This duo of self-taught bakers gives Old-World recipes a novel twist

By Catherine Gigante-Brown
Photos By Winona Barton Ballentine

When Erin Patinkin met Agatha Kulaga at a food-focused book club in
2010, neither had a clue they’d go on to build one of the borough’s most talked-about bakeries.

“Since we were both looking to transition from our careers, that first day we talked about going into business together,” recalled Patinkin. “A year later, we started Ovenly.”

With the idea of starting a gourmet bar snacks endeavor, the duo began crafting munchies for Brooklyn Brewery. Soon, they were approached by a friend who was opening a pub doubling as a coffee shop in the mornings and suggested the pair do the baking.

“Today, we have more than 90 clients,” said Patinkin. “We deliver fresh pastries, desserts, and bar snacks every day to grocery stores, coffee shops, and restaurants.”

In the beginning, though, Patinkin, 34, and Kulaga, 35, were baking gypsies, moving from kitchen to kitchen. They initially rented a caterer’s cooking space in Greenpoint, then realized they needed a place to bake daily, so they approached Paulie Gee (he of the famed pizzeria) and asked if they could use his kitchen from 4 to 10 a.m. This worked well for a few months, until they rented a Red Hook kitchen for a year. “But we still kept our eye on Greenpoint,” said Patinkin. “When a great space became available, kitty-cornered across from Paulie Gee’s, we grabbed it.”

BK WINDOW SPREAD

Ovenly’s Greenpoint Avenue bakery and café opened in May of 2012—and was promptly named the best bakery in New York City by Time Out New York in 2013. Patinkin and Kulaga are currently shopping for a second storefront, which will probably be below 14th Street in Manhattan or elsewhere in Brooklyn.

Although the business still features two packaged snacks (Maple Thyme Pecans and Old Salties, a wicked mix of peanuts rolled in bacon fat and tossed with Old Bay, Worchester Sauce, and spices), their focus is baked goods…only with a twist. The winning flavor platter duo-tone of salty and sweet has become a trademark, and the two have elevated it to a culinary art form.

Ovenly’s most famous goodies? “Our salted chocolate chip cookies are by far our best seller,” answered Patinkin. “We sell thousands each month, and they’re vegan, which many people don’t realize. It’s just an amazing cookie.”

Then there’s Ovenly’s Brooklyn Blackout Cake. Decadent, delicious… luscious (and featured on a segment of ABC’s The Chew), it is super dense, moist, and slightly bitter, and made with Brooklyn Brewery’s Black Chocolate Stout and dark Dutch cocoa, filled with a salted dark chocolate pudding, frosted with pudding buttercream, and dusted with cake crumbs.

“It was Agatha’s brainchild,” conceded Patinkin. “Many bakeries have their own version of blackout cake, but ours is unique—not too sweet, a bit salty, and with a hint of spice.”

There are also scores of cookies, cupcakes, muffins, bars, quiches and other delights: sweet scones with currants and rosemary and savory ones like cheddar mustard, not to mention black caraway smoked sea salt dark chocolate shortbread, with an earthy, crunchy, yet tender texture (Patinkin’s personal favorite, and not your grandma’s Lorna Doone’s).

“It’s a twist on tradition,” Patinkin said. “We started making things we loved growing up, then changed them up a bit.”

Kulaga humbly refers to herself and her business partner as largely “self-taught bakers,” who also learned at the elbows of their mothers and grandmothers. Both share an Eastern Europe heritage (Patinkin’s family hails from Serbia and Poland, Kulaga’s parents are Polish). “As kids, we bonded with our families making babkas and fried donuts,” laughed Patinkin. “It’s ironic that Agatha and I bonded over the same foods as adults.”

“In the beginning, we didn’t have a plan or a business model,” Patinkin recalled. “For the first few years, we baked every single day for 14 hours a day, then suddenly we had eight full-time bakers and a staff. Less than five years ago, Agatha and I were both sitting behind desks, wanting to make a change. We couldn’t imagine rising to this level.”

Ovenly
31 Greenpoint Ave. / 347.689.3608 / oven.ly / Patinkin and Kulaga’s cookbook,
Ovenly: Sweet and Salty Recipes from New York’s Most Creative Bakery, debuts on September 30, with a launch party at Brooklyn Brewery on October 2