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Me happy in a vegetarian restaurant (see review) is weird, but how's this for mind-blowing: me fucking ecstatic in a full-on vegan bakery.
I have spent years walking the earth like Caine in the old Kung Fu series, roving around the countryside in disreputable pants and indulging my every culinary whim. In these travels, I have learned two gustatory truths. One, no matter what it is or how bad it sounds, if the cabbies, truckers and/or prostitutes are eating it, you should order it, too. And two, vegan bakeries suck.
I know -- that's not much to have learned in the course of all that wandering, but the restaurant world is a weird place, and not many of its truths are absolutely immutable. But at least I had two pole stars by which to navigate: Order what the whores eat, and never buy a vegan cupcake. Now, though, I'm not so sure.
837 E. 17th Ave.
Denver, CO 80218
Region: Central Denver
The bakery at WaterCourse opened about six months ago to peals of bitter laughter from the baking community. Around town, bakeries and patisseries and boulangeries were closing so fast that it seemed like the commercial leasing agents handling the spaces should have given out tax-seizure paperwork with every contract they signed. So for someone to come into that climate and try to run a bakery operating without butter, without cream, without eggs or milk chocolate or any of that good stuff that any sane person would consider absolutely vital in the baking process? That was just nuts. Most pros wouldn't have given owner Dan Landes better than 20 percent odds of making it past three months; I would have put it at about 10.
But then, no one was factoring in the brilliance of European-trained baker, cook and patissière Deanna Scimio. After six months in France and six years of cooking and baking in Vail, she moved to Denver about a year ago, right into an apartment across 13th Avenue from WaterCourse. The way the story goes, she'd come in one day looking for a cup of tea to cure a miserable cold and ended up walking out with a job as Landes's baker.
For six months, she worked in the 24-hour kitchen at WaterCourse -- coming in at ten o'clock after the restaurant hot line had shut down and baking all night to be ready for the breakfast and prep crews when they came in the next morning. And when the production bakery opened next door at 214 East 13th, she moved in and started baking during the days, too.
I got to meet her there last week. While walking into most vegan bakeries is like stepping into a gross, humid cloud filled with the bittersweet stink of wheat germ and failure, entering Scimio's was like stepping into heaven. It smelled impossibly like butter and sugar and cream -- three things a vegan bakery is absolutely not allowed to use. There was flour everywhere, ovens wrinkling the air above them with their heat, a selection of pastries and cakes laid out on the one clear bit of counter space in the place (they'd known I was coming), and in the middle of it all, Scimio -- sweaty, oven-burned and dusted in flour, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, as foul-mouthed and opinionated as any cook I'd ever met, and an absolute genius.
I tasted a Boston cream pie, totally vegan, and was amazed. She'd managed to inflate the cream filling using no cream, no eggs, nothing for lightness at all. Her secret? Cider vinegar and baking soda cooked in the oven. "Just like making a volcano when you were a kid," she explained.
Although I wasn't crazy about a vegan peach-and-berry pie topped with granola, I probably wouldn't have ordered a peach-and-berry pie from a non-vegan bakery, either. But a chocolate-mousse tart in a perfect shell, topped with shaved chocolate and raspberries, was a dream -- the dough made with vegan shortening (which has to be worked like crazy to make it act like real shortening and give the dough its tender flakiness), the mousse with a clean, dark Belgian Callebaut chocolate that contains no animal products. "You'd be amazed at how many of the great chocolates have all this shit in them," Scimio told me. "But this," she said, patting a giant block of Callebaut, with a gleam in her eye like she was talking cocaine with Pablo Escobar, "is pure."
We had cookies. We had cake. We talked about using cornstarch and lemon juice blasted in the oven to fake the texture of proper lemon curd without any eggs, and how everything Scimio does is about trial and error and incessant tinkering. "I've fucked these things up so many times," she laughed, then stopped, then was serious. She told me how she would test recipes over and over until she could bring every element -- the flavor, the texture, the moisture, what have you -- into line with the classical pastry work she knows so well. She's an obsessive. A perfectionist. "There's a method for everything," she said. A true classicist at heart. "And it's just about finding a way to make that method work here. I like the challenge."