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February 8, 2016

Local chef serves up Parisian sweet treats

This article originally appeared in Green & Gold News on Nov. 11, 2015.

Sam Wagner, A.A.S. Culinary Arts ’12, honed her skills in the Cuddy Kitchens before starting with Sweet Caribou, the city’s booming macaron and pastry business. (Photo by Philip Hall / University of Alaska Anchorage)
Sam Wagner, A.A.S. Culinary Arts ’12, honed her skills in
the Cuddy Kitchens before starting with Sweet Caribou,
the city’s booming macaron and pastry business.
(Photo by Philip Hall / University of Alaska Anchorage)
Anyone familiar with the Anchorage farmer’s market scene has probably seen these sweet cookies from Sweet Caribou. With eye-popping colors and inventive flavors (Pumpkin cheesecake! Maple bacon!), these delicious Parisian pastries called macarons have become a staple of the market circuit since James and Miranda Strong launched the business last year. The husband-and-wife team even traveled to Paris to learn the delicate pastry process firsthand, and Anchorage residents have fallen for this French import. After all, 4,400 Facebook fans can’t be wrong.

But big changes are ahead for the small family-owned baking outfit. Rather than keep tabs on Sweet Caribou’s traveling macaron stand, locals with a sweet tooth will finally be able to drop in at a permanent storefront for their cookie cravings. Sweet Caribou is expanding to meet demand, opening a permanent location later this year and adding a new pastry chef in culinary alumna Sam Wagner.

Sam has been in the pastry business since she started the culinary program at UAA. In fact, after graduating in 2013, she stayed on an extra year to hone her skills as a lab assistant for Chef Vern. “He’s awesome,” Sam said of the UAA culinary professor and pastry guru. “You can tell he loves what he does.”

Though she assisted students in their work, Sam credits that yearlong mentorship for boosting her skills as well. “I just feel like it gave me a huge leg up,” she said. By shifting immediately from student to teacher, Sam had to return to the textbooks and study up on everything she’d learned throughout her degree program. “You have to teach someone else to really show your mastery of something,” she said, adding that the experience was well suited to her new gig in the Sweet Caribou kitchens. By returning to old lessons and relearning every process, she became a more efficient baker with an improved eye for merging repetition and quality. Those skills translated to Sweet Caribou, a mass production bakery that prioritizes its artisan roots.

Sweet Caribou produces at least 1,500 sweet, delicate (and complicated) macarons each week. (Photo courtesy of Sweet Caribou)
Sweet Caribou produces at least 1,500 sweet,
delicate (and complicated) macarons each week.
(Photo courtesy of Sweet Caribou)
Sam estimates Sweet Caribou produces at least 1,500 macarons a week, yet each cookie is still handcrafted by pastry chefs. And that’s no small order. Macarons are well known for their extremely particular baking process. “It is very labor intensive,” she said of the recipe. Macarons are, as Sam lovingly calls them, “finicky little critters.”

Although every pastry has a set of steps that must be followed, the margin for error in a macaron is exceptionally high. “A lot of times we have to play detective to figure out why we’re having problems,” Sam joked. The cookies are made with egg whites and without a leavening agent, so the challenges start as soon as Sam starts mixing the ingredients. Too much whipping and the over-aerated cookies leave the oven looking like tiny mountains. Too little whipping and the cookies spread out like liquid. If the oven is too hot, the cookies crack, but if it’s too cool they’ll flatten. The baking sheets may be the problem. But it could be the position in the oven, too. Then there are questions of quantity. How many do we make so we can sell them all in a day? How many do we make to keep from selling out at 10 a.m.? The whole process presents a daily culinary conundrum, though consistent cooking is key; each cookie must have a perfect pair to make the sandwich-style macarons. Every cookie pair is hand-piped with a delicate buttercream or ganache filling, lightly pressed together and left to cure as the macarons develop their flavors and textures over the next 24 hours.

“You have to find the happy medium in everything,” Sam commented of the daylong process. “When things are not cooperating, it can be a very long evening.”

Thankfully, the new kitchen will drastically streamline the baking process. Sweet Caribou quickly outgrew the Strong family kitchen, and they’ve been renting kitchen space for the past several months. That means each day the team moves all their ingredients in and out, getting acquainted with new ovens—and all their own individual quirks—on a regular basis. With a physical location, ingredients can be delivered direct to their door, meaning no more mid-shift Costco runs for bulk almond flour. “That’ll be amazing,” Sam laughed.

By the end of this year, Sam and her fellow chefs will be busy in the kitchens at Sweet Caribou’s new location (at 36th and Arctic in the old Cosmic CafĂ©). The space is currently being renovated to expand the kitchen and shrink the front of the house. The location will offer pick-up services—think display cases lined with colorful rows of their signature macarons, as well as cupcakes, brownies and blondies. With an expanded kitchen and an expanding team, Sweet Caribou is full of future opportunities. “It’s a very small business now, but big things are happening,” Sam said.

Though known for their macarons, Sweet Caribou also whips up cupcakes, brownies and blondies. (Photo courtesy of Sweet Caribou)
Though known for their macarons, Sweet Caribou also whips up cupcakes,
brownies and blondies. (Photo courtesy of Sweet Caribou)
Sam is still involved in UAA’s culinary program, regularly volunteering at the annual Celebrity Chef Invitational scholarship fundraiser and periodically drops in to visit Chef Vern. Although it’s been a few years since they worked side by side, they quickly fall back into easy conversation each time she stops by the Cuddy kitchens.

Her time as a lab assistant in UAA’s culinary program allowed her to hone her skills and be ready when Sweet Caribou came knocking. “I really think there’s a lot of potential here and—once we have a home base—I think there’s a lot of ways we can expand,” she said. Though she was referring to Sweet Caribou’s growing artisan business, the same could be said about the potential of her own future pastry career.


Can’t wait until the storefront opens? Follow Sweet Caribou on Facebook to find out their weekly market schedule.

Written by J. Besl, UAA Office of University Advancement