While a good portion of the student body was sipping Natty Lights and munching on spicies with, a select group gathered Saturday night at an undisclosed location to graze on considerably more gourmet fare. Personal pizzas with caramelized onions, roasted squash and kale and three-layer Nutella, peanut butter and mocha cheesecake with a pretzel crust were among the tasty offerings. The cozy, dimly lit room, with bottles of wine and glowing candles, created an atmosphere worlds away from the fluorescent lights of Josiah's.
The 60 to 70 diners — all of whom are on or are friends with someone on an email listserv announcing the date of the next bakery — had Anna Jones '12 and Sarah Marion '12.5 to thank for the delicious treats. One Saturday each month, from 8 p.m. to midnight, the pair hosts an underground bakery at a secret location. Customers are seated at tables upon arrival, order off a limited menu of three desserts and one savory item and are professionally served by friends of the hostesses. Guests can donate whatever amount they wish to the cafe — the money is only to cover operating costs.
Jones and Marion came up with the idea for the project while brainstorming how to transform their love of baking and cooking into a plausible business. The bakery was inspired by a secret restaurant in Providence that has since been shut down. "We were hoping to provide a community around food," Marion said. "Also a social setting for college students on a Saturday night that is not going out to a frat party."
When the bakery began, the pair hoped it would one day turn into a restaurant with more savory dishes, but, Marion said, "At this point, it seems that a late-night bakery is a good way to attract more of a college crowd."
Jones agreed, saying that a bakery was also easier from a logistical and financial perspective.
Both students began their culinary ventures at a young age. "My mom's parenting philosophy is if you're not good at something, your kids will be good at it," Jones said. "My mom hates to cook, so I guess I just started experimenting in the kitchen because there were no rules."
From the start, Jones was ambitious. In eighth grade, she cooked a meal with 20 different dishes for her grandmother's birthday, and this past summer, she worked as a private chef for a professor in Italy. Marion said her experience "doing weird experiments with food" has also served her well. She hosted three secret bakeries over the summer, which served as preliminaries to the three the pair has hosted during the school year.
Despite their experience, planning and preparing the ambitious menu for the bakery is no easy feat. "We start planning (the next one) as soon as it's over," Jones explained. "We are constantly coming up with new ideas."
Marion and Jones try to have the menu completely set at least a week before each bakery. Though they take inspiration from online recipes and blogs, they said they have never followed a recipe exactly.
"Sarah's very good at winging things and coming up with a natural sense of proportion," Jones said, adding that she is especially good at the one recipe critical to any bakery's success — frosting.
"It's only because I really like to eat it!" Marion laughed, following up the compliment by praising Jones's ice cream-making skills.
After grocery shopping the previous Sunday and Monday, the chefs begin prep mid-week, and the baking is in full swing on Friday and Saturday. Finally, on Saturday evening, the fun begins.
Though both lamented not having time to socialize more with the guests, they look forward to the final push. "My favorite part is right in the middle, when there is a rush," Jones said. "It's really exciting to feel like we are under a time pressure."
Though the pair was running a bustling cafe, the kitchen was a surprisingly relaxed environment. As hungry crowds waited to be seated, Jones and Marion smiled and joked with friends in the kitchen as they cranked out three flavors of cake balls — pumpkin gingerbread with white chocolate, caramel cake dipped in dark chocolate with sea salt and maple brown butter cranberry cake coated in white chocolate and toffee — and plated mini apple pies, carefully topping them with homemade tea ice cream.
In the cafe, sounds of delight filled the air as guests had their first tastes. Spencer Fields '12 said he was so impressed by the "restaurant quality" of the food that he had only a few words for the cheesecake: "indulgent, so good, so good." At the next table, Molly Quinn '12 agreed, complimenting the "great food, great environment." It was clear from the lack of leftovers that the dishes were a success.
Though it was not served Saturday, Marion's favorite dessert from the bakery was "a crispy cinnamon waffle" topped with homemade peanut butter and honey ice creams and caramelized bananas. Jones, who loves "anything with ice cream," also fondly remembered her favorite dessert — a sweet corn and blueberry ice cream on a peach almond upside-down cake.
The only "mishap" the two reported was a slight difference in imagined portion size from their customers. "Our perception of an amount is more than most people's," Jones said, referring to an incident when customers requested "tiny little slivers" of a very rich, dense chocolate torte.
"If I'm going to have a slice of cake, go big!" Marion laughed.
After the success of this bakery, Jones and Marion both see it as more plausible that they might eventually move into the restaurant or bakery business together, which they have wanted to do since they met.
"Now that we are graduating and getting closer and closer, it is becoming more of a strong possibility," Marion said.
But maybe this next business operation will be a little less clandestine.