Table Talk: Sweet Dreams
Confections from the little guy
JEFFERY JOHNSTON PHOTOGRAPHS
With King Cake season peaking and Valentine’s Day fast approaching, bakers and pastry chefs around the city are working even longer hours to prepare the seasonal sweets locals demand. Engaged in production alongside the players in this league are an assortment of startups, small shops and novel extensions of local establishments. Here is a look at a few of them.
Nathan Winner, aka NOLA Pie Guy, owns and operates a pie stand on Freret Street. “I’ve always loved sweets and desserts were always my favorite course of the meal,” Winner says. A native of Shreveport, he entertained the idea of making pastries for a living as far back as high school but took a practical approach. He studied business in college and went on to get a degree from the French Pastry School in Chicago, one of the nation’s premier pastry programs.
The pop-up pie stand came out of a conversation with Constantine Georges, an owner of Dat Dogs and promoter of local talent. “Constantine, Skip Murray (the other owner of Dat Dogs) and I had a meeting. They were going to expand on Freret and wanted to try some different things. I put together a little business plan for them – basically a specialty shop that focused on pies.” From this meeting came the NOLA Pie Guy, a pop-up pie stand that operates once a week and offers an assortment of miniature pies (full-size versions can be ordered ahead of time) whose flavors are driven by both social media and Winner’s expertise.
Winner offers four types of pie at any one time. Choices always include one variation on a chocolate version. “I try to give people a lot of variety on the classic versions, and then let them vote online for the fourth one,” Winner says. Recent selections have included peanut butter, spiced apple and strawberry cream pies.
Winner envisions his stand as a starting point. “I’m trying to grow the business one step at a time, until I can make the jump to being the pie guy full time.” Opportunities he sees include sourcing his pies to the proliferation of food trucks around town. “I love that kind of community here in New Orleans, and I think we’re finally starting to build a strong one. I know a lot of the trucks don’t have the ability to do desserts in addition to a full line of savory stuff. I think it could be beneficial, that we could support one another.”
NOLA Pie Guy can be found on Freret Street across from Dat Dog on Saturday afternoons from noon to 6 p.m. Check in on Facebook for his offerings (and also to vote on which pie to do), which change weekly, and follow his schedule on Twitter.
Complementing the indie-pies offerings are cupcakes offered by Steve Veech of Bee Sweet Cupcakes on Magazine Street. Veech bought the shop from its original owner in August of 2010. It represented an abrupt career change. Prior to Bee Sweet, Veech worked in the oil and gas industry as an analyst and, after the hurricane, switched over to the environmental side, coordinating hazardous waste cleanup.
“We live in the neighborhood and the opportunity came to buy it. My wife and I thought it would be fun for us and our kids,” Veech says. It also provided a platform for his pre-existing line of New Orleans Rum Cakes, which he sold online.
After he took over, Veech retooled the cupcake offerings to include more “adult” versions. Alongside innocent favorites like the Red Velvet Cupcake (“our biggest seller”) is a Bananas Foster Cupcake made with Old New Orleans Rum™. For Christmas they did a Drunken Santa cupcake made with Evan Williams Egg Nog, and New Year’s saw a champagne cake. “Every month we throw in an adult-themed item,” Veech says.
In February, look for the Loverboy to make an appearance – a chocolate cupcake filled with a cherry-liquor-spiked chocolate ganache, then topped with a chocolate-covered cherry. “For Mardi Gras we do a King Cake in a cup called the Endemy-yum. It is basically a cinnamon-roll-based cupcake jazzed up with a Cointreau glaze,” he says.
The postage-stamp size shop (“400 square feet – I swear I thought there was more when I bought it,” Veech jokes) produces, at any one time, an array of 12 to 14 different cupcakes. “We’ve upgraded the ingredients in terms of quality from before,” Veech says. “We went darker on the cocoa and use more heavy cream as well a local ingredients like blueberries for our Blueberry Mojito Cupcake in March.”
Finally, at Butcher, pastry chef Rhonda Ruckman’s production of individual-sized King Cakes is in high gear. “They are made with brioche dough – nice and rich and buttery,” Ruckman says. She features four flavors: Cinnamon, Valrhona Chocolate, Caramel Pecan and Ponchatoula Strawberries and Cream. “A detail that really sets us apart is our tiny little pig, in lieu of a baby.”
Along with the King Cakes, Ruckman produces an array of unique sweets that reflect the porcine emphasis of the Link Restaurant Group. “In Butcher we sell chocolate-bacon-covered almonds. We sell our bacon pralines, too.” People pick those up as gifts, she says, and they’re boxed accordingly. Ladies, why not pick one up for the guy in your life?
For Valentine’s Day, look for Cochon’s dessert menu to feature some decadent chocolate choices that fit the Southern comfort profile of the menu. “I do a rich chocolate cake filled and frosted with a Valrhona chocolate ganache,” says Ruckman. ”It sounds simplistic but it is an unbelievably good chocolate cake. I think it is a great way to end a meal at Cochon.”
The Sweet Hereafter
The cakes at O’Delice on Magazine Street feature real buttercream and come in a wide variety of choices. Blue Dot Donuts in Mid-City will win you over with specialties like peanut butter and jelly, along with a bacon-and-maple-glazed version, below. If you’re looking for chocolates, Bittersweet Confections recently relocated to the Warehouse District and offers some wonderful hand-rolled truffles, perfect for Valentines Day.
NOLA Pie Guy
Bee Sweet Cupcakes
5706 Magazine St.
725 Magazine St.
Blue Dot Donuts
4301 Canal St.
930 Tchoupitoulas St.
6033 Magazine St.