For Martha Sutton, cooking and baking have always been a family affair. Her dad owned his own catering company as a side business and passed his love of cooking and eating good food to his four children.
Not surprisingly, all four are currently involved in the food industry. Though never formally trained, Sutton learned how to cook from her dad and baking lessons from her grandmother, mom and aunt were a regular occurance. Sutton spent time learning pastries in Paris, and worked under renowned local chefs like Michael Altenberg at Campagnola in Evanston and Gale Grand at Tru.
Now the executive pastry chef at Sweet Dreams Organic Café and Bakery, Sutton and store owner Mary Sopcic proudly serve bakery items like muffins, cakes, cookies, quiches and éclairs, made completely from scratch. They also offer an organic lunch menu featuring salads and sandwiches. The café’s popularity has mushroomed alongside the organic food movement Sutton said, and recently, her German Chocolate Cake was featured on Grand's cookbook cover for "Just a Bite."
Patch recently sat down with Sutton in the cafe over glasses of freshly squeezed carrot-orange juice to discuss her baking background and the mission of Sweet Dreams Café.
Patch: How did Sweet Dreams Organic Café and Bakery come about?
Sutton: Mary Sopcic’s husband was sick, and she was trying to heal him. She was raised in Croatia where they grew their own food, so eating organically was just normal. She started seeking out organic food, and realized she couldn’t find it. This was before Whole Foods was on every corner. Even Dominick’s and Jewel carry their own lines of organic brands now!
Patch: What is your relationship with Sweet Dreams Café?
Sutton: I am the Executive Pastry Chef and I’ve been here for four-and-a-half years … I came six months after they opened. As a pastry chef, I was looking for something that was scratch baking. Nothing out of a tub, nothing pre-made. The fact that [Sweet Dreams Cafe] is organic and does scratch baking was really appealing to me. I approached Mary about helping her with wedding cakes; I had a big client list to bring with me. It was a perfect match … they’re awesome people. They’ve taught me everything I know about organics. The more I learn, the more passionate I become about it.
Patch: Why is the organic, natural ideal so important for Sweet Dreams?
Sutton: We really believe it’s a way of life. All of us [at Sweet Dreams] are organic throughout our lives. We believe the food system in America is toxic. It’s a health issues as much as anything else. In the five years since I’ve been here, the organic movement has tripled.
Patch: What about pastries appeals to you most?
Sutton: (laughing) Chocolate. It’s my favorite food … I just love it. I could work as just a chef, but I love the pastry end of it. I love doing wedding cakes – it’s just such a unique experience to create a cake for [the couple's] day. A cake that will hopefully never be done again with [that couple] in mind - it’s a unique opportunity.
Patch: What is your favorite pastry to make? And your favorite to eat?
Sutton: Éclairs, because the science involved is phenomenal. You pipe out this dough, and because of the gases trapped in the dough, it’s called “shoe paste.” It traps the gas in it, and it bakes hollow inside. There’s something really fascinating about that, how the gluten keeps the shell from breaking open. And it’s just waiting for pastry cream to be filled in! Plus, pastry cream is similar to my favorite dessert, which is chocolate pudding. Can you believe that?!
Patch: What is the most difficult aspect about baking?
Sutton: There’s something in the repetitiveness sometimes that gets to be [tedious]. I remember a woman watching me make 200 gingerbread cookies around Christmas time in this open kitchen, and she says, “Oh my gosh, what a fun job it must be to make gingerbread cookies for a living!" And I just thought, “It was fun the first 50 … " (laughs). There are some cakes like angel food that have to be approached carefully, but it’s the mass baking that is the hardest thing. Being bent over a table doing the same thing for hours on end kind of sucks the fun out of it (laughs).
Patch: Most popular items at Sweet Dreams?
Sutton: Our éclairs, and our strudel. We’re known for our strudel. You take a six-foot table and with the back of your hands, you take a six-inch roll of dough and you pull it until it covers the whole table. Then you put a filling in, pick up the tablecloth and you roll it. It then rolls itself and there are these paper-thin layers – and that’s strudel the way Mary has been doing it since she was a child in Croatia. Nobody seems to do it that way anymore … it’s usually done in factories.
Patch: Why do you think shows like Cupcake Wars and Cake Boss are so popular these days?
Sutton: That’s a really interesting question. I think cooking shows have always been popular, but they’re exploding now. I don’t know what it is. A friend of mine is the director of pastries at the Art Institute, and their enrollment is staggering! It’s one of the only industries that haven’t been hurt in this economy. I think there is something dramatic about it, the delivery and the carrying of the cakes. It might be [the combination of] art, food, it looks good, everybody loves sweets, the drama of it, the happiness of a wedding or a birthday cake - it’s just a feel-good show.
Patch: Is there a certain level of creativity to it?
Sutton: I think of shows like Cake Boss as “food art” more than actual edible cake. Would you eat a $1,000 typewriter cake? Why would you cut into that? It really is more about the art of it than about an edible cake.
Patch: Do you cook much at home?
Sutton: All the time. My Eggplant Parmesan is great! I make a killer meatloaf too. I think baking is certainly more of a science … cooking you can be a lot more creative. Baking is really [exact] and I think people who [prefer baking] either have a sweet tooth or like the technical aspects to baking.