The Elegant baker

Pastry chef provides delectable edibles to eateries near and far.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Working in a commercial kitchen is not for the faint of stomach. With all the scrumptious aromas and ingredients, like chocolates from France, fresh-frozen Door County cherries, or gelatos and sorbets, it’s hard to understand how workers in the bakery department at Elegant Foods LLC in Madison don’t eat the profits. “You almost get desensitized to it when you work with foods a lot,” says Alisha Rapp, bakery manager. “It’s like overkill, but it’s always tempting.”

Elegant Foods, a Madison wholesaler, celebrated its 25th year in business in April. The company distributes everything from ingredients to cheeses, cheesecakes to breads, oils and balsamic vinegars to pasta, and quiches to deli meats, sending specialty food items to about 800 clients in Wisconsin, northern Illinois, and eastern Iowa, and serving specialty restaurants, stores, and coffeehouses.

Only five of the company’s 27 employees work in the bakery. The treats they produce on a daily basis represent only about 15% of the company’s overall sales but produce 100% of the aromas wafting throughout the 32,000-square-foot office.

Free-range job

Rapp, 35, joined Elegant Foods in November after eight years as general manager and baker at Prairie Café in Madison. Now, rather than starting her days in the wee hours of the morning seven days a week, she clocks in for a 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. shift and has weekends off, a true luxury.

“I also have free-range creativity here,” she says. “I don’t have 100 customers a day telling me what they want.”

The company’s inventory of specialty cheeses, for example, leads Rapp to suggest that a cracker recipe is in the works.

The red velvet cake sold at the former Bluephies on Monroe Street was actually made in the Elegant Foods kitchen, but the restaurant was able to brand it as their own.

It’s also not uncommon for the bakery to receive an order request for 100 flourless chocolate cakes or hundreds of scones, and one Door County lavender farmer even asked her to create a lavender gelato.

“It’s fun to experiment,” Rapp says. “People come to us with their product, like this lavender oil, for example. We made a lemon-lavender cake for someone.” The lavender gelato was a bit trickier. “If you add too much, you have soap. It needs something creamy behind it, like a crème brûlée. I played around with lavender scones or shortbread, but I think it’s better in a custard.”

It’s that kind of creativity that keeps Rapp engaged. Often, Elegant Foods’ owner Michael Olson presents a new idea or challenge. Recently, when the company procured some local, grass-fed ground beef, Olson asked Rapp to incorporate it into a ready-made product. She responded with a taco quiche using pepper jack cheese that was then taste-tested by staff members and tweaked accordingly. “Some thought it was too spicy, so I ended up creating one using half pepper jack and half cheddar.”



Mixing it up

Annual Ingredients List

  • 74,000 eggs
  • 2,200 pounds of flour
  • 10,500 pounds of sugar
  • 9,000 pounds of butter
  • 10,000 pounds of chocolate
  • 50 gallons of double-fold vanilla

The Elegant Foods bakery produces over 125 varieties of products. Everything is made from scratch. Dough is hand scooped. Eggs are hand cracked. If a large order calls for 400 eggs, one employee will crack each and every egg by hand into a strainer to keep the shells out.

But the bakery’s signature items are its scones, muffins, cookies, and breakfast burritos, baked every day and shipped out to coffeehouses, small specialty stores, and restaurants. “The advantage of being a wholesaler is that we work ahead,” Rapp says.

After baking, items are cooled and flash-frozen to ensure freshness. No preservatives are used.

Hundreds of scones are produced each day by employees who mix batters the old fashioned way — by hand.

A notebook nearby is Rapp’s record of items baked daily to keep the freezer stocked. On this day, the bakery staff has already made granola, quiche Florentine, farm cake muffins, Craisin scones, four-cheese scones, and pumpkin scones. A run on the company’s carrot cake supply the previous day has the team whipping up another rack to fill the gap. Meanwhile, in an adjacent kitchen, an employee folds dozens and dozens of perfectly shaped breakfast burritos into rolls of heat-and-serve restaurant menu items before wheeling them into the freezer.

For as long as she can remember, Rapp enjoyed baking. She has fond memories of helping her mother and grandmother in the kitchen rolling out piecrusts and making cookies, especially around the holidays. “At my house, everyone gathered around the kitchen table,” which was important, she says. “That’s how we spent time together.”

Pastry niche

Rapp is a graduate of Madison College’s culinary arts program, where she had an opportunity to visit several New York City restaurants as well as the French Culinary Institute (now called the International Culinary Center). That experience heightened her desire to become a pastry chef, so after graduating from MATC, she returned to New York and enrolled in the institute’s intense, six-month, non-degree program in pastry arts.

She had found her niche. “You get to be really creative artistically, but pastry baking is also very precise because of the science involved. For me, it was the perfect choice.”

Now, after clocking in each morning, she checks the day’s sales report to note any last-minute changes, rechecks the list of items to be baked that day, and ensures she has enough ingredients for the next day’s work.

Wheat-free items are baked first thing in the morning. Elegant Foods’ bakery produces several wheat-free items including two different types of scones, three different muffins, and two different cookies. “We can’t call it gluten free because the items are produced in a facility that contains wheat,” she explains. “If we moved the production to a different location, we could call it gluten free.” Wheat-free items are packaged individually in heat-sealed pouches to keep them separate from other products.

And while gluten free is one current trend, Rapp says people are also paying more attention to high-quality, locally sourced foods. That’s why the bakery only uses locally sourced ingredients when possible, like Sassy Cow dairy products, for example.

Inspections are a part of the business. The Department of Agriculture visits frequently to make sure equipment is clean, meat is handled correctly, and items are labeled properly.

“When we cook a Chorizo breakfast burrito, the temperature is recorded to ensure it is cooled properly and packed. For gelato, I have to write down all the batch and lot numbers of the products I use so if there’s a recall on something, I know which batch that things came into. Safety is always a concern.”

Of course, the best part of working in a kitchen is the end result. “I taste everything,” she smiles. Her personal favorite is the farm cake muffin, which she describes as a chocolate cake with cream cheese filling and chocolate chips on top. But then there are the pies, and the Elegant Foods kitchen produces a dozen different varieties, including bumble berry, blueberry, raspberry, rhubarb, and three types of cherry, as well a selection of cream pies. Oh, and those sorbets!

Rapp says she never really tires of baking. “I still bake at home and make pies for Christmas. There is an expectation, after all!

“But my home mixer seems so tiny.”

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