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Chosen Chefs: Sarah Levy of Sarah’s Pastries & Candies, Chicago

In our new series, Chosen Chefs, we will profile up-and-coming Jewish chefs making waves from Los Angeles to New York. And in case you can’t get there, we’ll include from each of the chefs a recipe that you can make at home. Last week, we profiled chef Moshe Wendel of Brooklyn’s Pardes restaurant; this week, we head to the Windy City for some sweet desserts with Sarah Levy at Sarah’s Pastries & Candies.

Chicago native Sarah Levy has been a chocoholic since birth. “Growing up I’d have chocolate chip pancakes for breakfast and a chocolate bar for dinner,” she said. Now, as the owner of the Windy City’s popular Sarah’s Pastries & Candies, she can have as much as her heart desires.

“But I have to be careful,” the bubbly Levy told us with a laugh. “I think I gained about 30 pounds during the first three years we were open.”

Levy, 30, started her Oak Street business, which specializes in morning pastries, specialty cakes, tarts and chocolate gift baskets, in March 2004, when she was just 22 years old.

She got her start while an undergraduate at Northwestern University, where she did an independent study on Jewish cooking. “I worked on some of my grandmother’s recipes — I remember her noodle kugel specifically. I wanted to explore how food brings people together,” she said. After graduating, Levy attended a six-month program at the French Pastry School and started making chocolates out of her mother’s downtown Chicago home.

She cold-called the local Whole Foods for seven months until the store finally agreed to sell her signature product, Chocolate Delights. The sweets, which comes in white, milk or dark chocolate varieties, are clusters made with caramelized almonds, roasted pistachios and Rice Krispies. They were a hit.

So, in September 2005, Levy opened a sit-down cafe on Oak Street, in one of Chicago’s busiest shopping areas. She expanded beyond chocolates to include French and American pastries. Some of the most popular treats include macaroons, petit fours, fudge brownies, and black-and-white cupcakes based on the famous black-and-hite cookies — half chocolate, half vanilla (Levy said she came up with the recipe for the cupcakes while falling asleep one night — when, she says, all her good ideas come to her).

In 2007 she opened a second Sarah’s Pastries & Candies location in the Macy’s on State Street, in downtown Chicago. Two years later, Levy penned “Sweetness,” a cookbook with 30 recipes, including head pastry chef Rafael Ornelas’s coconut-apricot macaroons (recipe below), which she sells in the store on Passover. (“They taste surprisingly delicious, like an amazing Almond Joy,” she said). The book is now in its fifth printing.

A food career wasn’t completely out of the blue for Levy, whose family culinary roots run deep. While growing up in Chicago, her Jewish father, a well-known Chicago restaurateur, kicked off a chain of restaurants with a deli called D.B. Kaplan’s.

Levy’s mother is Catholic, and she was given the option to choose. “I have to admit, I’m more of a cultural Jew than a religious one,” Levy said. While her store is not kosher, her bakeries turn out special desserts for the Jewish holidays. “We make flourless chocolate cupcakes with raspberry buttercream and chocolate-covered matzo for Passover,” she said. They also make the signature macaroons from her cookbook.

She’s considering adding rugelach to her repertoire, too. “My dad just moved to L.A., and he always gets this pack of 25 ‘rugies’ at Junior’s. We went out there ,and I fell in love with them again.”

Recently, Levy has built a booming wedding cake business, supplying the cakes for many of the city’s most upscale hotels, including the Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons. She’s usually involved in two-to-four wedding cake tastings a day at the hotels (but stressed that she doesn’t eat at the tastings — “Oh no, I can’t,” she said with a laugh). For the Memorial Day weekend alone, she and her team are making nine cakes (cakes start at $8 per serving). Their signature is an almond cake with a caramel creme brulee filling.

While Chicago is home to national cupcake chains, like Sprinkles and Crumbs, to plenty of candy shops and to myriad wedding cake makers, Levy’s business is unique in the fact that she combines all three. “We do a lot of different things and do them really well,” she said.

Levy enjoys seeing customers come back again and again. “I love having regulars that come in twice a day — for coffee and for lunch — and then come in for their daughter’s birthday cake. That feels great,” she said.

As owner of her company, Levy spends a lot of time running the business from an office. But she tries to set aside one day a week to do some baking in the kitchen. She’s focusing a lot on wedding cakes, always learning from her shop’s head cake decorators, Sunny Lee and Gillian Morrow.

“My goal is to keep expanding the wedding cake business and gift basket business,” she said. “In Chicago, we’re a bit of a destination. I would love people to know more about us everywhere else.”

She also still enjoys a dose of hearty cake competition now and again. Sarah and her team recently competed in a Food Network Challenge — set to air sometime this summer — in which they created a cake that was a moving dinosaur. While she isn’t allowed to say whether or not her team won the competition, the experience was a highlight of her career. “We worked our butts off,” she said.

Rafael’s Coconut–Apricot Macaroons

You can easily alter this recipe, customizing it to your own tastes. You can spice up the traditional recipe by adding dried apricots, chocolate chips, dried cherries or toffee pieces, for example. You might also consider dipping the macaroons in chocolate for a particularly luxurious treat. To speed up the boiling process in the second step, use hot instead of room-temperature water.

Yields: 24 2-inch macaroons

1 cup dried apricots
2 ½ cups unsweetened shredded coconut
3 tablespoons water ¾ cup granulated sugar 1 tablespoon light corn syrup
2 tablespoons vanilla extract
2 large egg whites

Preheat the oven to 350 F. 1) Cut the dried apricots into small pieces, about ½- inch thick.

2) Place the coconut and apricot pieces in a mixing bowl. Set aside.

3) Combine the water, granulated sugar and corn syrup in a saucepan, and bring the mixture to a boil.

4) Pour the boiling water–sugar mixture into the bowl containing the coconut and apricot. Add the vanilla, stirring thoroughly.

5) Stir the egg whites into the mixture until combined. The mixture will have a thick consistency.

6) Using a cookie or a small ice cream scoop, place small mounds of the mixture onto parchment-covered baking sheets, about 1 inch apart.

7) Bake at 350 F for 15 minutes, or until the tops and bottoms of the macaroons are lightly browned.

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