Many of you who live in or have visited Berlin may know Barcomi’s. Whether it’s the Deli set in a leafy courtyard in Mitte’s Sophien Strasse or the Coffee Roastary on Kreuzberg’s well frequented Bergmannstrasse that you associate with the name, one thing you will all know – the coffee and the cakes are delightful.
But if you don’t know the back story to it’s conception, I have a little interview with founder Cynthia Barcomi to give you some tips on her success. Originally from the U.S, Barcomi came over to Berlin as a dancer 28 years ago, but found her passion in baking.
You are originally from the US, tell us a bit about your background.
I was born in Seattle, WA and am the youngest of three sisters. My father was a lawyer, my mother a homemaker. I was always very creative, began taking dance lessons at the age of 3 and began baking at this time, as well. I went to an all-girls boarding school in upstate New York, which I credit with making me the person that I am today. I continued on to Columbia University where I studied philosophy and theater and graduated with honors. I moved to Berlin in 1985 as a professional
dancer and have been here ever since!
I read that you used to be a dancer, what made you switch to baking?
I danced professionally in Berlin for 8 years. After my second daughter was born (I have 4 children) I decided I wanted to do something else, so I began to roast coffee beans. I knew I had potential to do other things in my life, I just had to decide what that was! Baking started out as just a thing on the side, which blossomed into…my life, my purpose in life.
What’s your favourite dance piece?
Well, I just love Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Pina Bausch. Netherlands Dans Theater is also so amazing – I can’t decide on just one!
What is your earliest or fondest baking memory?
Chocolate chip cookies. I used to bake them with my mother. There is a photo of me in my third book, I Love Baking, where I am standing at the front door to our house with a warm chocolate chip cookie in my hand. Minutes later a huge German shepherd dog stole it right out of my tiny fingers. I felt like a WOLF had eaten it!
I often test out recipes… which fall flat on their faces. Can you tell us about a particularly memorable baking fail?
Well, I work really hard theoretically on a recipe before trying it out. There are never any disasters, so to speak, just pastries that I don’t feel are optimal. It’s like painting a picture and feeling like you’ve not captured the essence of what you were going for. In that case, I analyze what I like and don’t like about the result, I rework the recipe and try it again. If it’s not right by the 2 time, I usually let it go. It is my experience, the longer I work on a recipe, the more superfluous ingredients sneak into my work. I like focused food, decisive, clear. I don’t like it when there are too many flavors or textures competing within a pastry. For me, each pastry is like its own world –a combination of flavors, textures, colors and shapes. It needs to communicate something to the eater, not be muddle with a bunch of conflicting ideas.
When you moved to Europe, did you miss the traditional American desserts and bakery… and did this drive you to create you own?
Absolutely! I was pregnant with my first child and was so homesick. For me, food is sense memory, much like a theater exercise I used to do in school. It is emotional, visceral and tangible. That’s when I began recreating my food-sense-memories. I began with cookies and moved onto cakes, mousse au chocolat, pies, pancakes, cinnamon rolls etc. There was no stopping me. I was obsessed with recreating a perfect version of my memory. In retrospect my creations were often better than my memory of them. But sometimes, every so often, recreating that memory simply eluded me. It is actually much easier to create a recipe from a vision than a memory.
As I am from England and love a good English trifle or crumble, do you have any favourite English cakes (or desserts)? And your favourite German dessert?
Well…I recently developed a shortbread recipe for a big film company to promote a film that takes place in Scotland. I visited Glasgow and just loved the food and pastries there. I am also quite fond of eton mess and Christmas pudding. I like German dumplings filled with fruit
Baking aside, what is your favourite type of cuisine and why?
Oh, I love so many different kinds of food. I especially enjoy Asian food because it is a type of cuisine
that I do not cook myself. Of course I have a wok in the kitchen, but truly authentic is it not!
What is your favourite place in Berlin?
My favorite place in Berlin is my kitchen. It is where I spend most of my time. It is quite large and has a huge door made of glass which opens out onto our terrace / herb garden. I love it there. It is a source of work and inspiration for me.
You have a Coffee Roasting café, but which do you really prefer – Coffee or Tea?
I love coffee. I tend to only drink tea when I am sick ;( or iced tea in the summer. Once an English friend of mine introduced me to the most amazing green tea. But I don’t know what kind it was and have never had it since then. BUT, I have never forgotten it!
What do you recommend most highly if someone visits Barcomi’s?
Where shall I begin? We roast our own coffee and it is perfect. It really demonstrated that coffee taste like the earth in which it grows. There are so many amazing flavors and characteristics coffee can embody. I love our bagels. Like everything, they are made everyday by hand the traditional way of boiling then baking. Their flavor and texture are simply amazing and so different that the industrial produced bagels you get everywhere else. And then there are the cakes. The cheesecakes. We use over a ton of cream cheese a month to make them and they are perfect. Cookies, muffins, scones…I love them all!
What is your single favourite baking ingredient?
I really love muscovado sugar. It is a beautiful, dark brown, raw sugar with an amazing caramel taste.I just love to bake with it.
Do you have any baking tips that you think are golden?
Baking is like a game. And like any game there are rules and one must know these in order to bake successfully. For example, yeast likes warmth and moistness, starch and sugar but not salt (directly). And it likes to be kneaded / massaged. If it’s a cold day, yeast needs a bit more time to develop. But when it hot and humid, you need to use colder water and give the yeast less time to develop or it will taste fermented and won’t rise well when baking. Pie dough and scones, on the other hand, don’t like to be kneaded and require really cold ingredients. You just need to be sensitive to what you’re making.
Baking just makes sense to me. It is an extension of myself. I am at one with the universe when I’m
in the kitchen, bangin’ those pots and pans!
If you want to have a taste of these delicious cakes and coffee check out Cynthia’s website for more details. Thanks so much to Cynthia for being on Sugar Thumb and to her team!
Happy Thursday !