Two months ago baker Zachary Golper — of Brooklyn’s artisanal bakery Bien Cuit — was in South America hanging out with the Mapuche people, an indigenous tribe that has been practicing regenerative agriculture in and around central Chile and Patagonia for centuries.
Golper came back with a baby food jar of ground Merken, a chili harvested by the Mapuche that looks a little like chili arbol. “They hang [the fresh chilies] around the interior of the domicile; the fire pit’s right in the middle. Over the course of time [the chilies] take on the flavor of whatever wild wood they burn in their central hearth, just under the grass hut ceiling.”
After his trip, Golper handed the jar of Merkan, which smells sweet but also like the smoke of a thousand fires, to his new executive chef Jeff Sytsma and said, “Let’s do something with this.”
Sytsma has a long pastry resume that includes stints at L’Atelier de Robuchon and Michelin-starred Oceana. And while Golper has been putting out a limited pastry menu since he first opened Bien Cuit, now that the shop is expanding into a second location in a sizable space inside Grand Central Terminal, Golper knew he’d need someone who could put out a variety of savories and sweets at a steady clip and hired Sytsma six months ago.
Sytsma says at first he was nonplussed about the chilis. “Chili powder in a dessert is nothing new,” he says, “but then I smelled it.” He was inspired to introduce a new chocolate dessert to Bien Cuit’s pastry offerings and “thought it would be cool to tie in a tres leches-style cream, so the ganache is made with cream, condensed milk, evaporated milk, and infused with the chili powder.”
The cream is then rolled into a moist chocolate cake, sliced into individual servings, glazed, and garnished with a toasted almond cream and another sprinkle of that smoky chili. It’s addictive, and due to the smokiness of the chili, has a savory element that is hard to pinpoint unless you know it’s there.
Bien Cuit’s chocolate chili roulade will be on offer for the rest of the season, or until Golper and Sytsma run out of their contraband chili stash.
Christina Hanks, who’s also a new attention to the pastry kitchen, was hired right out of the Rose Cafe in Venice, Calif. and helps concept new seasonal viennoiserie like the cranberry danish filled with a rosemary pastry cream and glazed with candied orange syrup. “We were candying oranges over the holidays for stollen, and this was a way for us to use up that citrus-y syrup,” she explains, noting that its in Bien Cuit’s ethos to use every ingredient to its potential.
Also in the pastry case right now — available for Valentine’s Day only — is Sytsma’s Le Grand Macaron: A giant pink macaron cookie filled with red currant chocolate ganache, red currant jam, and whipped vanilla and rose sabayon. It’s decorated with edible flowers, which sort of kills two birds with one stone for those looking for a Valentine’s Day gift that is pink and contains chocolate and flowers.
Come springtime Bien Cuit will be churning out three times as many pastries for commuters in Midtown East. “We’ll be finishing on-site, but most of the production will still happen in our wholesale facility in Sunset Park,” Golper said of the new location that is taking over the Zaro’s space on the ground floor.
The proposed menu, which Eater got a sneak peek at, will include a line of eclairs, individual cakes, tarts (like a ricotta and apricot tart basque), verrines (desserts layered in small individual glasses), cookies, pound cakes, granola, and bread pudding.
No one would know it, but the little shop that started on Smith Street in Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill in 2011 now services over 9,000 clients a day, from restaurant bread orders to the regulars who stop in for a croissant and coffee several times a week.
“We’re getting bigger, but still having a lot of fun, and still focusing on flavor more than mass production,” Golper says. “It’s the only way I know how to do it.”