It’s a cool and rainy day in the Catskills (worthy of a Rip Van Winkle nap), but the oven keeps baker Craig Thompson’s cottage toasty and warm. The country home is tucked between a rocky creek and the rising slopes of muffin-shaped mountains. Surrounded by patches of garden, everything here is thriving and lush, made greener by the rain. Today Craig is making a blueberry tart, and an irresistible aroma wafts through the front door.
Inside it’s cozy and charming. Exposed wooden beams and timeworn furniture are arranged with a stylist’s eye. The tiny kitchen is curated with vintage cookbooks and cake pedestals, Mason jars, and ingredients poised for baking. “I’m extremely visual so it goes beyond taste… it’s about how it looks through the entire process. I love the way cracked eggs look next to butter and sugar. It’s almost like they call to each other and want to be mixed together.”
Mixing influences is a way of life for Craig: melding the traditions of baking with the aesthetics of a stylist, childhood favorites take inspiration from a contemporary palette, and life in Manhattan influences his rural habitat. “It’s a beautiful combination of urban and country life. In order for my work to function in either place, it has to borrow from the other. I love the way that rustic food can function in a modern setting.” His pastries evoke the topography of the Catskills as chunky boulders of chocolate are found at the center of a cookie. Trail bars borrow flavors from a favorite hiking snack. Tarts with torn edges cradle just-picked fruit from local farms— each bite taps into something very primal.
“Memory is where my passion for baking comes from, it is the core value of why I bake. I remember my Grandmother’s corn starch pudding, my Mom’s apple pie, a doughnut that I had when I was little. I think about those memories and try to recreate and idealize them. If you went back in time, that doughnut probably wouldn’t taste as good, so the idea is to match or surpass the memory.” Whether drawing on family recipes, recalling a croissant eaten in Paris, or conversations about food on a recent trip to Ireland, Craig has honed his ability to evoke past experiences through taste. “I wouldn’t make anything that I didn’t love. When I develop something that stays with me, I can go back to it consistently. I’m also honoring my Mom and Grandmother.”
His own memories have translated into new traditions for his patrons, many of them making ritual visits to his booth at the Pakatakan Farmers’ Market. A customer recently commented “I had your pie last week and it was so delicious, but what I loved most was that it was perfectly imperfect.”
“There’s so much value in making it honest. If it’s honest and has imperfection or irregularity, there’s so much beauty in that.” He laments the importance placed on superficial-prettiness and the uniformity of food found in supermarkets, as it’s lead to a wave unconscious eating. Connecting through food means understanding where it comes from, thinking about what the farmer has gone through to grow it, and appreciating the scars that show it was grown naturally. “When things are made with beautiful product, you slow down and you savor. When you cook with beautiful fresh things, people wake up when they taste it.”
On the surface “slowing down” and “waking up” may seem at odds with each other, but they harmonize perfectly in the Catskills. Here it’s a bit easier to pause and take a breath. Vision adjusts to a clear focus, rather than the blurry and hurried views of life in the city. A drive on a winding mountain road can be a moment of consciousness.
Craig has an adept awareness of what inspires him and staying true to that. Baking is a way to connect and share with people, and those relationships give so much in return. "I’ve always wanted to have a little shop that people could come to. For me the oven is the heart of the business. I really want people to be able to walk in and experience where that’s coming from, and to express my creative vision fully, and have a place to put on a show. I love the idea of opening a bake shop, keeping it nice and small, and growing within that smallness.
“ But that’s for the future. Right now, the blueberry tart is being pulled from the oven and it’s time to enjoy the moment. A memory is about to be made.