Brew – Part 1 – The Bakery
Picture this – it’s 6am and my lovely photographer and I are headed in to Brew. They had their grand opening in September and are located in Seaboard Station, one of Downtown Raleigh’s most desirable locations. This hour is not my finest, I am a morning person but my brain doesn’t really turn on before my first coffee. But, Cynthia has been kind enough to welcome us into the shop and show us how she makes some of her most delicious treats. Because she has work to do, this interview took place as she was baking the biscotti and prepping other items. She’s a much better multi-tasker than I am, and I’m impressed with how effortlessly she is able to transition between teaching me her craft and answering my many questions…
Walking in, you are immediately taken by all of the refurbished wood. It’s beautiful! Clean and simple lines, great lighting…the perfect place to relax. They have a cute logo and a table out front where you can purchase shirts and mugs.
Piper: Wow, I love this bar top!
Cynthia: It used to be the floorboards of a textile mill in Durham. AJ loved them because it’s so thick. It’s four solid pieces of wood we had made into the bar top.
Piper: It’s amazing! And so much history there too, I bet.
Cynthia: Yeah, and our serving blocks that we use to serve tea, sandwiches and all those other types of things are made from the pallet boards that our coffee comes in on. They were made especially for us!
Piper: What time do you get here in the morning to start baking?
Cynthia: Usually we open at 7, so I’ll get here at 6 or 6:30am.
Piper: That’s pretty early. So, what are we making this morning?
Cynthia: So, we are going to make some biscotti.
Piper: Ok, get us started!
Cynthia: Well, I usually start with my wet ingredients and dry ingredients separate. We’ve got brown sugar, vanilla…
Piper: I see you make your own vanilla
Cynthia: I do! Both this and the almond extract are just so simple. It’s literally the cheapest vodka you can find, slice open the vanilla beans and let it sit for a month. I use about 6 or 7 beans, but there isn’t any exact science to it. About once per day or two I’ll go in the back and shake it up. I started this about a week ago so it’s kind of clear. The entire bottle costs about $5, and the vanilla beans are cheap from our distributor so overall it’s like $6-7 for the bottle.
Piper: Wow! Thats so cheap and so much better than the store bought stuff.
Cynthia: Yeah, so with the almond extract you just start by blanching the almonds, boil them in the water for about 3 minutes, strain them out of the water and use a paper towel to get the skin off.
Piper: After the skin is off, you just throw it in the vodka?
Cynthia: Yeah, just toss it in there and let it sit. You can use a knife and skin the almonds if you want but it’s so much easier to just blanch them. It’s so easy!
Piper: I love almond extract so much that I could just eat almond paste straight out of a tube. And your amaretti cookies are so wonderful, that I’d like to know…can you make me a house out of them?
Cynthia: No, that would crumble.
Piper: What about a sack?
Cynthia: No, I don’t think so, sadly.
We both sigh, and reflect on the idea…but we have a task to finish…so back to work!
Cynthia: Ok, so back to the biscotti. Get 1/2 cup of brown sugar and white sugar then 1/2 cup of vegetable oil. This is actually one of the few recipes I have where I can use measuring cups. Everything else you have to weigh out all the ingredients – they are a lot more precise. Add in about 1 T vanilla and mix.
Piper: Wow, I have to comment on your amazing organizational system you have going here. I mean, the first time I watched you bake back in this little itty bitty space I was beyond impressed. You have approximately three feet of counter space. So, clearly, this is out of necessity?
Cynthia: Yes, I have such limited space and now that we serve sandwiches I have limited time, so I have to use what I have as efficiently as possible. It’s not something I’m normally good at at all. My house is not this organized. My baked goods are spread out all over the kitchen. I decided to label things this way because AJ and I worked at Yellowdog to learn before opening up here. Tanya is so organized! It worked so well there, that we decided to do the same thing here.
Piper: Well, you do. It’s amazing. My kitchen always looks like a bomb went off. So, how did you come up with the recipe?
Cynthia: I literally just googled biscotti recipes and then played with it till I got this.
Piper: Of course! So simple. How long have you been baking?
Cynthia: I’ve been baking for about 2 years. I’ve been cooking in general since I got married, about 9 years. My mom is a chef at a country club in Blowing Rock, so I grew up around cooking. But I wasn’t very interested in learning, so she never taught me. But then I got married and I was like…huh…how are we going to eat? And fortunately it kind of came naturally.
Piper: You have to eat!
As we move around the kitchen, Cynthia is handing me edibles from the night before and allowing me to sample what we are making as it comes out of the oven. It’s amazing to watch as she uses this work space so completely. And so neatly. It’s difficult to imagine someone able to use less than 3 feet of counter space to make so many wonderful treats.
Cynthia: Add in the room temperature eggs (I just took them out when I got here this morning, so like 30 minutes to an hour).
Piper: So, you are mostly self taught and mom taught?
Cynthia: I wouldn’t even say mom taught, except from maybe learning from watching her. It started a few years back when I decided to do everything with whole foods and cut out everything processed. So I can’t just buy a log of cookie dough – if I’m going to make them, they are going to have to be from scratch.
Piper: It’s much better for you that way.
Cynthia: And as I started baking I realized I was really good at it! I make good brownies, I can make cookies! Look at that.
It sounds as though the quality of the products she was able to create surprises even her. I know I feel the same way about my own cooking. When I make a dish for the first time and it turns out exactly as I hoped, I feel giddy with that product. I hear that same thing in her voice.
Piper: So, what would you say is your favorite thing to cook or bake?
Cynthia: I enjoy making cheesecakes, and anything that I’ve never made before – something new – because I like the challenge. This stuff, it’s fine, but after making them every day I start to get a little bored with it.
Piper: So you experience the phenomenon of having a job doing something you love makes you not so excited about doing that thing anymore?
Cynthia: I’m primarily an artist – I’m a wedding photographer, a writer and I try to focus more on those things. This is primarily AJ’s baby, of which I am one thousand percent excited about and in support of, but…those are my passions.
After leaving the shop, I was able to look through the pictures on her website, and I have to tell you they are beautiful! You can certainly see the passion in those shots. You can see the same passion in her baked goods. There is a side conversation between Cynthia and Ian about photography, but then it is time to get back into the baking…
Cynthia: 3 1/4 cups of King Arthur unbleached flour into your mix with a tablespoon of baking powder and your vanilla beans. You get those by just scraping the gunk out of the bean – the seeds I guess?
Then you can add the rest of the vanilla bean into your vanilla extract bottle. Chop up your walnuts (about 1/4 cup) and add those in too.
It’s difficult to incorporate, so you have to just go with it.
Piper: Why hand mix versus using the Kitchen aid stand mixer?
Cynthia: These I hand mix because it’s easier, such a small batch. The muffins I will also hand mix because they will over mix in the stand mixer. You want the batter to be a little lumpy, so it’s better to do them this way. The chocolate chip cookies, anything with meringue…I can’t imagine how anyone could make that before Kitchenaid made the stand mixer. So, my mix is feeling a little dry to me, so I’ll add in a little more oil.
Piper: Do you always cook in a convection oven?
Cynthia: It’s a convection oven, but I don’t use that option. I use it like a regular oven.
Piper: What would be the difference between the two options?
Cynthia: The convection oven uses a fan to just blow the hot air around. It cooks more evenly but also faster, so you have to adjust your times and change your recipes to either cook at a lower temperature or cook in less time. I don’t want to make those adjustments.
Piper: Sounds like a lot of work.
Cynthia: Yep. Ok, so now, I just kind of pat down my dough and cut it in half. Texture wise, you just need it to stay together. I’m just going to ball it up first then start to work it into the right shape.
Piper: I’m going to wash my hands and get in there.
Cynthia: Please do!
Piper: It feels crumbly, but it isn’t falling apart.
Cynthia: That’s the walnuts that give it that texture. Ok, so what we’ll do is weigh it out and once it’s even, you take that one and we’ll make them into logs. Hold it and just let gravity kind of work it into a big long snake.
Square off the top and bottom so we can use the end pieces too.
Piper: Mine is a little rougher than yours.
Cynthia: That’s ok! Now we just heat the oven to 350 and pop them in until they are brown. Now we wait.
Piper: How long do they take?
Cynthia: Till they are done. I’d say maybe 20-25 minutes for the first rising. Then take them out and slice them. Bake them on one side, flip again and bake on the other side too. I like mine to be a little soft, so I really just determine how long to bake them on how they look.
Piper: They are so good with your coffee.
Cynthia: The chocolate ones are really good in an earl grey tea.
Piper: It’s starting to smell good in here. So, you were saying earlier that you like to bake anything new, but what have you made that you’ve thought…YES…this is it! I’ve done it.
Cynthia: Actually, the amarettis that I make are really good.
That’s these white ones here. These were made yesterday so they are a little more dry. About 5 years ago, I had something like this at the country club where my mom worked. They called them macaroons. I started searching for a recipe, but kept finding the coconut ones or the colored ones. My mom was able to tell me the ingredients, almond paste sugar and egg whites, but no matter what I did, I couldn’t get it right. My first time making them, I used wax paper instead of parchment paper and caught my oven on fire.
Piper: Yeah, that’s not the same thing.
Cynthia: No. So, I follow this twitter user called Grandmother’s Kitchen (@Grammaluvs2cook) and one day she posted a picture and I was like…OH that’s the cookie! I read the ingredients and it was the same three ingredients. Her strategy included whipping up a meringue and folding that in. I had never done that before, so of course the first one I made just flopped out. They turned into goo and I was so bummed. I looked up Amaretti in a Julia Child’s cook book and she had a similar recipe that used different ratios and from that I was able to find my perfect ratio.
Piper: You did. They are so light and gooey fresh out of the oven.
You should be very proud of that journey to get there.
Cynthia: Yeah, especially with ratios I use, that is my recipe.
Piper: You can totally own that. When did you open?
Cynthia: We opened on September 21st, so 2 months?
Piper: Oh, yeah. I was here for your opening day. It was great! There was just so much energy back here. You guys were just flowing.
Cynthia: I don’t remember anything about that day it was a total blur.
Piper: There was such an amazing amount of happy people energy and it seemed to go so smoothly.
Cynthia: Yeah, our employees are so great, they just came right in and did their jobs.
Piper: What was the very first thing you ever cooked?
Cynthia: It must have been chocolate chip cookies.
And that was fun to figure out because I like mine to be gooey. I realized that if you chop up your chocolate that it kind of spreads out and you get more chocolate in every bite. At home, I use three different flours (all purpose, bread flour and pastry flour) because they all have different gluten content and the bread flour especially will make them more gooey. Cake flour gives it the fluff.
Piper: That’s interesting. I’ve always wondered how they get so gooey but when I make them at home, I can’t get that to happen. Now I know. And how do you get them so perfectly flat?
Cynthia: I roll them up into a ball, then I put them back in the fridge to make them cold again. The butter gets cold again so they stay in a ball till the very end then they spread out and get nice and flat.
Piper: Do you bring your butter and eggs to room temp for all your cookies?
Cynthia: The butter I melt in the microwave so I can mix it up nice and smooth.
Piper: I’ve always heard that melting the butter will make the cookies too runny. You don’t have that issue?
Cynthia: That’s why I put them in the fridge after. Cools the butter back down.
Piper: Ah, that makes sense. And I bet it’s so much easier to incorporate the butter and sugar when it’s melted. Smart. So, how many batches of cookies do you make for one day?
Cynthia: We go through about 20-30 cookies in a day, plus 20-25 muffins…10-15 biscotti…10-15 amarettis…who knows how many bowls of granola…
Piper: If you run out, are you just done with that item for the day?
Cynthia: Yeah, cause I have to be done at 11 using the oven. And I don’t like things to sit overnight, I want them to be fresh each day. They taste fine, but I prefer them fresh. I make small batches. Sometimes we may run out of muffins, but otherwise we usually don’t. The biscotti, chocolate chip cookies and granola I could make in a larger batch if I wanted.
Piper: How do you make your granola?
Cynthia: It’s rolled oats, flax seed, wheat bran, cashews, walnuts, brown sugar, molasses and honey…just mix it up and bake it in the oven. Stir it, bake it, stir it…bake it…
Piper: Sounds so simple.
Cynthia: Ok, so the biscotti are coming out of the oven. We are going to give them a bit to cool off before cutting. You CAN cut them right away but it’s easier if you give it a little time. These are ready! You can feel how bouncy they are.
Let’s start cutting. The end pieces I usually make a little wider, just because they are end pieces. I use a pizza slicer, it’s not really doable without it.
Piper: I love how your biscotti have a crust on the outside but the insides are so nice and soft.
AJ: I have a baking question…
Cynthia: I have a…baking…answer?
AJ: Why use a pizza cutter?
Cynthia: Cause it’s…easier…?
AJ: So there’s no like…well, the angle of the blade…
Cynthia: No, it’s just easier. They don’t have to be perfect, just roughly the same size.
Cynthia: Yeah. They are still doughy, so we will just put them back in the oven.
I don’t double bake the ends, because usually they are already plenty done.
AJ: (sings) My favorite part!!!
They share a sweet look and a laugh – and I must agree, that doughy end piece is really delicious.
Cynthia: Then you just bake them till they are done. Not too precise, you just have to watch and that’s the biscotti!!
Piper: I don’t understand how the two of you aren’t 300 lbs each. Is it hard to be around all this amazing food and not just gorge on it?
AJ: You know, it was at first when she was just making them at home. It was like…Oh, I made another batch of cookies…but now that she makes it here, we don’t eat it as much.
Cynthia: It was funny because I’d always just take my extras over to people’s houses and then when we started getting ready to open.
AJ: People were like…aw, I have to pay for it now?
Piper: Was that difficult, that transition? Did you have a lot of people that thought they’d just be able to come in and eat your stuff for free here?
Cynthia: No, not at all! The opposite really. We would feel bad for charging them.
AJ: There was a little of that, and you know we wanted to give it away. It really was a community effort to open this place and so we wanted to buy their coffee, you know first round on us and they insisted on paying. They were like…nope not happening.
Cynthia: Yeah, it was nice to see that people really supported us.
Piper: How long did the planning process take for opening Brew?
Cynthia: Well, we were working at a church and began transitioning out of that. We were going through a “what’s next?” transitional phase, trying to decide if we wanted to still do church related things, just go the art route – we had both been doing wedding photography – and then AJ, Mike and I started talking about what we liked about all of it and decided we really like talking to people, we really like the community feel, how do we incorporate those things and do something good. Then this space became available and people were taking about how Seaboard Station needed a coffee shop so the idea was born out of that. So, it was a combination of seeing the need in the community, the love for coffee and beer, and wanting have a space that was community driven. That’s something we are both really passionate about. We have a group called Beer and a Bible that’s been meeting for a few years. We love how beer and coffee can drive conversation and help you get to know people. So this became a space for all of those things.
Piper: What was your job at the church?
Cynthia: Well, we worked with students, mostly tutoring and went to Seminary for that. But once we were in graduate school, one of our professors told us about church planting. I liked the idea of that, because it wasn’t just working at a church that sat empty all week, waiting for Sunday. It was a space that was used by the community. So, we started working towards that. After we opened the first church, we realized it wasn’t exactly what we had in mind. We wanted to do something more community driven and that’s what we’ve done.
Piper: I’m glad that you took it this direction, because your baking stuff is delicious. And the feel here is very warm. I had said that in my first post I wrote about Brew – it felt like you all knew each other, like we were walking into a place where everyone was comfortable and we were the only people that didn’t know you. We walked in to this extremely energetic environment, it felt like a community.
AJ: We are really excited about that.
Cynthia: That was the goal and I’m so glad you felt that coming in. We work hard for that.
And it shows! These two people are level headed and make you feel welcome as you walk in the door. What an incredible experience, learning how to make the delicious bakery items with Cynthia. There is a lot of love in that shop, and I’m so excited to have Brew as a part of this community.
Please come back to read the rest in Brew Part 2 – the Coffee. And make sure to check them out at 111 Seaboard Ave, Raleigh NC 27604!
Photographs by Ian Wilson