In May, stuck-at-home-office-workers hoarded flour and yeast as they turned to baking as stress relief. Seattle home baker Hana Yohannes took it one step further. She started dreaming: What if she could open her own pastry shop? “I started business planning, even though I didn't really have a real concrete idea or the means to open a business,” she says. “I started to plan ... as a way of coping. Trying to remind myself: ‘There will be life after this.’ ”
While many amateur baking aspirations burned out over the past year, Yohannes’ dream is coming true. She’s opening a new pastry shop in the Central District this month (see Shikorina Pastries, below), one of a slew of new bakeries that have arisen in Seattle since the pandemic began. Some of these are coronavirus pivots, others long-term projects that happened to materialize in 2020. Some sell the tiniest of pastries — delicate macarons and silvanas — others opt for sumptuous peach cobblers or hand-sized cinnamon rolls. But all these bakers have one thing in common: People can’t seem to get enough of what they’re selling — sweet relief.
Sharing the love of ancestors
In the early days of the pandemic, Veronica Very found comfort where many others did, too: the kitchen. “I found myself wanting to do something, to make a difference, to support my friends who were on the front line,” she says. “I found myself wanting to help people remember their ancestors, the love they experienced in the kitchen.”
So she did what she knew how to do well: bake oozy, thick-crusted peach cobblers and buttery, moist pound cakes, which she handed out to friends working in health care. Her Instagram followers took note. Could they purchase one of these?
“I didn't even know what the ingredients were costing me,” Very says, laughing. But after requests kept pouring in, her pandemic baking project (run from her Pioneer Square home kitchen) became a bakery business, Black’Butta Co., named after her love for buttery cake and “the ancestors who helped to nurture and shaped me: my mother and my great-grandmother.”
To Very, sharing her baking is a way to pass on the love and comfort she found with them in the kitchen as life felt uncertain. As a baker, she takes after her mother, who didn’t like to measure things but rather “feel it,” as Very puts it. “My mother [taught] me to not to be tied to a script or to a recipe but to actually tap in to our senses.” This spring, Very (also the executive director of local nonprofit Wonder of Women International) is selling her cakes and cobblers at various pop-ups, including for Easter and, fittingly, Mother’s Day.
Hottest ticket in town
I’ve yet to succeed preordering doughnuts from the hottest new bakery in town, The Flour Box — and not for lack of trying. On five consecutive occasions I sat poised at my laptop, waiting for the clock to turn 10 a.m., when online ordering opened, but somehow it always sold out in seconds. These handmade, filled-to-the-brim brioche donuts (and generously iced cinnamon rolls) fly out the door every morning.
Started by self-taught baker Pamela Vuong as a pop-up and operating out of Hillman City digs since September, the bakery’s been a smash hit during the pandemic. Vuong is so consistently sold out that she has put a hard deadline on preorder pickups: no later than 2 p.m. Less-lucky customers wait for leftovers (announced on Instagram) like sharks smelling blood. (Somewhat surprisingly, a black market for the doughnuts hasn’t emerged yet.) A colleague told me it took her three weeks of trying to get the pastries, but that it was well worth the wait: “I feel like everyone should taste a Flour Box doughnut. I have never had a doughnut so delicious.”
Bakery with a side of Mount Rainier
Beacon Hill bakery The Flora Bakehouse opened on a cold morning during the first month of 2021. At 7 a.m., when it was still dark, a customer stood outside waiting to be the very first to get their hands on a vegan cinnamon roll. A steady stream of pastry-hungry souls soon followed. About 10:30 a.m., owner Nat Stratton-Clarke left the marble counter inside to poke his head out the door. A few dozen people had formed a line snaking around the blue facade of the two-story bakehouse. Two hours later, the line had grown to a hundred people. “It was incredible,” Stratton-Clarke says. “I kept tearing up over and over again.”
Stratton-Clarke knows a thing or two about culinary success. Since 2008, he has been the manager-owner of Café Flora, a beloved vegetarian restaurant in Seattle’s Madison Valley. Though Café Flora has served housemade cinnamon rolls and coconut cake for years, it wasn’t until the demand for pastries went through the roof at Flora-offshoot Florette at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport that the idea for a full-fledged bakery emerged. The Flora Bakehouse — where you can also get cookies, croissants, kouign-amanns and savory treats — will open for indoor seating later this year, if rules allow. (Also in the post-pandemic plans: opening the rooftop for pizza in the evenings, with a side of Mount Rainier view.)
Stratton-Clarke’s explanation for the pastry boom? “We can all use a little bit of joy right now,” he says. “So many things we aren’t able to do anymore because of the pandemic. Coming to the bakery, getting a special treat — it’s those moments that we all really need right now to get us through.”
Inclusive incubator for aspiring bakers
Behind a pair of tall glass-paneled doors in Pioneer Square awaits a baker’s paradise. To the left, you’ll find a library full of pastry cookbooks, cake turners, peach, colorful KitchenAid mixers and an ice cream maker — all free to borrow. Past the window-abutting wooden counters is a stylish and fully equipped professional kitchen, complete with Instagram-ready marble countertops.
At The Pastry Project, founded by Molly Moon Ice Cream alums Emily Kim and Heather Hodge, everything is set up to ensure baking is accessible to anyone for whom an expensive and full-time pastry education is out of reach. Here, in this recently renovated and newly opened space, Hodge teaches the project’s twice-yearly student cohort the ins-and-outs of baking — from the creaming method to quick breads and the more difficult pâte à choux — during a 14-week program.
“We built the pastry project with the mission of providing free baking and pastry training to folks with barriers to opportunity, including education and employment,” Hodge explains, flanked by Kim (both masked) during a recent Zoom call. Behind them, a baker walks toward the fridges with ready-to-cool cakes.
They can offer these classes free of charge, Kim explains, thanks to a few grants, revenue from a monthly subscription-based goodie box (baked by Hodge, Kim and students), as well as monthly “Bun Bun” pop-ups featuring cinnamon rolls with a twist, like pimento cheese and lemon curd. This year, they’re also ramping up corporate classes. (Right before our Zoom call, Hodge had been teaching Nike employees in a livestream event on the art of sweet pretzels; the results still sat on the marble counter.)
The duo is also offering the space to the many pop-up bakeries in town, which can use it as a commercial kitchen and sell from The Pastry Project’s front doors. “It'll be interesting when COVID is no more and we can actually host people here,” Kim says. “This year is honestly going to be so crazy. We want to have fun. We want to try everything and see what works and doesn't work.”
Stanford student turned baker
Hana Yohannes always loved baking. But making it her full-time job didn’t seem like a viable career path. “My parents had always pushed becoming a doctor or engineer because it wasn't really an opportunity they ever had being immigrants,” she says. “I always felt that pressure to pursue something in STEM.”
Now, at 23, she’s doing both. She’s getting her bachelor’s degree at Stanford — an interdisciplinary major combining computer science with psychology, philosophy and linguistics — and opening a pastry shop and café in the Central District, Shikorina Pastries. (In Tigrinya, her family’s native language, it means “sweetheart” or “sweetness,” a term of endearment for a girl.)
In late 2019, Yohannes enrolled as one of the first students of The Pastry Project, learning the ins and outs of baking on the weekends while working full-time in health care administration. As the spread of the coronavirus trapped her at home, Yohannes experimented with the recipes she had learned at The Pastry Project: a dash of tequila in the frosting of a buttermilk cookie, a curd from strawberry lemon instead of blood orange. Her friends went wild, and suddenly her pastry dream seemed less and less out of reach. Yohannes worked three jobs to move into a ground floor space in the Central District, which, when the pandemic subsides, will also be a café with seating and a fireplace for customers and community groups.
On a recent day, as I picked up some perfectly soft and salty chocolate chip cookies from the still-in-progress café, Yohannes’ father was hammering away at a new walk-up counter in the front of the space. “He's been such a rock for me and has been so incredibly helpful, and my mom really has as well,” Yohannes says. “They are among my number one supporters.”
Breakout bakery La Dulce started like many other pop-up bakeries these days: on Instagram. Founders Mauee Garcia, her husband, Brian Garcia, and friend Megan Razon loved to make each other food. After a glass of wine or two, they would invariably decide they should totally open a restaurant together.
Brian — who works in finance, but loves to make the Filipino cuisine he grew up eating — started looking into the idea of a café more seriously in 2019. In February, he flew to the Philippines for a wedding. There, at a small bakery, “I tried this silvana,” he says, “a frozen cookie with buttercream inside,” which brought back childhood memories. “I fell in love with it.”
He brought some cookies home to Mauee, who immediately set out to make them herself. After multiple tries and tweaks, she re-created the perfect silvana: small and round (macaron-sized), cold and creamy, yet crunchy on the first bite thanks to a ground-cashew coating. The Garcias posted it to Instagram and watched the requests from friends and acquaintances pour in.
“The pop-up shops all throughout the country started on Instagram,” Brian says. “It's a race between who would last and who would succeed, if it's your passion or if it's just a hobby or it's just because you're bored, stuck at home.”
La Dulce’s venture soon turned out to be way more than a hobby. They are now regularly selling out of purple-hued ube and other silvana flavors, like coffee and matcha — as well as burnt Basque cheesecakes — at local pop-ups. “The hype is really crazy,” Brian says. “We started our first pop-up in October and it spread like a fire that we cannot contain.”
Uplifting egg whites
Making macarons is a delicate affair. If you don’t beat the egg whites to exactly the right consistency, the meringue will break down. Not careful enough folding in the sugar and almond flour or piping? You’ll get cracking tops and shoddy sizes. “I've always found comfort in the complexity of macarons,” says Alexandra Greenwald, chef-owner of Alexandras. “It's like anything that you truly love to make. If you're having a bad day, that thing won't really turn out either. So you gotta uplift yourself. When I’m making macarons, I’m like: ‘Hey, this is something I really enjoy. Let's turn this day around and have a good day together.' ”
Greenwald has been making macarons since she was 12. Later, the French treats became a staple she brought to the restaurants and catering companies she worked for, “almost like my little partner throughout my career.” Eight years ago, she started selling them out of a hot-pink Volkswagen van (named “Gertrude”) parked at local farmers’ markets and events.
The pandemic brought much of that to a halt. But finding the perfect bakery location (at 18th and Union Street) after years of searching felt like a sign. So last fall Greenwald took the long-dreamt-of leap of opening her own pastry shop and cafe (where she also sells a trove of other pastries, naturally leavened bread and pizzas, all made in house). “It was so challenging and hard, but I feel really lucky that I was able to … create something that I've been working towards for so long — despite the pandemic.”