On a sunny afternoon clients come and go at a Jamaica Plain bakery. Seated in the front of the store, people can hear the noise of the kitchen. The silver door that opens easily from the inside out squeaks. The store gets busy at times; the phone rings unceasingly.
“What is this,” asks a young man in a black suit, pointing to the hot patties display.
“This is chicken and this is cheese,” replies Beatriz Pena, a friendly lady who works in the front of the store.
The store is Santia’s, owned by Russelys Pimentel, and run for seven month on 3381 Washington St. in Jamaica Plain. It is a place where the flavor of the Dominican Republic meets the hustle of American business.
Here, Dominican bakers preserve their culture in their pastries and have found in their skills a stream of entrepreneurship.
Santia’s is the business offshoot of a small bakery 1,500 miles away, in the town of Bani in the Dominican Republic.
Coming from a town 40 miles south from Santo Domingo, bakers from Bani are also part of the settlement of Banilejos, the demonym of the town located in Boston. The settlement brought to this city not only people from Bani, but their culture. Aracelys Peguero and Rusellys Pimentel are two of many bakers who found a breadwinning career in this business. Some still work from home, others branched out and open their own business.
At Santia’s, a red-haired lady asks for several items from the display including two pastelitos (chicken patties) and two kipes (kibbis). Besides cakes, Santia’s offers pastries and salted treats.
Maritza Pimentel is visiting the store for the first time, but she is familiar with the cakes. Her daughter is an event planner and works with Santia’s staff in some events. Santia’s cakes, Maritza says, are “The best of the world.”
“I like the texture!” she exclaimed.
“Not too sweet, it has a good balance,” interjects Mariel Cruz, another costumer who overheard the conversation.
“It is delicious,” Cruz adds. “The frosting is delicious, not only on top of the cake but by itself.” Some people prefer eating just the frosting, which is made of eggs and sugar caramel. It is called merengue or suspiro. “It has a good taste, is unbelievable.”
When Cruz travels to Bani, she stops in D’ Santia’s Reposteria. Costumers are loyal to the taste of Santia’s, a family business that started in Banidecades ago that now opened another store in Boston last fall.
The first D’Santia’s Bakery is still operating in Bani. In the early years, it was located in the downtown, a trade area near the city hall, the cathedral and the Central Park. The cakes were made in the family home and brought to the bakery. In recent years, the business has been relocated to a new building next to Santia’s home. In the new place, all orders are taken and the cakes are designed, baked and decorated all in the same spot, explains Russellys Pimentel, Santia’s grand-daughter and owner of the Jamaica Plain location.
In the early 90’s, Santia Bello, a reputable baker from Bani, opened a store selling breads, cakes and other pastries. Even before Pimentel was born, Santia wasalready a well-known sugar artist. She grew up surrounded by cakes, pastries and beautiful eatable art works.
In Boston, Russely is getting ready to close the store. It is after 4 pm on a Sunday, and it is time to go home. The register is doing the last transactions of the day when a couple walks in. The two are looking for a hot empanada and some pastries. One of the staff takes care of them. There are no empanadas.
“The guy just finished cleaning the fryer,” interjects Rusellys.
“Oh, ok, no problem.” replies the male costumer.
The store was calm and quiet. Even the display announced the end of a week. Usually the display is full of a variety of deserts and cakes. Now it was not.
Another lady barely made it before the doors locked. She was looking for a cake for her son’s fourth birthday.
“You do 3D designs, right? I want one like “Cars,” the movie, in the same shape, you know…”
“We do 3D, but not necessarily Cars. We can do something related to the theme,” says Russelys.
“It will start at $50 per pound.”
The lady wearing a blue binnie hat and a black jacket took a business card and left the store.
The company does not like to take these kind of orders because they don’t suit the type of cake they sell. The store specializes in Dominican cakes and doing certain designs may look adorable but may not taste the same.
Another option some clients opt for is camouflage. The bakery will make an artificial cake and will also make real cake to cut it and share with the event’s attendees. Some people choose it because allows to have creative designs for the display and flavorful cakes for eating. Also, it is a matter of money. Camouflage may result be affordable than baking many pounds that could be expensive. The bigger the cake, the higher the price.
The quality of the food is very well-known among people from Bani. While closing the register, Rusellys shared one of the more unusual requests the bakery received.
“One day someone called from Florida asking for empanadas. We sent it frozen for overnight delivery, however, I do not recommend it.” Also, she says that constantly she receives messages and phone calls asking if they would deliver to other states out of the region. The company prefers to keep their services local.
The store takes approximately 60 orders per week. Weekends are the busiest time, Russelys, says. Most orders come from social media; the Instagram profile alone has over 6,000 followers. The company also has a Facebook Page with more than 4,000 likes.
“Even though the Instagram says NO DM, people still send orders that way,” says Rusellys. “We are working really hard to make people place their orders online, by sending us emails.” The clients still prefer sending Direct Messages or calling the shop. “When they call they [clients] don’t like talking to my assistant. People prefer speaking with me directly.”
Pimentel says that social media helped the business from day one. The word was spread via Facebook and Instagram. People were posting about the cakes and pastries, others found out about It that way and started following the page. The business grew so fast that she had to open the store in a neighborhood highly populated by Dominicans.
Rusellys joggles her professional life with being a new mom. Last year, she not only opened the store in Jamaica Plain but also welcomed her first son. “It is challenging but possible,” she said.
Miriam De Gautraux, is a writer and pastry chef, who makes a clear difference between pastry and bakery. “Pastry and artistic bakery are different. The first one is merely related to the elaboration of sweet treats, and the second one is the decoration and creation of cakes and food made primarily with flour.”
De Gautreaux, or as she is widely known, Dona Miriam, said in a phone interview from Santo Domingo, that pastry was in the country since the arrival of the Spaniards in the 16th Century; however, artistry bakery arrived to the Dominican Republic in 1933. Originally it was taught in the vocational schools during the administration of the dictator Rafael L. Trujillo. This discipline was focused on decorating the cakes and other sweets. The first generation of professional bakers included Angelita Fiallo andLinda Jacobo VIllalot. Later, a second generation sprouted in the 1960’s.
Dona Miriam wrote three books; the most recent one is Antologia de la Reposteria Dominicana Siglo XX y Siglo XXI. This book is an anthology of the history of the pastry and bakery in Dominican Republic.
Asked about a secret ingredient, she said, “there is no mystery. It gets distinguished from the American cake in the frosting. Instead of being covered with butter cream it has meringue and filled up with pineapple jelly. Jelly that is usually home-made.”
Through her books, Dona Miriam looksforward to leave a tangible legacy for future generations.
One of Miriam’s alumna lives in Boston. Her name is Aracelys Peguero and she started baking almost four years ago. She invests in her learning and went to Florida to train with De Gautreaux, and she has studied in New York and New Jersey to enhance her skills.
“I started making pastries for my house. One day my younger daughter asked me to make five cakes for her birthday and I replied that we will have to learn how to make it. I registered for classes and started learning.”
Peguero was ready for a recent interview. In her kitchen the baking utensils were easy to spot. A big red KitchenAid mixer and a similar one in color grey are placed on top of the counter. She was wearing a white chef hat matching her apron with her name on it.
“Many things had changed for me,” she said. She had to resign from her former job to become a full-time baker. She also had to stop her social life since her time now is limited by her business.
Even her family vacation has to be placed on hold because of the high demand. Success goes with sacrifices; her sleeping time also decreased.
“I work every day of the week.” Some people love calling for same day orders, and that is not the smartest thing to do. “If is the weekend, Facebook reminds you of certain events and I can plan ahead. In some occasion, if the person is close to me or previous clients and we are friends in Facebook I prepare in advance.”
Peguero said that by the time she receives the phone call with the same day order, the cake is already done. But it is not always like that. “Some people get upset because I reject their order, in some cases I just cannot take same day order.” According to Aracelys, people say the cake doesn’t taste the same when rushed. There is a set time for before and after the oven, otherwise it will not taste the same.
Aracelys said that the Dominican cake needs more eggs, and butter. Vanilla. And a touch of rum or whisky. Her clients are from everywhere. She has clients for Central American, Italy, Spain, Americans, whomever tries the Dominican can stick with it.
She said she does not have a particular recipe, other than a the basic one; however, she prefers to add orange juice instead of water. “I have a secret combination between eggs and butter that I will not give, to no one. I found it by error trying out new techniques.”
Experts agrees on the components of the cake and not using buttercream as frosting. “The Dominican cake does not goes with buttercream nor glazed sugar. We make the meringue with bitten eggs, sugar caramel and vanilla. Some people add rum or lime peel and it tastes different.”
Dominicans like to mix the cake with exotic flavors. The fill-ins are important in the cake and the range goes from fruity flavor to chocolate. “The most popular filling right now is caramel. Some clients don’t like it because is too sweet. I used crème Brule and Nutella as the most popular after caramel. Some orders request strawberry jelly, and I do it myself. I make my own jellies.
Some clients defy the traditional recipes. Aracelys makes the customized cakes not only in style but in flavor. “Some people send the recipe they want me to use for their cakes and I please them.” But she keeps in mind if the recipe or process are realistic and does not damage the final product.
The cakes are not only about the flavor. The decoration is very important. It is the artistic part of bakery. Aracelys expresses her gratitude and excitement for what she learned in class with Dona Miriam. “Since I started this business I always wanted a master class with Miriam De Gautraux. It was difficult for me to travel to Dominican Republic and sign up for classes. She came to Florida, and as soon as I found out I signed up.” After these classes, she feels so ready.
The internet may provide the basic skills to make a Dominican cake, but according to Aracelys, that is not enough. “YouTube is a good tool for starters, but not to become a professional. There are many tricks that YouTube will not teach you.” Peguero recommends one go to a school or consult an expert.
“The video will tell you add this, put that, mix like this, but at the end it will not come out the same.” The timing of mixing the ingredients as well as their temperature inside affect the final results and would change the texture. Even though Aracelys does not recommend to learn baking using the internet, she mentioned that decoration techniques may be learned by watching video tutorials.
Facebook and Instagram are important tools in Aracelys business and sometimes she choses to announce the dates that she is completely booked. “If I know is a very busy week I let people know. I rather let them know in advance.”