Mediterra Bakehouse expands pastry line

"We got a fresh burst of energy tasting pastries in Paris at Laduree and Gerard Mulot," Mediterra Bakehouse's Nick Ambeliotis says. Since it opened nine years ago, the artisan bread-baker's wife, Sandy, always has made the bakery's signature cream scones, biscotti and "traveling cakes," but the couple has been incubating more ambitious pastry notions.

"Now the time has come," Mr. Ambeliotis says. "We will be true to our roots. Our breads are all in the French tradition. Our pastries will be, too."

Although Mediterra relies on laborious techniques to achieve its fragrant dark-crusted loaves, the bakery, located in Robinson, is no small enterprise. Wholesale customers in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati include Whole Foods, Giant Eagle, Trader Joe's and high-end hotels. (Mr. Ambeliotis, 50, grew up in Ohio). They sell at four Pittsburgh-area farm markets.

The new project, by contrast, is about thinking small. "We have no intention of solving the world's pastry problems," Mr. Ambeliotis says. "What Sandy makes will be for customers who come to our retail shop at the bakery.

"If she makes a glazed kugelhof" -- golden yeast bread with lots of eggs and rum-soaked raisins, $5 -- "a customer can buy a slice or two or buy the whole cake. But she won't have to worry about the William Penn wanting 50 of them."

Their new line includes "core" entries such as a sugar-crusted lemon tart ($4), a weighty espresso brownie bar ($4), plump madeleine cookies dipped in lemon syrup for a gossamer crunch (four for $3), mini-bags of thumb-sized chocolate shortbreads with shiny dark chocolate glaze (a dozen for $6), a tender almond sandwich cookie with a lemon curd filling and a tropical banana muffin with a coconut crackle top, crunchy with bits of dried banana (not yet priced).

The offerings lend themselves to a plateful of options because the cookies are dainty and the tarts deep enough to be cut into small but sumptuous squares.

While the Ambeliotises revere France, they are madly in love with their own Greek heritage and foods of the Aegean.

So, a parallel line the couple will debut with the French desserts reveals whispers of a more ancient terroir than the French. Some ingredients are almost more fragrance than flavor.

A very old and fairly obscure product is mastic, a tree gum appearing only on the Greek island of Chios. It is revered as an aid to health and digestion. Greek bakers, including Mediterra, traditionally mix bits of it into Easter bread.

Sandy Ambeliotis, 51, uses the costly product -- $250 for a kilo, or a little more than two pounds -- to give the merest suggestion of resiny fragrance to a creamy cheesecake. The cherry compote she spoons over the cake is Greek, too, made in a tiny confectionery on the island of Lesbos that still grows its own wheat and grinds it with a stone mill powered by a donkey.

"Of course our 'laminate' pastries -- those are the croissants and Danish, the ones with a zillion papery layers -- are more difficult to make. They are what our wholesale customers want. But the mastic cherry cheesecake [$4 per slice] is what we want."

Mr. Ambeliotis: "I remember as a boy eating kugelhof every morning on vacations in Greece. Greek bakers, like the French, love using syrups. Sandy glazes our kugelhof with orange-water syrup -- very Greek."

He offers a tiny vial of essence of bergamot, an intensely fragrant oil that comes from a small sour orange, for sniffing. This is perfume most people associate with Earl Grey tea. It may be put to work in the bakery soon. Another contender is mahlab, sour cherry kernels, ground and used in Aegean baking to lend a cherry/bitter almond flavor. A pinch of mahlab may go into the madeleines. You can buy it at Penzeys in the Strip District.

It is a credit to Mrs. Ambeliotis' subtle hand that these fragrant additions do not come across as off-puttingly "perfumey," for palates unaccustomed to them.

Another new entry is pure Mediterranean: a moist and tender olive oil cake, made with fresh orange juice and a bit of orange liqueur. This cake is baked by Mr. Ambeliotis' son Michael's wife, Andrea, 25.

Several of the seven grown children in the blended family lend a hand at the bakery. At least five are home for dinner every night.

When does Mrs. Ambeliotis bake? "Whenever I can," she says. "Sometime between 5 a.m and 1 a.m." in her very long day.

"We've installed antique bakers' displays for the new desserts and a refrigerator case, too," she says. "And we want people to sample everything."

Mediterra Bakehouse is five minutes from the Campbell's Run exit of the Parkway West at 801 Parkway View Dr. No. 8 in Robinson (412-490-9130).

Virginia Phillips: .


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