Monday, February 23, 2015

Grace's Trip to Hen & Heifer

A taste of France in freezing cold New England.

About two years ago, a very interesting new bakery opened up not too far from where I live. Instead of just being a typical bakery, Hen & Heifer in Guilford, Connecticut prides itself on making the most authentic French treats you can get outside of, well, France! There's no cutting corners or phoning it in, here - the owner will find a way to get his  hands on the most authentic equipment and ingredients he can get to give you a really special treat to snack on, or share with your friends.

Assuming you want to share.

It's a favorite stop of just about everyone in my family, but particularly my grandparents and brothers. Since I've taken an interest in baking and my most recent acquisition to my doll roster happens to have a particular interest in French baking, I decided we needed to take a trip down there and get some tips on how to bring the best French pastries, cakes and cookies to the table, and luckily for us, the owner was happy to let us do a feature!

While the interior is on the smaller size, it's easily one of the most welcoming and well designed bakeries I've ever been into. A lot of modern, high end bakeries feel very sterile and often almost have a science lab feel to me, but Hen & Heifer feels rustic and homey, the perfect place to enjoy a tasty snack over a cup of tea (or hot chocolate!) and a good book.

But what really takes the cake - bear with me - is the display case.

Everything - and I mean everything - looks like a work of art. When we visited, they were still selling treats for Valentine's Day, so there were a lot of treats with a pink or heart shaped theme. While there are some favorites you can get pretty much year round, they do change up the menu with the seasons. They even had red, white and blue macarons for Fourth of July!

I was fortunate enough to be able to interview the owner, Whang Suh, and ask a little about what it takes to be a really good French baker, and what he likes best about being a baker. I'm always interested to hear other people's thoughts on the subject, considering I don't know many professionals in the culinary world, and as someone who's currently not working at her ideal job, I'm very interested in the experiences of people who get to go to work and really put their heart and soul into what they do every day.

Whang says his motivation for baking is part creativity, part hospitality. Baking is a really great way to get creative, even if you're working from recipes you've learned from family, friends, cookbooks and teachers. It's also a great way to make people happy, and I've got to agree, that's one of my favorite parts of baking, and cooking in general.

And the most important thing about baking French treats? Patience, patience, patience, and not cutting corners with what you're using to make them! The French are known for moderation in portion size, but certainly not in the ingredients that actually go into their food. Whang explained that a lot of newbies to French baking rush through the process, which can lead to things like cracked macarons and madeleines with no bump. This is definitely something I need to learn, as you've all seen on this blog. I'm not exactly the most patient person in the kitchen, although I guess I tend to be a little better with baked goods.

While Whang couldn't quite pick a favorite treat they make here - it's like picking your favorite child! - he did admit that one he's most proud of is their cannelé:

I'd never heard of cannelé, and there's a good chance most Americans haven't. You can't get these in most American French bakeries, even in places like New York City! They're also hard to get exactly right, and require the same amount of patient and care as any fussy-but-worth-it dessert. Cannelés have a thick, carmelized crust over a nice, custardy center, and can be eaten for breakfast, snacks or dessert. They're made in a special copper mold, and just don't taste or cook right without it. While they're the speciality of the Bordeaux region of France, they can be found in places like Paris as well.

While I didn't pick one of these up on this trip, I definitely want to try one next time I'm in the neighborhood. Apparently, they're also sturdy enough that they ship very easily, and can be reshaped into their original form if they get a little smooshed during transport.

Picking out what you're actually going to try when you visit is always a challenge, especially when you're torn between old favorites or something new. The fact that they didn't have any croissants in stock definitely helped me make my decisions, although I seriously considered getting some chocolate pound cake, which is one of my brother's favorites and a menu regular. Their croissants are literally the best I've ever had. They're tender on the inside, and super, super flaky on the outside. Seriously, taking a bite will send a burst of wafer thin crumbs all down your front if you're not careful, and it's the perfect bite.

My other favorite menu item is their authentic French hot chocolate, which is literally like drinking frothy melted chocolate and nothing else. Just pure, thick, chocolately goodness. I can't drink much of it before feeling totally full, but the sips I do manage are heaven in a cup.

Ultimately, I decided to go with something pretty classic... and inspired by what Grace makes in her books. I actually don't think I'd ever eaten a madeleine before, but I've definitely had macarons before, even if those weren't rose flavored like these were! I have to admit, I've become a little wary of things flavored with rosewater after making my shrewsbury cakes and realizing they smelled a lot like floral scented Play Dough I had as a kid, but these were a lot more subtle and very pleasant. The madeleine was delicious. I definitely need to try more of them in the future!

Unfortunately, the hot chocolate machine had a terrible accident, so we had to stick with coffee.

My grandma - my partner in crime on this little field trip - decided to go out on a limb and try something that sounded very, very interesting:

I was lucky enough to get a taste of it, and man, it had the best parts of any good shortbread cookie along with a great Moroccan flavor. It was a very unusual flavor profile for a spice cookie, and it's definitely something I'd like to recreate in my own kitchen, although I'm sure it won't come anywhere close to being as good!

While I'm still a little intimidated to try my hand at really complex French desserts, I'm also a little inspired to give it a shot. I know it's not like I'm going to be able to open my own or even work at Hen & Heifer any time soon - and as much as I enjoy baking, I'm not sure I'd be able to turn this into a career even if I did got to culinary school - but I feel like I picked up some good tips that will help me figure out how to further advance as a baker and hopefully work up the courage to try some new recipes soon!

Many thanks to Whang for letting us visit, answering my questions and letting us feature his beautiful work on the blog! We'll definitely be back sometime soon for more tasty treats.

I definitely can't wait to see what will be there next time!


  1. This is an awesome post! I love seeing all the photos and hearing what the owner had to say. How perfect that you have Grace for this!

    1. It was one of the first things I thought of when I brought her home! I'm super flattered Whang let us do a feature and take pictures. :)

  2. A little slice of heaven on earth...that is Hen & Heifer! Everything I've had is amazing and I consider myself a lucky woman to be a patron. Not to mention Whang and his staff are terrific! I'm glad that you and Grace had an opportunity to pay a visit.

    1. Believe me, I am too! Maybe I should start waking up earlier on weekends so I can join you guys for breakfast and snacks. ;)