ASHLEY ROOP CHURNS OUT HEAVENLY TREATS IN HER PASTRY KITCHEN AT PETIT LOUIS
STORY BY Elizabeth Brunetti PHOTOGRAPHY BY Lisa Shires
It’s 6:30 on a drizzly morning outside Le Comptoir, the café adjacent to Petit Louis Bistro on the Lake in Columbia. The coffee shop isn’t open yet, but there’s plenty going on deep within the building. I take shelter under the bright red, white and blue awning and peek into the empty café – the tile floor laid out in overlapping semicircles, modern red chairs stacked on the round café tables, handwritten chalk menus – and a barren display case. There isn’t a crumb in sight. But that will change soon enough. Ashley Roop, pastry chef for the six Foreman Wolf Group restaurants, including Petit Louis Bistro is already hard at work in the pastry kitchen. She has been here, as she is most mornings, since 5 a.m.
One of the café workers, a young blonde woman, walks in to the space and notices me, and lets me in and guides me through the restaurant – with its dark woodwork, marble bar and art nouveau light fixtures, not yet illuminated for the day. We step through the swinging doors to face a choice – there’s a large steel prep counter and stoves to the left, but the unmistakable scent of something sweet and yeasty baking in a hot oven wafts from a smaller kitchen to the right, so I follow my nose.
Ashley Roop stands at the far end of the pastry kitchen – a small but efficient space removed from the chef’s domain. She looks up from the long butcher block counter and smiles. She wears a white apron over her white chef’s coat, and her blonde hair is gathered in a loose knot. She’s putting the finishing touches on a batch of chocolate croissants – since Le Comptoir opened in January, these buttery confections have developed a passionate following. She carefully rolls rectangles of buttery “choux” from one short end to the other, pausing every so often to place a sliver of chocolate across the width of the dough, continuing to roll in practiced, almost meditative movements.
The kitchen is quiet, almost Zen-like, nearly silent aside from the humming of the oven and the rhythmic cracking of eggshells as pastry cook Karissa Warren preps a cake batter. Warren has been here since 4 a.m. The rest of the kitchen won’t really start waking up until about 10, Roop says, when the restaurant begins preparations for lunch service.
By then, Roop and her staff will have already baked and sent off most of the pastries for the morning delivery to the
four other Foreman Wolf restaurants in Baltimore. The refrigerated pastry car will be lined with raspberry and pistachio “gateaux” for Petit Louis in Roland Park, chocolate buttermilk cake for Johnny’s, almond cake with citrus ricotta filling for Pazo, and for Charleston, ‘Strawberry Shortcake’ – an olive oil and buttermilk cake with orange and black peppercorn macerated strawberries. These delicacies for the aforementioned restaurants, plus Cinghiale, include myriad other pastries, petit fours and specialty items – all freshly baked and delivered daily. While Roop is responsible for preparing the pastries and desserts for all of the Foreman Wolf restaurants, the bread production for all six venues is managed by baker Carrie Goltra at Pazo.
A delivery person wheels a dolly stacked with boxes of fresh ingredients into the pastry kitchen’s walk-in refrigerator. While pastry chefs in many restaurants are allotted a tiny corner of the kitchen to do their work, Roop’s kitchen is relatively spacious and is outfitted to meet the demands of baking for six restaurants. Enormous wire whisks hang on a wall within easy reach. There’s an industrial-sized mixer. A heavy wooden rolling pin that could moonlight as a baseball bat sits at the ready on Roop’s seasoned chopping block. Storage shelves are lined with a variety of mixing bowls, ramekins, tart pans and cutting boards. Two long tables, one holding a dough sheeting machine or laminator, provide ample workspace.
Not long before I arrived this morning, that laminator was hard at work methodically folding butter into dough before rolling it out in long, thin sheets, the very sheets Roop is now dividing into various shapes. She uses a rotary cutter to slice a sheet of dough into a series of triangles. (Who knew so much geometry is involved in baking?) These will become plain butter croissants.
“Croissants are all about the butter,” notes Roop. She uses fresh butter from Trickling Springs Creamery in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, made from milk produced by grass fed, hormone-free cows. It has a high fat content and a creamy flavor, making it perfect for croissants, she says.
The Foreman Wolf pastry kitchen sources ingredients from more than 15 local farmers, including eggs, fruits and dairy products. Roop says she enjoys the challenge of cooking with the seasons – as well as the pure indulgence of using ingredients that are as fresh as possible. “Seasonality is really inspiring,” she says. “It’s much more interesting to figure out how to use four plats of strawberries than to just purchase whatever berry I’d like to purchase.”
As much as she enjoys such gizmos as sheeting machines, Roop revels just as much in getting her hands dirty. Growing up in rural Illinois, she routinely baked cookies with her mother, cinnamon sugar donuts with her grandmother, and apple pie with her great-grandmother, using apples picked from her own tree. Roop has always loved cooking and even threw fancy dinner parties when she was in high school; one such event featured roasted Cornish hens, twice-baked potatoes, and pear streusel for dessert.
She lines up some of the triangles of dough and methodically stretches each one until it’s easily three times its original length, though no more than half the width. Her hands are assertive, yet gentle with the fragile dough as she seamlessly moves down the line. Once rolled, each piece is transferred to a baking sheet, which is then placed on a stacking cart to await a turn in the heated oven.
This steady production – prep, roll, bake, cool, decorate, deliver – is at the heart of the Foreman Wolf pastry-making machine. A centralized production location helps the restaurant group to efficiently produce sweets that live up to the Foreman Wolf brand, explains Allison Parker- Abromitis, spokeswoman for the restaurant group. “Tony [Foreman] and Cindy [Wolf] have a very particular standard that they want to achieve,” says Parker-Abromitis. “We always wanted to have a pastry outlet, and the space available at Petit Louis in Columbia gave us that opportunity.”
Roop and her team move through the kitchen as if following a choreographed dance as they prepare the day’s confections. Warren uses a contraption that resembles an oversized square egg slicer to cut apricot gelée into perfect cubes. I snag a sample, and it tastes like a sugar-coated summer afternoon. Not long after, Warren transports a tray of chocolate “petits gateaux” out to Le Comptoir, small slivers of candied orange peel forming an “x” in the corner of each miniature cake. The once-empty display cases begin to fill with treats, some colorfully frosted, others flakey and golden brown. When the buzzer on the oven signals another finished batch of croissants, Roop pauses to remove the sheet, now dotted with crusty golden mounds, and places a fresh batch in the oven. She flicks on the timer and returns to her croissant rolling, never missing a beat.
The balance between technique and artistry is what drew Roop to pastry instead of savory cooking, she says. “Not that savory cooking isn’t creative,” she acknowledges with a laugh. “But with pastry, you’ve got three main ingredients – butter, sugar and flour – and you can do a million different things with it, just by changing the technique.” Macarons, for example, require a fine-tuned balance of meringue and almond flour – an overworked egg white or flour ground too coarsely can ruin the texture of the airy cookie. If the kitchen is too humid, the cookies can crack. Macarons take about three hours to prepare, from egg whipping to cookie cooling. The mercurial Maryland weather adds to the challenge. “Getting the technique down and being able to manipulate it when the weather isn’t predictable – just figuring that out is interesting,” remarks Roop.
Roop still bakes for her family when she goes home for visits, where, unfazed by her status as a professional pastry chef, they routinely beg for a lemon tart or cheesecake. “They always want things I started out doing,” she smiles. Whenever Roop is home for her birthday, her mother insists on baking a carrot cake for her, just as she did when Roop was a little girl.
Roop’s nostalgia for her upbringing gets muddled with her current culinary path when I ask what she’d make if it were her last day on Earth. “Mmm,” she says, thoughtfully. “Vanilla bean soufflé … or maybe rhubarb pie.”
Back in Petit Louis’ Comptoir, today’s colorful macaron selection now dresses up the display cases. There are three flavor combinations to choose from – lemon-thyme-huckleberry, strawberry-black peppercorn, and coconut-dark chocolate. Sous chef Travis Marley walks in, wearing a T-shirt that reads “Ooh La La.” I want to bring home an edible memento of my time here, but I have no idea what to choose.
I hear enchanting words: “Would you like to take some treats home with you?” Well sure, I agree, and ask Roop to select something. She considers this for a bit, finally selecting a raspberry-rhubarb financier (a moist yellow cake meant to resemble a bar of gold), a lemon-thyme-huckleberry macaron (the one I would have picked) and, of course, a chocolate croissant.
Outside the café, the world is still quiet. Ashley Roop is already several hours into the workday in her busy pastry kitchen, but the area around Lake Kittamaqundi is just beginning to wake up. The early morning drizzle has left a damp chill in the air, but as I cradle the pastries – some still warm from the oven – under my arm, I imagine a mid-afternoon snack, with a warming cup of tea. That is, if I can wait that long. *