One favorite habit I developed during my European travels is undoubtedly a Parisian-style breakfast. Consisting typically of coffee, juice and a pastry, it sets you off for the day with a happy buzz from the combined effect of caffeine and sugar. It is quick and unfussy, and most Parisians take a daily walk to their favorite neighborhood bakery, where the only difficulty is the choice between the many flaky, delicious goodies coming fresh from the oven.
Residents of Billings have not had this luxury until three years ago, when Veronika Baukema opened the eponymous Veronika’s Pastry Shop on Montana Avenue downtown. I recently chatted with Veronika about her journey from Central Asia more than halfway around the world to Montana, how her business survived the recent lockdown and more.
What is your background? How did you learn to bake European pastries?
I was born in Tashkent, the capital city of Uzbekistan, a former Soviet Union Republic. My career has always been in an office setting. I was an accountant in Uzbekistan, and after my daughter and I immigrated to the USA in 1999, I worked at the courthouse for a while. I never went to culinary school. I learned how to bake from my grandmother, Polina. Moving to a new country was challenging. To make the transition sweeter, my daughter and I would spend time trying all of the local, American baked goods. Unfortunately, most treats were too sweet and heavily frosted. We also wanted to find something that reminded us of home. During my travels around the Pacific Northwest, I would stop at local bakeries to find familiar European and Russian pastries. I often wondered why Billings doesn’t offer anything like that—a thought that kept burning in the back of my mind. For a long time, I dreamed about having my own bakery, and in 2017 I took a chance and opened Veronika’s Pastry Shop.
How did the recent lockdown affect your business? What did you do to adapt?
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought on challenging times but also showed me that I am part of a great community with lots of supporters. Because I do not run a restaurant, but a small cash-and-carry business, I was able to keep my shop open throughout the lockdown. My main challenge, however, was obtaining ingredients.
Is there an easy pastry you would recommend to a beginner baker?
Inexperienced bakers should start with a shortcrust pastry, which is made with butter being mixed into flour, to create a loose and crumbly mixture. One can make flaky, buttery turnovers or hand pies. It’s easy and fun to experiment with either a sweet or a savory filling. I would recommend working your way up to using yeast. Baking with yeast-based dough requires certain practice and knowledge of properly proofing the dough in order to achieve good crumb texture.
Which flavor combinations do you enjoy using in your baking?
I like pairing lavender with honey, coffee with rum, and raspberry with balsamic vinegar.
What is your best baking tip?
My best tip is simple: When baking, it is key to be precise and patient. That's how you will achieve great results.