From Santa cookies to truffles, a tour of local bakeries' creations

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Our city's edible holiday art rivals the famed Christmas markets of Strasbourg and Munich.

Tony Tye, Post-Gazette
Chocolate truffles from Fraiche Confections.
Click photo for larger image.

Shoppers can strike gold with Old Europe's frosted Yule logs, towering panettone and nut rolls. But equally intriguing are haute, playful confections such as earthy barks, designer marshmallows and soft-center lollies, springing from the imaginations of well-connected young pastry chefs from Chicago and San Francisco.

Treasures in limited editions are coming from storefronts tucked into Millvale, the West End, Pleasant Hills, Shadyside and the Strip. The shops' sole owners, as individual as their creations, direct things with loving fanaticism.

The same hands that baked your cake may wrap it and take your money. Artists they are, but not soft and gooey inside. Most bakeries' deadline to order Christmas treats is Dec. 15, so don't lollygag.

'Now I'm the grandma'

Jean-Marc Chatellier, owner of Chatellier's French Bakery in Millvale, arrived here in 1983 from the tiny Breton village of Couffe. He is equal parts patissier and pragmatist.

His classic buche de Noel, or Yule log, is a sheet of Genoise cake rolled, filled and frosted with butter cream. "My secret: a light spray of melted chocolate -- with a paint gun, like you see at Home Depot. Very thin, nice and shiny, protects the butter cream. Then come the marzipan holly leaves, the meringue mushrooms -- and the little plastic Santa," he says. The 12-inch cake, $40, serves 12 to 15.

A buche de Noel is all about the butter cream. Does Mr. Chatellier use a premium butter such as Plugra (from the French plus gras, or "more fat")?

"Plugra is bogus. I don't see the difference at all." He chooses Grasslands butter, product of an award-winning 102-year-old Wisconsin dairy.

Nor will you hear a touching tale about the origin of Chatellier's famous "Hungarian" nut roll.

"A guy selling baking equipment, used to be a baker, gave me the recipe. I don't know whose recipe it was. He said, 'You ought to try this.' The first year we made six.

Bill Wade, Post-Gazette
A croquembouche (French for "crunch in the mouth") by Jean-Marc Chatellier, created just for Christmas.
Click photo for larger image.Bill Wade, Post-Gazette
Buche de Noel, or Yule log, from Jean-Marc Chatellier's French Bakery.
Click photo for larger image.

"We use butter, pure honey, walnuts. When people requested it, we made a poppy seed version. I'm French: I never heard of a poppy seed. The filling looks like asphalt. But put some cream cheese on it, whew, it's good. My daughter loves it.

"Everybody says the rolls are almost as good as their grandma's. Well, those grandmas must have been great, but they're dead. Now I'm the grandma. We make thousands and ship them to people who used to live here. Thirty went to Houston the other day."

No doubt that dough is stretched as tradition demands, paper-thin, over a table?

"Oh no. That's too much work. I found out the French machine I use for making croissants stretches it perfectly."

'Tis an ill wind blows nobody good. When the 2004 flood gave Mr. Chatellier "nothing to do," he began making truffles and nut toffee bark using Callebaut dark and milk chocolate. He calls these, at $5 a bag, "an easy grab," and says the nut rolls at $9 rate high as corporate gifts.

Jean-Marc Chatellier's French Bakery, 213 North Ave., Millvale, 412-821-8533, www.jeanmarcchatellier.com.

Don't lick that icing!

Butter cream is foundation material at Prantl's Bakery in Shadyside, too.

Owner Jane Prantl, marking 41 years of co-ownership with her former husband, uses "pure butter cream frosting -- same as we use for any of our tortes and cakes" -- to decorate showpiece Santas and holiday cutouts. Ms. Prantl is chief designer.

The color and piping is placed with such care no sentient being could disturb it. It remains soft and creamy.

Bill Wade, Post-Gazette
Hungarian nut and poppy seed rolls from Jean-Marc Chatellier's French Bakery, Millvale.
Click photo for larger image.Lake Fong, Post-Gazette
Holiday cookies at Prantl's Bakery, Shadyside, include gingerbread men, dolls, dreidels, Santas and snowmen.
Click photo for larger image.

"But the kids lick the icing off before they reach the door. Moms are going, 'No, no, no!' Oh my." Cookies are $1.39 to $1.69.

The store will sell many of its oft-imitated burnt-almond tortes at $16.99.

For appreciative traditionalists, Ms. Prantl will offer authentic German-style stollen. The soft, sweet breakfast bread at $7.49, iced and decorated with glazed fruit, harks back to the bakery's roots in the North Side shop that Prantl's ex-husband's father operated more than a half century ago.

On the less nostalgic side, look for a "Don't Twist My Tinsel" cake inspired by a pillow in a Neiman-Marcus catalog. "It's not your usual Santa. It'll be fun in the window," Ms. Prantl predicts.

Prantl's Bakery, 5525 Walnut St., Shadyside, 412-621-2092.

Georgia Peaches

Less than three years ago, Kathy Battis of Pastries A-La-Carte was baking out of her Pleasant Hills home. The Route 51 bakery, which employs 20, was voted best new pastry shop 2006 by Pittsburgh Magazine.

Funnily enough, Ms. Battis' plea to the Post-Gazette's recipe exchange in Kitchen Mailbox brought a response that served as the starting point for what has become the bakery's signature cookie.

The Georgia Peach has evolved into a shimmering round confection filled with peach schnapps cream, glazed with schnapps syrup, rolled in sugar and given a green leaf.

"I knew it was a cookie people would like. We sell 20 to 30 dozen a week, 10 dozen at a time for weddings."

Lake Fong, Post-Gazette
Jean Prantl is chief designer at Prantl's Bakery, where she uses pure butter cream frosting to decorate cookies.
Click photo for larger image.Tony Tye, Post-Gazette
Georgia Peach from Pastries-A-La-Carte
Click photo for larger image.

The rosy little orbs, $8.95 a dozen, add a glow to milestone celebrations and upgrade anybody's plate of homemade treats.

Ms. Battis' petit fours, dainty cakes of vanilla or almond-flavored batter, raspberry-filled and dipped in white or dark chocolate, are $9 a dozen. They are pretty placed on a tray with the peaches and make a festive cap for a casual brunch or formal dinner.

Pastries A-La-Carte, 81 Clairton Boulevard, Pleasant Hills, 412-653-2236, www.pastries51.com.

Earthy bark

Barbara Ferguson was a Chicago journalism graduate freelancing for the Chicago Tribune when she decided to become a pastry chef.

With a new diploma from Pennsylvania Culinary in the late '90s, she was making desserts at the Carson Street restaurant Viaggio.

There, she had set a plate of rum raisin cheesecake before legendary chocolatier Chef Thaddeus F. DuBois, who was working at the Duquesne Club but about to embark upon a glitzy casino project in Biloxi, Miss. (Mr. DuBois was recently White House pastry chef, a post he has left.)

"I was star-struck," Ms. Ferguson says. DuBois invited her to be part of the Biloxi staff. "Presiding over desserts at the casino's 12 restaurants" proved to be a "blast."

But northern roots and parents were pulling. Ms. Ferguson, her husband Lawrence Bates -- proprietor of the Murrysville Atria's -- and their daughter Rika, now 13 and a student at Creative and Performing Arts High School, came back in 2002 to Pittsburgh, where son Liam was born.

She worked as opening pastry chef for Eleven restaurant for a year, then set about launching Fraiche Confections.

Fresh, as in "with absolutely no preservatives," is the boutique's byword. Ferguson prepares batches virtually to order of barks, truffles and marshmallows. Chocolate is Guittard. The line is sold exclusively at Mon Aimee Chocolat in the Strip.

Tony Tye, Post-Gazette
Chocolate bark from Fraiche Confections.
Click photo for larger image.Tony Tye, Post-Gazette
Truffles from Fraiche Confections
Click photo for larger image.

For the top-selling dark chocolate dulce de leche truffles, Ms. Ferguson simmers milk for 14 hours into a lush caramel, then blends it with Venezuelan chocolate, vanilla and sea salt. Milk chocolate options include chocolate and cocoa nibs or rice crispies, macadamia nuts and coconut.

Truffles are $1.25 each, eight for $13, 20 for $29.

Holiday barks include pumpkin seed/cranberry and butter crunch with dark chocolate and hazelnuts. The most popular bark, not what you may guess, is mixed dried berries in Equadorian chocolate. Ms. Ferguson's son Liam, 4, "goes nuts for that bark."

Another with universal appeal is peanut butter mixed with chocolate and topped with honey-roasted salted peanuts. Barks are $8.50 to $9.50 a package.

The softies in your life deserve hand-made marshmallows: vanilla, brown sugar and lemon. Marshmallows are $3.50 for a pack of eight chunky squares.

Fraiche Confections also offers wilder shores of flavor: To taste the goat cheese and basil truffle that Ms. Ferguson reports wowed tasters at Pittsburgh's Best Restaurants show this year, place an order.

Fraiche Confections sold at Mon Aimee Chocolate in the Strip, 2101 Penn Ave., 412-395-0022.

Big Bread, Strong Bread

"Does anyone know panettone can be made fresh?"

Larry Lagattuta of Enrico's Biscotti, in the Strip and Mt. Lebanon, is talking about the traditional bread of Milan, shaped like a chef's hat, ballooning out of the mold it's baked in. Panettone means literally "big bread."

If all you've seen is shelves of the pre-boxed version in the months before Christmas, the real deal awaits.

Enrico's is made with "tons of eggs, butter, sugar and fruit, fresh cranberries and golden raisins, sometimes pignolia [pine] nuts -- that's what I like."

The baker calls the tall confection "more cake than bread -- the only thing it shares with bread is leavening.

"We bake ours in imported brown and gold paper molds, wrap them in cellophane, and tie them with a blue ribbon. No preservatives. They keep five or six days. For $5 apiece, forget about it."

Slice panettone vertically and serve any time of day with coffee or a sweet sparkling wine like spumante.

If Mr. Lagattua feels like it he may make panforte, which translates as "strong bread."

Not bread at all, but "chewy, dense candy -- an almondy nougat mixture between wafer layers, panforte is a specialty of a Florence, "which is way more northern than my sensibilities.

"You can carry it around in your pocket forever. Call it a Florentine power bar."

Enrico Biscotti Co. 2022 Penn Ave., Strip District, 412-281-2602; 665 Washington Road, Mt. Lebanon, 412-563-0311, www.enricobiscotti.com.

Lollies with Panache

Who could be passive enough to let one of April Gruver's soft-centered "lollies" dissolve slowly?

The temptation is to crunch right down on the peppermint-flavored chocolate cream lollypop, dipped in dark chocolate and sprinkled with candy cane ... or the eggnog custard with rum, coated in white chocolate and sprinkled with nutmeg ... or salty caramel with cheesecake in white chocolate, sprinkled with sea salt.

This is a pastry chef who invests in fun.

She'll fill a hatbox with assorted chocolate-coated lollipops, double-chocolate brownies and festive tissue and tie it with ribbons.

A lengthy cookie list allows for customizing your gift box.

Ms. Gruver addresses holiday hostess problems, too. She suggests "take-and-bake sticky buns and rosemary honey scones for early mornings with house guests."

The Studio's ready-to-eat cakes include espresso pine nut tart, chocolate peppermint roulade, and chocolate tangerine mousse tart.

A California-trained pastry chef, Ms. Gruver worked in San Francisco and Seattle's Rover's and the Rainier Club before children, Allyson, 8, and Andrue, 2, brought her and her husband, John, executive chef at the Carnegie Museum of Art's Carnegie Cafe, closer to Pittsburgh family.

She taught at the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute and made desserts at the Duquesne Club before launching her business.

"We love to create pops for special events," Ms. Gruver says. "If you can dream it up, we can 'pop' it."

Vanilla Pastry Studio, 406 S. Main St., West End, 412-922-2173.


Virginia Phillips is a freelance writer from Mt. Lebanon.


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