Hot Pockets

Behold the savory breakfast pastry, the antidote to too many sugary muffins and danishes

The Finns aren't the only ones who wrap their food in dough, of course. The Finnish word piirakka comes from the Russian pirog. If you want just a little one, it's a pirozhok. And if you want a couple, they're pirozhki. Nobody will blink, however, if you march up to the counter at the Russian Tea House on University in St. Paul and order "one pir-OSH-ki." There's a long line of people behind you doing the same thing.

While Russians will put just about anything in their pirozhki, the Russian Tea House makes the classic: a heavy golden oval of raised dough baked around a beef and rice filling. (Well, classic except for the addition of cheddar cheese. It works, though.) One of these, for just $2.50, along with a cup of tangy beet-and-cabbage borscht, makes a hearty workman's lunch, even if your work is bouncing e-mails back and forth with co-workers, rather than smelting steel. The Tea House is family-run, so it keeps family-friendly hours, serving only lunch and only Tuesday through Friday.

Which brings me back to breakfast. Salty, buttery, one-handed things I can have for breakfast while the rest of the world is eating cakey chocolate muffins. Which is where the Franklin Street Bakery comes in. Right there, alongside the ginger scones and the cinnamon rolls and the fruity Danishes, there is always at least one and usually a couple of savory choices ($1.25 to $2.50 each). Chef Michelle Gayer-Nicholson says she knows her savory selection is unusual, but, "It's what I would enjoy eating. And, of course, culinarily I have a savory side that I need to fulfill." The selection varies daily and she says there's often a bit of friendly competition in the kitchen over who gets to create that day's savory finds. Which, she adds, are the pastries she is guaranteed to run out of every single day.

Hold the sugar: Darcy Johnson of the Finnish Bistro, one of the Twin Cities' options for non-sweet breakfast pastries
Craig Lassig
Hold the sugar: Darcy Johnson of the Finnish Bistro, one of the Twin Cities' options for non-sweet breakfast pastries

These are a far cry from the hefty pasties, piirakkat, and pirozhki of northern Europe, but Gayer-Nicholson says they're not reliant on any particular cuisine. "I use flavor combinations that I've experienced and like to eat," she says. "I just see them as American, classic combinations."

That means she fills light-as-air turnovers with caramelized onions and Brie, adding a crunchy Parmesan crust; with oven-roasted tomatoes, goat cheese, and basil; or with a thick paste of curried mushrooms and cheddar cheese. These combinations are perfect for the flaky turnover dough and make every subsequent encounter with the sticky, gluey, fruit-filled version more than a little suspect.

The same flavors may also meet up on Gayer-Nicholson's little rounds of airy focaccia or buttery brioche, often with an added surprise: chives, poppyseeds, or sweet-tart currants that pop in your mouth and make you say, "Of course! Currants! That's what my Gruyère has always needed!"

On your own savory pastry hunt, or when you're looking for the perfect thing to serve next to your spaghetti al sugo crudo (that's a summery ripe tomato sauce), try the rosemary polenta cakes. Dense triangles with the nutty crunch of cornmeal, a pleasant grit, and a drizzle of honey across the top, these are what Gayer-Nicholson calls her "ode to Nancy Silverton," the renowned pastry chef behind California's La Brea Bakery, where Gayer-Nicholson apprenticed.

"We keep trying new things and new flavors," she says. "And we're glad when they're a hit." Like her recent Stromboli experiment. She rolled a batch of focaccia dough thin enough to cover a jelly roll pan, then rolled it up with tomato sauce, cheese, and herbs and sliced it on the bias. Hotcakes, she says. It just disappeared from the shelves. When it wasn't on the bakery shelf the next day, two people called to ask why they weren't making it any more. "Who knew there would be such a run on Stromboli in Minneapolis?" she laughs.

Me, that's who. I could have told her that her very own pastry case fills such a void in the Twin Cities bakery culture that, once word spreads among my fellow savory-breakfast-hunters that there is Brie with caramelized onions to be had before 9:00 a.m., she'll be able to double--no, triple!--her savory selections every day. And on indulgent mornings I'll be able to choose among focaccia, brioche, turnovers, filled croissants, polenta cakes, all waiting together, edging out the sweet stuff and ending the tyranny of the chocolate muffin.

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