Three-time James Beard award-winning chef, restaurateur and author Tom Douglas shares the stories and recipes behind the enduring popularity of his 11-year-old Seattle bakery.
Some choose the Space Needle, others head straight for Pike Place Market. But when bakery lovers visit Seattle, they know to fill their itineraries with stops at Besalu, Columbia City Bakery and most especially the Dahlia Bakery.
Now those who can't get to the Pacific Northwest can re-create some of Dahlia's all-American sweet and savory goodness with "The Dahlia Bakery Cookbook" (William Morrow, $35), a wealth of instant- classic recipes for cookies, breads, scones, cakes, pies, tarts, sandwiches and soups.
In a recent phone interview, co-author and Dahlia Bakery owner Tom Douglas, the driving force behind 13 diverse Seattle food-and-drink establishments, discussed the power of coconut cream pie, the value of first-rate ingredients and his abiding affection for the berry crisp.
Q Dahlia Lounge had been around for more than a decade when you opened Dahlia Bakery. Why a bakery?
A We had moved the restaurant across the street and up half a block, and we had an extra 150 square feet of space. There's a restaurant in Manhattan called Balthazar, and next to it is Balthazar Bakery. It's tiny, and it's very charming to have that little retail outlet to sell the house desserts and breads. That was my inspiration. It seemed like fun. We also love to show our effort. We make everything that we sell. That distinguishes us from the Sysco-supplied restaurants, the ones that only pretend to do good work. We may not be the best bread bakers or the best pastry cooks, but no one out-efforts us.
Q Is it safe to say that triple coconut-cream pie saved your first restaurant, the Dahlia Lounge?
A I wouldn't say it saved us -- the lobster potstickers probably did that. But the pie got the most attention in the media. People would stop me on the street and tell me how much they loved it. It really put us on the map.
Q Where did the idea for it come from?
A My grandma was a great pie baker, and I had them all the time when I was growing up, so I challenged Shelley [Lance, Douglas' co-author and original pastry chef] to make several desserts like it. I'm not sure we even thought twice about it. It was just a great pie, you know? But it took on a life of its own and became a standard. Now we sell it in all of the restaurants, even if it's not on the menu. At Lola [Douglas' Greek-inspired restaurant] it's the No. 1-selling dessert, and it's not on the menu. People would ask, "Could I have a slice of that pie?" and because we're in the customer service business, we'd run it from across the street. Now we just keep them in the back.
Q Since this is your fourth cookbook, you are obviously not a believer in the proprietary nature of recipes. True?
A That's such a short-term thing. We're in the hospitality business, and whatever you can do to engage the customer and make him or her remember you, that's what's important. Besides, if you give the recipe to 10 bakers, you'll get 10 different pies, that's just the way of the world. Recipes are up for grabs and generally at the whim and the talent level of the person making it. We make 150 pies a day, so we're consistent. But I will say this: Every time you make a recipe it gets better, because it gets dialed into your personality.
Q Is there one particular dish that everyone should know how to bake?
A Berry crisp, absolutely. Every time you make a fruit crisp for me, you are my favorite person in the world. It's something delicious and warm, right out of the oven. I mean, what more could anyone want? And all you're doing is taking the best fruit of the season, putting a crumb topping on it and putting it in the oven.
Mastering one recipe is better than mastering too many. Learn something and own it, and you'll feel so much better about it. You'll have more confidence if you've made it five times, and that confidence adds so much fun to cooking.
Q Can you recommend a tool that all bakers should have in their kitchen?
A It's really fun to have a convection oven, even it if it's a little convection toaster oven. It really changes the way you bake. My biggest thing is measurements. I don't get along with them very well. I don't have time for them, which is why I'm not a baker. But measurements are important in baking. So I'd say, get a scale. Good baking cookbooks offer weight measurements in recipes, and you'll become a more consistent baker if you weigh ingredients.
Q That tomato soup is fantastic. Is it your mom's recipe?
A It's inspired by it. She would open up a can of Campbell's most of the time [laughs]. But who doesn't love a good tomato soup? We sell 10 gallons of it a day. It's not full of cream, and a touch of cayenne puts a little heat at the back of your throat. I like that.
A It's the ingredients. Most people are so used to getting crap when they go to the grocery store that they have no idea what real ingredients are, and how good real ingredients are. I don't mean to pick on Costco -- they're friends of mine -- but how do you have a non-dairy whipped topping on a coconut cream pie? Why would you want to eat that? When people get the real deal in their mouth, holy cow, it's a revelation.
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