A foodie haven has emerged in the heart of downtown Durham. At the forefront of these homegrown businesses is Scratch Bakery, which was founded five years ago by Phoebe Lawless, a James Beard Award semi-finalist.


There are two independent but equally important facets to Scratch Bakery: the dishes served at lunch and brunch as well as the pastry side with pies and other treats. It's why the term "bakery" is almost a misnomer.


You can find real meals here in addition to the desserts. Chalked on the café's walls are the names of both sweet and savory creations, from peach pies to po'boys to Korean rice bowls.


Lawless' specialty is pie, which comes in a variety of flavors. In particular, the Shaker lemon pie has food critics and regular folks raving about its tart zing. Her fluffy and crumbly donut muffin is a huge seller at both the storefront and a booth in the Durham Farmers' Market.


Lawless' shop is open Tuesday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and weekends from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. She often comes in at 2 a.m. on Saturday mornings to make all the treats that are sold at the farmers' market.


With a husband and two children, Lawless jokes that Scratch is her "middle child." She grew up in the Northeast, but has lived in North Carolina for well over 10 years, attending N.C. State University in Raleigh.


We sat down with the café owner to discuss her life, her food and her business. Here's the edited interview as well as holiday recipes straight from Scratch Bakery.


Q: When did you decide to pursue baking as a full-time career?
A: I started out as a cook and cooked until I was about 30, and then a position came up at a restaurant where I wanted to work. My original intentions were to work on the savory side, but a position opened as baker.
I thought, "Well at least I'll get in and then I can move over," but I just fell in love.


Q: How does the team at Scratch decide what to put on the menu?
A: It's ultimately decided by the season and what the farmers have. But especially with the pies, we have some standard flavors that you get all year round.


The season determines the menu first, but I also have a great team of experienced bakers and cooks who bring ideas. So depending on the mix and what we've got the space and time and manpower to put out, that's how we juggle it.


Q: What's it like to own your own business?
A: What I like about it is having creative autonomy and putting together a team of people I trust and work well with.
Some of the things that aren't great are that I have to go in when nobody else goes in. I'm responsible when the toilet's backed up and for all the bills we pay.


Q: What's a typical day for you?
A: That changes a lot! I take about an hour or two just rotating produce, checking in with the kitchen and the bakers and my front manager, making sure that our wholesale and special orders are correct, and that everybody's informed and on schedule.


I usually have two big bakes a week. The rest of the time is running errands, taking meetings, answering email, doing recipe development.


Q: Who's your culinary inspiration?
A: I come from a big family, so my mother cooked a lot out of necessity. Once we were all older and things were more mellow, she decided to cook for pleasure. Looking back now, there are flavors that I just can't reproduce.


Q: Have things changed much with your James Beard Award accolades?
A: It didn't change me or what I do day to day, but it's meant that I've met great people and had some opportunities at events or dinners elsewhere around the country.


Still, I have the same commitments, putting out really delicious food. We don't bake for the James Beard Foundation; we bake for Durham.


Q: What advice would you give to the baking beginner?
A: Do one thing, just one thing, every week for a month. Once you start becoming familiar with the touch and the smell, then you have perspective, some reference to build on. And use really good ingredients.




Chestnut Cream Pie
2 cups cookie/dried cake crumbs (vanilla wafers, yellow cake)
1/3 cup sugar
Pinch of salt
4 ounces melted unsalted butter
1 1/4 cups pureed candied chestnuts
1 cup crème fraiche or sour cream

1 cup heavy cream
3 tablespoons powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1-2 teaspoons sherry vinegar


To make the crust
Combine crumbs, sugar and salt, and mix well. Add butter and stir until crumbs clump when squeezed. Pour crumbs into pie tin and press into sides and bottom to form a tight and compact crust. Refrigerate or freeze for at least half an hour. Preheat oven to 350.


To make filling
Combine all ingredients except sherry vinegar, and whisk to a light peak. Add sherry vinegar to taste. Fill baked and cooled crumb crust.


Refrigerate at least 3 hours before serving.


Makes one 9-inch pie



Orange Cranberry Fool Tart
(Requires 9-inch tart ring or pan with removable bottom)
For dough
(This makes two rounds of dough, but only one is needed for this recipe. Dough keeps refrigerated for 3 days, frozen for 3 months.)
8 ounces cream cheese, softened
8 ounces butter, softened
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
For filling
1 1/2 cups cranberries
1/2 cup sugar
1 orange
Pinch of salt
Pinch of cinnamon
Pinch of black pepper
1 cup heavy cream
1/3 cup sour cream
3 tablespoons powdered sugar


To make dough
Combine cream cheese, butter and salt in a stand-up mixer. Mix until smooth. Add flour in 1/2-cup increments and mix until incorporated.


Remove from bowl and lightly knead on floured work surface until smooth. Divide dough in half. Flatten each into a 11/2-inch round and wrap in plastic. Refrigerate at least one hour.


Remove dough from fridge and allow temperature to increase for about 10 minutes. Roll on lightly floured work surface to about 1/4-inch thickness. Place in tart pan/ring. Lightly press dough onto bottom to create a corner on the edge, and then pinch off excess dough. Prick generously with fork, and then freeze.


Preheat oven to 375.


To make filling


Zest orange and reserve. Peel (or cut) pith from orange, then rough chop, removing seeds, and combine with zest.


Combine cranberries, orange mix, sugar, salt, cinnamon and black pepper in sauce pan and cook on medium heat until berries "pop," about 15-20 minutes. (It can be made 2 days ahead.)


To bake shell and assemble tart
Bake pastry shell in oven until bottom and sides are golden, about 20 minutes. Once cool, spread half of cranberry mix on bottom of baked pastry. Refrigerate.


Combine cream, sour cream and powdered sugar, and whip until soft peaks form. Lightly fold remaining cranberry/orange mix. (You want streaks, not a homogenous mix.) Spread evenly over filled tart and refrigerate at least one hour before serving.


This can be made up to 6 hours ahead of time.


Makes one 9-inch tart




Sweet Potato Bun
1 tablespoon instant yeast
1 cup tepid water
2 medium sweet potatoes
2 1/2-3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder


Preheat oven to 400. Wash sweet potatoes and wrap individually in foil. Bake until very soft. When cool enough to handle, peel and discard skin. Mash until smooth. (This can be done 2 days ahead of time.)


Dissolve yeast in water and whisk in potato puree. Add flour in 1-cup increments until a smooth, pliant dough is achieved. Knead for 8-10 minutes then set aside for about an hour or until doubled in bulk.


On a lightly floured board, flatten dough out enough to get a roughly shaped square. Add baking powder to center of dough, then bring corners in to meet in middle. Knead again for 3-5 minutes. Allow to rest for 10 minutes. Portion dough into 4 rounds. Portion each round again into 3 smaller rounds for a total of 12.


Grease a muffin tin generously. Take one small round and pat out to a rough circle/oval. Spread 1 heavy tablespoon of filling onto surface of dough and roll into a small log. Coil into a snail-shell shape and place in greased muffin tin round. Continue with remaining dough rounds. Allow to rise until tall and puffy


Bake for 15-20 minutes, rotating when corner buns start to pick up color, and leave in oven for another 10 minutes. Cool slightly before serving.


Makes 1 dozen


Vanilla Cardamom Rice Tart

3/4 cup whole milk
1/3 cup sugar
2 eggs
2 egg yolks
Pinch of salt
1/4 vanilla bean, scraped
1/4 cup sour cream
1 heavy cup cooked fragrant rice
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 round tart pastry


Combine milk, sugar, cooked rice, vanilla bean and cardamom in small sauce pan. Heat until it just reaches a simmer.


Whisk together eggs, egg yolks, salt and sour cream. Temper with rice milk and mix until smooth. (Can be made one day ahead.)


Meanwhile, roll out the pastry into a tart ring and place on a parchment-lined sheet pan. Freeze rolled tart.


Heat oven to 325 degrees. Bake tart pastry until it's just golden in spots and loses its raw look. Pour in filling and carefully put in oven. Bake for 15 minutes, then rotate pan and bake for another 5. Allow to cool for 15-20 minutes, then store in refrigerator. Serve chilled.


Makes one 9-inch tart


Salted Honey and Lemon Chess Pie

3 eggs
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup good-quality honey
3 tablespoons cornmeal
Zest of 2 lemons
Small pinch of salt
1/4 cup melted and cooled unsalted butter
1/2 cup buttermilk
1/4 cup lemon juice
1 frozen pastry shell (maybe using your favorite pie pastry)
Sea salt for sprinkling


Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line pastry shell with parchment, fill to top with dried beans/rice, and bake until edges are lightly golden and bottom no longer looks raw, about 15 minutes. Remove parchment and pie weights (dried beans/rice).


Meanwhile, combine eggs, sugar, honey, cornmeal, lemon zest and pinch of salt in a medium-sized bowl. Whisk until completely smooth. Add butter, buttermilk and lemon juice.


Carefully pour filling into pre-baked shell, and start checking for doneness after 20 minutes. It usually takes about 35-40 minutes. The custard closest to the pastry will set first. Pull the pie out of the oven when the center still looks slightly loose.


Sprinkle a light dusting of sea salt over the top of the pie. After it comes out of the oven, allow to cool completely, about 1-1 1/2 hours, before serving.


Makes one 9-inch pie