Upper crust: At-home artisan bakers prove how sweet it is to follow your passion
There’s a sweet undercurrent streaming through Baton Rouge, and it isn’t just coming from the sugarcane fields. A fresh batch of home bakers, each with a signature niche, has turned home kitchens into small-scale artisan bakeries. On the next several pages, follow along on this behind-the-scenes bakery tour where butter, flour and sugar dance with the local bounty and then become next-level edible art at the hands of these creative home chefs.
You’ll discover rustic country bread and signature sourdough, custom cakes and pastries with the flavor of Louisiana, and the personalities who craft these hidden treasures. It’s a tasting
tour in a great city where each bite could be declared the best thing ever.
According to Christina Balzebre, owner of the popular Levee Baking Company in New Orleans, there’s a big community of cottage bakers stretching from New Orleans to Lafayette. A veteran of cottage baking, she sheds some light on the culture of the small home-baking business. With a demanding full-time job, “I needed a creative outlet outside of work,” she says, having started baking from her home in 2014. The experience led her from there to a shared kitchen and eventually to the “terrifying” and gratifying move to her own bakery. “It’s taking a huge leap and trusting that the people will support you.”
Read on to see how the culinary talents behind five local cottage bakeries have turned simple combinations of ingredients into a recipe for success.
Moeko Glynn of Maru Bread Company used to go to City Park every day with her kids and bring things she baked to share with friends there. “It was like having a pretend bakery,” she recalls.
Her friends reacted by encouraging her to sell her breads and pastries. “The first time I sold my bread was at a neighborhood garage sale. I made bagels. I made a display with 20 bagels, a couple of sourdough breads and focaccia, and it all sold quickly.”
Word got out, and customers now know how to reserve and pick up their orders at Glynn’s home in Capital Heights, or they find her at the Mid City Makers Market.
Glynn’s circuitous route from her native Japan to south Louisiana began when she moved to San Diego for a six-month English immersion program in 2007. As an American music enthusiast, she visited New Orleans for the Voodoo Music Festival to see some of her favorite bands: Wilco, Rage Against the Machine and Smashing Pumpkins. She fell in love with more than the music. “I met him at the trolley stop,” she says of the man who is now her husband. “When we got married and I moved to Baton Rouge, I didn’t think I was going to be baking bread. It’s kind of funny, I got inspired to do it,” she said.
In her kitchen, this “accidental baker” plays with handmade doughs and fillings. She converts local citrus into marmalade that tastes like it came from a copper jam pot in France. She laminates so much yeast dough into croissants and filled pastries. She makes about 10 loaves of country bread and 40 to 50 pastries to sell most weeks. The delicacies that in pre-COVID times drew long lines of devotees in her front yard are now sold via an Instagram reservation system. “Since the start of the pandemic, I switched over to pre-order so people won’t all crowd around at once,” she says.
Though Glynn’s goodies look like they might have come from a French patisserie, you’ll find no Cordon Bleu diploma here—this baker is entirely self-taught. “I’ve learned everything from the internet and books,” she says. “It’s crazy how much I’ve learned! I went to San Francisco just to visit the Tartine Bakery. I really liked the feeling of being in their small cozy bakery. Visiting there was really a bucket list trip. My main purpose for going was to try their country loaf. Now that I’ve started selling more pastries, I wish I had sampled more of their pastries while I was there.”
When it came time to name her little bakery, Glynn’s husband chose a Japanese word. “Maru means a circle. I like the meaning, you know, like a circle of people. I feel so thankful for the following I have.”
Find the menu and ordering information on Instagram @marubreadco.
Bakers are committed to unconventional work schedules, and Sarah Gardner of Batch Baking Company is a living testament. She balances the day job that she loves, working as a project manager for Baton Rouge Area Foundation, with her after-hours baking business. Depending on the season, Sarah might not untie her apron until close to midnight. One bite of her not-too-sweet praline scone or her “as good as the real thing” gluten-free chocolate chip cookie is proof that she picked the right side gig.
Though baking cookies with Grandma wasn’t part of her upbringing, Gardner was introduced to “break and bake” cookie dough by her sister and got curious about making things from scratch. She always dreamed of opening a bakery, and as a student in the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s entrepreneurship program, her final project was a specialty bakery business plan. After working in risk assessment for an insurance company for two years, she confessed, “I felt the fluorescent light sucking a little bit of the life out of my soul.”
She came to LSU to get her MBA in 2015. “My stress coping mechanism is baking,” she says. “It’s a wonder I passed due to how much baking I did. It’s complete sheer dumb luck.”
She baked for friends and classmates who eagerly awaited her arrival with her “snackwagon” in tow. “I keep that wagon folded up in the back of my car. People can see me coming.”
Gardner is quick to applaud the community of cottage bakers in Baton Rouge. “The baking network here is tight!” she attests. “I think it’s amazing that there’s an interwoven network of home bakers. We all support and encourage each other. We should be in opposition, but we can actually collaborate.”
She keeps her South Baton Rouge kitchen stocked with a core list of ingredients, including sweet Tahitian vanilla beans, so she can bake any time the mood strikes, ready for the online orders to stream in. “I have nothing but the utmost respect for the businesses that have come up with creative solutions during COVID. I’m one person doing this in my spare time. I’m learning to stay flexible.”
It’s possible that everyone has a pandemic pivot to share. Hugo and Cat Théfenne’s hunger for homemade bread led them down an unpredictable path. “We started baking our way through Alchemy Bread: Bread Baking for Beginners for fun,” Hugo says. “I love bread!”
“When COVID happened and we were all sent home in March, we had more time to play around,” adds Cat. “Then we couldn’t find commercial yeast, so we had to make our own.” After creating a sourdough starter that could leaven their loaves without traditional yeast, the two began honing their skills. They made “tons” of bread and had so much excess they started sharing with friends and neighbors. These bread recipients were hungry for more and offered to buy it. In April 2020, Tout Va Bien Boulangerie was born. “It’s all good!” That’s the literal translation from French.
Hugo and Cat met in Hugo’s home country of France when Cat was teaching English there. “We met at a bar,” they say in unison, with Hugo adding with a twinkle in his eye, “I went back every weekend after meeting Cat.”
Now they are married and living in the Garden District. Hugo is baking and building the business from home with Cat joining the fun after her day job as a French teacher at U-High. “We just started learning hands-on,” Cat says. “It’s so much fun and we really got into it. It’s so great to see it at every stage.”
The baking team credits social media for helping them learn from other bakers. “There’s a lot of resources out there!” says Cat. “We’ve relied a lot on other bakers. We really love Sourdough Sophia from London and Proof Bread in Arizona. We follow some of their processes. Sourdough is so versatile.”
With 50-pound bags of King Arthur flour, some simple equipment and this new skill, it seems like something they were born to do. “We’re building our customer base,” Hugo says. “We bake Tuesday through Saturday. Our home oven has been a workhorse. We can only bake two loaves a batch. We’re buying a bread oven to increase production and bake 12 loaves at once.”
As the word gets out, higher yield will be a good thing. “We had the best time at the Mid City Makers Market at White Light Night,” Cat says. “We made 70 loaves for the event and sold out in like an hour. We’re surprised there isn’t a storefront that specializes in fresh bread. Having a little storefront bakery would be a dream.”
The dynamic duo that is Two Plaid Aprons launched a YouTube channel when the pandemic forced them to shift gears. Their original plans to take their well-honed cooking skills to Texas and work in a restaurant fell through, so they started making magic right here near Baton Rouge. Meifung Liu of Mei’s Bakery and her partner Chef Kyong Han took over Han’s family’s kitchen to create polished cooking videos that will make even the kitchen-averse want to jump in.
After five years of trial and error, Liu has mastered the art and science of the macaron, and she jazzes up the delicate cookies with whimsical themes and edible gold. With baking experience gained at Alexander’s and Ambrosia Bakery, she is now going the cottage baker route.
Growing up working in her parents’ Chinese restaurants, Liu never gave a cooking career a thought. “I rebelled against it,” she says. “My parents really opposed me going into food, too. They know how hard it is.”
Then she enrolled in the culinary program at Fontainebleau High School in Mandeville. “Pro Start changed my life!” she says. “I still had doubts about pursuing culinary. I’m good at math and science, so I considered accounting. Then I asked myself: Do I really want to sit at a computer all day?”
Han planned to be an architect all through high school. But when he participated in the Pro Start program at Dutchtown High School in Prairieville, he dropped everything architecture and immersed himself in all things food. The pair met at Nicholls State University in the culinary program. When they graduated, Han’s cousins gave the couple matching plaid aprons, now their symbol of success. In culinary school, they were chosen to go to the Institut Paul Bocuse in Lyon, France, for a work-study dream trip, and they also got another once-in-a-lifetime experience, cheffing at The Masters golf tournament in Augusta, Georgia. “It was definitely an honor to work at The Masters,” Mei says. “It’s high-production, high-speed 80-hour work weeks.”
Han’s path took him to a country club kitchen in Tulsa and then to the ultimate dream of a Michelin-starred restaurant in New York City, Café Boulud. He came back home to Louisiana and worked as a butcher at a smokehouse for Rouses Market, moved on to the upscale Cinclare in Thibodaux, then back to Baton Rouge as a sous chef at Kalurah Street Grill. “When COVID hit, all but the head chef got let go,” he says.
Forced to change gears, they now showcase Liu’s baking and Han’s native Korean cuisine on YouTube. Their traditional sweet potato noodle dish japchae was featured on Buzzfeed, which helped them grow their following. Their rotation of unique baked offerings is complemented by their blog, where the culinarily curious can find recipes for everything from chewy-crisp Korean mochi bread to Chinese mooncakes.
Rösch Bakehaus began cultivating a following in 2015 when co-founder Jim Osborne was on a quest to create the perfect pretzel following a trip to Germany. After achieving his goal, and many pop-up appearances later, he thought about stopping. “I said no! Let’s keep this going,” his partner Melodie Reay recalls.
During COVID, there’s a well-worn path where customers cruise in to pick up their pre-ordered pastries at their Garden District home. “I don’t publish the address since it’s our home,” Reay says. “People would be driving past all the time looking for a bakery.”
The offerings change with the seasons and the whim of the baking duo, though Jim is more hands-off these days. “It’s pretty insane during king cake season,” Reay says. “Sometimes I add extra bake days so I don’t frustrate anyone who wants one. I feel like this year it’s even more important, because what else is there?”
After placing the last Camellia red bean on her final king cake order, the occasions will guide the menu. “I’m looking forward to babka and hot cross buns, and when the produce starts coming in, I go into pies.” Reay’s eyes twinkle with the mention of Louisiana strawberries, peaches and citrus. She preserves what she can, featuring home-candied lemon slices on some of her pastries.
Reay is a self-taught baker with a rotating
collection of aprons. Influenced by her grandmother, who instilled a series of comfort food traditions, she brought her cooking skills with her when she came to Baton Rouge from Canada in 2013 to get her Master of Fine Arts degree from LSU. She puts her art degree to work at the LSU School of Art’s Glassell Gallery in the Shaw Building. “I was working there a lot, but during the pandemic I got furloughed, so I started spending more time baking.”
While Reay’s breads and pastries have the signature of a talented artist, her other love is ceramics, and she sells her pieces at the Glassell Gallery as well as at the Mid City Makers Market. “There’s a hole here to be filled,” she says. “There’s a baker I follow in New Orleans, she’s a gem—Christina from Levee Bakery. She’s grown a community around her. I think about that next step sometimes; it is there in the back of my mind. I dream about how much more efficient it would be to have a commercial kitchen. That would be a whole different ball game.”