services, plus Avon products), and an empty. It’s not exactly a hopping part of town, but it’s less than three blocks south of the famous Bright Star Restaurant, a dining institution founded in 1907 that last year earned a prestigious culinary award from the James Beard Foundation (category: America’s Classics, honoring restaurants with “timeless appeal”). If you eat at The Bright Star, swing south on 19th Street, turn left on Alabama Avenue just before the tracks, and check out the restored Square Deal Bakery sign.

I’m tempted to dial Square Deal’s three-digit phone number just to see what happens. Probably an endless pause as our modern communication system awaits more numbers. Maybe, though, by way of some unexplainable Twilight Zone connection, I’ll be patched through to the ghost of a bakery from the past, where I can order bread and cakes and, when I go to pick them up, grab a Coke for just a nickel too.

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The restored Square Deal Bakery sign is located at the corner of 19th Street North and Alabama Avenue, facing well-trafficked railroad tracks and the old Bessemer Depot, now home to the Bessemer Hall of History Museum (205-426-1633).

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Got a bakery-related story idea for the Bakery Boy Blog? Email a note to Bakery.Boy@att.net.

Bake Cookies In Your Car

Fellow bakery blogger Nicole Weston of Baking Bites shares her technique for baking chocolate chip cookies on the dashboard of a summer-hot car.

by Bakery Boy

Cookies baking on a hot dashboard. Photos: BakingBites.com

It’s August. It’s hot. You park your car in the sun, and when you get in to drive somewhere the heat is unbearable. Maybe you roll down the window and drive fast to flush out your rolling furnace. Maybe you crank up the AC and wait a few minutes in nearby shade. Here’s an idea. When you’re not going anywhere, why not use that hot-as-an-oven car as, well, an oven?

Fellow bakery blogger Nicole Weston of Baking Bites explored this notion and developed what has become one of her most popular posts. First published in 2007, the story frequently earns a button at the top of her home page, even four years later.

These chocolate chip cookies will be ready soon, and the car they're baking in will smell wonderful too.

Nicole includes plenty of tips for car-based baking:

• realizing the advantages of chilled-and-sliced dough over spooned-and-dropped dough for achieving even thickness and even baking

• placing oven mitts or a towel under the cookie sheet to protect the dashboard, which she considers the best spot for baking

• parking in full sun

• placing an oven thermometer where it can be seen from outside

• avoiding opening the car door too often and letting heat out

• testing by touch instead of sight since car-baked cookies won’t caramelize and brown the way regular oven versions do

• doubling up with two batches if you have a large dashboard or two cars or a friend with a car to park next to yours, making it a team project

It’s a fun piece. The reader comments are worth scrolling through both for more car-as-oven tips (an Arizona woman says she cooked a steak to well-done in four hours) and other suggestions (such as using the resulting aroma of fresh-baked cookie to help sell a used car).

Here’s the full URL linking to Nicole’s story, including her cookie recipe: http://bakingbites.com/2007/09/car-baked-chocolate-chip-cookies-step-by-step/. Or just click here.

Thanks, Nicole, for keeping this story prominently displayed at your site. It’s an inspiration to us all!

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Nicole Weston of Baking Bites

When Nicole Weston isn’t baking, photographing, and writing for her Baking Bites blog, which she launched in 2004, she is often riding horses (American Saddlebreds) or dancing (ballet and salsa). Based in Los Angeles, she holds a degree in linguistic from the University of California Berkeley and a certificate in professional pastry from the New School of Cooking in Culver City (across from the historic Helms Bakery complex, which now holds a collection of restaurants and design and furniture shops).

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Got a bakery-related story idea for the Bakery Boy Blog? Email a note to Bakery.Boy@att.net.