BY ANDREW COPPOLINO | MAY 2022
As a judge on the Food Network’s Wall of Bakers, LenJo Bakes owner Lenore Johnson says she felt a bit out of place, but she adds that her perspective quickly changed.
“The producers called out of the blue and asked if I wanted to participate. I said yes, of course, but I felt that I didn’t belong,” Johnson says. “Then I got there, and I realized that everyone felt the same way. Because of that, as bakers we developed a bond.”
Pastry chefs in restaurants might be used to working alone. They come in earlier than the rest of the crew and go home before them; their workstation maybe isolated in another part of the restaurant – and perhaps in the basement.
“It’s really interesting to be in a room that is full of people who are as passionate about something as you are and understand the struggles that come with it. It was uplifting,” she adds.
Baking became her “gig”
Her appearance on the popular baking program has played its role in helping to boost the profile of the region and the city, Kitchener, where she has been operating her bakery for two years now.
LenJo Bakes started as a pop-up in New Zealand, but baking as a career had long been on Johnson’s mind and began with a simple question: “Can I bake cakes and make money? And … go!”
Her wry sense of humour continues when she recalls her earliest days working with flour, eggs and sugar; both parents were professional bakers, and she, obviously, grew up with home-baked goods.
“When I was in grade one, I realized that other kids got cookies that came out of packages. ‘What are these?’ I thought. ‘Doesn’t your mom make your cookies?’ Moms make cookies. I grew up thinking that was the gig,” Johnson says.
“The gig” became her own, and LenJo Bakes is located on Ahrens Street in central Kitchener.
Despite enrolling in math and business at the University of Waterloo, before a few co-ops and a program change, baking had made an impression on her. “I decided that I really hated certain aspects of school and switched to economics. I loved baking because of the science and chemistry behind it. Baking has process. It’s the outworking of my passion for that process.”
“I wanted to do things my way”
Acknowledging that bakers need accuracy in measurement and process, Johnson headed to George Brown College for baking and pastry arts: her thinking was that she’d spend the majority of her career hours in the corporate world with baking on the side.
Eventually, while working in kitchens in Europe, including Michelin-starred restaurants in England, Johnson realized she wanted to do more than follow another baker’s regimen. “I got to the point where I wanted to do things my way. It’s time,” she said.
Today, LenJo Bakes focusses on what and how she wants to bake: there’s no set menu, and baked goods depend on what’s in season. It’s very “spontaneous” she adds. “We have a core offering that we do, but flavours and how they all come together depends on what we’re feeling at the moment.”
Waterloo Region’s “hidden diversity”
Time in Waterloo Region as both a student and a businessperson, along with her participation on “Wall of Bakers,” has honed Johnson’s perspective of the cities and townships of the Region. As a culinary destination, there’s a lot offered here, she says – and there’s a lot more potential, she believes.
“There’s a hidden diversity here. I don’t think that most people would assume that it is as diverse as it is. I don’t think that I’ve lived anywhere else, including Toronto, which has had such a concentration of different cuisines or interpretations of cuisines in such a localized place, such a relatively small area.”
It’s not a monoculture, Johnson might say. Even within the so-called Pennsylvania-Dutch, Mennonite or Germanic background of the region, there are variations, Johnson notes. “There many different interpretations and different styles of that depending on where people are from. We are incredibly blessed here.”
Baking family memories
At LenJo Bakes, Johnson says there are many “super-busy” periods during the year, including Mother’s Day. “This year, for Mother’s Day, we featured six kinds of macarons that were inspired by what you’d typically get your mom for mother’s day or the mother figure in your life,” she says.
Is baking itself a gift? It’s here that Johnson can get more philosophical about the centuries’ old craft and trade that belongs to the baker.
“Few people realize that when you’re baking for someone, you’re giving a small portion of yourself. And it’s not only the time. You work at something to do it well. And the entire time you are making it, you are thinking of them,” she says.
“I think that’s quite a special and unique moment where you stop and take everything in. The memory lasts longer than the cake itself. I think that memory is the point of it. For a moment, you stop and take everything in.”
To help you start creating your own baking memories, Johnson shares a recipe you can make and share with special people in your life.
Lenore Johnson’s Lemon drizzle cake
My mom spent some time in England as a child (she was originally from Jamaica), and one of the first “cakes” she had at afternoon tea was a lemon drizzle. Whenever I make it for her, it brings back pleasant memories and, of course, she now relishes in the fact that she can ask for one whenever she wants!
150 grams eggs
225g granulated sugar
113g heavy cream
210g cake flour
4g baking powder
1g lemon zest
75g melted butter
Mix the sugar with the eggs to a cold sabayon (a sauce). Add cream. Fold in the sifted flour and baking powder along with the lemon zest until just barely combined. Take a portion of the mix, fold in the melted butter. Return to mix and fold through until just combined. Pour into a prepared loaf pan (butter and flour or butter and a strip of parchment) and bake at 355F for 50 minutes or until done. Check with a knife.
For the lemon syrup
160g granulated sugar
160g lemon juice
Bring everything to the boil. Reduce by half. Use to soak the loaf cake when hot.
To finish: once cakes are cooled, make a flat icing out of icing sugar and lemon juice. Just enough liquid to make the icing runny – just past the consistency of toothpaste. Zest fresh lemon on top or garnish with candied lemon slices.
Five Questions for Lenore Johnson
EWR: What’s always in your fridge at home to eat?
Lenore Johnson: I’m never home. I’m always here!
After a long shift, what do you want to eat when you go out?
Who inspired you?
LJ: Not a person, but the television show “Mind of a Chef” with Anthony Bourdain and David Chang.
Can you share with us a failed recipe?
LJ: One time we made these cookies, apple-cinnamon I think they were. They just didn’t work. We sold them very cheap. I think we just tried to get some money back for the butter.
After customers leave LenJo Bakes, what do you want them to feel?
LJ: That they belong. That they were seen and treated well and were not just another customer. At the end of the day, we want this to be a place for the whole community.
Andrew Coppolino is a writer-broadcaster, and is a food columnist with CBC Radio in Waterloo Region. Following a stint as a cook at a restaurant in Kitchener, Andrew chose to work with food from the other side of the kitchen pass. As a food writer, he is dedicated to promoting and nurturing culinary businesses and advocating for local chefs and restaurants. Andrew’s work has been published in newspapers and magazines across Canada, the United States and England. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.