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Shaw Baker Finds Her Forte in an All-Natural Niche

Hareg Messert with vegan biscotti and pecan cookies, counterparts to non-vegan treats she also makes.
Hareg Messert with vegan biscotti and pecan cookies, counterparts to non-vegan treats she also makes. (By Dominic Bracco II For The Washington Post)
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By Joe Yonan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A funny thing happens when people try two versions of the same cookie made by baker Hareg Messert: They often like the vegan one better. "They'll start off saying, 'Oh, not me. I'm not vegan.' But then they taste it," she says.

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She thinks it's the butter, or lack of it, that does the trick. Without dairy products, her cookies taste clearly of chocolate, ginger or pecans because, as she puts it, "the flavors have not been taken over by the butter."

Whatever the reason, Messert, 39, may have found her niche. A year and a half after opening Chez Hareg bakery in Washington's Shaw neighborhood, this former Ritz-Carlton pastry chef is widening her reach. She's supplying several cafes, and she's starting to sell her all-natural cookies (in both vegan and traditional versions) in a few area stores.

She credits her growth to the exposure from her debut this fall at the 14th and U and Bloomingdale farmers markets. At her booths, Messert gave out samples of her classic French cookies, biscotti, panettone and pound cake, a smart move for someone confident that nibbles would translate into sales. Between that and media attention, her customer base started to grow beyond the Ethiopian community near the bakery.

The Shaw neighbors have helped her build a following, especially among vegans or sometime-vegans. She and other members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church avoid animal products on their many fasting holidays.

Ethiopia, which was never colonized, has no tradition of desserts beyond fruit and honey. But Messert also spent time as a girl in West Africa, where she was introduced to French-style pastries by cooks who worked for her family. She started baking, but it wasn't until after she came to the United States at age 17 that she considered making a career of it. Messert, who graduated in 2000 with a culinary degree from Stratford University in Falls Church, worked at the Best Buns Bread Co. and Carlyle Grand Cafe in Shirlington and at the Ritz hotels in Pentagon City and the West End before striking out on her own.

Most of her friends are vegan, and when she first thought of creating cookies with them in mind, people told her it would be easy, "because vegan products don't have to taste as good," she said with a smile. "But I don't like that. I think if it's vegan it should taste just as good, or better."

Converting recipes to conform to vegan requirements while still producing a great taste was easier in some cases than others, as she demonstrated one afternoon last month in her bakery's small kitchen. Pecan Snowballs (see recipe on this page), a very simple cookie, needed only the substitution of vegan margarine for butter. (She uses Admiration, a wholesale brand, but also recommends Earth Balance for home bakers.) But biscotti were another story, because they required an egg substitute.

"We try it, we bake it, five or six times," she said, because the Ener-G Egg Replacer they use reacts differently in different recipes. "The package tells you what they think will work, but you have to have trial and error."

When she and baker Robert Mitchell demonstrated how they put together a scaled-down version of the bakery's most popular biscotti (Chocolate Ginger, recipe on this page), they had to adjust it further, on the spot. Mitchell started by whisking a tablespoon of the egg replacer with some water. But when it came time to add it to the bowl of a stand mixer, where the margarine and sugar had been beaten to fluffiness, the slight, shy Messert stepped in to add a little more water; "I just feel it," she said.

Then, after the flour, spices, nuts and chocolate chips went in, they both peered into the large-scale Hobart mixer's bowl. Messert grabbed the dough and squeezed it: "It should be sticky," and it wasn't. More hydrated egg replacer went in.

Ultimately, after the dough was formed into logs, flattened, baked, cut and baked again into cookies, Messert brought out an example of the original, non-vegan version of the biscotti. It was glossy (from an egg wash) and copper-colored, with a dramatic curved shape, while the vegan one was dark brown, with a duller finish and a slightly flatter shape. But the latter had a more pronounced chocolate flavor.

Even though she's starting to sell packages of her cookies at the Takoma Park Silver Spring Food Co-op, Yes! Organic Market and -- soon, she hopes -- Whole Foods Market, Messert doesn't want to grow too fast. She is getting another convection oven to handle the increased business, but she doesn't want to use machines for anything that she and Mitchell can do without them.

"When you touch it with your hands, you give it life, you give it love, you make a relationship," Messert said. "I believe in that, you know?"

Chez Hareg, 1915 Ninth St. NW, 202-332-6000; http://www.chezharegpastries.com.

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