The pastry counter at Tilda All Day, a sunny, stylish daytime cafe in Clinton Hill, never has croissants. Nor does it have doughnuts, or any of the other wholesale pastries most small coffee shops have to rely on given the limitations of kitchen space and time. Instead, Tilda offers pastries like sticky, buttery morning buns, fudgy chocolate cookies studded with oil-cured black olives, and chubby, miniature loaves of brioche crusted with pistachios, all made in its basement kitchen. The quality of these pastries, their breadth, and the lack of anything made elsewhere is impressive, and all the more so considering they’re all made by chef and co-owner Claire Welle, who’s also in charge of Tilda’s small but refined menu of breakfast and lunch dishes.
Welle has almost always worked on the savory side of high end kitchens like Gwynnett St. and Picholine. Baking is "not something I love" she says; "I would never consider myself a pastry chef." She does it anyway (and for the first eight weeks of Tilda’s life, she did it alone) out of a ferocious belief in quality and originality. Trying to stick by those standards with such a tiny fledgling business, her only option – she thinks – was to do it all herself. To crank out pastries in the wee hours of every morning, seven days a week, then hop on the line and cook until closing.
The expertise apparent in her pastries somewhat betrays Welle’s modesty. Clearly, she did not dive into this a total amateur. In fact, she once worked for eight months under the croissant master at San Francisco’s famed Tartine Bakery, and that experience is evident in many of Tilda’s staples. Besides the flakey morning bun, which will leave the menu when the weather gets too hot to fold and roll layers of yeasted dough and butter by hand, one of the most obvious products of that San Francisco training is the petit pistachio loaf. Beneath a coating of crushed pistachios so thick and bright it looks like spring moss, the brioche is tender, and kept moist by a fluffy, sweet almond filling running through the center. In a way, it’s like a cute, squishy alternative to the standard almond croissant. Here’s how it’s made.
Welle starts with the yeasted dough. It’s based on a simple brioche recipe, but "I amped it up," Welle says, "I tried to add as much butter and egg as possible." The extra richness not only makes the bread more delicious, it also gives it a longer shelf life, so that a loaf baked in the morning still tastes soft and fresh at the end of the day.
Welle uses active dry yeast, which she thinks "has the best flavor." She stirs it into warm water until the liquid is milky and frothy, then dumps in all the other ingredients. First sugar, though not too much. "Sugar is not a flavor for me," says Welles, "I don’t like using it," but a little is necessary to get the yeast going. Then all purpose flour, a good dose of salt, soft chunks of butter, and several eggs. Everything must be at room temperature, not only to keep the yeast active but also, Welle says, because "it helps with emulsification for everything to be at the same temperature. You get a better mouthfeel."
With everything in the bowl, Welle sets the mixer on low and lets it work. She’ll mix the dough for around five minutes, until it’s smooth and taut. Now it goes into the fridge, where it will sit, slowly rising, for 48 hours. "Everything we make sits for a while," Welle says. Sitting helps flavors develop, and it allows the flour to fully absorb the liquids, yielding a moister, more texturally appealing pastry. This holds true not just for yeasted doughs but for things like cookie dough, which rests for a full three days in Tilda’s walk-in before being baked.
Welle has an already-risen batch of dough on hand, but first she has to make the almond filling that will be swirled inside each loaf. "There’s nothing special about this filling," she insists, "I was trying to perfect a classic." Beginning with a tried and true recipe for almond cream – the same stuff that goes in an almond croissant – from her Tartine days, Welles made just a few tweaks here and there. She upped the salt, and figured out "how many egg yolks we could add before it split," turning curdled instead of creamy.
The recipe starts with powdered sugar and softened butter. Welle explains that, somewhat insanely, she usually makes the powdered sugar herself, just like she makes her own vanilla and her own baking powder, but the quantities needed for this recipe were just too high, so now she settles for store-bought. She beats the butter and sugar just until the mixture is smooth, then begins adding eggs one at a time. Each time, she waits for the mixture to smooth out before adding the next.
After the last egg, Welle adds the almond flour and salt and beats until the mixture is fluffy and creamy. Finally, she pours in a small dose of flour and mixes just until everything is evenly combined. The flour, she says, helps keep the filling from spilling out while the loaves bake, but it’s important to add it last. If it went in along with the almond flour, the vigorous beating would develop the gluten too much, yielding a filling that was gummy instead of fluffy.
With the filling made, Welle pulls her batch of risen dough from the fridge and dusts the counter with flour. When cold, the dough is pliable but not too soft or sticky, and easy to roll out. Welle quickly rolls it into a rough rectangle, judging by sight how thick and wide it should be. She trims the edges, then divides it into 12 smaller rectangles.
With her silicone mini loaf pan at hand, Welle spoons a blob of almond cream into the center of one rectangle, then gently and somewhat loosely rolls the dough around it. The process is not particularly precise: there’s no smoothing of the filling, and Welle doesn’t even pinch the ends closed before placing each roll – seam side down – in the pan. And yet, during its final two-hour rise, the dough swells into perfect, mushroom-topped little loaves.
The loaves come out of the oven with smooth, honey-brown tops and golden sides. Once they’re cool, Welle dips them into a liquid fondant. Where home bakers might use a simpler glaze made of powdered sugar mixed with water or milk, Welle prefers this store bought fondant – which is essentially a cooked sugar syrup that’s been whipped until opaque – because "when it dries you get that shatter, like biting into a glazed doughnut." The simpler glaze doesn’t do that.
Shaking off the excess fondant, Welle then rolls the sticky surface in a bowl of pistachio bits tossed with enough sea salt that flecks of it are visible throughout. This, it turns out, is just enough to counter the sugary fondant and enrich the flavor of the pistachios. "I don’t want the first thing people taste to be sugar," Welle explains. The buns, now top-heavy with nuts, sit on a rack just long enough for the fondant to firm up, then travel up to the pastry counter, to be tucked in somewhere between the cheese gougeres and the chocolate cookies.