Hitting the sweet spot

Fans of breakfast pastries find splendid choices in Northampton, Mass.

A Key lime pie is displayed at Woodstar Cafe in Northampton. Photo: Sarah Crosby.

By Larry Parnass

OK. I understand. No hard feelings.

Go ahead and take another gander at Sarah Crosby’s photos here. No calories just by looking, right?

Yes, sweet things from Northampton, Mass. ovens help people power up for the rigors of their days, just as they do at early-bird bakeries across UpCountry communities.

To be sure, the scratch baking scene isn’t Northampton’s most-played card. But for me, when it comes to this college town’s culinary map, morning treats put the longing in longitude. And the choices are expanding.

For almost three decades, my work commute brought me from a Franklin County hilltown down to Northampton. More times than I can count, I nipped in at a little place in the city’s old firehouse and walked out with a bagged trophy: one of Woodstar Cafe’s dense and delightful muffins.

Without knowing it, I helped the cafe’s raspberry oatmeal muffin become a morning all-star — at least when I wasn’t noshing on a fitness muffin. They rarely made it the final miles to my workplace.

Since owner Rebecca Robbins launched and then expanded Woodstar, another high-end bakery operation, Tart Baking Co., settled in a few blocks away. Together, the two businesses produce breads and pastries not just for sale on premises, but sent out to eateries and cafes around the region. I exercised my jaws in another way this fall — by sitting to talk with leaders of the two businesses, filling up on bakery backstory.

One takeaway: Both places have Berkshires connections. The raspberry oatmeal muffins at Woodstar have a culinary connection to the former Clarksburg Bakery that Jamie Ott (who now owns the Clarksburg Bread Co.) once ran in Williamstown, and where Robbins worked long ago. Tart was launched by Mukunda Feldman, a veteran of Barrington Coffee Roasting Co. in Lee, both to buckle on a new line of trade to his cafe operations in Amherst, Greenfield and Northampton, and to supply the shops with baked goods.

Today, his half brother, Ash Crawford, heads up Tart Baking’s operations.

He took a stool at a counter near a window overlooking the big bend in Northampton’s Main Street.

Lemon cupcakes with raspberry buttercream, left, chocolate cupcakes with espresso buttercream and vanilla cupcakes with chocolate buttercream, back, are displayed at Tart Baking Co. in Northampton. Photo: Sarah Crosby.

In a different window across the shop — the pastry display case — sat a line of the bakery’s biggest sellers — moist and flavorful almond croissants.

One came home with me, and not for the first time. I’ve treated them like semi-decadent one-dish lunches, or shared them over chats at Northampton Coffee. The almond filling soaks into the flesh of the croissant for a kind of 2+2=5 eating experience.

Today, they come out of a kitchen overseen by Madalyn Palmer, the head baker who took over in July after a spell as assistant head baker and handles what Crawford refers to, business school grad that he is, as Tart’s “bread program.”

The 192 Main St. location has a baking legacy since it was home to the much-loved Bakery Normand. Today, it still cranks out baguettes.

“We wanted to make sure they could still get their daily bread,” Crawford said of patrons. Despite the presence of a few stools, the shop is a to-go outlet, as a stream of shoppers, the other day demonstrated. Other products head out on a wholesale basis, to customers like The Dirty Truth (brioche buns), Sutter Meats (sandwich bread) and Coco and the Cellar Bar in Easthampton (bread for a Sunday sandwich special).

With the holiday season coming on, Crawford was looking forward, the day I visited, to hearing what Palmer had in mind for the end of the year, wanting to give her creativity free rein.

“You’ve got to pick and choose what you do when,” he said.

Whatever arrives into display cases, minutes old, it must satisfy customers. Crawford said loyal shoppers pick up on tiny changes in products.

Over at Woodstar, past the line of devoted, patient customers, it’s no different. While bakers like to get creative, products don’t get into a regular rotation unless they prove popular. One new offering is a “figgy quinoa bar” that Robbins created after seeing a photo of something similar.

“Almost every day there is some experiment going on in our kitchen,” said Dmitri Robbins, the cafe’s co-owner. “There’s this laboratory going on at home.”

“Our customers decide what stays,” Robbins said. The glass display case goes on and on inside the shop — with a separate display for gluten-free offerings.

While she hauls around a stack of paperwork and must spend time managing the bustling cafe, Robbins’ heart lies in baking.

“I love baking the way a painter loves to paint or the way a musician loves to play their instrument,” she told me. “I have a collection of over 400 baking-themed cookbooks. I could live three lifetimes and still not bake enough to satisfy my passion for the craft.”

Bakery Manager Madalyn Palmer drizzles chocolate onto coconut macaroons at Tart Baking Co. Photo: Sarah Crosby.

Robbins’ road to Woodstar took her not only through the former Clarksburg Bakery but to time at Rao’s, a cafe in Amherst now known as Share; a stint in the Napa Valley; and a year in culinary school.

Like all creative people, inspiration comes in a rush. She created one current Woodstar product, Elf Balls, when Dmitri, her spouse and partner, needed a portable snack while helping a child stage a live-action role-playing game.

Game for another experiment, Rebecca hauled out tahini, nut flour and dried fruit. The product not only kept Dmitri in the game out in the woods that day, but it also has proven popular enough with customers to join the lineup.

“When they come here, they want to indulge. It’s all about flavor,” she said of patrons.

Along with sales from the cafe’s 60 Masonic St. headquarters, Woodstar sends its goods to Esselon Cafe in Hadley, the Elbow Room in Williamsburg, Wild Roots in Sunderland and Cushman Market in North Amherst, along with other wholesale customers.

As she marks her 15th year with Woodstar, Robbins resists making predictions — though she knows what’s trending in the bakery trade. Years ahead, she jokes, will pointed or rounded shoes be in vogue? She won’t even try to guess.

And yet one given, she and Dmitri say, is that the cost of making what comes out of Woodstar’s kitchen will go up, driven by increases in labor and ingredient costs.

“I hope that customers continue to value pure, handmade goods. But the cost of that is going to rise significantly,” Rebecca said.

“I hope they are willing to pay for it,” Dmitri said.

All the more reason to indulge today. •

And don’t overlook …

Florence Pie Bar 17 Main St., Florence, Mass. florencepiebar.com 413-341-3283

On a recent stop, I bought a honey nut tartlet. Definitely in the dessert category. Rich, sweet and flavorful. As you’d expect, offerings in this cute space — a former barbershop — lean toward pies, both sweet and savory.

Pie slices go for less than $5. The menu changes weekly but the repertoire is deep, including whiskey walnut, salted maple, pear pomegranate and lemon gingersnap pies. The Pie Bar’s website has the full list, any of which can be ordered up to a day in advance.

Patisserie Lenox 48 Main St., Northampton, Mass.(Also in Great Barrington and Lenox, Mass.; Hudson, N.Y.) patisserielenox.com 413-341-0417

This appealing outlet of the popular mini-chain (it’s up to four locations now) is wowing patrons in Northampton, from what I could tell on a visit one recent Sunday. All baked goods are made on-site. I sampled the almond croissant and two kinds of brioche, one sour cherry and the other raspberry. Simply killer.

Small Oven Bakery 36 Union St., Easthampton, Mass. smallovenbakes.com 413-527-1785

Though not in Northampton, this small bakery is worth a visit while in the Pioneer Valley. Its owners produce a delectable croissant and other pastries like tarts and galettes. Their bread choices rotate daily and are listed on their website.

Baker Josh Streeter transfers vegan cupcakes frosted with buttercream including chocolate with lavender, left, vanilla with chocolate and vanilla with lemon at Cafe Evolution in Florence, Mass. Photo: Sarah Crosby.

Cafe Evolution 22 Chestnut St., Florence, Mass. cafe-evolution.com 413-586-0200

A go-to place for vegan bakery products that has earned a devoted following. I go out of my way to pick up one (or two) of their maple scones.

Larry Parnass prefers roads less traveled. He is the investigations editor of The Berkshire Eagle and former editor of the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

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