Daniel Benjamin grew up in a small town in Indiana where the fanciest dessert was an éclair from Dunkin' Donuts. It was huge, crusted with chocolate and stuffed with processed kreme. It reeked with the unmistakable taste of regret.
It's from this unlikely beginning that Raleigh is now blessed with a bona fide pâtissier for the people. For seven years he never repeated a showstopper dessert at the elegant Herons at The Umstead Hotel, where every imaginable tool and ingredient was at his disposal. Now, Benjamin bakes jewel box delicacies in a spare downtown Raleigh kitchen that was once a five and dime.
He wants customers to view lucettegrace, a pairing of his young daughters' middle names, as a place to enjoy an everyday indulgence. Perhaps a petite éclair made from choux pastry dough, topped with a piping of rich mousse and garnished with a wafer of dark chocolate and a crinkle of gold leaf. Maybe a crunchy tart shell whose creamy lemon curd filling is hidden by a bruleéd tower of meringue. And if not one of several exotic flavors of meltingly tender macarons, maybe a grown-up chocolate chip cookie that will make you forget all about sugary-sweet Toll House.
"I loved cooking at Herons, but hated that people viewed beautiful desserts as part of a once-a-year celebration dinner, maybe a wedding anniversary or job promotion," says Benjamin, who starts his day at lucettegrace around 4 a.m. and rarely leaves before dusk. "Here, for no more than a craft beer or an ice cream at Baskin-Robbins, you can enjoy something special just because you want it. Just because you deserve it."
Indeed, most individual-size treats at lucettegrace range in price from $2.25 to $6. Local coffee, tea, sipping chocolate and sipping caramel are welcome accompaniments. Benjamin also offers an array of breakfast temptations, including the popular Dixie Cannonball, a warm drop biscuit with hoop cheddar, local sausage, scallions and a scoop of sausage gravy.
Lunch service, ranging from $6 to $8, includes savory soups, salads and sandwiches.
After a year of extreme-makeover renovation, Benjamin opened lucettegrace in November—perhaps the cruelest month for a new food business—in a location on South Salisbury Street, an area familiar to scofflaws and bailbondsmen. Soon, however, he'll count two superstar chefs as neighbors. Within weeks, Ashley Christensen is expected to open Death & Taxes a few doors down. Scott Crawford, former executive chef at Herons, will follow with Nash Tavern next year.
"I keep hearing about how this is the place to be, and I believe it will happen," Benjamin says. "Some days we're really busy and everyone who comes in is happy to be here. Other days, I swear I half expect to see tumbleweeds roll by."
Uneven sales can hurt a small business that counts on customers to leave nothing but crumbs at the end of the day. Benjamin paces the baking carefully so that fresh temptations are always available. Cases are emptied each night and filled with eye-popping delights each morning.
"I don't like doing things the same way twice, which is a very big contradiction to the pastry brain," he says. "One day I'll make a lemon meringue tart, the next day I'll make one with caramel, bits of candied orange and cocoa nibs from Escazu. A lot of it depends on what's seasonal, but mostly it's a quest to make things better, cleaner, more delicious."
Benjamin's work ethic has its roots in his family's independent hardware business. He and his twin brother started working at the store after half-day kindergarten, when they were given feather dusters and directed to tidy up. He cut keys and worked a variety of roles at the store as he grew up, but as soon as he could drive he talked his way into the kitchen of the local country club.
Fifteen years ago, at age 19, he landed in New York to study at the French Culinary Institute. It was his dream to meet legendary baker François Payard, who had been profiled in a magazine Benjamin devoured years before called Pastry Art & Design.
Benjamin soon made a humble pilgrimmage to Payard's patisserie only to discover it was closed on Sundays. He was blown away by the window displays and left in stunned silence. "I thought to myself, 'I could never work here. I'd mess things up.'"
A few months later, with some experience as an apprentice at a small Brooklyn bakery, Benjamin summoned the courage to return to Payard's door step. This time, he walked in—and left with a job. It was the first of many prestigious assignments that built layers of experience in top bakeries and restaurants in San Francisco, Chicago, New Orleans and Washington, D.C., before he was named pastry chef at Herons.
As he advanced from one great kitchen to another, however, he always focused on one day opening his own contemporary patisserie.
"I was lucky to discover early on that I loved to cook. I would watch Graham Kerr on TV and ask my mom to get the ingredients so I could re-create what he made," Benjamin recalls. "A chef's knife felt natural in my hand. When I discovered a piping bag, that was even better.
"And now," he adds with a sigh, his voice weary from a long day of baking and chatting with well-indulged customers, "to have my own place? It's just the best."
"This is a very simple recipe to make, the most difficult task is buying the molds which are becoming fairly easy to find, at least the silicone ones," Benjamin says. "The only other difficult task is fighting the urge to not over stir the mixture and make it perfectly smooth."
3 cups milk
1/2 vanilla bean
7 1/2 oz. butter (melted)
1 cup sugar
2/3 cup pastry flour
1 egg yolk
3 Tbsp. dark rum
nice pinch of salt
1. Split the vanilla bean and place it in a saucepan with the milk, butter, and salt. Gently melt and bring to a simmer. Remove from the heat and allow to cool.
2. In a mixing bowl combine the sugar and flour and set aside.
3. In a small cup, combine the eggs and egg yolk. Gently break up with a fork; don't whisk.
4. Using a spoon, add the eggs to the sugar/flour mixture. Stir gently just to combine. Don't vigorously whip or try and make perfectly smooth.
5. Once the milk has cooled enough that it won't scramble the eggs, gently stir the milk into the sugar/flour mixture. Again, stir just to combine.
6. Add the dark rum, stirring just to combine.
7. Allow the mix to rest overnight. Remove the mix from the refrigerator and allow to warm a bit (at least an hour) before baking.
8. When ready to bake, pre-heat oven to 400 degrees. Prepare your molds according to manufacturer's directions. Gently stir the canneles mixture to re-incorporate any butter that separated to the top.
9.Pour the mixture into the molds leaving about ¼ inch of space. Place molds in the oven, lower oven to 375 degrees and bake until canneles are dark brown all over. Time will vary due to oven, molds and size of molds. Allow to cool. Store at room temperature uncovered, and eat while fresh.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Pâtissier for the people."