Thirsty caught up with Sarah Levy, owner of Sarah’s Pastries & Candies in Chicago, to talk about her first cookbook, Sweetness, and her love of baking. After college at Northwestern and stints in legendary restaurants like L.A.’s Spago, Sarah attended the French Pastry School in Chicago and launched her own business at the age of 22. Now 28, she is at the forefront of her generation as a talented, well-educated professional, an employer and someone who understands the importance of giving back to her community.
THIRSTY: Your first cookbook, Sweetness, is all about dessert. How did you decide on which recipes to use?
SARAH LEVY: I thought it was important to have a variety of difficulty levels. For the easier recipes, I feature old family recipes from my mom and grandma, and for the more difficult recipes, we have recipes that were adapted from the French Pastry School (where I went to school). And, we wanted to have recipes for each occasion in your life.
THIRSTY: Can your recommend three or four key tips to successful baking?
SARAH LEVY: First, use the best ingredients you can find. Second, be patient and confident. Don't let baking intimidate you. And, third, have fun!
THIRSTY: Does someone need to be an experienced baker or candy-maker to try your recipes?
SARAH LEVY: Not at all. Each recipe has a little measuring cup next to it that indicates the difficulty level. So if you don't have a lot of experience, just stick to the level 1-2 recipes.
THIRSTY: What is the process you go through to invent a new candy or pastry?
SARAH LEVY: A lot of times, it's trial and error. We have a very talented team here at Sarah's, and our head chef, Rafael Ornelas, is always coming up with great items. Before the shop opened we put together a group of some of the city's top chefs and food industry people (whose opinion taste buds we trust) and had them rate each item that we were considering making on taste, texture, appearance, and overall...that's how we figured out what to put on the menu.
THIRSTY: When you are commissioned to bake a wedding cake, how do arrive at the final design?
SARAH LEVY: Each wedding cake is tailor-made to fit with the specific wedding of each of our brides. Sometimes a bride will have a specific design in mind ahead of time…sometimes she will find pictures in our photo galleries for inspiration or sometimes she will let our head cake designer, Sunny Lee, use her imagination and sketch something entirely new.
THIRSTY: How old were you when you realized you had a passion for baking?
SARAH LEVY: I've always loved baking since I was super young (like 9 or 10), but when I was a senior in high school is when I realized that I wanted to do it for a living. I was trying to think of what I wanted to do for a career, and since work takes up more time than any other single activity, I wanted it to be something that I enjoyed doing. And pastries definitely make me happy!