Layer Cakes

A t Marjolaine Pastry Shop, even the non-layer cakes can have serious levels to them. You’d probably never know it just by looking or eating, but the bakery’s buttercream icing, for instance, which frosts nearly all of Marjolaine’s wedding and special-event cakes, takes 2 1/2 hours to make, according to owner Arlene Cardenas (pictured second). Made without egg yolks, it’s a cooked French recipe designed for sophisticated palates—lighter, fluffier and less sweet than what passes for the norm elsewhere.

Cardenas’s devotion to buttercream dovetails with her aversion to fondant, the marshmallow-based substance that’s quite trendy in cake design these days for its workability and polished look. The trouble is, it also tends to be rubbery and tasteless. “I’ll do a fondant cake, but it stresses me out,” she says. “No one eats that; they just peel it off.” She prefers to apply buttercream so flawlessly that it looks nearly as smooth as fondant, making an appealing backdrop for fresh flowers, chocolate-dipped strawberries or hand-painted decorations.

Passing on fondant is but one indication that “retro” is too tame a word for this kitchen. Much of the equipment dates back to 1978, when the shop first opened—and some of it goes back further. “That mixer is older than molasses,” says Cardenas, pointing out an oversized floor model that’s mixing Danish pastry dough. “It breaks down on us,” adds her husband and business partner, Raul. “Sometimes, we have to kick it to make it work. You can’t find parts for it.” All baking takes place in a bank of pizza ovens that, Cardenas says, “work just fine for us.”

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In truth, more than fine. This old-school mechanical array produces heavenly smelling, preservative-free croissants, Danishes, cupcakes, tarts, pies and cookies, with over a dozen different selections laid out in Marjolaine’s glass cases every day. Specialties include a signature fresh fruit tart made with vanilla pastry cream and hazelnuts, white chocolate mousse cups, weias (custard pies, pronounced “vayas”), bread pudding and dacquoise, a dessert cake made of almond and hazelnut meringue layered with whipped cream and buttercream. (The shop takes its name from the latter’s rectangular chocolate variation, invented by legendary French chef Fernand Point.) Everything is made on site by a small, close-knit group of chefs, including Cardenas’s mother, Rosita, who makes the flan.

A part of the bakery case is devoted to chocolate truffles and confections by Melt Chocolatier, the brand name of Marjolaine head baker Meredith Lindsay, who began creating her candies here in 2011. Her flavors range from sophisticated “comfort food”—milk chocolate and peppermint—to blends of the sweet and savory, such as peanut butter & port wine, Earl Grey tea & lavender, ancho chile & blueberry and orange cayenne. Also available are Lindsay’s rose caramels, which, like her truffles, have won awards at the Montessori School on Edgewood’s annual Valentine Chocolate Festival.

Just as most of Marjolaine’s current staff are long-termers, Cardenas, 31, has spent more than half her life here. She first became aware of the shop at age 11 when her mom moved the family into a residence across the street. Having been recently widowed, her mother remarried to an “awful man,” says Cardenas, a man who fueled the young girl’s desire to never be home. She envied her four brothers who, at one time or another, all landed jobs working for Marjolaine’s original owner Rusty Hamilton. At 14, she got her heart’s desire when her brother Waldy was fired for being late—almost immediately, she marched into the shop and presented herself as a replacement, lying about her age so Hamilton wouldn’t reject her. He put her to work cleaning the bathroom, a job she still does.

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Over the years, Cardenas and Hamilton forged a close relationship, and as her responsibilities grew—from working the cash register to becoming a part-time baker—she learned more and more about all aspects of the business. Hamilton became the kind of father figure who, disapproving, refused to attend her high-school wedding to Raul, yet still provided the wedding cake. Three years later, a high school graduate pregnant with her first child, Cardenas told her boss she wanted his job as manager, which meant she’d have to work every day from 5 a.m. to 2 p.m., making all the shop’s morning croissants and Danishes as well as pastry fillings. Once she mastered those, Hamilton trained her on gingerbread houses and wedding cakes.

Cardenas ultimately bought the business in early 2013. Her plans for Marjolaine involve a mix of keeping old traditions and pushing new initiatives. She’s already painted the shop’s formerly green walls a pale pink—“Pink is so beautiful; it represents yumminess to me,” she says—and invited local artist Kwadwo Adae to create a floor-to-ceiling, still-in-progress Parisian mural. As always, the upcoming Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays will offer a bonanza of festive specialties: pumpkin cognac pie, spiced nuts, bûche de Noël and stollen, as well as two treats of Cardenas’s own invention: turkeys and snowmen made of truffled chocolate and marzipan.

Two of Hamilton’s former traditions have been reintroduced: weekly soups and Saturday breakfasts. While he “used to get lines out the door” for the latter, Cardenas says, she’s experiencing limited success so far. Still, she loves whipping up French toast and home fries or savory pancakes with fried eggs on top, and Marjolaine’s soups—like the popular roasted red pepper and tomato—go well with the shop’s savory turkey and cheese or broccoli and cheese croissants. Cardenas’s next goal is to master authentic French macarons, a skill that, for the first time, might require her to actually take classes. “None of us went to culinary school,” says Lindsay, “although Rusty did train in France for awhile. We’re like a shop of gifted amateurs.”

Gifted, yes, but amateurs? Just by looking or eating, you’d never know it.

Marjolaine Pastry Shop
961 State Street, New Haven (map)
Tues-Fri 7am-6pm, Sat 8am-5pm, Sun 8am-1pm
(203) 789-8589

Written by Patricia Grandjean. Photographed by Dan Mims.

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A former senior editor at Connecticut Magazine, Pat Grandjean is a cultural omnivore who loves everything from Beck and “Doc Martin” to Shakespeare and Quentin Tarantino. She currently spends much of her free time volunteering at the New Haven Animal Shelter and cleaning apartment closets.

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