Matt Lewis, co-founder of the cult-following-worthy Baked NYC bakeries, dropped by our headquarters recently to chat about the history of American baked goods, what it’s like to bake 10,000 brownies a week by hand (!) and why he just won’t eat that rice pudding you’re offering him, no matter how tasty you might think it is.
Hi, Matt! So how did Baked NYC come to be?
Number one, I love baking. Years ago, I used to work at an ad agency and I wasn’t really entirely happy there. Baking is much more of a passion; it’s something I realized enjoyed doing with my grandmother and with my mom. Over time, I decided I just really needed to get out of the ad world and into the baking world. So I just left completely and started taking classes at Peter Kump, which is now ICE. Slowly but surely, I opened a little restaurant called Baked with a co-owner, Renato Poliafito, and the rest is history.
Our original store is based in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and when we first opened, there were four of us — myself, my co-owner, a baker and a decorator. We did everything! We served the coffee, we cut the cake, we decorated it. We’d come in at 2:00 am to make the scones and stay until 10:00 pm to finish the orders. Over time, we got some notoriety. We were lucky enough to have Oprah mention us as one of her Favorite Things, and then people just descended upon us.
What prompted such a dramatic career switch — going from the ad world to the baking one?
Both my business partner and I met at the ad agency. We just got really sick of sitting in cubicles all day. We both liked working in the ad world to some degree, but we didn’t like where this would go in ten years. We were both asking ourselves, what can we do with our lives? What’s our passion and how can we make it work from a business point of view. So we decided to open up a bakery — we came up with that idea while we were sitting in our cubicles. Once we had the idea, we moved pretty quickly.
It’s hard to imagine now that I could do that. Then, I was much younger. It was almost 13 years ago! It was much easier then to make a big decision and to make a big life change. It surprised our entire families and our friends. A lot of people told us not to do it. But it just seemed essential.
Also, New York at the time didn’t really have American bakeries. We had a lot of cupcake places, which we thought was just a real shame. The idea of American baked goods is so much larger than the cupcake. Cookies and brownies and three-layer cakes — those should be celebrated just as much, we thought, as the cupcake was. So we were kind of the first new American bakery to celebrate the wide spectrum of American baked goods.
New York is amazing because there are a lot of bakeries to choose from; you’re not just subjected to one type. There are a ton of Italian bakeries and they’re all pretty good, especially if you’re looking for those Italian tea cookies. There are a lot of Jewish bakeries, and you can even find Indian bakeries in New York. But there were not a lot of bakeries that focused on American baked goods. There wasn’t anything that celebrated the chocolate chip cookie in a way that a French bakery might celebrate the croissant. So we wanted to bring that back to New York, the idea that “hey, you can come get a brownie from us and it’s going to be the best brownie in the world.”
What do you find interesting about classic American desserts?
The history of American baking is much more varied than I think we give ourselves credit for. Everyone I talk to who knows anything about baking knows about the French. And the French bakeries are fantastic, and Italian bakeries are fantastic. But American baked goods also have a really great history. I mean, the chocolate chip cookie was invented in 1928, I believe, and the brownie, right around the same time. And cakes! The way we know cake today in America was really developed here. And I felt like those items really get short shrift. So we tried to make them with the idea that “Hey, this is an American cake, and it’s really unique. And it’s one of the best that you’ll have.”
How does traditional American baking change from one region to another?
American baking is not as homogenized as we think. There are different regions that do different specialties, like New York and its black-and-white cookie. One of the interesting things that we found as we dug deeper into these specialties is that the West Coast, especially Los Angeles and Orange County, they love the banana cream pie like no other state or region that we’ve ever been to!
And then the South does have this thing going on where everything’s a little super-sweet. They use a lot of pecans and a lot of different nuts and a lot more sugar than we’re probably used to, but there are really unique desserts down there, and they take a lot of pride in their baked goods down in the South.
The Midwest has some really interesting things going on — a lot of bars, a lot of two-layer cakes that have been passed down from generation to generation. And every region is informed by where the original settlers came from, so you get a lot of great German influences in your baking in the Midwest. In the South you have a lot of things that who we think of as a Norman Rockwell grandmother would love: the big, fancy coconut cakes or the red velvet cakes. There are differences region to region, and I think we don’t give ourselves enough credit for that.
I was here in Seattle years ago and somebody told me about pink cookies. It’s like a black and white cookie, but with pink frosting. And I had no idea that this was a phenomenon. It’s really, truly only here in Seattle. [Ed. note: And maybe in Spokane, too?] Nobody in New York knew about it, nobody in California really knew about it, but everybody here sort of knew about it and could tell us where their favorite one was.
So what trends do you see next on the baking horizon?
Ever since we’ve become a popular bakery, a lot of people have asked us this. Some of the things we’re seeing are not really one particular product, but more like a flavor profile. So, salted caramel is everywhere now and it’s never going to go away. It’s in every type of dessert and it’s even in savory items at this point. It’s something that we saw a little bit of when we opened, but now if we don’t have it in at least three or four products, people get upset. So it’s here to stay. Since we’ve opened, we’ve seen people try to do macaron shops. These are beautiful cookies, but they take time and a lot of effort to produce.
We’re also seeing a lot of monstrous mashup-type goods, ever since the Cronut came out. We did one right around the same time as the Cronut called the Brookster, which is a chocolate chip cookie inside a brownie, and I love it. Don’t get me wrong — it’s one of my favorite things at the bakery. But people go crazy for it! People are looking for something unique and something fun, but also something really decorative. We’re seeing a lot of sprinkles again which, when we first opened up was not trendy at all and now is pretty trendy.
In your cookbooks, you guys advocate hand-folding and hand-stirring over using electric mixers. Why is that?
I would say that about 50% of the things we make at the bakery are still done by hand only because they can’t be improved upon by machine, or if you put them on a machine, they will not turn out as nice. For instance, brownies. We make tons and tons of brownies, upwards of five to ten thousand brownies a week. And they’re all still made by hand because if you actually mix brownie mix on a mixer, it will incorporate too much air and you’ll get a really cakey, kind of gross brownie that you might find at an airport stand. Something pretty terrible. So there are still those products that require the actual love of you doing something by yourself, by hand — made by one person at a time. It’s not ideal from a financial standpoint for a bakery, but it’s ideal and essential if you want to make a product that just tastes amazing.
You’ve culled the archives of Americana for recipes for your bakery, but are any of them more personal?
My mom was not a great baker but her mom was. My grandmother was very Italian (she’s no longer with us) and she taught me how to bake from day one. Every day I was with her, that’s all we would do: cook and bake, cook and bake. We used to make this cheesecake, and it’s actually in one of our books, that uses forty ounces of cream cheese in one cheesecake. I have this great photo of her making it, and in the photo the cheesecake looks bigger than she does. We make it at the bakery, too, and we don’t make any money on it because there’s so much cream cheese in it. We do it just because people love it.
What are some pantry essentials that you always have on hand at home?
I make all my own nut butters. I’m caught up in this weird nut butter trend that I can’t get out of. I’m obsessed with homemade almond butter. You can alter the amount of salt, and sometimes I put a little honey in there. I have tons of salts. I went on a salt kick about two years ago, and now I have way too many different salts in my pantry. And I keep finding new ones to buy! I’m also one of the olive oil guys. I’m part Italian, and I probably have way too much olive oil for a small New York apartment. And we always have red wine — lots and lots of red wine all over the house. The best part about red wine is that you can store it in any room. It doesn’t take up any room in your kitchen.
What about cookware and tools? Are there items you can’t imagine not having at home?
There are a few items I always recommend people purchase for their home kitchen. If they do a lot of baking, or even just a little bit of savory cooking, it’s pretty essential to have a KitchenAid mixer, in my opinion. Every recipe my grandma ever gave me, she made by hand. But I don’t ever want to do that. It takes up way too much time and, unlike my grandmother, I have a job I have to go back and forth to. So a KitchenAid mixer to me is essential. And I use all of the attachments with it. We make ice cream with it, pasta with it, which is pretty cool. And then I have about thirty whisks and thirty rubber spatulas because I use those constantly. And a lot of glass measuring cups.
Let’s move on to the tough questions: What’s your favorite dessert?
I have many favorite desserts — I actually rarely say no to any dessert. But now, I’m beginning to feel this obsession — along with everybody at our bakery — with shortbread again. Shortbread’s not something you see a lot of bakeries selling because it’s kind of unexciting. But we’re taking shortbread and adding new things to it and tons of butter obviously. It’s something I can’t stop eating right now. When we’re developing recipes at Baked, oftentimes there’s a point where I can stop myself and say “I’ve had too much of this today.” I’ve not found that stopping point yet with shortbread.
Is there a dessert that you simply cannot abide?
For some weird reason, I am not a rice pudding fan. And I know people go crazy for it, and they try to make it for me all the time. What happens is that now, a lot of people understand that this is one thing I just don’t eat, so they try to get me to eat a version of it. But I don’t like any version of rice pudding — even if it’s the best rice pudding you’ve ever had. But there are a lot of crazy people who are obsessed with rice pudding and they just can’t understand that.
What inspired you to create a line of baking mixes?
We created a line of mixes specifically for Sur La Table that are some of our favorite things — not only the things that we like, but also that our customers like. We get a lot of requests from customers who come to us and want to bake our desserts at home but not necessarily from scratch because they don’t have all the right tools or ingredients in their cupboard. And so we suggest these mixes because they have the same exact ingredients in them that we use at the bakery, and we developed them so that you can take them with you. Say you’re going to visit a relative and you want to make them something, but you don’t know that they’re going to have everything you need on hand. That’s the whole idea behind these mixes. They’re just something that you can bring along with you.
One of them is the Sunday Night Cake, which is a phenomenal cake. It’s a really old recipe we found in a Time Life book from the 1920s, and we updated it. It’s become one of our most popular items at our bakery. And we also did our Monster Cookies. These cookies are something that, when we don’t have them in the bakery because we’ve sold out, people go crazy about it and they get upset. But now you can get the mix and make it at your home.
Thanks, Matt! So have you ever been to one of the Baked shops or made any of their treats at home? How’d they turn out?