In terms of size, Savory Bake House doesn’t rate. Before its temporary closure in March due to COVID-19, this Minneapolis bakery just off of East Lake Street boasted a few shelves of baked goods behind a glass case, with just enough room in the shop for four or five smallish people to politely elbow one another for a better look.
But in terms of flavor and mission, the little spot looms large. Those in the know will lovingly praise the cornucopia of baked goods produced by Sandra Sherva and Max Okray. The two owners of the shop (who are also a couple, and the bakery’s sole employees) make sweet treats, savory pies, and brioche-based sandwiches that are honest, back-to-basics, and reliably delicious. Sell-outs are common—when the shop reopens in September, if you want to be choosy, it’s best to come early.
And for most of the shop’s four-and-a-half-year history, producing skillfully done traditional baked goods was enough to keep the owners busy and the neighbors happy. But a stray box of cream puffs and a coincidental connection was enough to radically shift the shop’s focus in the early summer of this year.
A Culinary Lifeline
“I agreed to do a box of cream puffs for a friend of mine who lives out of state to deliver to a business that they do business with,” recalls Savory owner and baker Sandra Sherva. That was in mid-June, after the arson and looting that had ravaged East Lake Street, and at a time when about 200 people without housing, rousted from sheltering in the former Midtown Sheraton Hotel on Lake Street, were taking residence in two sprawling tent encampments based in Powderhorn Park.
“I hadn’t baked in a while, so I doubled my recipe and I had this extra box of cream puffs, what do I do?” recalls Sherva. “My sister was like, ‘go take it to [Powderhorn] park!’ Her best friend is one of the coordinators there, and I messaged her, and she was like: ‘Yeah, we’ll take it!’”
Sherva brought the cream puffs to the park. “I saw all the tents, and I saw her and talked to her for a few minutes—she’s drenched in sweat, and exhausted, and overwhelmed—and yet, so excited to get cream puffs! They devoured them.” Sherva’s friend asked her to take half the cream puffs over to the east side of the park, where a second encampment of about 100 people was located. The extent of the need impressed Sherva, who asked her customers to fund an effort to transform Savory Bake House into a kitchen to help feed the people staying in the park.
And with no planning and little fanfare, the Savory Bake House operation was up and running, ferrying as many as 150 meals a day over to the encampments at Powderhorn, using ingredients paid for by donations from customers, family, and friends. The meals are simple but hearty—evolving from soups and stews in the early days to dishes such as pot pie filling served over rice, with sides such as cornbread or scratch-made biscuits.
“I even put out a little challenge: ‘make it so we have too many ingredients to use!’” recalls Sherva. “And that was probably a mistake, because everybody showed up! We have gotten an overwhelming response and it’s been able to sustain the ingredients for weeks now. And I think that by Tuesday, [July 7] we will hit 1,300 meals that we’ve made.”
The work, Sherva says, is a lot—it dwarfs the efforts of producing baked goods for the bakery. “To make a meal times 100, that feeds one camp one meal of the day,” she says. “To feed both camps one meal of the day, is 200. […] It’s literally two of us in the world’s tiniest bakery that is overheating, and we’re doing this.”
For Sherva, some of the exhaustion stems from watching a rag-tag band of volunteers tackle a mission that the city or state governments would be far more suited to accomplish. The city’s response to the problem of homelessness, she says, is “terrible. It’s absolutely terrible.”
At the sanctuary, she notes, “You have people not just volunteering to hand out food, but you have medics there who are trained and certified. You have people who are trained in dealing with mental illness, people who are social workers. There are so many qualified people there volunteering that the state should be able to meet that at least halfway.”
‘I’m Going To Do A Pecan Pie That I Like’
If you’ve eaten at Savory Bake House, it likely made an impression on you. Its offerings aren’t like anything else in town. They’re not impeccably styled bits of edible art, like the pastries that fill the cases at Patisserie 46 or Patisserie Marc Heu. And they’re not churned out by the hundreds with an emphasis on efficiency and regularity.
They’re rough-hewn, they’re soulful, they’re inviting and they put one quality—pure, honest, deliciousness—first on the docket.
“My philosophy has always leaned toward going backwards,” says Sherva, who came to Savory with 25 years of baking experience at a variety of spots including Merlin’s Rest, the Wedge Co-op, and Barbette. “Everything has become innovative, and we make all this progress with equipment, but I feel like the equipment gets crazier and the ingredients get less real. I try to go back and do some simpler and more traditional flavors.”
“When I make blueberry pie, everybody loves it because it tastes like blueberries, and it’s not packed with sugar,” she adds. “All my sweets—they’re not going to be as sweet as things are today. I think my biggest compliment that I love to hear is when older people come in and say, ‘This tastes like what my grandma used to make me.’ I hear that same compliment a lot and that means more to me than the others.”
Sherva’s aesthetic—homemade but professional, soulful but ideally balanced—echoes a bit with the fruit-forward desserts and savory meat pies that parade across the screen on “The Great British Baking Show.” The show’s not an inspiration for her, she says, but it has made more than a little impact on her customers. “We get a lot of people,” she says, “who will place orders for things that they’ll then eat while watching the ‘Great British Baking Show.’”
The bakery’s aura feels small-town or Old World. “It feels like a small local bakery in a European town is what I hear the most, and that’s just—I don’t like the powder puff bakery, the fluffy light pastels… when we were planning the bakery, I was actually told that our logo was kind of creepy and dark, and it reminded them of Sweeney Todd, and I was like, ‘Good, that’s exactly what I want. I am Sweeney Todd.’”
She pauses thoughtfully for a moment, and then adds, chuckling reassuringly: “I’m not using humans, though, so don’t worry.”
Pecan pie fans are especially urged to visit Savory Bake House when it reopens in the autumn. The bakery’s molasses pecan tart with chocolate pieces is like nothing else in town, and it comes from one of Sherva’s personal quests. “I’ve worked at so many restaurants and other places and I’ve always had to make a pecan pie, and I’ve always hated it,” she says. “So when we opened, I was like, ‘I’m going to do a pecan pie that I like.’ So when we opened we started doing tarts, and I thought, we’re going to make our pecan pie into a tart, which just means a little thinner and it has a shortbread crust instead of a pie crust. But with the molasses in it and a few chocolate pieces, it’s like, amazing.”
The tart appears on Savory’s menu for “every single holiday” and it appears in both pie and tart form on Christmas and Thanksgiving. Unusually, too, the bakery sells it during the summer (during summers when the bakery is open.)
“I don’t know anybody who eats pecan pie in the summer, but ours sells,” Sherva says. “I think it’s a good one.”
Recipe for Cinnamon Sugar Rhubarb Petite Cakes
From Sandra Sherva of Savory Bake House
1/3 cup oil (Sherva likes sunflower)
1 cup sugar
2/3 cup sour cream
splash of vanilla
¾ cup flour (sifted)
2/3 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup fresh rhubarb, chopped
Cinnamon sugar or cardamom sugar to finish (3:1 sugar:ground spice)
In a mixing bowl, whisk together the first five ingredients. In a smaller bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Mix together all ingredients plus rhubarb to combine. Divide batter into a liner-filled cupcake pan or the 8 cavities of a silicone cake mold pan like this one. Bake at 325°F for roughly 25 minutes, rotating halfway through, until golden and cake springs back when pushed on. Bake time will vary somewhat based on size of mold and type of oven. Cool cakes in the cake molds.
When cakes are cool enough to touch, remove them one at a time and roll the decorative side in cinnamon sugar or cardamom sugar. If you take the cakes out of the pan all at once, they will start to dry and the cinnamon sugar will not stick.
Read more chef profiles and get other great recipes in The Growler’s Minnesota Spoon column here.