They say that cooking is an art while baking is a science. However, the lines are blurred when it comes to talented bakers such as Claudia Saraniecki, proprietress of Babushka Bakery (a DBA of the long-established catering company Saranecki Bros., Inc.). While Saranecki's work shows intense precision, it's largely her sense of whimsy and creativity that drew us to her work: fanciful ballerina cookies, delicately flowered and tendril'ed cakes, and pastry light as air or heavy as the night, depending on the occasion. Working as a boutique catering baking company, she's worked on an incredible variety of projects, from corporate gift baskets to fancy dinners to yes--even wedding cakes. We recently took some time to talk pastry with Claudia; here's what we learned about confectionery, bakeries in Chicago, and what in the world a kolacky is:
Cakespy: You are a partner in Saranecki Bros., Inc, but your baking business is Babushka Bakery. Is this a division of the catering company, or a completely different business?
Babushka Bakery (Claudia Saraniecki): Babushka Bakery is a registered DBA of Saranecki Bros. Catering, Inc. We are a 65-year old family business that owns and operates four banquet facilities in the northwest side of Chicago. In addition to the on premise catering, we also have an extensive off premise catering division. Babushka Bakery provides pastries and cakes for many of our parties. I also have clients who do not use our other catering services.
CS: Saranecki Bros. is a family business, so it looks like there is a history of cooking in your family- so what drew you to baking?
BB: I married into the Saranecki family 25 years ago. But I was raised in a food obsessed family that included a grandmother of German and Alsatian heritage, another grandmother of Austrian-Polish heritage, and a very creative and enthusiastic Mother who baked daily for a family of 7 (five kids). As the eldest daughter, I learned to cook at an early age, then studied Food and Nutrition in college, finally earning an MS in Human Nutrition and a license to practice dietetics. While raising my own children, I began to test recipes for our catering company and also was asked to create a few signature products for the company. About this same time, my eldest son was diagnosed with severe food allergies that included cane and corn products. I had to cook everything from scratch for him for a few years. That responsibility went from being a necessity to a pleasurable habit and finally, a career path.
CS: Do you cook, too? Or are you primarily a baker?
BB: Yes, I am a good cook, and have done some personal chef work, but professionally I consider myself a baker.
CS: Can you give us an idea of the breadth of the projects you've taken on?
BB: Corporate clients present the largest projects. Early on, I received an order for 700 welcoming gift baskets for a corporate meeting to be held in Chicago. Each gift basket included several products that I made: a small sourdough focaccia, frango mint cookie, caramel and chocolate dipped pretzel, and I think a small cake. I was certainly inexperienced at the time, but you can learn so much under pressure. My friends and family all rallied to help pack the items the day of shipping. I made everyone wear babushkas (scarves) on their heads. My husband walked in and yelled; "Holy smokes, it looks like a babushka bakery in here!" And the name stuck!
CS: Would you ever be interested in opening a more traditional bakery?
BB: If I was 25 year old and knew what I know now... but, no, I will not be opening a traditional bakery. I enjoy knowing exactly how many items I will be baking in a week. I still have time to fine tune recipes and create new ones. And my family continues to be priority #1.
CS: What are some of your favorite things to bake?
BB: My focus has been on creating special, over the top cakes for clients the last few years. It's exciting and creative. But for fun, comfort, and relaxation, I love to bake rustic tarts and breads.
CS: How does commercial baking differ from small batch (at home) baking?
BB: I'll never forget the first day I walked into a Food Lab in college. I thought it would look all cozy and home ec'y. Instead, it was a lab. A stark, pristine white lab with ovens, scales, and refrigerators. The teacher saw my confusion as I looked for measuring cups and told me "now you will learn to cook properly, with skill and precision. You will learn to replicate your formulations and create standards for your products." That class changed my perception of cooking from a casual activity to a scientific method. My teacher let me know that the work we did in a food lab was as important as the chem or bio lab. Consequently, whether at home or in a commercial kitchen, the standards and practices are the same for me; sanitation, quality of ingredients, scientific methods, combined with aesthetics and taste. I always weigh ingredients rather than measure. It becomes a habit; my boys laugh when they see me weigh the fillings for their sandwiches.
CS: You mention in your bio that one of your specialties is Kolacky. Can you tell us a little bit more about what Kolacky is and why it's so special to you?
BB: Kolacky are small pastries that are commonly found in Eastern European countries. Sometimes they are yeast raised with a small dollop of fruit preserves. Other kolacky are made of cream cheese pastry that is cut into squares, filled with fruit preserves, then two corners folded up and baked. Saranecki Bros. has been selling kolacky for probably the entire 65 years....Our original baker was a clever, but mysterious man who made these unique and delicious pastries by the thousands. His kolacky differed from others; they were slightly sweeter, had mini chocolate chips, and were crispy rather than soft. Unfortunately, he died without revealing his recipe. I was asked to recreate the recipe. Little did I know that I would become the kolacky queen of Saranecki Bros.!
BB: My first exposure to fondant was Wilton brand. Wilton is a wonderful company, but that fondant has an unpleasant flavor. So I used modeling chocolate for about a year while I tested different brands of fondant. With the advice of Colette Peters, I tried Massa Ticino, which is made by Carma in Switzerland. It tastes like the inside of an Oreo cookie and is a dream to work with. On the downside, it is very expensive, made worse by the dollar/euro imbalance. My second choice is Satin Ice.
CS: To you, what is the most important aspect in making a great baked good?
BB: An obvious answer for a cake decorator is appearance; but by now, we've all been burned by the large rotating dessert display at the local Greek restaurant. So I try to not judge a pastry by its appearance. Fragrance is not as obvious, but is a wonderful aspect. A concierge phoned
me to say that she could smell how delicious my pastries were, right through the cellophane packaging. A good chocolate cake should fill a room with its perfume. But, for me, the aspect that makes a product really interesting is texture. For example, I have been making a smoothie for myself every morning for about the past 6 months. Every smoothie from day one was good, smooth, creamy, and sweet (not cloying). But when I started to add ground flax seedto the mix, then the smoothie became interesting because of the chewing needed for the flax. And chewing helps stimulate serotonin, which is a mental tranquilizer, which adds a new dimension to a breakfast meal. Nancy Silverton, in Breads from the LaBrea Bakery (the best book on bread making) writes about learning to bake bagels from a grizzled old New York bagel guy. He tells her, "the real flavor of the bagel comes in the chewing." I agree and like to put unexpected textures in many products. When making cookie dough, I will throw in a good pinch of coarse kosher salt at the end. The person who bites into a cookie and gets one or two
grains of salt will stop, and hopefully, consciously finish eating that cookie. It's become more interesting. We all love crème brulee, not because of the sweet, smooth, unctuous custard; but because of the contrast with the crunchy burnt caramel topping.
BB: Rustic tarts with roasted fruit fillings, chocolate éclairs, and my own Turtle candies (slowly roasted pecans, homemade caramel, fleur de sel, dark chocolate).
BB: I have to test product all the time. It's tough on the wardrobe budget. And if I'm testing a recipe, then it's tasted for a few days in a row to see how it ages; what kind of shelf life a product has. Every Sunday, I prepare a large family dinner. That's when I'll bring out 2 or 3 desserts which my family loves to sample and critique.
BB: Here's my hot list: cupcakes, red velvet cake, caramel, salt mixed with sweet, passion fruit curd, deconstructed anything (cheesecake, napoleon, cannoli) crazy flavored crème brulees, grilled fruits in the summer, ginger, peppers, hot chocolate, extremely dark chocolate (over 70% cacao), more intense milk chocolates. Also, here in Chicago, we are proud of our Vosges chocolates that have introduced people to mixing chocolate with unusual flavors and textures. Parisian style macarons seem to be the rage internationally with a lot of coverage in food blogs.
- Hot Chocolate: cute little restaurant with good food and excellent desserts.
- Bittersweet: small café; so-so food, overhyped pastries. Everyone can havea down day, but the dessert special was stale on the day I visited.
- Julius Meinl: Austrian coffee and pastry shop and café. This is a chain inAustria, and I think the Chicago shop is the only one outside of Europe.Visit this place and feel like you've had a brief European vacation. Coffeeand tea is served on silver trays with tiny glasses of cool water. Lovely; skip the pound cake, but most everything else is delicious.
- Swirlz: very good cupcakes.
- Vanille: so French and delicious. Teeny tiny macarons. A small shop with a few chairs and sofa. The owner just received a best pastry chef award from Pastry Arts magazine.
- Gale Gand's restaurants: she also received the best pastry chef award. I've eaten at all 4 of her (and partner Rick Tramonto's) restaurants at the Westin Hotel in Wheeling. The best is Osteria di Tramonto where you can choose mini desserts for about a buck each. I think I ordered 5 or 6 and was not disappointed.
- Sweet Mandy B's: very cute, very retro American style bakery with seating. Good, pretty cupcakes and I enjoyed the sugar cookie.
- Alhambra: recently opened as a night club, restaurant, and banquet facility, but go, go, go to feel like you have stepped back in time to Morocco in the 1940's. If not in the mood for a meal, enjoy a silver pot of mint tea and some pistachio baklava. Ask to look around, it is amazing.
CS: What is your next goal as a baker?
BB: I hope to attend a class taught by Pierre Hermé this spring. I have started baking my way through his books in preparation for the class--it's been a very enlightening experience already.
CS: Do you have any advice for someone considering starting up their own baking business?
BB: I have friends who create beautiful objects for people. They ask me why I get so stressed about baking--after all, it's just cake. But the beautiful object that I make for people is put into their mouths and swallowed. It becomes a part of my customer! If this thought doesn't scare a novice baker from the business, then my advice is to get the best training you can afford, bake daily, take good notes, and find people who will evaluate your work kindly, but honestly. And always wear supportive shoes.