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Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Art of the Edible

Moving On Dept.: Five years ago, I wrote about a recently opened pastry shop on Albany’s Lark Street. I was amazed and impressed to find such a stellar quality of dessert items, and delighted to know that the attached café was available for espresso-fueled lingering between bites. The café is closing this week, but the bakery will continue and the operation is planned to expand. So here’s a wistful re-look at what I found back then.

CLAUDIA CRIŞAN HAS A MASTER’S in metalworking. Her husband, Ignatius Calabria, has a Master’s in music ed. Is there a rewarding career in which they can combine their specialties? Of course. Baking.

Claudia Crisan | Photo by B. A. Nilsson
The Art of the EdibleIt’s not as improbable as it may sound. Claudia, a native of Romania, grew up in a family of bakers, and her parents still operate three retail stores in that country. “Mother was always a baker,” says Claudia. “She got good training in the early part of the Communist regime, but then Ceauşescu came into power and everything changed for the worse.”

Claudia learned traditional recipes from her mother, as well as “a style of working that you don’t find any more.”

“We met at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia,” says Ignatius. “We married, and Claudia emigrated here.” He reflects on that statement, then decides: “It sounds so unromantic.” His aunt and uncle in Woodstock were among those encouraging them open their own place, and discovered that this Albany property was available. Claudia and Ignatius bought it and went to work. “We pretty much gutted the place.” says Ignatius, “and every surface we removed revealed surprises. Surprises we had to fix.”

Crişan has been open a baker’s dozen months, in a Lark Street space that was the Carosello Bakery once upon a time and more recently was Roberto’s Italian Deli. The front of the store looks, upon first glance, like a traditional bakery, but there’s a gelato case in front with a rainbow of flavors that may waylay you from buying anything else. A few tables, both inside and out, are there to facilitate consumption.

An espresso machine sits nearby. The cappuccino is very old world, not the mammoth Americanized servings. And then there’s the case of confections. Pastries, cakes, cookies, tiny marzipan animals. If the look of an item doesn’t immediately suggest extraordinary craftsmanship, the texture and cascade of flavors will.

The kitchen is spacious, with large prep tables, a pastry roller, convection oven, coolers and lots of storage. And, incongruously, yet sensibly, a sofa.

Claudia bends over an oddly shaped cake that turns out to be a pastry version of a “onesie,” a baby’s bodyshirt. Alongside is a magazine photograph of the finished product. “I was asked to do this for a party,” she explains. “They brought me this picture to copy.” The replication is uncanny. As we talk, she’ll fashion the tunic’s buttons and borders and even craft a confectionary tag that hangs alongside and reads “Congratulations.”

“I’ve always wanted to do this kind of work,” Claudia explains. “Food has always been part of what I do. I’d already been making edible jewelry before we opened here, and we needed a place for it.”

Imagine a spun-sugar corsage, colored to match the bridesmaids’ outfits. Or, as I saw during a recent musicallly themed fund-raising event, a guitar festooned with spun sugar and candies. Or a wedding cake with delicate sugar wings.

Claudia makes edible jewelry “only for very special events. People have to be careful with it – you can’t hug one another.” She shrugs philosophically. “They either get it or they don’t.”

As to the pastries, they’re assembled with homemade crusts – and anyone who’s ever tried to craft a puff pastry knows how daunting it can be – and handpicked chocolate. And none of the oil or shortening American bakers tend to favor.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
We study an array of such creations. “You need to give the cakes time to get used to the room,” says Claudia, explaining why we haven’t yet plunged into them. “This is a génoise, this is a flourless recipe, and this is a dacquoise.” The first has the airy quality unique to this classic leavening-free style; the second is thick with chocolate; the third, a creamy hazelnut-almond tart.

“These cakes aren’t just for dessert,” Ignatius observes. “They’re not as sweet as traditional desserts, so they don’t have to come just at the end of a meal.” He offers an opinion that reminds me why I shouldn’t live near his bakery. “They’re very satisfying between meals.”

Oversweet they may not be, but they’re still difficult to finish. And bargain-priced at less than $5 apiece. “They probably are priced too low,” says Claudia, “but we want people to try them.”

She brings out a slice of coconut cake to sample. “I’m not crazy about coconut,” she says in a matter-of-fact manner than in no way diminishes my anticipation of sampling this item. “But I think it holds the flavor together.” This it does, in multi-layer extravaganza of tart and tangy richness.

The pinkness of a raspberry-topped cake comes from the berries alone. You won’t be surprised, at this point, to learn that they use no artificial food coloring. “I’m very excited about this flourless cake,” she says, “because we have a lot of people come in who are looking for gluten-free desserts.”

The bakery enjoys a walk-in trade that has increased to the point where they estimate that 60 percent of their business is now retail customers. “But we have some solid wholesale accounts, too,” says Ignatius.

They craft 15 to 20 cakes each day, with chosen recipes changing according to immediate weather conditions and the flow of the seasons. Confections don’t get much more handcrafted than that.

We tend to think of “old school” artisans as those in their twilight years. Here’s a place that offers a refreshing journey – literally – into a old-school style of craftsmanship performed by younger-generation talent. Not that you’re going to worry much about such philosophy once you help yourself to a slice of cake.

Crişan Bakery & Edible Art Gallery, 197 Lark St., Albany, 445-2727,

Metroland Magazine, 9 July 2009

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