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Batter Chatter: Interview with Claudia Saraniecki of Babushka Bakery

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.!

CS: Your cake drawing proposals are works of art in themselves! Do you have artistic
BB: Not in any traditional sense. But my mother created a beautiful home for us. My parents always made sure I had paint by number kits and art supplies as a kid. Being surrounded with loveliness makes it just natural to create something pleasing. And my sister is an artist, as is my best friend. That kind of exposure to creative people allows me to experiment. Also, my husband does not get flustered when I paint the house or front door in some non traditional manner. You do some pretty elaborate fondant cakes. 

CS: We've always been curious about cakes like this--do they taste good?
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.



CS: What are some of your favorite desserts to eat?
BB: Rustic tarts with roasted fruit fillings, chocolate éclairs, and my own Turtle candies (slowly roasted pecans, homemade caramel, fleur de sel, dark chocolate).



CS: How often do you eat dessert?
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.



CS: Have you noticed any dessert trends lately?
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.
CS: Can you tell us a bit about the dessert scene in Chicago?
BB:  Some dessert places I've tried in Chicago: 
  • 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. 

For information on confections which can be shipped, or just to see more of Claudia's work, check out babushkabakery.com



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Reader Comments (50)

Lovely interview. Will have to 1. send this to my friend who is opeing a catering bakery, 2. send this to my friend sho loves sweets as much as I do and might moved to Chicago, and 3. cheer because I have been making passion fruit curd for years now, and it is finally an "it" dessert!

February 27 | Unregistered Commenterscoopalicious

Great post and amazing photos, as usual. Will you do a simply interview for me on my blog? My readers could sure learn a thing or two from you! :D

February 27 | Unregistered Commentercuriousfoodie

I love the gorgeous novelty cake that loooks like a huge teaset, and the concept drawings. Thanks for posting this interview.

February 28 | Unregistered CommenterCakelaw

Now, I can imagine swallowing this!
Off to Chicago and will be sure to pay a taste visit!

February 28 | Unregistered Commenterpve design

Loved the tips she gave on fondant... I've never worked with the stuff, but plan on experimenting soon!!

February 28 | Unregistered CommenterVegan_Noodle

Rural Vegan: Yes, isn't she great!? I can see the Alton Brown thing. They both share a great understanding for what they're doing. :-)

Veggiegirl: You probably missed it because she doesn't have a retail storefront. She says it's not in the works but based on all this demand... I hope she's reading!

Chocolatecovered: A lot of skill! She's so great.

Rosie: Yes, isn't she an artist??

Ello: I agree, what a great name. It sounds so cozy and cute!

Genevieve: Yes, it's so fun to see the passion that goes into that cookie you've been idly eating! Yes!

Life in Recipes: So glad you enjoyed it. It was fun learning how much thought and love is put into these works.

Diana: Ha! Nice cake on your site today BTW!

TW: Yes, they are gorgeous peaks and swirls! It is keeping us inspired for sure!

Chou: Yay! Happy to feature your area. What are some of your other favorite spots in Chicago?

And...let yourself enjoy the baked goods!

Glamah: Yeah! Hope you get to try her stuff one day.

Scoopalicious: Yes! You're in style! You knew it was coming the whole time though right? :-)

Curiousfoodie: Ha! Glad you enjoyed it! And we'd interview anytime!

Cakelaw: Isn't it fun to see the process?

PVE: Ooh, have fun in Chicago and let us know what great desserts you try!

Vegan Noodle: It's an art! Good luck!

February 28 | Unregistered CommenterCakespy

Did I tell you about our jewel - we have the most wonderful bakery right her in Ardsley- "Riviera"
The daughter attended college and studied fine arts,
upon graduated, jobs were scarce so she worked for her parents at the bakery and began making these artful clever sought after concoctions which are truly
amazing. They now have a bigger bakery and two lovely books out. Let me know when you are here,
I will meet you there for a sugar rush!

February 28 | Unregistered Commenterpve design

Wow, she sounds amazing. Good answer to the last question, and good last question!

I printed out that list of dessert places in Chicago in anticipation of when I finally get to go someday- hopefully this year.

February 28 | Unregistered CommenterLydia

Love the goodies from Babushka Bakery. Love the chocolate fruit topped brownie cheese cakes, and chocolate dipped strawberries. Looking forward to sampling again =)

February 28 | Unregistered CommenterYoyo

I highly recommend the pecan sticky buns at Bonjour Bakery & Cafe on 55th and Lake Park Avenue. In addition, their cupcakes are yummy.

If you can catch up with Lauren Bushnell and get her to tell you about/ show you her wood-fired brick oven in the Experimental Station you are in for a treat.(she's sometimes at the Hyde Park Farmer's market on Thursday mornings; 53rd and Harper Court)

February 28 | Unregistered Commenterchou

I'm with everyone else...those cupcakes practically leap off the page and on to my hips....

February 28 | Unregistered CommenterMaria

I want to go take a course with Pierre Herme too!! Take me, take me! :-)

February 28 | Unregistered CommenterZen Chef

thanks for popping by and leaving the wonderful comment...


February 28 | Unregistered CommenterDiana Evans

Now...THOSE are cuppycakes! :-)

February 28 | Unregistered CommenterCookie Jill

Wow - those pictures are incredible! Must go make cupcakes ....

February 28 | Unregistered Commenterpacificoutpost

mmm....im licking my lips just looking at those cakes but oh, i wouldn't want to ruin the cakes by eating them...they look too gorgeous to eat...but stil...cake is meant for eating....

February 29 | Unregistered Commentercotton candy

mmmm anyone have a glass of milk??? I just had some of your truffles, just love the white chocolate mmmmm mmmmmm delicious

February 29 | Unregistered Commenteryoyo

PVE: That sounds wonderful. Wow!

Lydia: Yea! Hope you enjoy them when / if you go!

Yoyo: Awesome, so glad you had a good experience!

Chou: Ooh, Bonjour Bakery sounds lovely! I'd be happy to say "hello" to them. And whoa...that sounds wonderful (Lauren Bushnell and the brick oven!).

Maria: Ha! The better to get you in the mood for dessert with.

Zen chef: You and me both!

Diana: No problem! Stay sweet!

Cookie Jill: Yea! It will come to you...patience... ;-)

Pacific Outpost: let us know what type you make!

Cotton Candy: Yes, cake IS meant for eating! Esp. if it is GOOD cake!

Yoyo: Once again, yum!

March 1 | Unregistered CommenterCakespy

Great interview and very informative! I'm heading over to Julius Meinl, for some european coffee experience. For years we would go to Lutz's on Montrose and have the best coffee experience, the way it was served on individual trays with whipped cream. Then they recently stopped doing that, and lost a lot of its charm. Although their pastries are good It's just not the same experience! Thanks for the info!

Wow, that first picture looks like ice cream cones. Her work is too beautiful to eat...almost! So inspirational.

March 3 | Unregistered CommenterTina

Thank you all for your very kind comments. The best advice I can offer to those who want to bake is to use recipes from professionals who actually bake for a lot of people;ie those in the bakery or restaurant business. Many editors of women's magazines produce recipes that meet certain criteria; a product has to be visually appealing and easy to make. Flavor is way down the list of priorities.
However, bakers and authors Gale Gand, Jacques Torres, and Sherry Yard, for example, work for very demanding clients and bosses. Their products have been tested over many years, and are really foolproof, elegant, and delicious.
Feel free to email me at ascorbate@aol.com. Thanks again! Claudia of www.babushkabakery.com

March 5 | Unregistered Commenterclaudia

After reading all the kind comments, I do have to make you all jealous.....I am lucky enough to see Claudia frequently enough to taste all of her creations very often! Let me be the first one to say, they all taste 10,000 times better than they look! And, they are obviously gorgeous, so I am lucky to have Claudia in my life as my best friend and personal baker....
dietician,doctor....she knows it ALL!!

March 12 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Anonymous: Consider us all VERY jealous!! Lucky, lucky you!

March 12 | Unregistered CommenterCakespy

Way to go Aunt Claudia! I can say that one of my favorite memories when I was growing up was the big dinners that she would prepare when the family would get together. The deserts coming out of that oven were always spectacular.

March 23 | Unregistered CommenterTommy C

I saw the guest's Flickr account and a link brought me here. Nice interview, from someone that obviously loves what she does and has a conscience about the emotional aspects of eating. I enjoyed the kosher salt comment, and (wow!) just chewing, alone, stimulate serotonin production? I didn't know that. It explains why chewing gum makes me calmer. I thought I was wishful thinking only. :D

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