Renato Poliafito and Matt Lewis
Photo: Anna Williams
Red hot velvet cupcakes. Strawberry whoopie pies. S'more nut brownies. A tiny Brooklyn bakery is reimagining old standards into some of the most decadent retro desserts in America. We find the cure for the common cupcake.
Four years ago, a little pastry shop called Baked opened for business in remote Red Hook, Brooklyn. The young owners, Renato Poliafito and Matt Lewis (who doubles as the head pastry chef), had hoped for a quiet debut—they wanted time to work out a few details before New York City's food-obsessed hordes noticed them. But no such luck: From the start, the tiny bakery couldn't help attracting attention. For one thing, the big round windows on the door and the hipster-ski-lodge interior stood out from the warehouses and tenements of the rough-and-tumble dockyard neighborhood like a tangerine perched on a pile of rubble. Then there were the desserts, American classics reinvented with the sensibility and technique of French pastry chefs: towering layer cakes with intense, unexpected flavors like sweet-and-salty caramel and milk chocolate malted; whoopie pies filled with chocolate or strawberry meringue; and brownies that were neither cakey nor fudgy but something altogether more meltingly sublime.

Baked quickly became a local hangout and, as the buzz grew, a destination for discerning eaters from all over the city. Thanks to the vision and charm of its two owners, the shop dispenses a sense of comfort, community, and joy along with its powerfully rich, obsessively perfectionist desserts—a feeling that translates well beyond its doors. It is evident in the cookbook Lewis and Poliafito released this winter, Baked: New Frontiers in Baking (Stewart, Tabori & Chang); in the bigger, splashier branch they just opened in Charleston, South Carolina; in the desserts they now ship nationwide via their website; and in seven enticing recipes (five of them exclusive to O) that we hope will jump-start your Valentine's Day celebration.

What sets Baked apart from its legions of competitors? It starts with the ingredients: Valrhona cocoa and Callebaut chocolate, real bourbon, pure vanilla, three types of malt. And it continues with the process: Each technique has been considered and refined. Brownies, for example, are mixed by hand, never machine, since that's the only way to achieve their rich-but-delicate texture. "People treat the brownie as a five-second snack," says Lewis. "But it actually needs as much care as a croissant."

"Matt's a little obsessed," admits Poliafito.

No surprise, given his background. "I've been baking since I was a kid," says Lewis. "My mom had a terrible sweet tooth, so we ate cookies and cake all the time. She'd send me to school with nothing but a brownie for lunch. We'd have cake for breakfast." Eventually, he says, "I realized this was not normal."

In 2001, Lewis met Poliafito at Deutsch, Inc., an advertising agency in New York City. They didn't hit it off at first. "We avoided each other," says Poliafito, who had previously worked as a graphic designer but dreamed of owning a coffee shop someday. Lewis, meanwhile, had been taking after-hours pastry classes at Peter Kump's New York Cooking School (now called the Institute of Culinary Education). In 2002, pursuing his first love (desserts), he co-founded Chocolate Bar, an innovative chocolate shop in New York City's Greenwich Village; soon after, Poliafito contacted him about designing a website for the store. They clicked so well as collaborators that when Lewis began looking for a partner to open a bakery in Brooklyn, he immediately thought of Poliafito.

After the hipsterish Red Hook outpost became an instant success, opening a second Baked in Charleston less than four years later was a natural step. Lewis had fallen for the city when his family moved there seven years before. The new bakery combines elements of the original with a liberal dose of Southern Gothic. It's filled with curiosities and folk art and includes a 1920s library-like lounge—the perfect retreat for a new generation of cupcake addicts. On the horizon is a line of chocolate bars created in partnership with chocolatier Jacques Torres and inspired by the flavors of Baked's most popular confections. But for now, Lewis and Poliafito are just excited to share their exquisitely crafted recipes. "We love it when people want to make our desserts," says Poliafito. "It means we've become a part of their lives."

If your own life happens to include a valentine with a sweet tooth, you'll find these seven homestyle-with-a-twist recipes tailor-made for romance. The red-and-white cookie, an O exclusive, is an update of the black-and-white classic; the dark-chocolate brownie spiced with ancho chili will appeal to anyone who likes a little heat with her sugar. And don't worry; you don't need to be a spectacularly gifted baker for these recipes to come out right. "We had an army of testers," says Poliafito, so they're virtually goofproof. You may be a fool for love, but that's no reason to be anything short of a genius when it comes to desserts.


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