Head angel Stephanie Samuels

Way back before there was a Teno – or a Bake and Destroy – Tony and I were watching Sugar Rush, a short-lived Food Network show that I’m guessing would do much better these days than it did then. They covered an adorable place called Angel Food Bakery that did quirky wedding cakes, cute cupcakes and – the item that really caught my attention – homemade Twinkies (or, Airstreams as they are called round these parts.) Dang, I wish we had something cool like that in Chicago! I headed for the computer, Googled, and nearly fell off my chair. Not only was this cute-as-a-button shop in Chicago but it was in my own neighborhood! (Keep in mind this was long before the pushing-the-stroller-everywhere-days.)

Over the years I’ve stopped in whenever I could and in the past year I’ve made it my personal mission to wake as many Chicagoans up to this little gem as possible. Not only are the malted milk cupcakes to die for, and the Easy Bake Oven collection downright enviable, but the angel-in-chief Stephanie Samuels is an absolute doll.
Being that Angel Food is celebrating their 5th year in business this month I thought it was a perfect time to spot light one of my most highly-recommended sweet spots in my fair city. If you’ve never visited, or it’s been a while since you’ve been, stop in to this vintage wonderland and sink your teeth into something sweet.
What were you doing before you opened Angel Food Bakery?

Back in the mid 80’s I was a pastry chef at the now gone (but not forgotten) Metropolis Cafe in Old Town. Leaving  after 6 years, after traveling a bit and playing hippie in New Mexico for a while, I came back and got myself into the world of food styling, staying with that for about 12 years.  That was a great way to combine my sculpture background with my love of food.  I also had a custom cake business on the side – I worked and lived in a funky storefront apartment .

Did you go to culinary school?

Nope.  I have a BA in Studio Art, and a minor in Museum Studies from a  small liberal arts college in Wisconsin.  After graduating, I found a job as a bread apprentice, and pretty much learned pastry by the seat of my pants after Erwin Dreschler  had enough faith in me to hire me at Metropolis.

Airstreams photo from monkeydish.com

Airstreams photo from monkeydish.com

What did you want to be when you grew up?

Always an artist.  For a while there, it was also archeology.  I liked the “treasure hunt” aspect of that, and touching things that no one had handled in hundreds of years before I unearthed them.

What was the inspiration for your “throw back” look and menu?

I’m a child of the 60’s and 70’s, and remember getting to have those special treats once in a while.  They were doled out rather sparingly, and it was always a exciting event when we got one.  Working on the menu, I looked at other bakeries in town, and really wanted to do something a bit different.  I know that it’s important to have a “schtick” to be set apart a bit.  I wanted to focus on individual, cool looking desserts that reminded people of past “mouth memories.”

You’re probably most loved for your homemade versions of retro snacks – what made you decide to tackle those iconic sweets?

I like to make things that people normally don’t think about as being “homemade”.  Taking a well known product and recreating it with good quality ingredients – and tweaking it a bit.  I find that it’s a challenge, and it’s a fun thing for customers to experience.

Photo by Flickr user PopElegantiarum

When did you start collecting Easy Bake Ovens and how many do you think you have now?

I started to collect a few here and there over the years, but when I was designing this space I thought about putting a display shelf around the whole perimeter and putting toy ovens on it.  It was in line with the feel that I wanted for the place – fun, funky, homey.

You had to have used one as a kid – what do you remember making?

I DIDN”T!!!  I had to go to my friend Valerie Lapin’s house to play with one.  Between that tragedy, and a touch of OCD, I now have all the Easy Bakes I want.

No way! I baked a cake for baby Jesus in mine. I think I’ve probably mentioned that too many times on this blog. Have you tried to make something in an Easy Bake as a grown-up?

I have played around a bit (when I had more time!)  and found that it can actually be good for drying things out, like fruit leathers.

I first discovered your bakery, as embarrassing as it is to admit, on Food Network. Was I alone, or did that exposure bring a lot of new faces?

It did.  I was lucky enough to be on three different shows.  The first was Recipe for Success, a 1/2 hour show about business start ups.  The second and third, Unwrapped, and Sugar Rush, focused mostly on the retro items.  I have to say that I did get quite a bit of business after those shows, and also get a bit of a bump when they re-run them, which is always nice.  Probably the most surprising thing that came out of them was the outpouring of support from viewers.  I received a lot of emails, and hand written notes telling me to hang in there.  It really touched me.

Choco-wrap cake by AFB

Choco-wrap cake by AFB

I read a Facebook status update from you that cracked me up – about how FN’s Cake Challenges are sort of influencing people’s idea of what they want in a custom cake. Have you noticed an increase in outlandish cake requests?

UGH!  I have a lot of mixed feelings about those shows.  The competitions I love to watch, because I know how difficult that work is, I usually learn something in the process, and I’ve known a few of the folks on them, which is fun. The shows that bother me most are the “reality bakery” shows.  I think what it’s done is give people the impression that these kinds of cakes are made in a 1/2 hour, because that is how long the show is, and that they’re not going to cost that much.  I do get a lot of crazy requests, and I try to fill them, but I do give folks the option of a 3D design with it’s price tag, and another option that can be equally as creative, but easier on the wallet.  I am also the only one here that makes the cakes, and does the decorating, so in addition to running the shop and all that comes with it, I have to factor in the time it takes to give all the detailed attention deserved to a big cake project.

Five years is a great milestone – why do you think you’ve had such a good run in Chicago?

I know!  I can’t believe it.  I’m  lucky that I didn’t have much of a business background, because if I did, I probably should have closed down by now because of the amount of overhead vs. what comes in the door.  But I’m hanging in there.  Magically I manage to get the bills paid on time.  I really owe it to the community.  The neighbors have been so supportive, and many have become friends.  To me, the true success is that a real community has grown up  around here.  I’ve seen families change and grow.  Some have moved, and new ones have come in.  I’ve become involved in their lives as well as they in mine.

What’s your favorite thing to bake?

The crazy cakes are always fun, but right now with all the fresh fruit available, I love to make pies and tarts.  Now, it is getting into holiday season, and that means I start my CANDY production.  I’m a bit of a candy freak, and I always have some staples that I make – sponge candy, marshmallows, nougat, gum drops – and I try to fit a few new items in.  I like to take well known candy bars, and make them in house.  Last year’s was York Peppermint Patties.  This year I’m thinking about Milky Ways.

Yum! I will be there. So are there any actual angels at Angel Food Bakery?

My cook Oliver has been with me since day one.  My old boss Erwin sent him over to help me as a dishwasher/prep guy, and after a couple weeks, I started to teach him basic cooking and bread baking, and now he’s in complete control of the savory menu.  I bring up items I’d like to try, we work on them together, and he takes off with it.  I really count on him, and he’s been terrific.

Did you offer savories and brunch from opening day, or was that something you started later on?

I started mostly with the bakery items, with a few savories thrown in like the “bacon and egg” deviled eggs, and savory foccacias.  Very quickly though, we started our lunch menu to get folks in here mid-day.  Soon after, Sunday brunch followed, as did the weekday breakfast.

I love that you do homemade pickles and other old fashioned savories (in addition to the nostalgic baked goods) where did you learn to do this stuff?

Again, I find something that I like and try to figure out how to make it.  I usually research a bit to get the basics down, and then just dive in.  I’m really into the pickles. Some of the savory items that we feature harken back to my childhood as well.  The pot pie, which was always a big treat in our house (frozen Stouffers, of course), the “Friday Night Brisket”, the tomato soup with grilled cheese, which my mom cut up in the soup and called a “soup sandwich”, and the “egg in a hole.”  Almost everything here is made in house, breads, soup stocks, dressings and of course the baked goods.  The only exception would be some unique ingredients that I can’t make myself.  We also try to use as much local products as possible, which is much easier during farmer’s market season.  My partner’s family has a farm in NW Illinois, and we are starting to grow some items for the shop out there, as well as keeping bees. This July we harvested out first batch of honey, which we are selling in the shop.

Everyone loves cupcakes!

When I’m describing your bakery to people I always mention the Easy Bake Ovens, the malted milk cupcake and how cute you are. Where do you like to shop for clothes and accessories?

Gee Thanks!  When I had a “real” job, and actually made a living wage, I liked to frequent friends of mine that were  Chicago designers, like Amy Rigg (R.I.P.), Robin Richman, Suzen and Lucy Domino. I still have a lot of their clothes – luckily the designs are pretty timeless and I can mix them up with today’s items, as well as vintage stuff, which I also love to wear.  These days, if I want to treat myself, a friend of mine owns two shops in Evanston that I go to – Asinimali and Cou Cou.  I have to say, I find a lot of cool stuff at The Brown Elephant too.  People give away the best things!  Since I’ve started the bakery and I wear chef pants and t-shirts all the time I’ve splurged on cool eyeglasses just to give myself a bit of a boost.  For accessories I can always count on my friend David Vale’s store Hazel, down the street, and of course Etsy.  I always say that I’ll know I’m successful when I don’t have to by underwear in a 3 pack anymore.

There is a lot to keep up with in Chicago – gluten-free, cupcake shops, vegan everything, cakes for dogs – do you find yourself needing to adapt often, or do you think your customers look to you to kick it old school?

I have to say that the cupcake phenomena has gotten so big since I’ve opened, that I find myself constantly working on traditional and new items.  It seems like it is an endless void, and they keep me pretty busy.   Because they re-run the food network shows every so often I’m known for the “snack cake” recreations, and a lot of folks come in for those.  There are still several old school desserts to recreate.  I was making pop tarts for a while, which I was calling “Flatbeds”  I’d also like to work on a cool mini jello mold.

What’s the hardest part of owning a bakery?

I wish I had gotten my act together when I was ten years younger.  It is exhausting, but I knew that.  I think that the hardest thing, besides wondering where all the customers are on slow days or “why is that place so packed, and we aren’t?” The fact that I can’t pay my employees what I’d like to pay them.  I’m sure that any small business suffers from this.  Everyone works so hard, but there is only so much coming in, and I can’t always spread it around the way I’d like.  The city and the government don’t make it easy for us little guys.  I also have learned that I can’t please everyone.  Some customers just aren’t going to get what I’m doing, or have different tastes.  I can’t take all of that personally.  I can only try to put out the best product I can, every single day, and hope for the best.

What’s the most fulfilling part?

Just seeing all that I’ve done here, putting the product out, watching people enjoy it and having them come back for more!  That is so so great.  The creativity is one thing, but running the business gets in the way sometimes, and I don’t always have time or energy to make all the things I want to, but as I do, and they get bought up and enjoyed, it’s really quite satisfying.  Also, the fact that the shop has become a neighborhood place, and kids know me, and stop in to say hi, or show me a report card, or bring me a dandelion makes it all worth it.

What do you guys listen to in the kitchen?

It really depends on who is manning the iPod.  I’ve got a very eclectic mix on there, and whoever is in front controls it.  Although Oliver does sneak out there sometimes, and puts on Senor Coconut, Celia Cruz, James Brown or Abba.  When we get control, it could be anything from funk, to Hank 3. Lots of old school rock and blues.  You can find pretty much anything here except for metal and rap.  When I’m by myself, it could be Macy Gray, Lenny Kravitz, Lily Allen or Joe Cocker!  A lady has the right to change it up.

Do you have any favorite bake shops or restaurants in Chicago?

I don’t have as much time as I’d like to go and check places out, but I do have my favorite restaurants for when I want to just hang and have a good meal.  Sunshine on Clark street is my all time favorite.  It’s a mellow, country Japanese-style place.  I’ve been going for years.  I also like riding down to the Skylark, a funky bar in Pilsen with cheap beer and a good menu.  I still go to Erwin for 1/2 price martini night, and if I want a special time, my good friend owns the Publican and I try to treat myself over there once in a while.  I have to say for bakeries or desserts, I keep it simple, and I’m truly happy with a soft serve cone or a bag of gummies.

Easy does it

Easy does it

What about outside of Chicago?

There is a great Italian bakery in Boston’s North End called Modern Pastry.  The staff is of course very rude (it’s Boston!), but they have several kinds of chocolate covered nougat that is to die for.  In downtown Milwaukee, there is the “Doughnut Man”  who has a little cart that he cranks out fresh doughnuts on – amazing.  I am ashamed to say that I haven’t been to New York in quite a while and I am long overdue for a food trip.  There are a thousand places I want to try.

Chicago has always been a culinary hub, but we’re just now getting a little attention thanks to foodie blogs, Yelp and an entire channel dedicated to cooking and eating – do you keep with with blogs and reviews or no?

I certainly try to.  They are so many out there, most a pretty good, some aren’t.  Once you weed them out , there is a lot of information and feedback that I can get from them.  It’s pretty incredible how connected the world is now.  Anything and everything is out there.  If I’m trying to find out about something food-wise, chances are somebody has already tried it, and I can check it out.  As for the “review” blogs, they are also good to read to keep up on how others may see you, and what might need correcting, but a grain of salt is always needed, as is a thick skin at times.

What do you think you would be doing if you didn’t have Angel Food Bakery?

Probably something to do with kids, art and food.  Dan and I really want to start an “agri-cultural” center out near the farm, where we could be connected with non-profit organizations and work with kids, agriculture, art and healthy food production.  I’m already talking to Common Threads, Angelic Organics Learning Center, Hull House, Gallery 37 and the Inspiration Cafe to try and make connections and garner interest.  Dan was at the Field Museum for years, and the thought of doing specimen collecting workshops, or scientific illustration programs is exciting as well.

What’s next for you guys? Are you working on any secret recipes?

After 5 years, I do feel like there needs to be a little re-inventing.  With all the interest in local food, slow food, etc., I have been considering making the bakery a bit of a co-op, where customers can pick up items that are produced locally.  We do carry some organic eggs that the son of a friend of ours raises as a home school project, and they have been a big hit.  I was carrying Trader’s Point yogurt and milk for people, and as I said, we are selling our own honey.  I think that to bring in more products like that would be exciting.  I’d also like to do more workshops here.  Not just baking, but pickling, preserving, and cheese making.

Stephanie – I love you, I love your cupcakes and I love your bakery. Congrats on 5 years and we’re all wishing you the bet of luck on all the amazing things you have planned!