Beyond Baking

While customers line up for her bagels and pastries, chef Krista Kern Desjarlais ponders her next chapter.

At 8:30 a.m. on a winter morning, the Purple House in North Yarmouth is a snug refuge. In the tiny space, the heady scent of sweet and savory baked goods mingles with coffee and a whiff of wood smoke from the brick oven, where a baker is checking on a batch of bagels. Owner Krista Kern Desjarlais stands at a table, spooning walnut financier dough into a silicon pan and topping each portion with three fat raspberries. The chef and multiple James Beard Award nominee, who owned the celebrated Portland restaurant Bresca from 2006 to 2013, operates the bakery cafe from Labor Day to Memorial Day, and decamps to her lakeside snack shack, Bresca and the Honey Bee at Outlet Beach in New Gloucester, for the summer months. While she has developed a passionate fan base for her Montreal-style bagels, Desjarlais is also known for her exceptional pastries and Roman-style pizza, all baked in the Purple House’s wood-fired oven.

Baking has always been known for crazy hours. Is there a set pattern to your day?

We’re so small, and with 200 people coming through here on a busy day, there has to be a routine. I get in at about 6 a.m., but one of my staff members gets here before me and gets the fire going. We make all the doughs. Then I move onto the panning of pastries. After that, it’s stretching and setting up the pizza, then I go into bagel production, pizza production, bialy production, then we roll bagels—they proof overnight—clean up, and go home. I’m the last one here; I mop the floors and close up, then I shop for the next day. We don’t have a walk-in refrigerator, so I’m buying everything fresh all the time.

Was this your first experience with the wood oven? And how does that work for pastry?

No, I used them for years as a cook in restaurants. When I was at Terraza in Las Vegas I started running all the pastries through the wood oven, so I knew I could do it here; it’s just managing the time and temperature. We do all the bagels in the morning because it’s hotter. And then we use oven fall [letting the temperature drop] to do the pastries. We bring it up again to do the pizza, and down again for the bread. It’s also deep enough—five feet—so it’s hotter to the back and cooler to the front, which allows some control of the temperature. We don’t have another oven, so we and the oven are connected for the day.

Do you offer much that is gluten-free?

The walnut financiers are a rich brown-butter cake made with local buckwheat flour that just happens to be gluten-free. We offer three, sometimes four types of financiers a day. However, we don’t generally do much gluten-free, not because we don’t like it, but there’s a science behind it, and it’s not what my specialty is. We do like to offer things that are really great in that realm—a few cookies and odds and ends that I feel represent what we do here.

When people think of the Purple House, they usually think of bagels. Was that your plan?

No, but that’s the only thing the press has really talked about. I don’t want my legacy to be bagels. Our pastry sales have been increasing and have surpassed bagel sales now. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been thinking about how to come up with a product. For a while now, I’ve been working on an allergen-free vegan ice cream—a neutral base with a creamy mouthfeel and no soy or nuts—and in the last year I’ve ramped it up. It has coconut in it, but unlike other vegan ice creams, the flavor doesn’t dominate. There is a lot of ice cream out there, but not a lot of good vegan ice cream; my goal is to make you feel like you’re eating regular ice cream. I’d like to have the ice cream company and put a strong team together, and eventually use this place as a workshop, so I have time to travel. We have a willing audience that will buy what we make, which is great. Now it’s more about how to evolve and be graceful about it so I’m not a cog in my own wheel.

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