A baker's life can be distinctly unglamorous with early mornings, long days and lots of hard work. But creative satisfaction and the joy of making delicious food that people adore make it worthwhile.
Co-owner Agi Groff doesn't hesitate when asked why people love 4 Seasons Bakery's baked goods. "Real ingredients; nothing you can't pronounce. No artificial colors or flavors. Real food!"
Her husband, Aaron, agrees, adding that customers are lured by their handmade approach - even the puff pastry and Danish dough are made on site. The Groffs, naturally, use local ingredients whenever possible, including eggs.
The Groffs met while they were earning associates degrees in baking and pastry arts at the Culinary Institute of America in New York. They moved to St. Louis in 2004 and began their business in 2005, baking in a nearby church kitchen and selling their products at farmers' markets. In July 2010, they opened their snug, tidy storefront bakery. A month after that, the couple's daughter, Alina, was born, making the bakery's first year "crazy but good."
Throughout the week, Agi and Aaron handle jobs the other doesn't like.
Agi is the chief tart maker; Aaron excels at quiches. Aaron also heads daily operations, with the help of a couple of interns who do basic dough assembly and other tasks.
The bakery has a daily rhythm that's overlaid by its weekly production cycle. Tuesdays through Fridays, Aaron arrives by 5:30am and on Saturdays, he comes to the bakery an hour earlier to proof breads and handle extra prep work. He first concentrates on baking staples for the case: scones, quick breads, coffeecake and cookies - all made in the bakery's single oven. When that's done, he brews coffee and prepares the register so he's ready for customers when he unlocks the doors at 7. He's in constant motion the rest of the day, helping customers; baking items such as macaroons, breads, pies and tarts; making starters for the week's various breads; taking care of special orders; packaging cookies; restocking the front case and shelves; and brûléing pastries and finishing them with powdered sugar, glaze or frosting.
Tuesdays are big production days. Staples are made so the Groffs' wares can be baked fresh during the week. Cookie and scone dough are made and portioned out, and muffin and quick bread batters are prepared and stored. Dough for tarts and pies are assembled, wrapped and labeled, and puff pastry and Danish dough stocks are replenished.
On Thursdays and Fridays, production gears up again as the Groffs decide on Saturday offerings. Typically, they prepare tarts, pies, their signature flourless chocolate cake and a German- or New York-style cheesecake. Inspiration for weekend treats comes from a lot of sources: local fruits or vegetables, magazine articles, chatting with customers or a recipe from the Groffs' collection of more than 300 cookbooks.
Sundays and Mondays are the Groffs' days off, although they spend at least some of their free time stocking up on supplies and looking for ideas for new pastries. They often go to the library for cookbooks they don't already own.
Because Agi was born and raised in Heidelberg, Germany, she bakes traditional German treats during the holidays. Throughout December, 4 Seasons Bakery's shelves are stocked with her favorites. Several come from family recipes: vanillekipferl (almond crescents), zimtsterne (cinnamon stars) and lebkuchen (similar to gingerbread).
"They're only made during Christmas time, and then you have to wait until next year," she explains. "That's what makes them so special."
Other Christmas goodies include springerle (crunchy biscuits embossed with Christmas themes), rumkugeln (chocolate rum balls) and anisplätzchen (anise cookies). They also make a classic Christmas stollen, dense, egg-rich yeast dough studded with toasted almonds, crammed with golden and dark raisins and flavored with candied orange peel and lemon peel that have been soaked in rum for two days. The Groffs sell their Christmas treats at the Hermann, Mo., Christkindl markets at Stone Hill and Hermannhof wineries.
The Groffs' busy holiday schedule leaves little time to cook for themselves. Don't feel too sorry for them, though. Their version of leftovers is pumpkin brioche bread pudding. Agi also looks forward to treats made by her family.
"By the time Christmas comes along, the last thing I want to eat are the cookies I made. My mom sent a box of her cookies last year, and I was excited to eat them."
December is the perfect time to follow your taste buds to the St. Charles shop. The Groffs' love for what they do is evident in the warm greeting they give every customer, their friendly banter with regulars and joyful approach to baking traditional and seasonally inspired treats.
4 Seasons Bakery, 2012 Campus Dr., St. Charles, 314.288.9176, 4seasonsbakery.com
GET THEIR RECIPES!
Want to offer something special to your holiday houseguests? Aaron and Agi Groff share some of their quick recipes for scrumptious winter-morning treats.