Santa Bread

Put a little Dough! Dough! Dough! in your Ho! Ho! Ho!

by Bakery Boy

This Santa Bread photo came to me from Joan, a loyal subscriber to the Bakery Boy Blog and a friend and neighbor of my sister in Virginia. Joan works at a physical rehabilitation center and says a thoughtful patient presented this homemade flaxseed Santa Bread to the staff as a token of her appreciation.

I’m glad Joan took a minute to snap this picture before she and her coworkers tore into their holiday treat. Seeing it reminded me of various shapes my father made out of bread at the Dutchess Bakery where I grew up in Charleston, West Virginia. He’d make Santa heads, reindeer, Christmas trees sleighs and more, all out of creatively shaped bread dough.

For some reason I’ve never figured out — since we didn’t live in alligator country — my Pop made alligator bread complete with scissor-sniped spikes running along the backs and tails and with mouths propped wide open through a clever arrangement of folded cardboard during proofing and baking. Maybe he just made them because he could and because it was fun, which would be reasons enough. I made some recently just to see if I could remember how. They turned out well and kindled a fond memory, just like Joan’s Santa Bread photo did.

For a couple of years while I worked as a baker at Le Panier Very French Bakery in Seattle’s Pike Place Market, I made elaborate holiday stars out of braided bread. Some were nearly a yard a wide, great for dangling in the shop’s windows as bakery-themed decorations. Others were about the size of a regular loaf, used as table centerpieces for parties. The smallest would fit in the palm of your hand and served as Christmas tree ornaments.

Good times. I’ve also seen bread shape like a cable car and a sea lion in San Francisco, bread shaped like a cactus and a fish and a donkey-pulled cart in Albuquerque, and bread shaped like a lobster in Maine. Someday I should write an article all about bread shaped to look like something other than bread.

There’s no recipe or how-to lesson with today’s post. You can find plenty of those just by entering Santa Bread into any search engine. TasteOfHome.com has a nice version and so does MarthaStewart.com, to name just two.

Or you could just take your favorite bread dough recipe and wing it, using your imagination and maybe a little well-placed food coloring to devise your own version of Santa Bread. Maybe it’ll turn out great or maybe it’ll be an absurd mess, but either way you’ll have a little fun and create a new holiday memory.

Whatever interestingly shaped bread you make please snap a picture and send me a copy (find my email link at bottom right). I’d like to put together a slide show of the best and the worst — as well as the funny, the odd, the what’s-that-supposed-to-be? and other gallant efforts — for a blog post to run next year at about this time.

Until then, happy holidays!

BOOK REVIEW Sweet Auburn Desserts by Sonya Jones

Bookjacket photo by Deborah Whitlaw Llewellyn

When Chef Sonya Jones told me she had a baked-goods book coming out, I knew it would belong in my kitchen library.

by Bakery Boy

Sweet Auburn Bread Company is a tiny bakeshop in downtown Atlanta. There’s barely enough room for more than a few customers at a time in front of the bakery’s showcases and less room behind for owner Sonya Jones to maneuver among her ovens, mixers, refrigerator, workbench and sink. These limitations don’t stop regulars from crowding in, and they sure don’t keep Sonya from turning out an incredible volume and variety of scrumptious baked goods.

The last time I dropped in to eat some of the Sweet Potato Cheesecake she’s best known for and to box up some Sweet Potato & Molasses Muffins to bring home (see earlier post), Sonya told me she had a cookbook in the works. “It’s been in the works for a looong time,” she said with a hopeful expression that suggested she thought it was finally going to happen.

Well it did, and it was worth the wait. Sweet Auburn Desserts (from Pelican Publishing Company, $24.95) appeared in September. As expected it’s filled with recipes I wanted to try right away, starting with the gorgeous — and surprisingly easy-to-make — Strawberry Jam Stack Cake pictured on the cover.

Subtitled “Atlanta’s Little Bakery That Could,” the book includes a generous 108 recipes grouped in chapters for pies; poundcakes; stack cakes & jelly rolls; puddings & cobblers; cheesecakes & layer cakes; cookies, muffins & quick breads; and jams, jellies, butters & sauces.

Among those I’ve already made or will soon make are her Coconut Cream Pie, Brown Sugar Poundcake, Dried Apple Stack Cake, Tart Cherry Cobbler, Naked Hummingbird Muffins (so named because they’re not wearing any cream cheese icing), Cast-iron Skillet Cornbread and a simple Whiskey Butter Sauce she recommends spreading on bread pudding and fruit cobbler.

Sonya and her publisher kindly agreed to let me reprint a few of my favorites from the book here on the Bakery Boy Blog, including the Strawberry Jam Stack Cake, the Sweet Potato Custard Pie, and the Cinnamon Raisin Bread Pudding (click each to see separate posts).

Chef Sonya Jones with some of her sweet potato goodies at Sweet Auburn Bread Company. Photo by Bakery Boy

The 10th of 11 siblings who grew up in Atlanta but spent time on a family farm in Florida where relatives loved to cook and bake with farm-fresh ingredients, Sonya found early inspiration in the kitchen with her grandmother, mother and aunts. There was almost always cobbler on the countertop, she recalls, and the aroma of something good baking. For decades her mother, who passed away shortly before the book went to press, ran a neighborhood Soul Food café on Atlanta’s south side known as Cat’s Kitchen.

Sonya studied at the Culinary School in Atlanta and the Culinary Institute of America in New York, worked as a pastry chef at upscale restaurants in both of those cities, and taught baking classes at Atlanta Technical College. Even with such formal training, she found her best successes working with simple and unglamorous foodstuffs, particularly the lowly sweet potato. In 1997 she opened Sweet Auburn Bread Company at the Sweet Auburn Curb Market in an area of Atlanta known for its African American heritage and business community, an area that figured prominently in the Civil Rights Movement and is home to the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site.

Mashed sweet potatoes form the basis for some of Sonya's best-known desserts.

It was through the Curb Market that I met Sonya, not long after then-President Bill Clinton dropped by during a tour to promote economic development and urban revitalization. He ate some of her signature Sweet Potato Cheesecake and declared it “really good,” an endorsement that made business boom. I was a writer and editor for Georgia Living, a regular section within Southern Living magazine, and I’m proud to say that an excerpt from the article I helped put together about Sonya and her bakery landed on the back cover of her book.

Sweet Auburn Bread Company is now located one street over from the Curb Market, with a narrow storefront facing Auburn Avenue in the slowly reviving Sweet Auburn business and historical district. “This was sort of the unofficial center of the African American community back when I was a little girl,” Sonya says, “and I want my bakery to be part of its comeback. I want to share my good fortune, and with my book I want to share my recipes too.”

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To order a copy of Sweet Auburn Desserts by Sonya Jones, contact Pelican Publishing Company at www.pelicanpub.com or 1-800-843-1724. The list price is $24.95, but ask about a 20 percent discount (which you learned about here on the Bakery Boy Blog!) and drop the price to $19.96.

Sweet Auburn Bread Company is located at 234 Auburn Avenue, Atlanta, GA 30303; 404-221-1157, www.sweetauburnbread.com.

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Click here for the Strawberry Jam Stack Cake recipe

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Click here for the Sweet Potato Custard Pie recipe

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Click here for the Cinnamon Raisin Bread Pudding recipe

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Click here for a profile of Sonya Jones and her Sweet Auburn Bread Company in Atlanta

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RECIPE Strawberry Jam Stack Cake from Sweet Auburn Desserts

Strawberry Jam Stack Cake from the book Sweet Auburn Desserts by Sonya Jones. Photo by Deborah Whitlaw Llewellyn

This loosely stacked yet highly photogenic dessert is refreshingly different from any regular layer cake.

by Bakery Boy

“What I love about stack cakes is that they are so commanding and grand,” says Sonya Jones in introducing this recipe, a tempting photo of which graces the cover of her newly published cookbook, Sweet Auburn Desserts from Pelican Publishing Company. (Click here for the Bakery Boy Blog’s book review, or here for a profile of Sonya and her Sweet Auburn Bread Company in Atlanta). “Traditionally, the bigger the stack cake and the more layers it has, the more important the occasion,” she adds. So I guess technically, the sky is the limit!

For this recipe, prepare the jam filling ahead of time so it’s well cooled and ready to spread between cake layers on cake-baking day.

Bookjacket photo by Deborah Whitlaw Llewellyn

Strawberry Jam Stack Cake

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter

1 ounce shortening

1 ¼ cups sugar

3 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3 cups cake flour

½ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

2 ½ teaspoons baking powder

1 cup milk

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Grease 7 (8-inch) round cake pans and line with parchment or wax paper.

In a mixer, cream together the butter, shortening, and sugar until fluffy. With the mixer on medium speed, beat in the eggs one at a time until the eggs are fully incorporated. Stir in the vanilla.

In a separate bowl, combine the flour, salt, baking soda, and baking powder. With the mixer on low, alternately add the flour mixture and the milk to the butter mixture, starting and ending with the flour. Beat on medium speed for 2 to 3 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl.

Spread ¾ cup of the batter into each pan. Bake for 6 to 8 minutes, or until the cake springs back when lightly touched. Turn the cakes out of the pans onto a wire rack while still warm. Repeat until all 7 layers are baked. Each cake layer will be ¼- to 3/8-inch thick.

Place the first layer on a cake stand and spread ½ cup Strawberry Jam (see below) over the top. Place the second layer on top of the jam and spread another ½ cup jam over the top. Repeat this process until all 7 layers are stacked and layered with jam. Wrap the cake with plastic wrap or foil and allow it to stand for 24 hours before serving.

Jam Filling

2 pounds fresh strawberries

4 cups sugar

¼ cup fresh squeezed lemon juice

1 cinnamon stick

Wash and hull the strawberries. In a saucepan, crush the strawberries and stir in the sugar and lemon juice. Add the cinnamon stick and stir over low head until the sugar is dissolved.

Increase the heat to high and bring the mixture to a rolling boil. Using a large spoon, skim off any foam that forms on the surface. Continue to boil, stirring often, until the mixture is thickened and a candy thermometer reads 220 degrees F., about 30 to 40 minutes. Remove the cinnamon stick.

Transfer the jam to a covered container and refrigerate until ready to use. The jam will keep in the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks.

If you wish to store the jam for a longer period of time, spoon the jam into hot, sterile jars and seal. Place the jars in a water bath for 10 minutes and transfer them to the counter to cool before storing them in a cool, dry, dark place.

[From Sweet Auburn Desserts by Chef Sonya Jones, (c) Sonya Jones, used by permission of the publisher, Pelican Publishing Company, Inc.]

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To order a copy of Sweet Auburn Desserts by Sonya Jones, contact Pelican Publishing Company at www.pelicanpub.com or 1-800-843-1724. The list price is $24.95, but ask about a 20 percent discount (which you learned about here on the Bakery Boy Blog!) that drops the price to $19.96.

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Click here for the Sweet Potato Custard Pie recipe

Click here for the Cinnamon Raisin Bread Pudding recipe

Click here for a book review of Sweet Auburn Desserts by Sonya Jones

Click here for a profile of Sonya Jones and her Sweet Auburn Bread Company in Atlanta

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RECIPE Sweet Potato Custard Pie from Sweet Auburn Desserts

If you can think of a better use for sweet potatoes than this little slice of heaven, I’d like to know.

by Bakery Boy

Click here for a profile of Chef Sonya Jones and Sweet Auburn Bread Company

Sweet Potato Custard Pie from Sweet Auburn Desserts. Photo by Deborah Whitlaw Llewellyn

After my visits in Atlanta with chef and baker Sonya Jones, I knew I’d want to try making some of her sweet potato recipes as soon as she made them available. The owner of Sweet Auburn Bread Company has built her reputation around baking the humble but tasty orange tuber into a wide variety of goodies.

The creamy Sweet Potato Cheesecake is her bakeshop’s best-selling item at $45 for an 8-inch-diameter cake or $5 for a 3-inch version, each featuring a buttermilk pound cake crust instead of the usual graham-cracker crust. She also makes Sweet Potato Pies, Sweet Potato and Molasses Muffins, Sweet Potato Poundcake with Molasses Glaze, Sweet Potato Angel Biscuits, and Sweet Potato Cobbler, and is very likely dreaming up other uses for sweet potatoes right now.

Sonya says she peels, boils, and mashes about 40 pounds of the vegetables nearly every day to make a mushy paste that becomes the basis for all kinds of treats. “The possibilities are endless for this simple, wholesome, basic Southern staple,” she says. “I’m always experimenting with different desserts I can make from it, and I’m almost always happy with the results.”

Here is Sonya’s recipe for Sweet Potato Custard Pie from her newly published Sweet Auburn Desserts cookbook from Pelican Publishing Company. (Click here for the Bakery Boy Blog’s book review.)

Sweet Potato Custard Pie

1 pie shell — either your favorite version or one found elsewhere in Sonya’s book

Filling

1 pound sweet potatoes

1 cup sugar

1 teaspoon fresh ground nutmeg

3 eggs

8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, melted

1 ½ cups half and half

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

½ teaspoon pure lemon extract

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

To make the filling, boil the sweet potatoes for 40 to 50 minutes, or until tender. Drain the potatoes, run them under cold water, and remove the skin. Mash the potatoes in a mixing bowl and stir until smooth, then gradually stir in the sugar and nutmeg. Add the eggs one at a time, then the belted butter and half and half. Finally, stir in the vanilla and lemon extracts.

Pour the filling into the unbaked pie shell. Bake for 45 to 55 minutes, or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Serves 8

[From Sweet Auburn Desserts by Chef Sonya Jones, (c) Sonya Jones, used by permission of the publisher, Pelican Publishing Company, Inc.]

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To order a copy of Sweet Auburn Desserts by Sonya Jones, contact Pelican Publishing Company at www.pelicanpub.com or 1-800-843-1724. The list price is $24.95, but ask about a 20 percent discount (which you learned about here on the Bakery Boy Blog!) that drops the price to $19.96.

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Click here for the Strawberry Jam Stack Cake recipe

Click here for the Cinnamon Raisin Bread Pudding recipe

Click here for a book review of Sweet Auburn Desserts by Sonya Jones

Click here for a profile of Sonya Jones and her Sweet Auburn Bread Company in Atlanta

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RECIPE Cinnamon Raisin Bread Pudding from Sweet Auburn Desserts

That humblest of desserts, meant to make stale bread palatable and nicknamed “poor man’s pudding,” becomes a gourmet treat when done right.

by Bakery Boy

Click here for a profile of Chef Sonya Jones and her Sweet Auburn Bread Company

Cinnamon Raisin Bread Pudding from Sweet Auburn Desserts. Photo by Deborah Whitlaw Llewellyn

My earliest experience with bread pudding was homegrown.

My father, being a baker with a steady supply of day-old bread — the main ingredient in bread pudding — introduced me to the basic concept. Break an old loaf into chunks in a bowl; sprinkle on sugar and cinnamon and raisins; pour on warm milk; dig in. It was a classic example of a “poor man’s pudding” as it has been enjoyed for hundreds of years, especially on cold winter days. Thanks again, Pop, for those special times we shared!

My second encounter with bread pudding was literary.

I was reading Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol with its über-poor Cratchit family making the best of Christmas Eve while living on abundant love but scant few resources. As the Ghost of Christmas Present guides rich but stingy Ebenezer Scrooge through his enlightening nightmare, they haunt the Cratchit house and spy a simple bread pudding that smells “like a washing day” and looks “like a speckled cannon ball” and is a noticeably “small pudding for [such] a large family.” Unfazed by his own poverty, humble accountant Bob Cratchit regards the pudding as “the greatest success achieved by Mrs. Cratchet since their marriage.” She, being a good sport, takes the, um, compliment well enough.

My third brush with bread pudding was, in a word, divine.

Commander's Palace Creole Bread Pudding Souffle with Warm Whiskey Sauce. Photo courtesy of Commander's Palace.

I ate the famous version served at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans — one of the nation’s most highly regarded restaurants — and if the delicacy hasn’t already been declared a national treasure, it ought to be. The Commander’s Palace Creole Bread Pudding Souffle with Warm Whiskey Sauce lives up to its grand title. The fluffy blend of sugar, eggs, heavy whipping cream, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla and cubed French bread gets baked into a deep cup, then topped with a meringue and baked again until golden brown. At table side, a server dramatically pokes a hole in the top of the meringue and pours in a velvety sauce of bourbon and whipping cream. Perfection! Commander’s is so exacting about how its signature dessert is prepared and served, always fresh from start to finish, that it asks dinner guests to order the bread pudding in advance at the beginning of the meal, allowing the kitchen staff to time each step just right for the final presentation.

Now a fourth chapter has been added to my personal bread pudding saga.

Chef Sonya Jones, owner of Sweet Auburn Bread Company in Atlanta, shares her recipe for Cinnamon Raisin Bread Pudding in her recently published Sweet Auburn Desserts cookbook from Pelican Publishing Company. (Click here for the Bakery Boy Blog’s book review.) It’s a suitably rich casserole of a pudding baked into a deep pan and using regular milk instead of heavy whipping cream and any available white bread instead of specifically French loaves. I rate it high on my personal scale of bread puddings, certainly closer to the perfection served at Commander’s Palace than to the “washing day cannon ball” at Mrs. Cratchit’s fictional home.

For sheer fond memories’ sake, though, I’ll have to say I still hold in the highest regard my late father’s unpretentious and unsophisticated technique for re-purposing going-stale bread by just tossing stuff together in a bowl. His approach wasn’t cookbook-worthy, perhaps, but I treasure those times when we stood across the workbench from each other at our family’s bakery or sat across the dinner table from each other at home while we ate it. I miss those moments with my Pop.

Try serving Sonya’s bread pudding recipe to your family and see if it makes as strong an impression and as long-lasting a memory as my dad’s did for me.

Cinnamon Raisin Bread Pudding

1 pound white bread, sliced

8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, melted

1 ½ cups raisins

4 cups milk

3 eggs

2 cups sugar

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

2 teaspoons cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Pour half the melted butter in the bottom of a casserole dish. Line the dish with the slices of white bread. Drizzle the remaining butter over the bread and sprinkle the raisins on top.

In a large mixing bowl, stir the milk, eggs, sugar, vanilla, and cinnamon until well blended. Pour 1/3 of the milk mixture over the bread and let it soak for 10 minutes. Pour another 1/3 of the milk mixture over the bread and let it soak another 10 minutes. Repeat with the remainder of the milk mixture.

Bake for 45 minutes, or until the pudding springs back when lightly touched. Cook and serve with Nutmeg Sauce (see below). Serves 12-15

Nutmeg Sauce

1 cup water

½ cup sugar

1 tablespoon cornstarch

1 teaspoon fresh ground nutmeg

2  tablespoons (1/4 stick) butter

In a large saucepan bring the water to a boil.

In a mixing bowl, combine the sugar, cornstarch, and nutmeg. Mix well.

Gradually stir ½ cup boiling water into the sugar mixture. Add the sugar mixture to the remaining boiling water in the saucepan. Continue cooking for 5 to 8 minutes, or until the sauce thickens. Remove the saucepan from the heat and stir in the butter.

Store the sauce in a covered container until ready to use. Serve with Cinnamon Raisin Bread Pudding (above) or with fresh peach cobbler or pound cake.

[From Sweet Auburn Desserts by Chef Sonya Jones, (c) Sonya Jones, used by permission of the publisher, Pelican Publishing Company, Inc.]

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To order a copy of Sweet Auburn Desserts by Sonya Jones, contact Pelican Publishing Company at www.pelicanpub.com or 1-800-843-1724. The list price is $24.95, but ask about a 20 percent discount (which you learned about here on the Bakery Boy Blog) that drops the price to $19.96.

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Click here for the Sweet Potato Custard Pie recipe

Click here for the Strawberry Jam Stack Cake recipe

Click here for a book review of Sweet Auburn Desserts by Sonya Jones

Click here for a profile of Sonya Jones and her Sweet Auburn Bread Company in Atlanta

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Anyone Miss Me?

Wait. Don’t answer that. If my absence went unnoticed, I might not want to know. But I do want you to know that there’s a good reason I’ve been out of Bakery Boy Blog action for the past three months.

As a freelance writer, I cover many other topics besides baking. Recently I had the opportunity to coauthor a book-length report about deadly tornadoes that swept through Alabama (where I live) last spring and to develop recommendations for how the state could better prepare for and recover from future natural catastrophes. Researching the subject for the Tornado Recovery Action Council, which was appointed by Alabama’s governor, has been time-consuming but extremely rewarding.

Now that the project is wrapping up (just in time for holidays where foods, especially desserts, take center stage), I’m ready to get back to visiting bakeries and baking breads, pies, cookies and trying out any worthy recipes that come my way. As always, I’ll be sharing my finds with you.

Thanks again for following the Bakery Boy Blog, please pay attention to tornado warnings and seek shelter, and by all means fill me in on any new favorite bakeries you’ve discovered lately.

— Bakery Boy

Tornado Drawing by Katy Rada


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.

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.