The girly pink “hey sugar” neon sign next to the counter is the first clue that Baked by the Ocean is not your usual sweet shop. Walk into the corner storefront, just a block from the water in Long Beach, and take it all in, from the voluptuous mermaid mural on the back wall to the Instagram-ready contents of the display cases. The lemon bars and brownies communicate polish and pizzazz with designer logos and lipstick kisses stenciled in confectioners’ sugar. The cake layers in the dazzling rainbow bars, inspired by traditional red, white and green Italian rainbow cookies, change color depending on the season and holiday and are adorned with exuberant sprinkles. The glossy macarons come in sophisticated hues. Even the cardboard coffee cups are sexy.
“I wanted a place where customers could come frequently, and not just for birthdays or special occasions,” owner Catherine Schimenti said. About 20 years ago, at age 17, the Lynbrook native left home for culinary school at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island. Her ascent was swift, beginning in Manhattan at Balthazar and then Gramercy Tavern under renowned pastry chef Claudia Fleming. In 2010, she became executive pastry chef at Michael Mina in San Francisco. And about six years later, she decided it was time to make a different life for herself.
Priced out of the Bay Area real estate market, Schimenti headed back East and homed in on Long Beach, close to family and old friends. Taking advantage of a PSEG Long Island grant, she built an energy-efficient shop, complete with a casual dining area and feminine-yet-edgy interior, in a spot that had been vacant since superstorm Sandy devastated the town in 2012.
Then she focused on adapting her high-end restaurant confections for a new audience. Instead of serving her signature olive oil polenta cakes with multiple sauces drizzled on the plate, for example, she tops them with slices of blood orange and packages them in pink boxes to go. Schimenti serves up banana muffins and coffee in the morning and chocolate chip cookies topped with flaky sea salt to the after-school crowd. Customers come in at night for an elegant peanut butter tart glazed with shiny ganache and a glass of wine.
When you consider the numerous accredited pastry and baking programs; muffin, cupcake and macaron crazes; reality TV baking competitions; and what marketers call the indulgence factor, it’s no wonder the pastry arts and high-end bakeries are on the rise. And women are in the thick of it. At the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, women make up 80 percent of the pastry school’s student body. In 2018, all five James Beard Foundation Outstanding Pastry Chef nominees were women. In pastry, there’s power and opportunity.
Pastry, after all, was once a female chef’s gateway to a male-dominated professional kitchen. The reasons were varied and often based on gender stereotypes: Women have more patience, precision and attention to detail, the thinking went, or pastry work doesn’t require the strength needed to muscle large, heavy stockpots around. Beyond that—and let’s just say that a 50-pound bag of flour isn’t any easier to handle than a stockpot—it is true that the hours of a pastry chef are typically better, more regular and with evenings free, all the better to juggle family life. And these days, although women have proven they can work the line in front of a bank of commercial stoves—with all the heat, pressure and stamina that entails—many still choose pastry.
Like Schimenti, Carissa Waechter came from an upscale restaurant environment. After culinary school, an apprenticeship with World Pastry Cup champion Michel Willaume and three years in the starry kitchens of Daniel Boulud, she was ready to make a change. “As much as I liked the industry, I didn’t want to plate desserts for the one percent forever. I just always knew there was something different out there for me,” she said. While taking time off after breaking an arm in 2008, she got a call from New York City bread czar Eli Zabar, who asked her to spend the summer on the East End, baking his breads for the Amagansett Farmers Market.
What started as a summer job developed into a small wholesale business, Carissa’s Breads. She rented a friend’s pizza place after hours, baking all night and then delivering to customers in the morning. She sold her breads at the Montauk Farmer’s Market and to several CSAs, where members were excited by her use of local ingredients, including heirloom wheat grown by two young Amagansett farmers, Amanda Merrow and Katie Baldwin. Soon she cofounded the Amagansett Food Institute, a nonprofit to support small-scale food producers, and rented a commercial kitchen they could all share.
At a certain point, Waechter realized she would have to take on investors in order to grow. “It’s almost like a marriage,” she said. “I was very picky and ended up with partners who are perfect. They got me.” With their backing, Waechter opened her own retail bakery two years ago. The gleaming white and stainless-steel setup hidden behind Newtown Lane in East Hampton has given her a chance to return to pastry and desserts after years of baking bread almost exclusively.
Now her rye double-crust apple pies (made with Amagansett grain) are sold alongside her sourdoughs and sweet potato brioche. She’s been surprised by the demand for wedding cakes, made with local wheat and decorated with certified organic flowers. “We work with a florist who grows for us and knows our color palette,” she said. This is the Hamptons, so she’s still serving plenty of one percenters, and without the influx of big- spending summer customers, she’d have difficulty making ends meet. But people still can come in for a box of cookies or a pie without springing for an expensive meal. She enjoys the balance of intricate decorating, taking care of business and producing hundreds of handmade loaves every day. And she thinks often of her grandmother and great-aunt, who lived on a wheat farm outside Chicago and sold pies door to door.
Pastry chefs such as Waechter and Schimenti are artists in their own right, but some, like Diane Margaritis of Diane’s Bakery Cafe in Roslyn, and Danna Abrams of Hometown Bake Shop in Centerport, are artists by training. Margaritis studied photography at the School of Visual Arts and worked as a darkroom technician in New York City before she became a pastry chef. Thirty-seven years ago, she and her husband, John Durkin, opened a village bakery featuring her beautiful, buttery cookies and tarts. The place has grown to encompass a cafe and a full-service restaurant. Everywhere you look are inviting still lifes, from salads and entrees to an array of square cookies (shaped so they fit neatly into a box), angel food cakes showered with confectioners’ sugar, glazed devil’s food cakes, and berry pies with lattice tops that ooze thickened juices, perfect in their imperfection.
Danna Abrams received an MA in sculpture from Boston University and directed art galleries for a living. She fell into baking after her oldest daughter, Charlie, was born. Severe food allergies required major adjustments in the kitchen, and when Charlie was invited to birthday parties, Abrams would ask if she could bring a cake, just to make sure her daughter would have something to eat. Eventually, she found herself in the baking business, initially writing recipes and helping to train staff at a Brooklyn bakery, then working the overnight bread shift at Fairway market, and winding up at Christina Tosi’s Momofuko Milk Bar. After returning to Long Island and setting up the bakery program at Kerber’s Farm in Huntington, she wanted a place of her own.
At Hometown, you’ll find Abrams’ famous savory pies, including eggplant and burrata, short rib and mashed potato, and chili cornbread. “Nothing succeeds like excess,” said Oscar Wilde, and she’s taken this dictum to heart. One aptly named “bomb” is bagel dough stuffed with pulled pork, pickled onions and Gruyère. A funfetti scone, the size of a softball, is topped with whipped cream and more sprinkles. Not content to make simple pecan and sweet potato pies, Abrams created a layered “sweecan” variety. Custom wedding cakes are her sculptural outlet: “Naked” cake layers, beautiful fillings and fresh flowers are her materials of choice.
Baking is a tough business. These businesswomen have flourished by understanding the local clientele, responding to their needs, and providing a space, even if it is just a bench outside the shop, for customers to say hello and socialize. Schimenti’s hip dessert cafe, for instance, is the right sweet shop at the right time for slowly gentrifying Long Beach. Her social media savvy doesn’t hurt, either.
Waechter understood from the get-go that customers in the Hamptons, a farming community as well as a summer resort, appreciated local ingredients and wanted to feel close to the land. At the same time, they wanted their fancy cookies. Her Instagram feed features hand-painted macarons and selfies with high-profile fans such as Jacques Pépin and Daphne Oz as well as plenty of rustic breads. She is poised to open a second bakery on Pantigo Road with a larger production facility—her ever-expanding wholesale breads go to more than 50 restaurants and other clients on the East End and elsewhere—as well as a bar and cafe serving sandwiches, salads and local wines.
Early on, Margaritis realized Roslyn would welcome a gathering place that would contribute to the village’s friendly, old-fashioned appeal. She has customers who have come in every day for years and gives jobs to local kids who first visited in their strollers. As it has grown, the business has not only satisfied her artistic side, but has woven her into the fabric of Roslyn. She is part of an informal group of local female shop owners who have contributed to the independence and vitality of the area since the 1980s.
And when it comes to Abrams of Hometown, she designed her menu for parents, who drop in for coffee and a cinnamon bun or raspberry cheesecake muffin in the morning and then pick up lunch—homemade soup, mac and cheese—for the kids. Commuters swing by on the way home from work for some fried chicken and a salad along with some slab-size brownies. Sensitive to families dealing with allergies, she has gluten-free products for sale. The entire bakery is peanut-free.
Catering to busy parents has paid off. Last Thanksgiving, Abrams and her staff produced 3,000 pies, filling up an empty storefront next to the bakery for customer pick-up. She’s looking to expand, opening other retail outlets and increasing her wholesale business. The secrets to her present and future success, she says, are energy, integrity and teamwork. “We believe in what we put out, and we make everything from scratch,” she said. “Getting bigger will not change the way we work.”
Taken together, these four bakeries have individuality—each one has its own quirky charm—as well as a collective identity. They’re works in progress, really, all heady with the sweet smell of cinnamon and chocolate, yeasty breads and freshly baked cakes. And success.
BAKED BY THE OCEAN: 919 W. Beech St., Long Beach; 516-889-2253
CARISSA'S THE BAKERY: 68 Newtown Lane, East Hampton; 631-527-5996, carissasthebakery.com
DIANE'S BAKERY CAFE: 23 Bryant Ave., Roslyn; 516-621-2522, dianesroslyn.com
HOMETOWN BAKE SHOP: 2 Little Neck Rd., Centerport; 631-754-7437, hometownbakeshop.com