Zingerman’s Bakehouse co-managing partner Amy Emberling has a passion for the craft of baking and developing people. She takes SEEN into the kitchen and shows how to make a pecan pie from scratch — homemade crust and all.
By Dorothy Hernandez
Photography by Derrick Martinez
Growing up in Nova Scotia, Canada, Amy Emberling discovered at an early age that she loved food.
Her family vacationed in Maine every summer. “That was our southern vacation from Nova Scotia,” she says. “And I can remember being about 7 and already knowing how to crack a lobster. We would eat lobster in the summer, and it was just something I loved.”
She loved restaurants too and would beg her parents to take her, so the family of six would go out to eat at least once a week. When they weren’t enjoying restaurants, Emberling’s mom cooked dinner every night. Eventually, Emberling wanted to get into the kitchen herself, and by the time she turned 11 she was baking often, reading recipe books and watching cooking shows like “The Galloping Gourmet.”
These early experiences fostered a passion for food that Emberling, 53, of Ann Arbor, would parlay into a career as co-managing partner at Zingerman’s Bakehouse, one of the businesses under the Zingerman’s umbrella.
But she didn’t start off working in food right away. In high school, she wanted to take a cake decorating class, which her mother was less than enthused about. So while she thought about owning a restaurant someday, the idea stayed in the back of her mind. After high school, Emberling moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to attend Harvard University where she studied social movements.
In 1988, she moved to Ann Arbor where her husband was studying. She worked in several Southeast Michigan restaurants, and in 1992, was one of the original bakers when Zingerman’s Bakehouse opened.
She left Zingerman’s when her husband got a job abroad, and while in Paris, she learned to cook and bake at L’Ecole de Gastronomie Francaise at the Ritz Hotel. The family returned to the States, this time settling in New York City. In 1999 she received her MBA from Columbia University.
Then her old friends at Zingerman’s came calling.
Ari Weinzweig, co-founder of Zingerman’s Delicatessen, says he and Emberling stayed in touch.
“As the Bakehouse kept rolling, by that point (in 2000) we did recognize it was often better to have two partners, so we started to talk to her about coming back,” Weinzweig says, adding that when it came to figuring out who that co-managing partner would be, they immediately thought of Emberling.
Managing partners run each of the Zingerman’s businesses — of which there are nearly 20 — semi-autonomously and own shares.
It’s not just Emberling’s knowledge of food and fine-tuned palate that make her well suited for the job, but her “sense of the world and how food fits into that,” Weinzweig says. Running a food business is not just about food, and it’s not just about business. “It’s figuring out how the food fits into community and looking for creative ways to work together. And she’s very aligned with that.”
It’s also about making hard choices as a leader. In 2009 during the economic downtown, the Bakehouse struggled financially. In an attempt to prevent layoffs, Emberling — along with her co-managing partner Frank Carollo and other employees who could — volunteered to take a pay cut.
Another big challenge over the years was the movement among many consumers to eschew gluten, but the Bakehouse has adapted and evolved “such as learning the recipes of other baking traditions like Hungarian and beginning to mill in house, using a variety of grains, not just wheat, to ensure maximum quality and flavor, and introducing naturally occurring non-wheat pastries like pavlova to serve the wheat-free community,” Emberling says.
While she loves the craft of baking and says she wouldn’t be at Zingerman’s if food wasn’t at the heart of her work, she has other interests and so do her colleagues. She studied social movements. Weinzweig studied Russian history. Her co-managing partner has an engineering degree. What ties them all together is using food as a way to create change.
“We care very much about our community, our customers, and our staff and do all of our work with these things in mind. … I think that at Zingerman’s we are trying to do business in a different way from the traditional models. in some ways we are creating a community in the way we’d prefer it to be as people did in the 1800s when they built utopian communities. We would like our businesses to enrich the lives of the people it touches. We want to inject value into people’s lives, not extract value,” she says.
One way Zingerman’s does this is by practicing open book management, which engages employees to take ownership of the numbers beyond just reviewing spreadsheets. At weekly meetings, staff members discuss how to improve based on the financials. The business is run at these “huddles,” as they are called at Zingerman’s, Emberling says, adding that by engaging employees this way, the “work is much more meaningful than the run of the mill punch in/punch out bakery job, and people understand their agency. They are not powerless drones in a process of someone else’s enrichment. They are creators and value generators themselves, and they see the benefits.”
Makes 1 pie
3 large eggs 1 cup plus 3 tablespoons packed muscovado brown sugar
½ teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
9 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
9 tablespoons corn syrup
1 ½ cups pecan halves
9-inch single pie crust, unbaked
Preheat the oven to 350 F.
In a mixing bowl, combine the eggs, muscovado brown sugar, salt and vanilla. Beat until well combined. Add the melted butter and corn syrup and mix to combine. Spread the pecans evenly in the bottom of the unbaked pie crust. They will float to the top, so there’s no need to arrange them precisely.
Pour the filling over the pecans. Bake the pie for 1 hour. The center of the pie should be set, and the pecans will be golden brown. Remove pie from oven and cool before serving. You can store this pie at room temperature for five to seven days. It has an incredible shelf life if you can resist eating it.
Makes 2 crusts
2 ½ cups + 1 ½ tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup fat (butter, lard or combo), diced in ¼-inch cubes and chilled until firm
1/3 cup water
Note: For conventional ovens, preheat the oven to 375 degrees F 20 minutes before baking. For convection ovens, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F 20 minutes before baking.
Mixing the Pie Dough:
In a mixing bowl combine the flour and salt and blend with a pastry blender.
Add ¾ of the cold fat into the flour mixture.
Working quickly, cut the fat into the flour mixture using a pastry blender. Cut until the mixture looks like coarse cornmeal with pea-size pieces of fat.
With your hands, rub the fat and flour mixture together quickly to encapsulate the flour with the fat. Rub until the mixture takes on a creamy color and mixture has no floury appearance. It should look like coarse cornmeal.
Add the remaining ¼ of the butter and cut into the mixture using the pastry blender. There should be large pieces visible!
Create a well in the center of the mixture.
Add 5 tablespoons of chilled water. Using a fork, blend the water and flour mixture until the water is absorbed. The mixture will still be crumbly in the bowl, but it should look hydrated.
Turn the mixture onto the work surface, form into a mound and schmear the mixture across the surface. Make sure to schmear enough so that the dough loses its crumbly/dry appearance and looks more like a dough. But do not over-schmear! Too much handling will make the dough tough.
Fold the dough onto itself with a bench scraper. Gather the dough into a ball, pressing it firmly so it holds together.
Cut it into two equal pieces, shape into a disk, and wrap with plastic wrap. Chill dough for at least 1 hour before rolling it out.
Rolling Out a Single-Crust Pie Shell:
Remove one piece of the chilled dough from the refrigerator. While the dough is still in the plastic wrap, firmly but gently, tap on pie dough with the rolling pin until it is flexible but still cold. Lightly dust the rolling surface with flour.
Place the disk of dough on the surface and lightly flour the top of the disk with flour.
Using a rolling pin, start rolling the dough from the center to the edge away from you. Do not use too much pressure, or the dough will crack.
Stop and give the dough a 1/8 turn. This rotation will prevent the dough from sticking to the table and help make a perfect circle.
Re-flour the rolling surface and the top of the dough to prevent the dough from sticking. Continue to roll the dough until it’s about 1/8-inch thick and is about 1-inch bigger than the pie plate you will be using. Flour is your friend — use it liberally to avoid sticking.
Brush off any extra flour from the top of the pie dough. Turn the dough over, and brush off any extra flour from the bottom.
Using a rolling pin, gently roll the dough loosely around the pin.
Position the edge of the dough over the pie plate edge and unroll the dough. Gently ease the dough down into the pie plate, making sure not to stretch the dough.
Fit the Dough into the Pie Plate:
Using a rolling pin, gently roll the dough loosely around the rolling pin. Position the edge of the dough over the edge of the pie plate and unroll the dough. Gently ease the dough down in to the pie plate. Turn this extra dough under to make a neat thickened border.
Create a decorative edge with this border as you choose. For a simple finish, press the tines of a fork all around the edge or press a spoon into the edge to make semicircles.
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