Kathleen Stewart and two friends opened the Downtown Bakery & Creamery on Healdsburg’s downtown plaza in 1987.
Stewart still owns and operates the bakery with the help of her two children, and this month they celebrate 25 years of being one of the oldest family-run businesses still operating in Sonoma County. I got to catch up with her for a few minutes and ask some questions.
Q: Downtown Bakery traces its roots to Chez Panisse. Can you briefly describe that connection?
A: The bakery’s roots do indeed touch Chez Panisse. I worked there for 11 years, from 1976 until the bakery opened in 1987. It was the early days of the restaurant and a very vital and inspiring time to be in the Bay Area food scene. I worked in the dining room as a server most of my time there, but in those days we all pitched in to get everything done. It was very much a family atmosphere, and I learned a lot about food.
One of the founding partners, and the very innovative pastry chef, Lindsey Shere, and her daughter, Therese, (who not only grew up in the kitchen, but was herself an early chef in the cafe) were my opening partners at the bakery. We brought the sensibilities of Chez Panisse, fresh ingredients prepared simply, to the way we wanted the bakery to be. We used a lot of fruit-based desserts, which back then, were a rarity in the bakery world.
Q: You make a number of items like galette dough, puff pastry and cookie doughs that folks can take home and finish. Do you think “scratch” cooking is a thing of the past?
A: From the beginning, we knew part of what we wanted to offer at the bakery were components of items we made for sale, like doughs, toppings, etc. We actually had more things for sale at the start, but narrowed it down over time to the best sellers.
Baking is an exacting craft, best learned at the elbow of someone who has been doing it a long time. I was a founding member of a Bay Area (then national) organization called the Bakers’ Dozen, an idea put forth by Marion Cunningham. She lamented the loss of passed-down wisdom in the kitchen by generations of family cooking together. Baking especially was impacted by this loss of hands-on learning.
Scratch baking is difficult for those who didn’t grow up with it, which is most of us. I certainly didn’t. My mother was a terrible cook on all fronts. With all the beautiful ingredients available now, I hope we see a rebirth of people cooking and baking together, and slowly seeing the traditions re-emerge.
Q: What are the top sellers at the Bakery and how has that changed over the years, if it has?
A: Our top sellers have not changed too much over the years. At the beginning, we had many people looking for donuts. We have never made them. Thankfully, that is rare now. We invented the Donut Muffin to appease those folks.
Sticky buns are still our top seller. I learned to make them from Lili LeCocq, founder
of La Farine bakery in Oakland, and an early pioneer in the Bay Area food world. As she says, they are “simply croissant dough and sugar.” However, they’re not so simple. It took me a year to get it right!
All of our desserts using fresh fruit are also popular. These were a hard sell at the beginning as it was something less familiar. We now regularly introduce new things. My daughter, Maya, started making canelés, which have an enthusiastic following.
Q: You have always been a supporter of local farmers and agriculture. Why is this important and do you think it makes a difference to your customers?
A: We cultivated many relationships with local farmers and producers from the first day at the bakery. Again, that was one of the most important tenets of the Chez Panisse way of doing things. Not only do we get far superior fruit, nuts, dairy, and you name it, but we have the pleasure of relationships with these producers that last for years.
In hindsight, this is one of the most rewarding aspects of the years I have spent doing this. I think the nurturing atmosphere created by all the “invisible-to-the-customer” efforts we make are the reason we are successful.
Q: I have to ask … do you do gluten free items at the bakery? If so, how has this changed over the years?
A: We have a few accidental gluten-free items, like meringue-based cakes, marjolaine, and five different flavors of macaroons. My daughter has stepped up and developed a few items to please these customers, like gluten-free muffins that actually taste good. Doing much more than what we have now is not in my plans.
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Kathleen has shared her recipe for an Almond Tart. A tart pan with a removable bottom is a must when making this recipe, and makes removing any tart easier. The Downtown Bakery usually makes their Almond Tarts rectangular and cut them into eight pieces. It’s best eaten the day it’s made, but will keep a day or two wrapped in plastic.
From Kathleen Stewart, Healdsburg Downtown Bakery
Makes 1 9” round, or 4″ x 13″ rectangular tart shell
- 1 cup unbleached, all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 4 tablespoons cold, unsalted butter
- 4 tablespoons cold, salted butter
- 1 ½ tablespoons cold water
Put flour and sugar into the bowl of a stand mixer. Cut butters into small pieces and mix into the flour mixture until it resembles cornmeal. Add water and quickly mix together. Remove from the bowl and form into a ball, then flatten into a disk. Wrap tightly in plastic and chill at least 30 minutes.
Lightly grease tart pan. Roll out pastry to about 1/8” thick and put into tart pan, pressing dough firmly onto the sides. Freeze at least 30 minutes to allow dough to relax, (this prevents dough from shrinking during baking).
Bake in a preheated 375-degree oven for 25 minutes. For the Almond Tart, a light golden brown shell is sufficient.
Almond Tart Filling:
- 1 cup whipping cream
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon Grand Marnier (optional)
- 1 cup sliced, unblanched almonds
Preheat oven to 400-degrees.
Mix cream, sugar and liqueur in a saucepan large enough for the mixture to triple in volume. Heat to a rolling boil, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat, mix in the almonds and let stand 15 minutes. Pour filling into the pre-baked shell. Make sure the almonds float freely throughout the filling. Bake 30-35 minutes. A light caramel color yields a soft and chewy almond tart. The darker the color, the crunchier the tart.
Cool on a rack for 10 minutes, or until set. Remove carefully from tart pan. A thoroughly cooled tart will be easier to remove if you loosen the sides of the tart by pushing lightly up on the bottom of the pan when you remove it from the oven. But be wary – hot sugar sticks and burns. Wear mitts and hold the tart away from yourself.
Kathleen Stewart, email@example.com, bakery phone 431-2719
About Chef John Ash: In addition to being a renowned chef, author, and food and wine educator, many refer to Chef John Ash as the “Father of Wine Country Cuisine.”