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Baking holiday memories
Sweet & Simple Bake Shop's gingerbread people are addictive. Michelle Jaffee’s secret? “Don’t be afraid of ginger!”
Photographs by Melani Lust // Floral Design & Styling by Birch Designs & Greenfield Hill Nursery
What’s a girl from Big Sur, California, doing in Greenfield Hill? Baking, that’s what. While you are probably still snuggled in your bed,
Michelle Jaffee, owner of the Sweet & Simple Bake Shop, is cranking out batches of blueberry muffins and chocolate-chip cookies for the day. That petite and pretty blonde lady you may have spotted—often dusted with flour herself—is also a wife, mother of three boys, and a 19-year resident of Fairfield.
The road to opening her very own neighborhood bake shop wasn’t just a lifelong dream for Jaffee. It was more of an epiphany around an important birthday. “I turned 40 and thought, What am I going to do with the next half of my life?” she explains.
Her happiest childhood memories involve baking pies with her grandmother, and watching her mom create festive holiday cookies. “A stand-mixer was usually on in my home,” she says. “And it wasn’t a big deal to whip up a batch of cookies or even make an elaborate pie from scratch on any given day,” says Jaffee.
“They did it naturally and often without a lot of planning.”
The past years as a young mother in Fairfield, everyone knew Jaffee as the “baking mom,” bringing cupcakes or cookies to school events, inviting the class parents over for coffee and muffins. It wasn’t a leap for her to offer her treats to a wider audience. A methodical, organized, and determined person, Jaffee didn’t want to embark on the endeavor without some training, so she enrolled in a six-month French Culinary Institute course.
“This is where I gained some valuable, real-world experience of what it means to bake professionally, where I learned new techniques and honed my own.”
With her FCI training under her apron strings, Jaffee was ready to take the next step to selling, say, at the local farmer’s market. Not so fast. “You need to have a health-department permit to sell at a market of any kind, and to get a health department-permit you need a commercial-kitchen space,” says Jaffee.
“My life was starting to turn into the book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie,” muses Jaffee.
Indeed, one thing led to another, and Jaffee found a commercial space to rent in Bridgeport, where she could bake—often in the wee hours of the morning—to get her chocolate-chip and oatmeal-raisin cookies ready for wholesale delivery. Soon little cellophane packages with the signature daisy logo were popping up around Fairfield and Westport. They were well received, orders poured in, but people wondered who the person was behind these homemade goodies.
“I think baking is such a giving art, and I wanted to do that and connect with the people enjoying it,” explains Jaffee.
She saw herself running her own shop, one that was, as she puts it, “an extension of my own home and kitchen.” And while it might sound corny, two years later, that is just how everyone feels walking into cozy Sweet & Simple at 75 Hillside Rd.
Barely a five-minute ride from Jaffee’s house, the store now has regulars including commuters who stop by for their morning coffee and muffin, or the kids who pop in after school for a cookie.
While Jaffee is always scouting recipes for new ideas, she says her baking style is what she calls “heritage.”
“My best recipes are my grandmother’s and my mom’s, and what is being passed down to generations is really a classic kind of American baking that I want to help preserve.”
That doesn’t mean she won’t try something new. Craving raspberry rugelach? No problem. Need gluten-free muffins? She can do it. Much of what you find in her cases is a response to popular demand. And she has one word to address that: cupcakes. “I never knew the power of the cupcake until I opened my shop,” she says. “Little, big, sprinkled with sugar or candies—people can’t get enough of them.”
December is of course a very exciting time for Jaffee and her tight-knit staff because it means holiday cheer celebrated in the form of gingerbread houses, decorated cookies, and elaborate cakes. Jaffee and her staff will even help you style your own dessert party. This is so much of her philosophy—bringing home-baking back, even if she assists you a little beforehand.
“I have the warmest memories of baking with my mom growing up, and I love to encourage people to do that with their kids.” Jaffee jokes that she was “born in the wrong era,” indeed she loves the aesthetic of the 1950s, and her home and shop are both decorated with a little 1950s kitsch.
Jaffee’s stately home atop Greenfield Hill is one you’d swear is an antique from the Federal period, but is actually a reproduction built in the ’50s by a builder and homeowner
who adored that historic style. “I loved the whole look of the house and have changed very little,” she says. While she might feel like a ’50s girl in some ways, Jaffee is a decidedly 21st-century woman in business.
She’s adept at social media, and with her tongue-in-cheek series #bakingbad, she has developed a following on Facebook of over 10,000 fans and 2,500 on Twitter. “My business would never have flourished without the support of local women and female-led businesses who have always spread the word about me,” notes Jaffee.
Melani Lust, a photographer from Westport does all of Jaffee’s product shoots for her website.This strong local network of like-minded females often joins forces with her to make good events better.
Megan Pratt and Jen Maloney of Birch Designs are friends and customers who have created floral displays for Jaffee, personally andprofessionally. She in turn recommends them for events and parties.
Mary Anne Heine of Greenfield Hill Nursery & Garden Shop also loves to collaborate and worked with Birch Designs to decorate each room.
Jaffee will often bring treats to the nursery’s shop for staff and customers to enjoy.
“Women banding together for a great outcome, that is something that makes this experience even more rewarding,” says Jaffee.
No one can resist making or snacking off a gingerbread house. Sweet & Simple Bake Shop provides make-your-own kits that look as good as they taste.