by Monique Meadows
Clara's Cupcake Cafe in York Beach, Maine - it's all in the dough. And a pastry chef's passion.
I wondered, when I first moved to the area, why there was no bakery in the village of York. Kittery has Beach Pea and When Pigs Fly, Ogunquit has Bread & Roses but, with no disrespect to Hannaford, which does an admirable job with their artisan breads, I wanted to walk into a small hometown bakery complete with steamed windows, old stainless steel and glass cases of large kitchen war-torn aluminum trays of all things baked and frosted, powdered, sugared, dipped and glazed. I wanted a Nicolas Cage, right out of Moonstruck, to walk out of the back of the bakery with a sack of flour over his shoulders and emerge minutes later with fresh baguettes. An old fashioned idea yes, but that's what we all, I think, love about finding a little bakery. Excited at the possibilities of finding a few old fashioned favorites in the cases along with all the nouveau pastry delights of modern times.
When I walked into Clara's Cupcake Café three years ago, the bakery was the latest addition to the renovation of the Atlantic House on Beach Street in York Beach. It was part of celebrity Chef Lydia Shire's culinary installment on the second floor, Blue Sky on York Beach. Clara's was on the ground floor and baked the bread and many of the desserts for Blue Sky. The pastry chef was Jennifer Woods. I commented one time, after discovering and devouring at Clara's a pain chocolat - a french croissant filled with dark chocolate, that if I had had my eyes closed I would have thought I had stumbled into a boulangerie on the streets of Paris. I was transported. I had not had a croissant of that caliber in decades.
Fast forward to earlier this year when Lydia Shire departed from the Blue Sky endeavor and shortly after many of her people followed her path out of town. Jen Woods is now pastry chef at Mombo in Portsmouth. Patrons there might find sweet tooth bliss if Woods decides to make her spiced apple cake with buttermilk glaze. The bakery/pastry chef at Clara's after Woods' departure, or maybe there were several, gave the post an admiral attempt but I didn't feel the love, from the baker to the cashiers, gum chewing teenagers waiting to be rescued from having to work at all. The croissant in the case were smaller, overbaked and tired. Everything looked tired.
Fast forward again to a September 1st, 2010 when a young and talented pastry chef by the name of Kristen Lawson arrived on the scene. I imagine a scenario much like that of Maria showing up at the Von Trapp household. Lawson is a Johnson & Wales grad and came to Clara's from Flour Bakery in Boston. There is an ever present smile on her face, a focus in her eyes and in the push of the kneading of bread and the pastry case is stocked with a charming variety of baked wonders. My first discovery in the case: an old fashioned donut. Small, round with a dark, deep fried golden outside and a tender inside that is almost like a Rhode Island clamcake sans clams. The story is that the recipe is from Lawson's great great grandmother. So now in the case, if there are any left on the day you decide to stop in, you will find "Grannie Nellie's Old Fashioned Donut Holes". Get two while you're there because you'll kick yourself halfway on your walk on the beach that you didn't. And eat them while they're warm. Swooning allowed.
Croissant and pain chocolat are back and in regal form. Paris would be proud. Muffins and scones are in the case, warm breads on the racks. And cupcakes. Pick your favorite. York Beach has a bakery!
A passionate pastry chef is at the helm at Clara's Cupcake Cafe on Beach Street. Love is back.
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