It was spring, 2020, when Jen Carson, an award-winning baker and founder of LiLLiPiES Bakery in the Princeton Shopping Center, launched her new cookbook featuring more than 100 recipes for artisan breads and sweets.
And while Carson says in a recent U.S. 1 interview that the state pandemic-related restaurant and business closures “weirdly” worked out for her because people started cooking from home and used her book, the pandemic eclipsed our reporting on the book — until now in our 2021 Spring Dining issue.
As the baker notes in the opening of the book, she became connected with baking as part of a way of life. “I grew up in an Italian-American family (in the Bergen County town of Westwood, New Jersey). Food was an import part of every celebration, a way to show love, an excuse to come together and share.
“My first memory of cooking is of making ravioli with my mother, grandmother, and great grandmother on a piece of plywood at the kitchen table. I remember the texture of the wood and how the dough slid easily back and forth on the surface without sticking. I was about five years old, just old enough to have the attention span to help in this multi-step process. I stirred the eggs into the ricotta, salt, and pepper with a wooden spoon. My great grandmother tested the mixture (including the raw eggs) for seasoning, then added more salt.
“I REALLY wanted to crank the past roller, but I was told I’d have to wait a few more years to earn that position. My main job would be to seal and crimp the edges of the ravioli with a fork. The act of making the ravioli was fun, don’t get me wrong. But I specifically remember the feeling of finally becoming one of the ladies. I had earned my spot in the kitchen with these wonderful women, and I never left.”
Carson adds that her path to starting a business is connected to wanting to recreate home celebrations for her children, especially decorating birthday cakes. That led her to take cake-decorating classes and found herself “hooked. I loved creating beautiful and delicious cakes for my family and friends over the next few years. . . Part of motherhood to me was baking for and with our kids.”
Eventually, “a friend asked if I wanted to bake treats once a week for her company. I was intrigued. She asked me to put together a box of samples for her office to taste. I made a few extra little pies for the office tasting. The little pies were the office’s favorite. They suggested I name them — and the LiLLiPiE was born.”
Soon she found a commercial kitchen space, formed an LLC, named my business “Jen’s Cakes and Pastries” and started baking for her friend’s company once a week.
Although she had no formal culinary training, she had received a teaching degree from Bucknell, where she also had taken business electives, she says, “This baking business seemed to fall into place and I was thoroughly enjoying it. I was willing to give up sleep to bake early in the morning. When the time felt right, I started selling at local farmers’ markets, then wholesaling to Small World Coffee in Princeton. Later on, caterers and other retailers around the town were requesting the pieces.”
After deciding to get training at what is now known as the International Culinary Center in Manhattan she started refining a more defined business plan as well as refining her baking and business skills.
That included working for several years as a baker for other area groups, taking special care to credit her time working with Jessica Durrie at Small World, where Carson “learned that building and maintaining a positive company culture took constant work and effort . . . that a good leader expects excellence, but can request it with kindness and respect.” Skills, she says, that are the foundations of her own business.
Then, she restarted and renamed her business, LiLLiPiES. “I rented that same commercial kitchen from years ago, sold product to Small World Coffee and at local farmers’ market, and began the search for my retail site. My first location fell through. My second location fell through. I had almost given up. Then finally in the summer of 2015, I signed a lease at the Princeton Shopping Center. We opened on July 11, 2016.”
Since then, she says she has actually ticked off every point from that original business plan, including baking everything from scratch, using local ingredients, using organic flour, and baking “small batches every day to ensure that everything is as fresh and delicious as possible.”
Speaking of fresh and delicious, readers can try it at home with the following book recipe to create a LillPiEs’ loaf of Challah:
2 ¾ cups all-purpose flour (330g)
½ cup room temperature water (114g)
2 large eggs (100g)
2 tbsp. granulated sugar (25g)
1 ¼ teaspoons fine sea salt (8g)
1 tbsp. honey (21g)
1 ¾ teaspoons instant yeast (5g)
3 tbsp. canola oil (37g)
Egg wash: 1 egg, whisked with 1 tbsp. water
Mix and knead all ingredients except oil and egg wash until a fairly smooth dough forms (15-20 minutes by hand, 7-10 minutes in an electric mixer with a dough hook attachment). Instant yeast can be mixed in as-is. If your yeast package is labeled “active dry,” stir in ¼ cup of the water from the recipe to dissolve the yeast before adding it to the mix.
Add oil and knead until smooth, emulsified, and glossy. This should take 15-20 additional minutes by hand, 7-10 additional minutes in an electric mixer (speed 2) with a dough hook attachment. (Use the “windowpane test” to check for gluten development.*) Dough will be smooth and glossy when fully kneaded. Transfer to clear container (68-80 degrees air temp is best). Bulk ferment 2 hours at room temp.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Divide dough into three pieces,. About 200g each. Roll each piece of dough into a long, thin rope – about 12 inches in length. Braid the dough. Taper the ends by rolling them under the palms of your hands.
Place loaf on a greased, parchment-covered baking sheet. (Baking spray works very well to grease the parchment.) Allow the braided loaf to proof 1-2 hours. When it is ready to bake, it should become puffy and not spring back when poked with a finger.
Brush loaf (gently) with egg wash.
Bake in preheated over (center rack) 30-35 minutes, or until deep golden.
*Pull off a golf ball sized piece of dough and stretch it between the sides of your thumbs and the edges of your pointer fingers. The dough should stretch and not tear and if held up to the light, be translucent (like a window). “
LillPiES Cookbook by Jen Carson, $39. For more information, visit www.lillipies.com.