The Purple House
For nearly three hours, I stood by Krista Kern Desjarlais in the tiny prep area of the Purple House. I watched as she artfully arranged figs and berries atop pâte sucrée for galettes. I snapped photos as she piled slices of brioche with almond cream for bostock. I tried to stay out of the way while she pulled trays of pizza dough from proofing racks, delicately prodding the dough with her fingers to test its readiness. And I took notes while she assembled wood-fired granola, yogurt, and fruit bowls, spooning the rhubarb poaching liquid on top. We talked as she moved from one task to the next, without a pause in her work. It was exhausting, exhilarating, and the best morning I’ve had in a long time.
With much anticipation and high expectations, Desjarlais opened the Purple House at the end of last year. The little building, a former video store, sits at the intersection of Routes 9 and 115 in North Yarmouth, an unlikely location for a world-class baker to set up shop. Desjarlais is a James Beard Award-nominated chef, former owner of the beloved and defunct Portland restaurant Bresca, Guy Savoy-trained pastry chef, and owner of Bresca and the Honey Bee, a gourmet snack shack at Outlet Beach in New Gloucester. The building had been sitting empty for a few years when she drove by one day and thought, “That would make a great bakery.” By the fall of 2015, she had it under contract. “It was just me peeling away the years,” she says of the renovation. The compact place was stripped to its bones and redone simply, furnished with salvaged and found items, like the glass pastry case up front and the big wooden proofing bowl that holds dozens of bagels. Desjarlais brought in Pat Manley, who has laid masonry at some of Maine’s most iconic restaurants, install the Purple House’s centerpiece, a gorgeous, wood-fired brick oven. “I wanted to get back to brick-oven baking,” says Desjarlais. “I knew that would be the concept from the start.” The word was out, and the buzz started almost immediately. “I kept a low profile, but people would stop by to see what was going on,” she says. There’s just one communal table, and this morning it’s filled with a group of local women who refer to themselves as the North Yarmouth Brain Trust, sipping on the excellent coffee and sharing bagels.
Behind Desjarlais, baker Mike Berg keeps watch on the oven’s contents, the last of this morning’s bagels. The bagels are considered Montreal-style; a little flatter than what you’re probably used to, a little denser, and chewier, too. Flavors include rosemary-sea salt, everything and even dark chocolate olive oil, along with the usual types. Desjarlais did a lot of research to find the right cream cheese for these remarkable bagels, finally landing on an organic, hand-churned product from Vermont. “Finding this cream cheese was the holy grail,” she jokes. Bagels can also be topped with house-cured gravlax or smoked salmon, as well as ikura, a pleasantly salty Japanese trout roe, delicious with either type of salmon and thinly sliced daikon.
Berg and Desjarlais are constantly peering into the oven, moving things around. “I baked for a ton of years,” she says. “Once you understand the system, it’s not hard.” The oven is starting to cool down for pastry, such as the buckwheat financiers, but afterward it’ll be fired up again for pizza. The combination of three types of flour, a long fermentation of the dough, and the brick oven creates an airy, focaccia-like pizza crust that’s perfect for the toppings Desjarlais piles on, often starting with house-made tomato sauce. From there, she might add roasted wild mushrooms or broccoli rabe or fresh pork sausage or fennel salami, always finished with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of Espelette pepper. The Purple House puts out several pans of this Roman-style pizza each day, cut into squares with scissors, just like they do in the Eternal City. And just like the bagels, it sells out quickly.
Between baking, Berg preps the daily roast. Today, a boneless leg of lamb is set in a deep braising pan, headed for the brick oven. It sits in lamb stock, seasoned generously with herbs and accompanied by baby potatoes. Two women are waiting patiently at the communal table for the meat to be done, when it will be shredded and piled onto hearty bread with salsa verde, greens, and a little mayo. Also at lunch time, lighter options include the Brussels sprouts salad, a variation of a favorite holdover from the Bresca menu. New salads will be added for spring and summer, including the cold matcha green tea soba noodles with roasted asparagus, greens, pickled Fresno chilies, and a very tasty sesame-ginger-shallot dressing. This is the kind of lunch I’d be thrilled with every day. It’s healthy (and delicious) enough to rationalize one of Desjarlais’ excellent chocolate-hazelnut financiers. Or perhaps a bostock, possibly the most indulgent thing I’ve ever eaten. This slice of heaven starts with a piece of brioche spread with almond cream, and then it’s loaded with Nutella, sliced bananas, chocolate, and toasted hazelnuts. A turn in the oven puffs it up then melts it all together, creating a snack for anytime. There are fruit versions as well, but when the Nutella version is offered, it’s hard to resist.
Desjarlais and her crew will soon be adding to the menu, and outdoor seating will be available now that the warm weather is coming. I’m looking forward to some of her homemade ice cream as well, enjoyed in the shade of a tree. The Purple House is up and running, but the anticipation continues.
The Purple House | 378 Walnut Hill Rd. | North Yarmouth | 207.808.3148 | thepurplehousebakery.com