Sweet Bake Shop's Tessa Sam whips up Earl Grey shortbread for an edible gift

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      Interviewed six weeks before Christmas, Tessa Sam is still optimistic that she’ll have time to make gifts for family and friends. The owner of Sweet Bake Shop (1141 Mainland Street) has given baked goods, such as cookies and cupcakes, as gifts since she was old enough to operate an oven. But this is Sam’s first winter as a retail-business owner, and she has many customers to bake for before she can tackle her own list.

      “We’re already booked for sugar cookies until 2015, which is scary,” Sam tells the Georgia Straight during an interview at her Yaletown shop. “I’m hoping to be able to put together some gift bags for friends and family, but this is our first year, so I don’t know how it’s going to go. I don’t even know if we’ll have time to sleep.”

      Sam credits her mother and grandmother with fostering her interest in baking. Growing up in Ucluelet, she was taught to bake pies and Norwegian treats by her grandmother. Her mother showed her the basics—cookies, cakes, and pastries. After high school, Sam pursued a career in radio broadcasting until she realized that her heart wasn’t in it.

      “I loved baking. It was just something I did for friends and family around the holidays, but when I met my boyfriend he said, ‘You’ve got to make your passion your job. There’s got to be a way to do that,’ ” Sam recalls. “He gave me the encouragement I needed to get going. That was in 2010.”

      In their Yaletown apartment, Sam began baking orders for friends and family. Word quickly spread about her pretty, pastel-coloured designs, and she took on the name Sweet Bake Shop. In 2012, Sam spent a month in London, England, learning cake-decorating techniques at the Peggy Porschen Academy, and when she returned, she expanded her business to include wedding cakes with more elaborate designs.

      Earlier this year, she decided it was time to open a shop. “It got to a point where I just couldn’t do it anymore by myself out of my home. I also wanted a space to come home to that wasn’t full of sugar cookies,” she says. “Now that we have the store, we do everything—meringues, French macarons, doughnuts, cookies, and cupcakes—because we have so much space.”

      The name Sweet Bake Shop refers not only to the large quantities of sugar used in Sam’s kitchen, but to the décor as well. Most of the shop is pink—including the KitchenAid stand mixers Sam and her staff use each day—and all of the packaged baked goods are adorned with dainty bows and pretty polka dots.

      “Presentation is really important to me—even down to the ribbon. Ours is very girly,” Sam explains. “We wanted everything to be packaged well, so that people could walk in and grab things as gifts for people.” During the Christmas season, Sweet Bake Shop will be selling plenty of edible gifts, including gingerbread cupcakes, sugarplum macarons, and sugar cookies shaped like reindeer.

      Sam’s Earl Grey shortbread cookies are an easy holiday project for novice bakers to tackle at home. The bergamot oil in the tea leaves adds a slight citrus flavour to the cookies, while the main ingredients of butter and icing sugar give them a soft, melt-in-your-mouth texture.

      “It’s very festive, but it’s not too sweet,” Sam says. “I’d bake them and then I’d go and find the perfect packaging at a craft store—the perfect ribbon, the perfect gift bag or Christmas tin.”

      The cookies stay fresh for two to three weeks in an airtight container.

      Tessa Sam’s Earl Grey shortbread cookies


      2 Tbsp (30 mL) Earl Grey tea leaves
      2 cups (500 mL) unsalted butter, room temperature
      1 cup (250 mL) icing sugar
      1 tsp (5 mL) vanilla extract
      4 cups (1,000 mL) all-purpose flour


      1. Preheat oven to 350 ° F (180 ° C).
      2. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.
      3. Using a clean electric coffee grinder or small mortar and pestle, grind tea leaves into powder and set aside.
      4. Using a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, beat the butter on medium speed for 30 seconds. Add icing sugar, vanilla, and tea leaves, and continue to beat at medium speed until combined. Add flour gradually and mix on low speed until dough forms.
      5. Dust clean work surface with flour and roll out dough until about ¼-inch thick. Cut into desired shapes using cookie cutter. Place on prepared baking sheets, spacing cookies ½-inch apart.
      6. Bake for 16 to 18 minutes until cookies are firm to the touch and barely golden around the edges. Remove from oven and allow cookies to cool completely on baking sheets.

      Yield: 30 medium-sized cookies.

      Recipe has not been tested by the Georgia Straight.

      Tessa Sam demonstrates how to transfer cookies onto a baking sheet.

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