SAN FRANCISCO, Nov 12 — When Elisabeth Prueitt opened the San Francisco bakery Tartine in 2002 with her husband, Chad Robertson, she was already in on the cosmic joke: Here she was, a brilliant pastry chef who loved her work, married to a bread baker and collaborating on what would become one of America’s great bakeries. And she was gluten intolerant.
As Prueitt became famous for her warm morning buns glittering with sugar, writing cookbooks and winning awards for her work, she also explored the universe of alternative baking, looking toward the hippie-chic pleasures of brown rice, oats and buckwheat.
What may have seemed like an obstacle has worked to Prueitt’s advantage, expanding her repertoire of flavors and textures, as well as Tartine’s fan base.
This fall, Prueitt and Robertson opened Tartine Manufactory, a 5,000-square-foot bread factory that includes a pastry shop, restaurant, ice cream parlor and coffee shop in a luxurious warehouse in the Mission District. Prueitt’s sour-cherry scones and pistachio-almond tea cakes were in the pastry case, along with plenty of her wheat-free triumphs: salted buckwheat chocolate cookies, chocolate-almond cakes and apple crisps.
On a recent weekday afternoon, the sunlit space was full of good-looking people in expensive T-shirts drinking highlighter-yellow turmeric kefir. “It’s totally naturally fermented,” Prueitt told me as I tried some on ice. It was tangy, with the soft, fine fizz of Champagne.
Prueitt’s style is at the heart of a larger shift in US food culture: a growing interest in fermentation and preserved foods, in sprouted and alternative grains, and in techniques that are rooted in older, more established foodways from around the world.
But it has taken years for those ideas to gather steam in the United States, and for Prueitt — whose career path has been anything but typical — to master a new way of baking and work her way into the centre of a movement.
“We didn’t serve any wheat-free pastries back in 2002,” she said, “because there was no appetite for that kind of thing.”
Tartine did serve some of the best pastries and breads in town. Within a year or two, the tiny neighbourhood cafe developed a following that never waned.
When I lived in the area about a decade ago, Prueitt’s name was spoken with reverence among cooks. It’s not just that her pastries were delicious and technically flawless. They had an effortless-looking, handmade beauty to them, and they often amplified the flavors of local, seasonal fruits without calling much attention to the fact.
I remember trying to stretch out the pleasures of a gâteau Basque indefinitely, cutting it in half again, and again, until the pastry was so tiny that the task became embarrassing. The crumb was tender and delicate, dissolving in my mouth. And I’m pretty sure that what I felt toward the shiny preserved peach, snug at the centre of the pastry, was something close to jealousy.
Alice Waters, the pioneering chef of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, used to order her birthday cake from the bakery. She is a longtime admirer of Prueitt’s work.
“Here is somebody who is always trying to make it better than the last time,” Waters said. “Someone keeping a self-criticism going with constant questioning: How can I make it better, bring out the most flavor and make it more nutritious? That’s the kind of work that needs to be done so that food can be something way more than tasty.”
Nine years ago, while visiting New York for the James Beard Foundation Award ceremonies, Prueitt gave birth to her and Robertson’s daughter, Archer, who they soon learned had cerebral palsy.
While Robertson ran their business, Prueitt stopped working to care for their child and to research therapies. She eventually helped found the Conductive Education Centre of San Francisco, a six-week summer camp for children with motor disorders or developmental delays.
Prueitt left the restaurant industry to raise her child at what may have seemed like the apex of her career, then went back to work to find more success.
This is not how the story usually goes, but as it turns out, her time away was exactly how long it took for the market to demand more high-end sweets made from esoteric grains. When Prueitt stepped back into the pastry kitchen, she began to draw more deeply on her knowledge of the countless, exciting configurations that exist beyond wheat flour and white sugar.
Prueitt, 49, grew up in Brooklyn and studied acting and photojournalism before graduating from the Culinary Institute of America. She is best known for her sweets, but in her next cookbook, “Tartine All Day” (to be published in April), she shares both sweet and savory recipes for home cooks.
One is for pork ribs braised in a reduction of apple cider vinegar with garlic and ginger. It features a very small photograph of her eating them messily with both hands, looking joyful.
“I’m wary of this being too me, me, me,” she said.
I counted only three, maybe four photos of Prueitt as she went through the entire book, page by page, in a Skype conversation with her designer, Juliette Cezzar. And the book’s working cover, at least on the heavy printed manuscript that Prueitt carried around in a leather tote, was not of a grinning celebrity chef but a pot of jam after cooking, scraped nearly clean.
Heading back to work was an organised campaign for Prueitt. It began in 2014, when Tartine planned a merger with Blue Bottle Coffee, and she took over as Blue Bottle’s corporate pastry chef.
When that deal fell apart last year, Prueitt returned to Tartine to develop menu items and manage large projects, such as Tartine Cookies & Cream, the ice cream parlor inside Tartine Manufactory.
It’s the company’s first foray into making ice cream, soft-serve produced from local cow and water buffalo milk. One of Prueitt’s newest additions to the menu is an ice cream pie filled with Concord grape sorbet and fior di latte soft-serve in a peanut butter tart shell, which has been celebrated on Instagram for its swirls of deep, vibrant purple.
“I used to mostly post pictures of my cats to Instagram, until I made a decision to professionalise my account and make it all about my food,” Prueitt said.
That was just last year, and since then, social media has become a powerful tool for her when promoting new dishes or seeking feedback on recipes. It was also a way to find her identity as a chef again and to bring together her personal and professional cooking styles. Prueitt’s Instagram following is 28,000 strong and deeply engaged, often trying the recipes she posts and offering notes.
Those two cats were still around during my visit, racing from the garden into the house. Prueitt gently plopped the springy one onto the floor, for the fifth time, but it insisted on returning to see what she was up to.
Prueitt was testing a gluten-free carrot cake made from teff flour (“teff holds moisture really, really well”) and coconut oil, frosted with a tangy mix of butter and cream cheese. It wasn’t being produced at the bakeries yet, but her fans had gotten a peek, and they were waiting.
Sweet potato tea cake with meringue
Yield: 1 9-inch loaf
Total time: 2 ¼ hours, plus cooling
For the cake:
¾ pound/340 grams sweet potatoes (about 1 medium), peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces
Unsalted butter, for greasing pan
3 tablespoons orange juice
¾ cup/180 millilitres vegetable oil
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons/125 grams granulated sugar
2/3 cup/125 grams packed brown sugar
1 ¼ teaspoon sea salt
3 large eggs
1 ¾ cups/225 grams all-purpose flour
1 ¾ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Pinch of ground cloves
For the meringue topping:
1 large egg white
3 tablespoons/30 grams granulated sugar
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
1. Prepare the cake: Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Boil sweet potatoes until just tender, 15 to 20 minutes, then drain.
2. Meanwhile, make the meringue: In a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whip egg white, sugar and vanilla until glossy, stiff peaks form. Scrape meringue into a bowl and set aside; rinse off the whisk attachment and bowl and return to stand mixer.
3. Heat oven to 325 degrees and butter a 9-by-5-inch (23-by-12-centimetre) loaf pan.
4. Transfer sweet potatoes to stand mixer bowl. Add orange juice and whisk until smooth, scraping down sides of the bowl to make sure there are no lumps. Add oil, granulated sugar, brown sugar and salt and mix until well combined. Add eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition; use a rubber spatula to scrape down the sides of the bowl.
5. In a separate bowl, use a fork to mix together flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. Add to egg mixture in stand mixer and combine on low speed just until smooth. Transfer batter to the prepared loaf pan.
6. Use a spoon to top the batter with the meringue, gently swirling it into the batter and pulling it back out a few times to create streaked peaks. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the centre of the cake comes out clean, about 1 hour, 15 minutes. Let cake cool in the pan on a wire rack for at least 20 minutes before slicing and serving.
Teff carrot cake
Yield: 8 to 12 servings
Total time: 1 ½ hours, plus cooling
For the cake:
Unsalted butter, for greasing pans
1 cup/200 grams granulated sugar
1 cup/140 grams coconut sugar
3 large eggs
½ cup/125 grams applesauce
1 pound/455 grams carrots, peeled and grated
1 cup/236 millilitres coconut oil, warmed to liquid
Juice of 1 lemon
1 ¼ cups/170 grams teff flour
½ cup/70 grams sweet rice flour
½ cup/60 grams oat flour
2 ¼ teaspoons cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
2 teaspoons baking soda
¾ teaspoon fine sea salt
½ cup/45 grams unsweetened shredded coconut
1 ½ cups/180 grams toasted walnuts, chopped
For the frosting:
8 ounces/225 grams/1 cup cream cheese, at room temperature
6 tablespoons/85 grams unsalted butter, at cool room temperature
3 cups/360 grams confectioners’ sugar, sifted
Juice of 1 lemon
¼ teaspoon fine sea salt
1. Prepare the cake: Heat oven to 350 degrees. Use butter to grease two 9-inch cake pans, line each with a round of parchment paper, and grease paper as well.
2. Using electric beaters or a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whip granulated sugar, coconut sugar and eggs until thick and light in colour, about 4 minutes on medium speed. When you lift up the whisk, the beaten egg mixture should fall back into the bowl in a ribbon. Add applesauce, carrots, coconut oil and lemon juice, and mix well to combine.
3. In a separate bowl, whisk together teff flour, sweet rice flour, oat flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, baking soda and salt. Add to egg mixture, using a rubber spatula to fold just until combined. Gently fold coconut and walnuts into batter.
4. Divide batter evenly between the prepared pans. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes. Let cool in the pans on a wire rack for about 10 minutes, then run a knife around the edges of each pan and invert cakes onto a wire rack. Let cool completely.
5. Make the frosting: In a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat cream cheese and butter on medium-high speed until fluffy and light, about 3 minutes. Add confectioners’ sugar, lemon juice and salt and mix until smooth.
6. Place one cooled cake on a serving platter. Spread about half the frosting evenly across the cake, place the second cake layer on top and spread the remaining frosting. Decorate with clean, seasonal flowers, or leave plain and smooth with a palette knife. Cut into slices and serve.
Shaker lemon pie
Yield: 1 9-inch pie
Total time: 1 ½ hours, plus 8 hours’ marinating
2 medium lemons
1 blood orange or navel orange
2 cups/400 grams granulated sugar
5 large eggs
¼ teaspoon salt
¾ teaspoon ground cardamom
Cream cheese dough (see recipe), or use regular pie dough
Cornstarch or tapioca starch, for rolling dough
1 tablespoon cream
Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting
1. Using a mandoline or a sharp knife, slice lemons and orange paper-thin, discarding the thick, pithy ends and any seeds. Put in a glass bowl and toss with granulated sugar. Cover and let sit at room temperature for at least 8 hours or overnight.
2. Roll out the pie dough: Place one dough disk on a surface lightly dusted with cornstarch or tapioca. Roll dough to 1/8 inch/3 millimetres thick, rolling from the centre evenly out in all directions. If the dough is cracking and is not pliable, let it sit at room temperature a little longer to warm up. Dust with additional cornstarch as needed to discourage sticking.
3. Cut out a circle 2 inches/5 centimetres larger than the pie pan. Carefully lift dough and transfer to pan, easing dough into the bottom and sides but not stretching or pressing too firmly, or it will shrink during baking. If dough tears, patch with a little extra dough, pressing gently to adhere. Trim dough, leaving a ¼-inch overhang. Refrigerate for 15 minutes, and roll second dough disk in the same way.
4. If any seeds have floated to top of citrus mixture, fish them out. In a separate bowl, whisk eggs, salt and cardamom until blended, then add to the lemon mixture, mixing thoroughly.
5. Heat oven to 350 degrees. If you have a baking stone, place it on the oven floor. Pour lemon filling into chilled shell, evenly distributing citrus pieces, and moisten the edge of the shell with water. Gently transfer upper crust onto the pie. Crimp the dough together using your fingers or a fork and trim so it is flush with the edge of the pan and there is no overhang.
6. Brush the top of the dough with the cream and chill for 20 minutes. Cut small vents in the top of the dough with a sharp knife, then place pie on baking stone or directly on the oven floor for 20 minutes. Transfer to a rack in the middle of the oven and bake another 30 to 40 minutes, until the top crust is golden brown and cooked through. Let cool before dusting with confectioners’ sugar and serving.
Cream cheese dough
Yield: Enough for 2 single-crust pies, or 1 double-crust pie
Total time: 30 minutes, plus 2 ½ hours’ resting
¾ cup plus 1 tablespoon/115 grams brown rice flour
1/3 cup/60 grams potato starch
½ cup/60 grams tapioca starch
1 ½ cups/180 grams oat flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup/220 grams cream cheese, very cold
1 cup/220 grams unsalted butter, very cold, cut into ¼-inch-thick slices
1. In the bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade, combine the rice flour, potato and tapioca starches, oat flour and salt. Pulse once or twice to mix.
2. Add cream cheese and butter and pulse about 15 times, then let the food processor run for about 20 seconds, until most of the butter and cream cheese is broken down, but some small chunks remain.
3. Turn the dough out onto a counter and use your hands to pack and bring it together. Divide in two equal-sized balls, flatten and wrap well in plastic wrap. Chill for at least 2 hours or overnight before rolling out. — The New York Times