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Are we entering a golden age of French pastry in Chicago? That might be a tall claim, but it's a fact that within the last year we've had three new places open doing superb croissants and other pastries with classical technique. Two of them are in foodie parts of town; it's not surprising that a Bad Wolf Coffee is making lush kouign-amann in Lakeview/Roscoe Village, or that Cellar Door Provisions is cranking out dark, crispy croissants in Logan Square.
But then there's Beurrage, which opened four months ago in Pilsen—a neighborhood where you'd expect to find middling Mexican bakeries, not classic French technique.
Of course, Pilsen isn't exactly a solid Latino neighborhood—named for its Czech residents of a century ago, it's in the obvious throes of gentrification right now, so an upscale bakery and coffee shop down the street from carnitas joints is not surprising. (And it's been home for many years to a fine Mexican cake bakery, Bombon Cafe.) Jeffrey Hallenbeck worked for a business that was an early arrival in the transitioning neighborhood, Fig Catering.
"Right before that I had actually graduated architecture school, and it was kind of the worst time to graduate," the soft-spoken (or possibly just tired after a long day's rolling out dough) Hallenbeck says. "My second passion was baking, which had kind of been on the back burner for a while. So when I couldn't find jobs after a few months of looking, I started looking on Craigslist for bakery jobs and they brought me on board. Since they're in the catering business, they actually have a pretty nice variety of things, they make all of their breads in house for sandwiches, they make cookies and pies and crackers, pretty much a broad range of items."
One thing they didn't make, though, was laminated pastry—the technical term for doughs made with alternating layers of butter and flour, usually produced by rolling the dough out thin, folding it over itself, and rolling it out again and again, until you have dozens, even hundreds of thin layers. It's one of those things in baking where the technique itself is simple, but having the patience and diligence to do it perfectly is the challenge. "So that became my side obsession," Hallenbeck says. "I would work all day for them, and then go home and make croissants. They had a broad approach, and I was interested in supplementing that with an obsessive approach."
He worked on his croissants in a tiny apartment kitchen and later in Fig's kitchen until he felt like he was making them pretty well, and then approached Fig's owners, Justin Hall and Molly Schemper, about opening a farmers' market stand—mainly, he says, "because there's only so many croissants that I can eat. It was a by-product of my research." They were excited about the idea, and they started selling croissants at the Pilsen Community Market in June 2012. Aided by Hall and Schemper's contacts in the community, word spread quickly that there were some seriously good baked goods happening there.
But Hallenbeck's eye was on having his own shop in the area. He found a location that was once a bakery but had been closed for a number of years, and finally got to use his architectural training in designing and working on the buildout himself. He opened around Easter.
Scaling up has brought a little automation to the process—he has a dough sheeter for rolling larger batches out evenly now—but obsession hasn't left the building. For instance, after dissatisfaction with various sources for butter for his pastry, he decided he needed to make his own butter. "Starting to make it was just another one of those obsessive things. I just wanted to try it at least once. But it ended up working really great in terms of the quality of the lamination, and of course it means we're using local, super-high-quality cream. We know where the cream comes from and roughly the butterfat percentage, which is usually higher than commercial butter, and we're controlling the conditions under which it's churned."
"Also just, on its own, the butter is just this really striking yellow color, because the cows are grass-fed," he says.
One thing that strikes you is how much variety there is to Hallenbeck's offerings—it's not a one-man bakery, he has at least one fellow baker most of the time, but still there are two or three kinds of croissants, half a dozen other pastries, three or four types of bread, and a couple of types of bagels and doughnuts on display at any time, many more choices than at the other bakeries I've named. I ask him how he decides what to make. "I get sort of bored easily," he says. He makes different flavors based on seasonal fruits, but he's also testing different products to find out both "what we like to make and what people are interested in buying." For instance, he made cakes for a time for the farmers' market, but doesn't any more.
For now his product line seems pretty settled on good crusty breads, bagels (I would say the technique there is still a work in progress), the odd fruit tart—and the glory of his shop, the laminated pastries like croissants. One thing that instantly impresses me is their rich mahogany color, which sets them apart from the floppy blond supermarket and chain-coffee things we usually know as croissants. I love the croissants at Tartine in San Francisco, arguably the most influential bakery in the country at the moment through its cookbooks; they're baked so dark that the butter in the pastry has all the nuttiness of browned butter, and so crisp that the first bite explodes in shards of flaky pastry. Cellar Door Provisions does the best example of that in Chicago—Tartine's cookbooks are displayed prominently on a shelf next to the register there—and Hallenbeck's are only about one shade lighter. I ask him if he's been to Tartine and he says just, "No, but I've sure read their books."
One last question about the nature of the neighborhood where he's set up shop. Do Mexican residents come in for fancy croissants, or is it all . . . I hunt for a PC word, then think, screw it—"gringos?" "There's always on weekends the brunchgoers who are swinging by on their way to Dusek's," he says. "But also since we've been here at the market, we've had a pretty healthy base of local people that have supported us the whole time. We try to be approachable, try to keep the prices not astronomical. Everyone seems to leave happy every time, and it's always new faces."
Beurrage, 1248 W. 18th, 773-998-2371, beurrage.com