liz quijada photograph by alan gastelum

Liz Quijada, Abraço Baker Extraordinários

It’s astounding how many pastry chefs I talk to tell me, emphatically and defensively, that they are not bakers. They consider baking to be other, outside of their title and jurisdiction. Bakers, they say, bake, but pastry chefs make desserts.

This argument, you might say, is easy to squelch. Aren’t both bakers? Or all pastry chefs? Does it matter to you whether it was a baker or a pastry chef who made the chocolate croissant you’re about to ruin your shirt with? Probably not, I’m guessing.

If titles were big businesses, Pastry Chef might have a stronger lobby in Washington,DC, while Baker toiled away collecting floury dust, unnoticed, underrepresented.

All pastry chefs are bakers, but not all bakers are pastry chefs. Some bakers are bakers through and through, with no desire for more specificity. Theirs is an all-inclusive craft that comprises a bottomless well of learning.

Liz’s Bakery display case at Abraço.

It’s a craft. Bakers, like carpenters, electricians, and writers, work with their hands to make something that will be used. Crafts are learned, passed on, and taught by doing. Craft is a verb.

Liz Quijada is definitely a baker, fearlessly teaching herself the craft, one tender dough at a time. Her work is a testament to the idea that if you love what you do, you can do what you love.

Quijada started working in kitchens, without any formal training, at age fourteen. After attending Sarah Lawrence College, in a suburb of New York City, she moved across the country, to San Francisco, where she worked as a personal chef and caterer. In 2005, her two roommates moved out, and she “started a little restaurant once a month in my apartment, called Suspicious Suppers. But it was so much work (I did everything, and my friends were runners and servers), I burned myself out, and after a year, I needed a break.”

College friends suggested she return to New York. In need of a source of income, she applied for a position at Babycakes NYC, a bakery in Manhattan’s Lower East Side that specializes in vegan and gluten-free offerings.

Meanwhile, back in San Francisco, Quijada’s good friend Jamie McCormick, a barista for Blue Bottle Coffee, was in the process of scouting an NYC location for his employer’s first East Coast shop. Scouring Craigslist, he came upon a space on East Seventh Street, in the East Village, and he asked her to give it a look-see for him.

“I remember that day. It was spring of 2007. The space was small and closed. It was a falafel shop. I had a good feeling, and called Jamie. He came out a few weeks later and never left.

“Jamie and I had met only a year earlier. I used to get coffee at Blue Bottle in Hayes Valley, and it was often empty, so we would chat. We bonded over our love of food — we liked the same flavors combinations, those from North African and southern Spain especially. We started to go to farmers’ markets together and cook at each other’s houses.”

Blue Bottle decided to put their New York City expansion on hold, so McCormick struck out on his own. By July of 2007 he and Quijada were signing the lease on the East Seventh Street storefront, and Abraço, their new coffee shop, was born that October.

Abraço’s unassuming exterior.

“We wanted our place to have a name expressing warmth; an invitation. Abraço is the Portuguese word for ‘embrace.’ Jamie is obsessed with Brazilian music, so we liked that the word was Portuguese, easy to say, and connotative of the atmosphere we wanted to create,” Quijada explains.

Abraço’s Lilliputian kitchen starts two footsteps behind the espresso machine and is no wider than the length of an average person’s arm. The walls are painted a pumpkin-meets-persimmon orange, and a vintage telephone in the same color is mounted proudly.

With no baking experience prior to her time at Babycakes, Quijada started by making just a few items for Abraço. Quickly a loyal following for the goods in her small, eclectic bakery case developed; she sold out daily.

Quijada’s fruit and almond croustades, burnished to delicious perfection.

“I started baking the olive oil cake [now a signature item], cured black olive shortbread, and light lunch offerings. My production was very small — only a few cakes each day.”

I asked Quijada about her transition from the savory to the sweet side. There are many who say that you have a mind for either one or the other, never both, with most savory chefs flinching at the mere suggestion that they might try baking or learn how to make the desserts that their restaurants sell.

“I’ve become more of an intuitive baker; less precise, perhaps, than a trained baker. I feel things out in a more hands-on way. I’m less interested in ‘process’ in the way that maybe a person who went to school would be focused on how to follow a recipe step-by-step in a particular order.

“There’s a rhythm when I’m cooking [savory food]. I’m following a beat. In pastry there are all these pauses, breaks. I try to find/create rhythm in baking so that I can keep moving.

“When I’m considering what I want to make, I might start with colors. Blue and yellow: maybe blueberries and lemon, and I go from there.

“I’m really obsessed with making croissants right now. I’m trying to make a croissant that tastes like butter and yeast. Jamie and I were in Paris a little over a year ago. We happened to walk by a bakery calledLa Flûte Gana. There was a long line out the door.

“The croissant’s texture was like nothing I’ve ever eaten before. It had a hard shell on the outside and the inside had this pull. The flavor was apricot-y yeastiness, moist. I loved the contrast of the croissant’s nutty, dark exterior to its chewy, pastalike interior.

“I had no idea how they achieved any of these qualities, but I came back from France determined to create something as close to what they were baking as I could.

“It’s taken me ten months of a lot of trial and error. I don’t have asheeter, and I don’t really want one, because I like to feel what’s going on.

My croissants take four days from start to finish.”

Croissants are in a family of pastry called Viennoiserie. The formation of its highly structured dough texture is reliant on quickly and efficiently laminating ingredients of precise temperature. Butter, flour, water, yeast, and salt are the components of the recipe, but there are as many opinions about the method as there are bakers in the world.

Commercial bakers making croissants by hand are few and far between. Laminating is a physical process, and unless a bakery can make one hundred plus croissants per day, Viennoiserie costs more in its labor than ingredients, conjuring the law of diminishing returns swiftly.

Quijada’s growing repertoire at Abraço is less about cost analysis than it is about her passion for owning a small business where she and McCormick can do what they love to do: Not to hand off the work to a team of worker bees, but to create a community meeting spot for friends and family.

I fell in love with Quijada’s pastries in the autumn of 2009. I had heard the best espresso in New York City could be found at a little spot on East Seventh Street. What I discovered was not only that my source had been right about the espresso, but that a wee bakery was hiding in its midst.

Accessing the limitless library of the craft of baking, Liz Quijada is creating an evolving body of work: one part improvisation, a dash of classic foundation, generous pinches of whimsy and structure both, and all finished with heart and soul. Whether it is an orange blossom ricotta babka, an herb shortbread, or her breakfast sandwich “lil eggie” on fresh brioche, the things she makes never stray from the soul of baking.

Her hands-on (and -in) approach is producing some deeply flavorful, unique, and truly lovely pastries.

And I’d say she’s found her baking rhythm.

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