The Power of Pastry

New Orleans, La. – Pastries and bread evidently have a power that goes beyond the mere calories they carry. Anyway, that's the impression I got hanging around Maple Street Patisserie, where under some evocative, aromatic influence customers often start gushing to the counter help about the amber braids of challah bread from their youth, or the mystifyingly light croissants from their honeymoon in Paris or maybe even some Greek holiday cake they sampled on vacation and are desperate to find somewhere back home.

But you certainly don't need any deep-seated taste memories to appreciate the bear claw at this Uptown New Orleans bakery. It has scant resemblance to the doughy sugar bomb more typically sold by that name. This one is not just about flavor but texture and form too. Bite in and your teeth sink easily through layers of pastry, reaching an airy hollow in the center, lined, not filled, with raspberry jam. Along the way, you get the warm crunch of sugar grains and toasted almond slivers too. This is pastry that works with your mouth rather than just filling it, and it's representative of the way simple pleasures are crafted here.

The maestro at Maple Street Patisserie is baker Ziggy Cichowski. He's a native of Poland, and that has something to do with the baked goods he produces here in New Orleans today. This is not a Polish bakery, per se, but more of a pan-European one, and one that owes something to Cold War geopolitics at that.

Ziggy started working in bakeries from an early age, and as he grew up he also got to travel, apprenticing under bakers in Russia, Germany, France and other nations. He says now that had he lived in a more open society, as opposed to then-communist Poland, he might have elected to stay longer, perhaps permanently, in one of these counties. But he was always required to return home to Poland before he could embark on another apprenticeship somewhere else.

Over time, these trips amounted to a journeyman's tour of European baking traditions. Later, his family emigrated to the U.S, and eventually he made it to New Orleans, where he and a business partner opened their Maple Street shop in 2010.

The colorful sweets may be the star items here, waiting appealingly in rustic bins and baskets atop the bakery case. But it's the traditional breads that often have the strongest evocative powers, at least for those liable to fall under the sway of a taste memory. Take a loaf home, and you'd better eat that bread fast. A brief shelf life is the trade off for bakery freshness, and it's also a reminder of the way things were, and of the way they're slowly becoming again, as people grow more willing to forgo modern, one-stop convenience for the enduring rewards of the old ways.

Bakery preferences can get pretty personal too. Just watch the guy trying to decide which specimen from a platter of ostensibly identical blueberry muffins he wants, like a kid picking his goldfish from the aquarium. For people so attached to and moved by their baked goods, this is a good place to go fishing.

Maple Street Patisserie 7638 Maple St., New Orleans, 504-304-1526