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For this acclaimed pastry chef, home tastes like a coffee cake


"You're grounded."

Remember those days? Mindy Segal does. Her parents grounded her regularly while she was growing up in Highland Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. She was dyslexic, a bad student with a bad attitude by her own admission, who preferred to skip school and hop a bus downtown. But once she was stuck at home with nothing to do but watch Julia Child and Jeff Smith's "The Frugal Gourmet" on TV, she started cooking and baking herself. Her mother owned a cookbook published by their synagogue with a recipe for sour cream coffee cake that caught Segal's attention early on. 

"I have eaten this cake since I was a little girl," she told me recently, as we stood in the kitchen of Mindy's HotChocolate, her restaurant here in Wicker Park. "It's a simple 1-2-3 cake, but the things I've done to transform it made me who I am. It's how I knew I had the mind of a chef, adding bananas to the batter or chocolate to the streusel." She later created what she calls a "yum yum" variation that she sometimes serves at the restaurant, inserting a layer of cheesecake into the middle of the coffee cake and adding dark milk chocolate to the streusel. That version "is what I used to make for guys when I wanted to sleep with them." She stopped, then laughed. "Say, 'Win their hearts,' " she instructed.

On this day she made the basic cake, the foundation of her development as a baker who, in 2012, won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef in the country. After years working at the high-end Chicago restaurants Charlie Trotter, MK and Ambria, Segal, now 50, opened Mindy's HotChocolate in 2005. It serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, nine variations of hot chocolate and an ever-changing dessert menu. (Her parents became her business partners, so there might be something to be said for tough love after all.) 

In 2015 she opened Mindy's HotChocolate Bakery in the Revival Food Hall downtown in the Loop, and Ten Speed Press published her book "Cookie Love," a comprehensive ode to a lifelong passion, written with Kate Leahy. In 2016, Segal expanded her business to include Mindy's Artisanal Edibles. In partnership with Cresco Labs, the largest cannabis cultivator in Illinois, she has reinvented its product line. Her milk chocolate peanut brittle, along with brownies, chocolate chip cookies, gummies, sucking candies and caramels are all on the market in legal dispensaries here.

It's no accident that she was approached for a job like that one. Segal long ago parlayed her sex, drugs and rock-and-roll persona into that of a culinary badass in this town, an Anthony Bourdain without the bother of fried bugs or jet lag. She held herself and her employees to impossibly high standards, working such long hours that she often appeared in the kitchen in her pajamas. She has battled serious anxiety her entire life, spending months in a psychiatric hospital when she was 17. In recent years she has found some peace thanks to therapy, Zoloft, Soul Cycle and a happy marriage to Dan Tompkins, who also works in the restaurant business. Segal's father, Irwin, who sold men's clothing before becoming her business manager, died of leukemia in 2016. She showed me her upper arm, adorned with the three "I love you's" he said to her, her mother and her brother, his last words. 

Segal is ornately tattooed, decorated like porcelain. She often wears her hair, a festive shade of red, pulled into a high ponytail, and she radiates the wry, grounded air of someone who has learned her lessons the hard way. Behind her station in the kitchen is her inspiration board covered in photographs of opulent cakes; as a dyslexic she finds it difficult to follow a written recipe. Nor does she use timers, relying instead on look and feel to decide when something is done. She has the extraordinary ability to see a picture and replicate it. "I have no eye for design, I can't do that at all," she said. "Only food. I'm good on improvising."

Segal assembled the cake, measuring her ingredients in cups, rather than grams. "I am the only pastry chef still doing this," she mumbled, moving quickly, following an internal choreography. "My clientele likes my simplest desserts, but I don't mind," she said. "Sometimes the simplest things are the best. There's an art to restraint. There's beauty in restraint." 

Of course she's right, though the desserts she serves here are mouth-wateringly complex by any standard in spite of their clear, resonant flavors. "Ode to the Milk Chocolate Malted" is composed of chocolate buttermilk cake, milk chocolate Moloko stout mousse and malt ball candy bar. "Bananas" is salted whiskey caramel brioche bread pudding, banana ganache, vanilla wafers and caramelized bananas. As with couture, the internal stitching never shows.

Segal smoothed the batter in the Bundt pan while murmuring, "This reminds me so much of my childhood, we loved it so much." Then she picked up her head and yelled, "Mommy!" with all the ardor of a 13-year-old demanding attention, knowing full well she will get it. She took off toward the back of the kitchen. Somewhat startled, I followed her into the tiny office where Shirley Segal, the restaurant's office manager, sat at the computer. She is tall and slender with long white hair, and she answered her daughter's questions about where she got the recipe with the unflappable calm she has apparently perfected over the last five decades.

With the cake in the oven, Segal and I sat at the bar to talk. She opened with her standard line delivered in a self-mocking tone: "I like to say I grew up a very poor white Jewish upper-middle-class girl from the North Shore of Chicago, oh poor me." She dropped the tone when recalling other privileges. "My parents worked in my restaurant so when my dad was sick, I could be with him the entire time, have private talks with him. I promised him I'd take care of my mother. He told me how proud he was of me."

Which sounds like it wasn't always easy. "I was a pretty bad kid," she said. "I found the suburbs very confining. There was always an adventure I wanted to have in the city. I've always been off-kilter, in a good way, and that's been misconstrued sometimes. I'm very intense and passionate - about food or employees or a bagel. Whatever it is, I'm all in. And I'm lucky. I found something I was good at early. When I was grounded, Mom let me work. I washed dishes in homes during parties, then moved on to prepping appetizers, setting up buffet tables. It was interesting to me. My mom is a simple cook, very good, and we always had three squares. Even in the bad days, I'd be home at 6:30 eating dinner with my family."

Segal dropped out of the University of Wisconsin at 19 and applied to culinary school with no experience. "It's hard to say why I chose pastry," she said. "When you cook protein, you sear or braise or roast, and it is what it is. You take an apple and think, 'What do I want to do?' I can confit it, make butter or ice cream, sorbet or pie, caramelize it into a tart. I like the challenge of creating things from nothing."

She is good enough at it to be nominated for the James Beard Award five years in a row before her 2012 win. When she lost in 2011, she made a scene at the ceremony and stormed out. "I acted like a child," she said evenly. "It just became a drag to keep getting nominated and every year it's not your year." 

An assistant signaled that the cake was done. Segal released it from the pan and some of the top stuck. "It's still really hot," she said, cutting into it, so I took a hunk to go. Over two days the flavor deepened. It carried the distinct taste of childhood, of Nana and strong tea, that welcome break for company in the long lapse between lunch and dinner when the kitchen was dark. The sturdy yet tender golden crumb tasted of the old world, while the sweet, moist ring of streusel held promise of the new. All of that in the seemingly simplest of cakes.

"I've gone through periods when I was stale," Segal told me. "Now I'm proud of what I do, with my voice, my approach to the restaurant, the bakery, the line of edibles, my life. When people ask me, 'What are the trends?' I say the trends are whatever I'm doing. I'll tell you what's cool and not cool. I'm the single owner of this restaurant. Ninety percent of my management staff are women. I don't need a huge corporation. I'm proud of it and I make people happy. What's better than that?" 

- - - 

Shirley's Coffee Cake

12 to 16 servings

Pastry chef-restaurateur Mindy Segal has eaten this simple cake since she was a little girl.

Ingredients

For the streusel

1/3 cup packed light brown sugar

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 cup finely chopped pecans (optional)

For the cake

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter at room temperature, not too soft

1 cup granulated sugar

2 large eggs

2 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup sour cream or crème fraîche

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Steps

For the streusel: Mix together the sugars, salt, cinnamon and pecans, if using, in a small bowl.

For the cake: Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Generously grease a 10-inch Bundt pan with cooking oil spray.

Combine the butter and granulated sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer or handheld electric mixer; beat on medium speed for several minutes, until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Stop to scrape down the bowl.

Sift together the flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt on a large sheet of wax paper or in a bowl. On low speed, add the flour mixture alternately with the sour cream or crème fraiche, ending with the dry ingredients, to form a smooth batter. Stir in the vanilla extract.

Pour half the streusel into the bottom of the Bundt pan, distributing it evenly; this will give the cake a caramelized appearance. Spread half the batter in the pan evenly, then scatter the remaining streusel on top of the batter layer. Top with the remaining batter, making sure to cover the streusel layer completely.

Bake (middle rack) for 50 minutes, or until a tester inserted into the cake comes out clean (except for maybe a few streusel crumbs). Let cool completely before inverting onto a platter.

Nutrition / Per serving (based on 16): 220 calories, 3 g protein, 33 g carbohydrates, 9 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 50 mg cholesterol, 190 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 20 g sugar


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