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Huckleberry Owner Talks About Her New Cookbook (And Offers A Bacon Cheddar Muffins Recipe!)
Ask any food writer in town who their crush is, and the answer is usually Zoe Nathan. Nathan owns Sweet Rose Creamery, Milo & Olive, Rustic Canyon, and Huckleberry with her husband Josh Loeb, the latter of which is undisputedly one of the best bakeries in town. It also happens to be the subject of Nathan's new cookbook, which is available for order now.
"Huckleberry: Stories, Secrets, and Recipes From Our Kitchen" is a beautifully shot and written read that will make your mouth water and inspire you to dive in headfirst into the world of baking. Nathan demystifies what can often be the more intimidating part of cooking, giving personal tips and twists for the novice baker. She took a moment away form the kitchen—and her adorable son Milo—to chat with us about intuitive baking, how to buy farmers market fruit on the cheap, and enjoying those morning pastries.
LAist: I am loving the book. Everything about it — the recipes, the photography by Matt Armendariz, and the darling little yellow polkadots on the dyed edges — it’s just perfect. It’s very personal, which is a great thing for people who have followed your work and want to know you better. I hadn't realized you worked at Tartine in San Francisco. Can you tell me about the experience of working with the James Beard Award-winning bakers there?
Zoe Nathan: Those were definitely my very formative years. At the time I worked as a line cook with a bunch of dudes in a kitchen who were either trying to sleep with me or fuck with me. I’d walk by and look in the window, and there were a bunch of girls in there who looked like me. I just wanted to be friends with them.
I just kept showing up no matter how many times they turned me down. Finally they [Tartine’s husband-and-wife owners Chad Robertson and Elisabeth Prueitt] gave in. Being fast with my knife was the only thing I had at that point. I cut apples as fast as I could for them. Soon after that I quit my night job.
Working there helped me understand what felt right to me. The pace, the way they treat their employees, the way they treat one another as a couple, it was so inspirational. On top of that they made amazing food. They make food that’s genuinely them, and that’s what I try to do at Huck.
Did you know you wanted to open a bakery before working at Tartine?
Ever since I was a kid I always thought I wanted a shop. I didn’t know what that meant, but I always wanted that spot where people could find me. I wanted to create a space for people and for community. By the time I met Josh, I knew that place was a bakery.
When you first told friends you wanted to open a bakery in L.A. after the weekly pop-ups at Rustic Canyon, they said it would never work. Why was that?
People kept saying that people don’t eat pastries anymore, that people on the Westside are all on diets … There’s a lot of shame that comes with eating in our society. Generally speaking people try not to eat things and then if they do then they feel guilty. That sucks. I think that it’s healthy and good to have a pastry and a cup of coffee and have a proper breakfast and feed your body and enjoy something and eat it slowly. I believe it’s the right thing to do. When you do the right thing, people come.
We opened Huckleberry and people came. They are greeted with love, and there’s food made with love. They walk into a room oozing with abundance. I’m blessed that people react so well to it.
How have your customers reacted as positively to your new added on health insurance surcharge?
There are definitely some negative people who complain about paying for insurance saying that we should pay for that ourselves, but you have to say, “You are paying for everything — the food, the lighting, the labor — every time you dine here. Why is this a problem?” I’m so thankful that we get to do that [pay for insurance for] our employees. It’s what’s right to do.
That idea of being hired based on passion instead of resumes is something you’ve taken to your restaurants. You hired Laurel Almerinda, who at the time had zero pastry experience, and is now the co-author of your cookbook. What are you looking for in a new hire?
Personality is everything. I’m not traditionally taught. A lot of things that I might do might be considered “wrong.” But as long as what we send out to the customer is perfect, then it’s okay by me.
You have to want to do what we do. You have to enjoy doing things over and over again … Laurel had no baking experience and now she’s one of the best. I find it a lot better to hire people who don’t know how to bake perfectly and don't have a huge skill set. Frankly I have to break those sorts of people down and teach them my way.
To that tune, you talk a lot about baking with your eyes, nose, and intuition, which totally counters what most people think of baking, which is that it’s all about precision, science and math.
I feel like with cooking, people have come to think that if things aren’t perfect, it’s a waste of their time. Most things we do in our lives — like riding a bike or a horse — we expect to fail a couple times, but there isn’t a lot of space around baking and cooking because of how perfectly it’s presented on television. People hold themselves to these ridiculous standards.
I threw out so much stuff in order to learn and be able to trust my instincts. I find it empowering and really fun that it can be a creative outlet. People need to trust that you know how to feed yourself.
That perfectly imperfect look really rings true at Huckleberry and in the cookbook. I love how you give the tip of making things like jams, preserves, and soups on the cheap using “seconds.” I think people get worried about spending so much money to stew down expensive, perfect fruit, and it makes locally sourced fruit so much more accessible.
Seconds are bruised and imperfect and they are usually cheaper. There is a time and a place for seconds, like in sauces and soups. Berries, for instance, are great for jams and jellies and cobblers. I think that fruit can be really expensive. When you’re baking with things, it’s a lot to ask people to always buy organic and always buy from the farmers market, but it’s really important and a big game changer. But there are ways to do it a little cheaper. By doing it at the end of the farmers market when you can barter or buying seconds, you can do that.
There are tons of little tricks like that in the book. I’m glad you’re not wigged out by sharing your trade secrets.
The reason why I wrote this book is because I wanted people to make these things at home. I am fine if they don't come in every once in a while because they made it on their own with their families. That’s what makes writing this book rewarding.
Bacon Cheddar Muffins
*from the Huckleberry cookbook, out October 2014
6 tbsp unsalted butter, cubed at room temp
2 tbsp sugar
1.5 tsp kosher salt
3/4 cup cornmeal
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
6 tbsp rye flour
1.5 tbsp baking powder
1/2 cup plus 1tbsp canola oil
3 tbsp plus 2 tsp maple syrup
1 cup plus 2 tbsp buttermilk
1/2 cup diced cheddar, plus 1/4 cup grated cheddar
6 tbsp grated parmesan cheese
11 slices cooked bacon, coarsely chopped, plus 1.5 tbsp bacon fat, cooled
1/4 cup fresh chives, parsley or a combo thereof, finely chopped
chopped rosemary for garnish
1. Position a rack near the top of your oven and preheat to 400 F. Line two 12 cup muffin pans with 15 paper liners, spacing them evenly between the two pans.
2. In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter, sugar, and salt for 1-2 minutes until nice and fluffy. Incorporate the eggs slowly, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the all purpose flour, cornmeal, rye flour, and baking powder and mix until incorporated. Add the canola oil, maple syrup, and buttermilk. Scrape the mixer bowl well, making sure everything is well-incorporated. Add the diced cheddar, 4 tbsp of the parmesan, the bacon, and the chives. Mix until just dispersed, folding by hand to be sure.
3. Fill the muffin cups to the very top.
4. In a small bowl, toss the grated cheddar with the remaining 2 tbsp parmesan and sprinkle evenly over the muffins. Bake for about 15 minutes, until nicely browned but not over-baked inside. Garnish with chopped rosemary.
*Chef's note: These are best dated the day they're made.