Gráinne Baking Co. goes high-tech with old-fashioned goodness
Since she was a young child, Jillian Simms of Deep River has been baking with her mother for family and friends. Her husband, Jason, describes her fudge brownies as “knee-bucklingly rich” and her brown sugar shortbread as “addictingly delicious,” as this writer can attest.
One year ago Simms, who has a culinary degree, started Gráinne Baking Company, turning her joy of baking into an online business, and shipping her cookies and other sweet treats all over the U.S. Gráinne (pronounced GRAWN-yuh) is a figure from ancient Celtic folklore personifying the harvest, and for Simms it also represents her Irish ancestry.
In the following Day interview, Simms talks about her baking heritage and how she came full circle in her new entrepreneurial venture.
Q. Why did you start your baking company last year and why did you do it as an online business?
A. It had been in the back of my mind for a while. I was previously a pastry chef in Portland, Oregon; Boston; and here in Connecticut at It’s Only Natural in Middletown. So interestingly, my first job here was as a vegan pastry chef at the same time I was taking classical French pastry classes. I’m an interesting combination of self-taught, mom taught, with some classical training as well.
The reason I went online is I’ve lived all over myself and have lots of friends, who move relatively frequently — living in distant cities from their families. If I couldn’t make it home, I’d want to send something home, saying ‘I love you, I’m thinking of you.’ This seemed like a nice solution. I love to get things in the mail. When your friends and family are spread out all over the country, it can be hard to tell people you’re thinking of them.
Q. You have five products for sale: Homemade granola, granola bars, brown sugar shortbread, sea salt chocolate chunk cookies and brownies. Why did you choose these items?
A. Because those are the things my friends and family constantly ask me for. I would show up at Thanksgiving or Christmas or even a picnic at a friend’s house with something I worked really hard on, like a seven-layer cake with a few different fillings, frosting, and decorations, and I was very excited and they were disappointed the old favorites weren’t showing up. They’d say, ‘Oh, where’s the shortbread or brownies?’
Q. Will you divulge the secret to your ultra-rich brownies?
A. I use a huge proportion of chocolate — much more than any other brownie recipe I’ve ever seen. It’s primarily a lot of Fair Trade chocolate, butter and eggs from Cold Springs Farms in East Haddam.
Q. What makes your granola unique?
A. The honey I use, the sweetener, the glue that holds it together, from Stonewall Apiary in Hanover. Whenever I’d eat or buy granola or look at certain recipes for granola, it was (mostly) oats, and I put in six different kinds of dried fruit, nuts, almonds, pecans, pumpkin seeds and coconut, and it’s very crunchy because of the ratio of ingredients.
Q. You describe yourself as being born with a wooden spoon in your mouth. Can you talk about learning to bake with your mother growing up in Middlefield?
A. My mom is an incredible self-taught baker. When we were little she was home with us a lot. My parents were pretty young when my brother and I were born. Dad was at work with the car and she would bake with us. It’s how I learned math, fractions, even science. My great grandmother had a chocolate cake recipe that was like a science experiment. You’d pour water over baking soda and it would fizz up, and then stir it into the rest of the batter. I remember sitting in front of the oven with the light on watching the cake rise.
Q. You have a big Irish family in Connecticut. What are the Irish influences in your baking?
A. Shortbread is the easiest thing to point to. It’s inspired by cookies I’ve had in Ireland and the warmth, kindness, and hospitality you find in Irish homes. It’s beautiful with tea. You’re not in an Irish house for two minutes without a cup of tea in your hands.
Q. Can you tell us about your “put flavor first” philosophy?
A. I want people when they take a bite of one of my cookies or brownies to have a moment in their day when they feel comfort and care. A lot of baked goods in the world are not that memorable and with mass-produced goods it’s more about the shelf life, how it will hold up. My baked goods have to hold up through shipping, but the goal is the flavor. First and foremost it has to be delicious. I never use preservatives to extend shelf life.
Q. When you say you make “real natural food with no additives, preservatives or distractions,” what do you mean by distractions?
A. I have a lot of fun experimenting with food and trying new things, tasting new flavors, but all of my stuff is pretty straightforward — there’s not a ton of flavors that won’t be familiar to people. For example, I don’t do a pumpkin spice brownie for the fall. I try to keep the focus on simple, pure, delicious flavors.
Q. Do you plan to add anything to your online offerings this season?
A. I’ll have two new items for the holidays: Bourbon pecan blondies with caramelized white chocolate cacao nibs. And, a request by my dad, Hermit cookies, which I started bringing to farmer’s markets and got a good response. It’s an old New England recipe: molasses, raisins, spices; a delicious warming snack when it’s getting a little chilly out.
Q. Do you have people working for you or do you do this all yourself?
A. It’s all me. I crack every egg and tie every ribbon, all the shipping, everything. I’m lucky to have a partner (my husband) who believes so much in what I’m doing.
Q. Do you and your mother really bake 1,000 cookies at the holidays every year?
A. Yes. It was always a way for my mom to give gifts to family, friends and neighbors, put her talent to work, since she couldn’t necessarily buy gifts for everyone. And it’s always been her way of showing love. I also believe that baking is an act of love.
Q. How many kinds of cookies do you make?
A. We make about 15 different varieties between us because everyone has a favorite. Just a few days before Christmas, we get together and make up plates and bags and baskets.
Q. You also act in the Gaelic Players community theater troupe. Do you see any connections between the acting and baking?
A. I would say that both of them are ways to reach back to my roots, which helps keep me grounded and reminds me of what’s important. I also I think when I’m feeding someone and when I’m doing any kind of performance, it’s a gift, a way of putting myself out there and saying, ‘This is what I have to offer to the world.’
For more information and to order from Gráinne Baking Co., visit www.grainnebaking.com.
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