Michelle Gayer has a nickname for the extraordinary macaroons that fly out of the Salty Tart, her fantastic new bakery at the Midtown Global Market. She calls them "crackaroons," and it's not an exaggeration to say their highly addictive qualities qualify them for inclusion on the federal government's list of Schedule 1 narcotics. Those little golden haystacks are seriously fabulous. Each bite, one intense coconut blast after another, is better than the last, their chewy outsides collapsing into an ultra-moist, snowy white interior.
These triumphs of simplicity are the summit of Gayer's rustic aesthetic, one that is forged in the oven's searing rather than through the tip of an icing-filled pastry bag. Other, lesser bakers would succumb to the temptation to dip them in chocolate or otherwise embellish their auburn allure, but Gayer understands and appreciates the beauty of understatement. No running, no hiding, just a full-on celebration of the power and glory of coconut. That philosophy rules everything that comes out of Gayer's ovens.
I'd expect nothing less from someone with so enviable a résumé: Her decade-long stint as pastry chef at Chicago's stratospherically rated Charlie Trotter's came to an end when she was lured to Minneapolis with the prospect of running her own show at the Franklin Street Bakery. She left that gig in 2005 -- plunging her fans into despair -- and turned to teaching. She tiptoed back into restaurants last year, taking the pastry helm at La Belle Vie. In May she fulfilled her dream of owning her own bakery when she launched the Salty Tart.
Good, better, best
Count me over the moon. The only change I'd lobby for is scale: I want more. Lots more. To Gayer's credit, she's exercising caution, expanding the bakery's selections as business conditions permit, a prudent strategy I can admire. But I'm impatient, because with every visit my fears of finding a downside keep shrinking. Yeah, it's that good.
Gayer could have named her enterprise the Brioche Queen. "It's a joke around here, how many times a day we have to make brioche," Gayer later told me. No one does the eggy-buttery dough better, equally adept with the its sweet and savory split personality. For the former, it could be a simple rolled dough filled with orange-scented pastry cream and topped with twinkly sugar worthy of a disco ball, or done up as the most tantalizing cinnamon pull-apart imaginable. For the latter it might be roasted heirloom tomatoes, or a mesmerizing swirl of chèvre, pears and honey or that can't-miss fusion of gently sweet caramelized onions and tart chèvre, finished with a bit of parsley and sea salt, a Super Size version of the canapes you wish people would serve at parties.
Gayer's proximity to the Produce Exchange, the MGM's swell greengrocer, means she has access to the kind of superb seasonal fruits that allow her to maintain a marvelous improvisational air. One day she's turning out dainty little free-form brown butter tarts filled with ripe nectarines, the next she's incorporating strawberries into a crème fraîche-laced pastry that's a slimmer cousin to pound cake.
Back to cookies. That same-old, same-old stalwart seldom gets the respect and ingenuity that Gayer lavishes on hers. There's a lovely sugar cookie kissed with lavender and lime, a nod to the signature lavender-ginger cookie at the Smiling Pelican Bakeshop in Maiden Rock, Wis., a bakery I admire enormously. Sometimes Gayer marries unusual combinations and makes them work, such as a sugar cookie crunched up with bits of millet and enriched with dabs of white chocolate. Gayer is particularly skilled at turning down the sweet volume, the one that drowns out so many baked goods. Witness an inspired whole wheat-peanut butter cookie that leaves you wanting to come back for more rather than wallowing in I-shouldn't-have-eaten-that guilt.
As for cupcakes, forget about the kids' birthday party. The Salty Tart's cupcakes seem made for grown-ups. The cake is moist and tender and packed with flavor -- the chocolate tastes like chocolate, the vanilla sings with clean vanilla bean flavor -- minus any cloyingly super-sweet aftertaste. The buttercream icings are silky smooth, and when it comes to decoration, less was never more than this, from a single, extravagant white chocolate curlicue to crunchy bits of tiny puffed caramelized rice that does double duty as a textural tweak. Gayer even does the impossible, producing a vegan devil's-food cupcake that would fool even the most devoted egg and butter fanatics.
Inspiration from her Iowa mother
Gayer doesn't forget her rural Iowa upbringing, frequently finding inspiration in her mother's time-tested recipes. It could be divine single-serving chocolate-zucchini Bundt cakes ("So Janice," Gayer told me, referring to her mom), the tops filled with a squirt of caramel, or a fudgy brownie so robustly chocolately that it makes you thirsty; pick up the bake-it-yourself version, conveniently packed in an 8- by 8-inch pan, and pass them off as your own.
Oh, and she's revived a few Franklin Street greatest hits, including a biscuit-like cornmeal cake pocked with fragrant rosemary, the personification of how Gayer so nimbly blurs the sweet-savory line. It's as distinctive a baked goodie as I've ever run across in the Twin Cities.
Other than that extraordinary brioche, I don't get the feeling that Gayer's heart and soul lie in the breadbaking process, but she's the kind of practitioner who wouldn't -- or is that couldn't? -- sell a sandwich that featured someone else's breads. So she's producing her own. Quite well, in fact, and her baguettes, ciabattas and focaccias are the basis for exceptional grab-and-go lunches that boast all the right touches -- orange marmalade and a sprinkle of fleur de sel liven a turkey-brie combo, and a blazing horseradish and a fruity plum jam do splendid things for a ham-Gouda blend. Each one is jockeying for my favorite fast lunch right now. (Not that I'm surprised, since Gayer's long and fruitful tenure with Trotter, one of the country's most exacting culinary practitioners, including the creation of Trotter's to Go, the Mount Olympus of prepared foods outposts.) Oh, yeah: The price is insane, just four bucks.
I'm looking forward to checking out Gayer's soups, which she's hoping to introduce in a few weeks, and I occasionally allow myself to daydream about the possibility of a Salty Tart ice cream scoop shop. I pray the honchos at the MGM are treating her right, because she's exactly the type of top-of-their-game entrepreneur that the place needs to achieve a crowd-luring critical mass. Trouble is, there are depressingly few Michelle Gayer types out there. Our loss.