At the University District Farmers Market in May last year, I stopped at an unassuming...
AT THE UNIVERSITY District Farmers Market in May last year, I stopped at an unassuming new stall where a young woman was selling several kinds of sticky buns. I always worry that farmers-market pastries might taste “healthy,” but this caramel pecan bun almost made me drop my turnips.
It was buttery and rich, not too sweet, and when I asked the proprietor about it, she spoke of brioche dough and house caramel sauce.
I became a Belle’s Buns convert on the spot and bought another bun, this one with walnuts and a drizzle of chocolate, and the chocolate was a team player, not an overwhelming presence.
The baker behind the buns is Carolyn Ferguson, a native Seattleite who started Belle Epicurean with her husband, Howard, in 2004. It’s not just traffic that’s getting stickier downtown: After two successful seasons at farmers markets, the Fergusons opened a retail shop last month and are working on another in the Pike Place Market. (And, they will sell at the University market on Saturdays starting in May.)
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Belle Epicurean is the upscale, downtown big sister, in the Fairmont Hotel next to Shuckers. It offers sandwiches, coffee and desserts (including a chocolate caramel tart with a sprinkle of fleur de sel) as well as buns. It was inevitable that this family would end up in the food business.
Belle Epicurean (1206 Fourth Ave.) is open Monday through Friday, 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.,
Carolyn and Howard met while studying at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.
“Carolyn had caught my eye not only romantically, but it didn’t take a genius to see that she was the best one in the class,” said Howard.
This is a family business in every conceivable respect. Their kitchen is in a wing of Carolyn’s father’s machine tool factory in Georgetown, where two of her brothers and her brother-in-law also work. (Presumably the employees of B&G Machine stay well fed.)
One morning in the kitchen, Howard gave Isabelle’s little sister, Nancy, a bottle, then plunked her onto the counter in her bouncy seat. She grinned, even though she is too young to eat a bun. Possibly she was remembering the endless “bun in the oven” jokes her mother must have endured back then.
“Nancy was born July 1, and we signed a lease in the Fairmont July 5,” laughed Carolyn. She rolled a bowl of fougasse dough, made with thyme and olives, over to the digital scale, and she and Howard slopped handfuls of sticky dough into plastic tubs. “We used to make this dough at the restaurant,” she said. “We’d braise a leg of lamb and we’d make a lamb sandwich and put a horseradish aioli on it and grill it like a panini with some gruyere cheese. Oh, it was so good.” They’re making that sandwich, with roast beef instead of lamb, at Belle Epicurean.
The restaurant was Maison Bleu Bistro in New Orleans, which the couple opened in 2001. Like many restaurants, it went deep into the red after 9/11 and closed the following year. But it contained the seeds of Belle’s Buns. The restaurant was in a hotel, so they had to serve breakfast. “I asked Carolyn, ‘What can you make for breakfast that isn’t just scrambled eggs and bacon?’ ” Howard said. “She’d made these brioche cinnamon rolls in school, and they just blew me away. I said, ‘We’re going to get rich just selling these things.’ “
Carolyn pulls a pan of fresh berry buns out of the oven, and the yeasty aroma makes me swoon.
Part of the secret to Belle’s Buns is no surprise: It’s butter. The brioche dough is fantastically rich. The berry buns are popular at the markets, but they’re a pain to make, because the water content of the berries makes them expand in the oven until they’re the size of Mike Tyson’s fist. After they bake, Carolyn has to press each bun back into the mold by hand.
She also makes several savory buns, including ham and cheese and brie en brioche. Today it’s a rosemary potato galette with pesto and goat cheese. Every neighborhood has its own favorite pastry, Carolyn tells me. The caramel pecan bun is popular everywhere, but “you couldn’t sell a caramelized onion on Broadway to save your life.” Because I am looking at the electric roller enviously, Carolyn lets me roll out croissant dough. The roller is like a giant pasta machine.
“This is the greatest thing since sliced bread,” she says, and as a baker, she would know. A long conveyor belt sends the dough between a pair of metal cylinders, and you reduce the space between the cylinders with each pass. Like driving a stick shift, it takes some practice to keep the belt from lurching into action too quickly and sending the dough flying.
This is artisan baking in the 21st century: plenty of gadgetry, but none of the chaos of a restaurant kitchen, because there are key steps (rising, mixing, chilling) that can’t be sped up. Bakers wait. A lot.
I ask Carolyn if this is boring after the all-day excitement of restaurant work. “It’s less stressful,” she says. “We’re not a la minute service. I don’t necessarily want to go back to doing that, although I like the cuisine, because I enjoy my family.”
Matthew Amster-Burton is a Seattle freelance writer. He can be reached at email@example.com. Barry Wong is a Seattle-based freelance photographer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.