Baking

Sugar Moon, an experimental baking workshop in Chicago

About 20 people stood quietly in a loose line along a leafy Chicago street on the first Saturday morning in June. Behind a family of four with a dog and a baby in a stroller, a couple was chatting quietly.

“We have to leave in 15 minutes,” said a young woman. “We can come back at 2 o’clock when there is no line.”

“And no tricks,” said a young man.

She left. He stayed.

They understood the sacrifices you sometimes have to make in a relationship, not just with each other, but with Sugar Moon.

“I used to call it a bakery,” said Dina Cimarusti, owner and baker. She opened the small storefront in Logan Square nine months ago. Now she thinks she should call it an experimental baking workshop.

Through the windows, you’ll see a single stool on either side of the front door, tucked under the counters for one. A surreal floral mural, featuring a “Dune” worm, overlooks the space which is primarily an open kitchen at the back.

But your attention will be entirely fixed on the pastry cases, trying to decide what to get. When you finally walk through the front door, it’s not the candy smell you might have been expecting. Instead, it’s hot bread and garlic.

After nearly an hour of waiting and some quick math, you might decide to get one of everything. That’s what I did. Think of it as a 24-course tasting menu, but much more substantial.

What I found was that some of the best bites I had this year were made at Sugar Moon.

My fellow food critic Nick Kindelsperger said one of his best bites last year was the tahini chocolate chip cookie.

Cimarusti changes her menu every month but that’s one thing she won’t take away.

“People would be really upset,” she said. “Because they come specifically for this cookie.”

The sesame seed condiment adds depth and nuttiness.

“This cookie dough is basically like a three-day process,” Cimarusti said. She keeps the dough chilled for at least 24 hours, letting it hydrate well, then into balls before freezing. “I like to cook frozen to make a nice crispy edge, but keeping the center more gooey.”

His creative attention to detail became a signature trait in the origin story behind award-winning baker-turned-special-effects-artist-turned-bakery-owner.

Cimarusti’s pizza focaccia ranks among the best caramelized crust pizzas in Chicago. It is surrounded by a blackened lacquer, intensely savory, but with an ethereal lightness.

A giardiniera focaccia has also become a staple for good reason, and a recent cauliflower focaccia with caramelized onions, honey and chili oil was also exceptional.

“I grew up with focaccia,” she said. “My nonna is 90 and always brings three sheets of focaccia to every family event.”

Cimarusti does cold fermentation overnight. Before baking, she drizzles extra virgin olive oil around the pan, as her grandmother taught her for a nice crispy crust.

“I feel like the reason our focaccia is really good is because we use Janie’s Mill flour,” Cimarusti said. Organic stone-ground flour from Ashkum, Illinois is a favorite among artisan bakers. “I use their all-purpose flour in focaccia, and their artisan sifted in galette dough.”

This pancake batter swells into a batter that is gorgeous. From garlic mushroom croissants with ramp pesto, to asparagus patties with crunchy chilli pepper from Vargo Brother Ferments.

The puff pastry was breaking up nice crumbs everywhere.

A Scrappy Dawg turns leftover croissant dough into a delicious mixed-breed croissant dog with a crispy beef stick and homemade seasoning.

Cimarusti does indeed bake some wonderful sweets, especially its Chewy Brown Butter Salted Caramel Blondies, Featherweight Tiramisu Cloud Cookies, and Crackling Cornflake Espresso Cookies.

An impressive strawberry rhubarb jam bar sprinkled with streusel was somehow vegan. Vegan Chocolate Chip Walnut Cookies and Vegan Gluten-Free Dark Chocolate, Oatmeal, Cherry and Walnut Cookies are also available.

Brioche, a golden and buttery French egg bread, is at its best when it’s light and tender. When I learned to make it by hand at culinary school in Paris, I was surprised by the long and violent process that transforms the dough (and, sometimes, the maker).

Cimarusti’s brioche is beautifully puffed, each pastry crowned with thoughtful toppings. The crumb, however, seemed a bit dense in a recent tasting, sometimes overpowering the nice fillings. And there are plenty of them, savory and sweet: bacon, egg and cheddar; balsamic roasted red pepper, egg and feta; sweet potato, egg and za’atar; strawberry, rhubarb with graham cracker crumbs; and apricot, mascarpone and cardamom sugar.

May be too much.

A chocolate cake looked gorgeous, with silky Italian buttercream stained pink with cherry jam, but it was also a bit dry.

Mixed berry scones were overwhelmed by a thick lemon glaze.

The olive oil cake, on the other hand, was simply superb, delicately sweet and crispy on the outside, but soft and fruity on the inside, even without the gilding of the thyme-macerated summer strawberries.

Potato curry and beluga lentil pies have been a dormant hit, reaching their full flaky spicy potential when reheated in the oven, as are fan-favorite poblano-cheddar scones.

Sugar Moon’s Doggo Treats with Pumpkin, Coconut Oil, and Cinnamon were great right out of the jar, according to my dog’s review.

Meanwhile, Cimarusti works 80 hours a week as the only baker. The bakery is only open on Friday, Saturday and Sunday and actually sells out in the late morning.

“It’s not like a normal bakery,” she said. “I feel bad that there is a line. To be honest, it’s not what I imagined for this place.

“It’s not a bakery you can come to every week,” she added. “Sometimes we close. And sometimes we could change things.

She tries to understand.

“I feel like every time I take time off, something bad happens,” she said. “He’s so weird. As the universe says, ‘You’re not allowed.’ ”

Before Cimarusti opened Sugar Moon when the pandemic first hit, she was out of work as a special effects artist, but still baked on the sidelines for fundraisers.

“Then my mom and my stepdad had a crazy accident,” she said. “They were in a boat explosion.”

She left town to take care of them.

“They’re fine now, thankfully,” she said. “But it made me realize that anything can happen at any time.”

After opening the bakery, during her last break, she lost her grandfather.

“My grandfather died, and I just had to deal with it and reopen.”

He was the inspiration for his remarkable focaccia pizza.

“That’s how he made his pizza,” Cimarusti said. “Layered cheese, gravy, cheese. So that’s how I do mine.

At least for now, anyway. Such is the nature of this extraordinary experimental pastry workshop.

3612 W. Wrightwood Ave.

sugarmoonchicago.com

To eat.  Look.  Do.

To eat. Look. Do.

Weekly

What to eat. What to watch. What you need to live your best life…now.

Open: Friday from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. or while seats last; Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m.

Prices: $1 (doggo treat), $3.75 (chocolate chip tahini cookie), $5.50 (slice of olive oil cake), $6 (pizza focaccia), $8 savory flatbread

Noise: Friendly conversation

Accessibility: Wheelchair accessible with toilets on one level

Note from the podium: 2 ½ stars, very good to excellent

Classification key: Four stars, exceptional; three stars, excellent; two stars, very good; one star, good; no stars, unsatisfactory. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.

[email protected]