Crash Course: Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice


At Karen’s Bakery in Folsom, a request for more whipped cream is considered neither rude nor gluttonous. I’d chosen a pear tart with a whipped cream garnish that I thought needed some, um, enhancement.

Word was sent to the kitchen for permission. The kitchen door swung open and out came Karen Holmes herself, brandishing a pastry bag bulging with whipped cream. She took a position behind me, readied her body, aimed over my shoulder and squirted as much whipped cream as I wanted onto the original garnish until it was covered up by a new swirl higher and wider than the dessert.

Holmes, 47, began her life in pastry in 1994 with a near-volunteer position alongside local pastry queen Patricia Murakami at Chinois East-West. I was a mom at home baking cookies. My first gigs were PTA bake sales, Holmes remembers. I came home one day and looked at my kitchen, and it looked like a restaurant.

After stints at New Helvetia and the short-lived Oaxaca, she was hired when Paragary’s attempted a Folsom outpost under chef Rick Mahan. Eleven years ago, when Mahan opened The Waterboy in midtown, Holmes was his original pastry chef.

Karen’s Bakery is the first thing you see when you walk out of the new parking structure built to accommodate visitors to Folsom’s Old Town. By karmic coincidence, Karen’s ever-expanding bakery is a few doors down the street from the Paragary’s Folsom site that first drew out her talent.

Is there a secret to pastry chef success?

There are scientific rules involved that you have to follow. You have to respect the rules. If you’re not a rule follower, you won’t know how to break them.

What baking procedure looks hard but is deceptively easy?
Puff pastry. The hardest part is reading the recipe. It’s hell to explain how to fold it, but when you do it, it’s easy to see.

Do you like raw batter? I mean, there is such a thing as cookie dough ice cream.
Many of us around here like to make sure the dough’s OK.

What’s the latest chocolate thing?

Combining it with fleur de sel (sea salt).

Are you architectural?
I don’t want anything to tumble with your fork before you eat it. No towers. No sticks that poke you in the eye.

If you had to choose an ingredient of the highest grade, would it be your cream, eggs or chocolate?
I can only choose one? It would have to be chocolate, then cream. You can’t fudge on good chocolate.

Which is taller, you or your mixer?
We have a couple of Hobart mixers that I’m taller than, but I have aspirations to get one that’s taller than me.