The artist and baker Lexie Smith creates baked goods with unusual ingredients, like chocolate chip cookies with miso and chestnut flour, granola bars flecked with turmeric, and doughnuts made up of mochi. She reinvents familiar, much-loved items (challah bread, Yemeni honey cakes, Middle Eastern flatbreads) and builds experimental assemblages in her home studio. Formerly the head pastry chef and recipe consultant at Cafe Henrie and El Rey, Lexie is now building out Reluctance, an independent baking business that sells beautiful, unconventional pastries.
Sometimes she stages still lifes with loaves of bread, blocks of butter, stacks of coins, and assorted fruit, and photographs the set-up in front of draped sheets under a hazy light. Other times she takes appealing, bite-size videos of flatbread sizzling on an open fire or uncooked dough morphing in form as it’s mixed by hand. On September 9, Lexie launches the Reluctance pop-up bakery, held at Cassette in Greenpoint until the end of the month. Items for sale include turmeric-apricot biscuits, sweet plantain bread, upside-down olive oil cake with persimmons, and guava-labneh pastelitos, among other mouth-watering foods. I talked to Lexie on the heels of the opening about eating carob pods for breakfast, crafting a blood-butter doughnut recipe, and the inherently fallible nature of baking.
Extra Crispy: What do you normally have for breakfast?
Lexie Smith: I have trouble digesting a lot of stuff, so in the morning I try and keep it pretty light. I find that the later I eat breakfast, often the more energy I have. Lately I’ve been having carob pods (also known as St. John’s Bread.) I buy them in this tiny, Middle Eastern specialty shop on Atlantic Ave. across from Sahadi’s. It’s family owned. It’s so dusty, so charming, and they have carob.
I’ve also been doing really loose scrambled eggs with red miso, anchovies, and herbs. For years I didn’t eat scrambled eggs. I only ate fried eggs with runny yolks, and then I only ate soft-boiled eggs. Now I don’t like either of those things and I only like scrambled eggs.
So, what did you eat this morning?
I was testing a recipe that’s a version of a Turkish flatbread called bazlama. It’s traditionally made with yogurt, but I make mine with kefir. I made the dough yesterday and then toasted three off this morning. I ate one of them, and had it with lots of coffee.
Tell me about your studio set-up. Do you keep separate spaces for art-making and baking?
I work out of professional kitchens and do tons of testing out of my tiny, studio-apartment kitchen. I really make my living through food, so I’ve been devoting a lot more of my time to that. It really depends on the workload coming from baking. I also have a studio space attached to my apartment, where I do drawings, sculpture work, carving, and still lifes.
What do you listen to while you’re working?
I listen to a lot of NPR. Brian Lehrer, Leonard Lopate—they’re my buds. I listen to Reply All and Death, Sex, and Money.
When I’m drawing I absorb everything I’m listening to very well. It’s a really clear space for me. When I’m baking, I’m writing constantly, I’m feeling things, and so, I’m not really as attached to what I’m listening to. Right now I’ve been listening to a Ted Lucas record, Brian Eno, Morning Star, Jessica Pratt. I’m pretty emotional and baking is really emotional, so I tend to music that’s more intentionally nostalgic. I, like, go in. Unless I’m baking in a restaurant kitchen, I don’t listen to hip hop or rap, even though I really love hip hop and rap.
Why did you name your baking business Reluctance?
I’ve been quite reluctant to choose this path, to dedicate myself to one discipline, to food.
Your pop-up bakery at Cassette in Greenpoint is opening up so soon, on September 9. That’s so exciting! What’s on the menu?
Layered, turmeric-apricot biscuits that are bright yellow and orange and sort of look like accordions; gluten-free, upside-down olive oil cake with persimmons or maybe something citrus like Cara Cara oranges; chocolate chip cookies; sweet plantain bread; ciabatta; semolina focaccia that will be market vegetable; a range of flatbreads, from the Middle East, like bazlama; gluten-free popover served with maple from Upstate; rugelach; pastelitos with guava and labneh; mochi doughnuts.
Also, I made a sauce that I want to brush on everything. I call it gold sauce. It’s hard-boiled egg yolks puréed with anchovies and miso and garlic and olive oil.
The mochi doughnuts sound really delicious. What is the recipe based on and what flavors are you offering?
I usually hate doughnuts, but I’m very excited about these. They’re based on a really popular Japanese treat called pon de ring that are made of tapioca flour and shaped like a lion’s mane. They’re beautiful. They’re more like fritters, and are an excellent vehicle for different flavors.
I want to do some really fun flavor combos, like blood ganache with something called blood butter. I’m gonna see if I can pull that off. I really want to fry the doughnuts in duck fat, but, first, I need to locate some duck fat on the cheap. People aren’t going to want it, but I’m going to serve it anyway.
I love that you describe your baked goods as “askew.” When you’re baking items to be sold, do you have to make them more uniform in size and shape?
Consistency is very important if you’re making the same item over and over again. It’s also pretty satisfying, to get something down, and be able to produce it a lot. It doesn’t have to look the same every time, but it has to taste the same.
I try and highlight the very human, fallible nature of baking. I was a pastry chef [at Cafe Henri and El Rey] and I quit that because I really couldn’t deal with making things that were pretty all the time. I love bread because it’s a little bit funky, a little askew, and because it doesn’t need to make sense.
When I talk about things being askew, it’s an unlikely combination of things, whether it’s technique or region or flavor profile. I find it really absurd that we, as Americans in particular, and New Yorkers, even more-so, eat the same four things everywhere, yet we can eat anything.
The age-old adage of eating with your eyes is so true. People want things that look a certain way so that they can access it and recognize it. I have a really hard time with that, and with commodifying what I do. I think that the more you push people to experience different things through food, if you do it in a compelling way, they will just go there with you.
Are there certain items you make to appeal to a wide audience?
I make these things called Bird Bars that people really like. They’re beautiful, bright-yellow, granola bar-type things that have bee pollen and turmeric and cashews and seeds. They’re really satisfying. I also make a granola that’s really cluster-y, with millet and nori and a bunch of good things. It’s the dreamiest.
I don’t want to make people banana bread. I’m making plantain bread. I want to draw people in with plantain bread, that stuff, and then be like, “Hey! Try this Egyptian bread pudding that’s made with Buffalo milk and old puff pastry. Just put it in your mouth!” (It’s called Om Ali, it looks kind of like French Onion soup, and it’s really delicious.)
I recognize that people want chocolate chip cookies, so I developed one that has miso and chestnut flour in it and it’s like the best chocolate chip cookie I’ve ever had. People can access that and feel comfortable.
Where do you source your ingredients?
All over. I love Sahadi’s on Atlantic Ave. The market is obviously my favorite place. Jules Specialty, in the East Village, is unbelievably inspiring and a total gold mine. Kalustyan’s is also similar, a little less dusty. There are wonderful wholesalers that are doing good things, like Ace Naturals.
I really love buying directly from farmers. I’m sourcing my grains right now. I want to get good grains from upstate to make my breads with and I haven’t really nailed that down. I was buying large quantities from Brooklyn Bread Lab, who get theirs from upstate. They make really beautiful bread. And then Farmer Ground Flour is really nice, which you can get at farmer’s markets.
You posted something on Instagram recently, calling for recipes from different global regions. What did that lead to?
It was so successful. I got so many responses. The internet is often such a vicious, vitriolic place and the anonymity can just spawn so much disrespect and distance. This was so wonderful. People just wrote me full family recipes and heartfelt essays.
I’m really fascinated by people’s nostalgic attachment to baked goods and their associations with home. I found some really amazing recipes, and, from this point forward I’m going to try to continuously work them into what I make. To be able to make one thing that someone who’s far from home can have, and then feel closer to home, and to have an emotional, visceral reaction to what they put in their mouth—as someone who makes food, that is the most powerful thing you can do.
This interview has been edited and condensed.