“2 cups flour with 2 teaspoons baking powder, one cup sour cream, one pound butter…Put different toppings on…Cut into slices. Grease pan and bake.”
When you’re able to draw inspiration from old school recipes like this one (which is the better part of a recipe for rugelah from the grandmother of Ovenly co-owner Erin Patinkin), there has to be some intrinsic love of baking. Most of us like to follow baking recipes to a tee; only those with the patience and passion for the craft can look at such an abstract recipe and wonder what incredible dishes can be made from such humble beginnings.
Erin and fellow co-owner Agatha Kulaga are two such devotees to the art of baking. Each came to Brooklyn from a different part of the country, but they shared a common passion for baking passed down from their Eastern European moms and grandmas. Serendipity struck when they crossed paths at a cooking-focused book club – they hit it off and joined forces, opening Greenpoint-based Ovenly last spring.
Ovenly’s hallmark is a devotion to combining sweet and savory with a little spice in everything from their bar snacks to their breakfast goods to desserts. Bar snacks like their bacon-fat-washed Old Bay peanuts and their spicy bacon caramel corn, breakfast treats like their savory scones, and desserts like their vanilla bean cake with pomegranate buttercream have won devotees throughout the Greenpoint and North Williamsburg.
Although currently only available at a few select locations, they plan to bring their goods to many more locations in the borough in the coming months, so keep an eye out for their sweet, salty and spicy treats in your ‘hood soon.
We sat down with Agatha and Erin on a snowy Saturday morning at Veronica People’s Club in Greenpoint to talk about fun of baking with grandmas, the adventure of starting a new business, and the joys of setting up shop in Brooklyn.
Agatha: I’ve always been interested in cooking and baking. I was raised in Connecticut and moved here about ten years ago. I cooked a lot with my mother when I was little. After that, I lived with my father and brother and I did most of the cooking growing up.
Since moving here, I’ve always been the baker in my circle of friends. I’ve always baked for birthdays, weddings, parties…anything that warranted some kind of special treat. I’ve always loved it, and I always got incredible feedback from my friends – I’ve always wanted to pursue it professionally, but to do it alone just seemed intimidating.
I met Erin through Four Burners, a food-related book club that we both belonged to. We just hit it off. We had really similar tastes in food, and we were both bakers, and we almost instantly realized that we should start a business together. We’re both really driven, and we like to take risks and be creative and intuitive with our baking – it just seemed like a perfect fit.
Erin: I’ve baked all my life too. I first took a baking class when I was six. I grew up outside of Chicago. Both my grandmothers were from Eastern Europe. My dad’s mom’s family owned a tea and pastry shop in Poland, and my mom’s mother’s family owned a tea and pastry shop in Austria.
My dad’s mom, back in the 30’s, ran all the bakeries in the Goldblatt’s department stores in Chicago. She was a crazy-incredible baker. My mom’s mom was an amazing baker too. She sold pies to make money throughout the depression and never stopped baking. When my brothers and I went to her house when we were kids, she’s always teach us how to make pies.
Since I grew up in a really traditional family, I did a lot of the cooking and baking with my mom. My brothers never did. It’s funny, they still can barely scramble an egg, and I was cooking full meals and cakes for my entire family by the age of nine!
Before starting Ovenly with Agatha, I worked in the arts, but I’d always wanted to do something with food. I love the hands-on, creative aspect of making food. When I moved here I started food blogging a lot, and I met lots of food makers and food writers, but it was kind of lonely. When I met Agatha at the book club and we started talking about working together, that was it. I was in!
Agatha: It was the same in my house growing up. My dad was Polish, so there was a similar kind of Eastern European traditional approach to things. I did all the cooking and cleaning. I took charge of everything. I made all the meals. My grandmother was an incredible baker, so I’d linger in the kitchen and watch her bake. None of the women in the family ever wrote any recipes down, so I always had to go back to my grandmother to figure out how exactly to make things!
Erin: It’s so true. I have this giant box of my grandmother’s recipes. It’s so special to me. When my grandmother died we found them all in her house, and it was like inheriting this treasure that I never knew existed. They’re all hand-typed and so funny thing because they have absolutely no detail at all! I actually have one with me. It’s a recipe for rugelah. Let me read it to you:
“2 cups flour with 2 teaspoons baking powder, one cup sour cream, one pound butter. Put all ingredients into bowl and mix. Put flour on board or tin foil, roll out. Put different toppings on. Roll up and seal edges. Cut into slices. Grease pan and bake.”
Agatha: Ha ha that is awesome! So old-school!
Erin: No temperatures! No baking times! Cover with ‘different toppings’! No detail at all! But that was how the older generation in our families handled recipes. Someday when we have time I would love to go through every single one and adapt them to or style.
Agatha: There’s this belief that bakers have to follow recipes precisely. That’s true to an extent, but as you can see from those earlier generations, you can develop base recipes and improvise – you can keep baking totally creative. And that’s something we both love.
Nona: So tell us about the sorts of food you’re focusing on with Ovenly.
Agatha: We share that traditional Eastern European background, and when we were both growing up, the foods we made and enjoyed were really simple. They don’t require a lot of ingredients and they still taste incredible. We try to keep our recipes as simple as possible, make everything with a lot of love, and let a few carefully picked ingredients be the stars of each of our products.
Erin: The one area in which our tastes diverge is that I have a huge sweet tooth. I absolutely love sweet sweet things, and Agatha really doesn’t, so we’re a good mix. We balance each other out in the kitchen. The unifying thread in our core products is that we combine savory and sweet flavors with spices in just about everything we do.
Agatha: We have our core bar snacks, which people love – we make bacon-washed Old Bay peanuts, spicy bacon caramel corn, pepper pistachio sesame brittle, and a bunch of others. We also do breakfast scones and muffins, cookies, cakes and shortbreads. We’ve got signature products that we carry all the time, but we’re always experimenting with seasonal things focusing on local products too.
Erin: Baking the same thing over and over gets so monotonous. We’ve had moments where we’ve said ‘I cannot bake another cherry ginger scone or I will go insane!’ Doing special seasonal items keeps it fresh and fun…and keeps us sane.
We recently did a very limited sweet potato and spice pie with a homemade lard crust, and another pie with local apples and cranberries…
Agatha: We’ve been doing a vanilla bean pomegranate cake too, but pomegranates are nearing the end of their season, so we’ll have to come up with something new soon.
Nona: Any special ingredients you like to work with?
Erin: We use Daisy Farms for all our flour. They’ve been milling totally organic, local flour in Lancaster PA for years, and you just can’t get better local organic flour. It’s a little more expensive, but it’s worth it to us. We really care about ingredients. We use raw cane sugar, which has a lot of benefits over refined sugars. We use a lot of bacon – we get our Kentucky bacon from The Meat Hook. They get it from a farm where the animals are really well taken care of and the meat is just wonderful.
Agatha: And when we use ingredients that we can’t get locally, like nuts, or dried fruit, we’re careful to get the highest possible quality.
Nona: So how has the business evolved since you kicked it off in June? Has it been a wild ride?
Agatha: We started baking together, and Ovenly just fell into place. We really had all these moments where we things just fell into place, step after step. We don’t know whether it was just luck or what! Veronica People’s Club here opened and Heather asked us to do her pastries. We were like, Great!
Another friend of ours opened another place and we started baking for them, and we started doing bar snacks for Brooklyn Brewery. We didn’t pursue any of it on our own – it was really incredible. We’re constantly stunned by how easy it’s been! There are obviously a lot of little difficulties, but the community here has made things much easier than we expected. We’ve met great people and developed great relationships with the places carrying our products and with the people who like them. People have been so supportive and so interested and willing to help us – it’s just been a kind of incredible process.
Finding the right kitchen space has been our biggest challenge so far. We just moved into Paulie Gee’s space a few block away from here. That’s a huge step for us – it gives us a lot more room to work and will allow us to potentially get some help. We bake there from 5am until 10 or 10:30 when Paulie’s chef comes in to prep. After that we work on developing recipes and on keeping up with the business side of things.
Erin and I do everything right now. We bake everything and do all the deliveries and manage the business side of things and it’s a lot of work. We take it all very seriously. Everything we do we put our hearts into and that’s gotten us to this point where we’re going to need to actually hire people, which is kind of terrifying! This is our baby – it’s intimidating to get other people involved!
We really love what we do right now, so we’re trying to figure out how to arrange things so we’ll be able to keep loving it as we grow and as things get more complicated.
Nona: So what are some of your favorite things about Brooklyn?
Erin: I came from Chicago. I moved here about 3 and a half years ago and I really love Brooklyn. I can’t imagine living anywhere else. New York gets this rap for being unfriendly. I’ve found that, especially since starting this business, people just want to help small local businesses like ours, they want to see you succeed. To be honest, it’s renewed my faith in humanity in a lot of ways!
I also love that a lot of people making food here are willing to experiment and go wild, and that the community totally supports that.
Agatha: There’s a lot of youthful energy here. People are excited. You can just feel it every day in Brooklyn. People love food. I love that there are all these shops and restaurants and bars that feature products from other local small food businesses on their shelves and on their menus, and that the community is so excited about that. It just feels good. It feels like a family.
I can trade baked goods to get my bike fixed! We trade our food for kombucha each week! I love that!
I live here in Greenpoint, and I learned Polish as a kid from my dad, so I love the Polish influence here too – being able to experience a little bit of my background even though my family isn’t here feels really good. The community is changing in a lot of ways – while there are a lot of young people moving in, you still feel that powerful Polish force here and I love that.
Check out Erin and Agatha making hot tarts on Hungry in Brooklyn: