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An orange round tart topped with slices of candied orange in a silver tray on a wooden table.
The mandarin olive oil tart from Café Cerés.

The Sweet-Savory Romance of Shawn McKenzie’s Pastries

Inside the pastry chef’s Beard-nominated menu at Café Cerés

Justine Jones is the editor of Eater Twin Cities.

Café Cerés’s mandarin olive oil tart may be its most eye-catching dessert — it has the custardy sheen of a Key lime pie and is topped with candied orange, each slice as radiant as the sun itself. But after the tartness of the first bite fades, other flavors emerge: hazelnut, rosemary, and caramel tones of brown butter in the crust; the smooth green taste of olive oil in the curd. The tart could easily be a case study of pastry chef Shawn McKenzie’s work at Café Cerés, which incorporates flavors from the eastern Mediterranean region, often adding subtle savory notes to classically sweet dessert forms.

Originally from Olympia, Washington, McKenzie moved to the Twin Cities in 2012 to run the pastry programs at chef Isaac Becker’s restaurants (Burch Steak, Bar La Grassa, and eventually 112 Eatery), where her baba au rhum, among other dishes, made an enduring mark on the fine dining dessert scene. She’s held a number of other roles since, leading pastries at Penny’s Coffee, Cardamom at the Walker Art Center, and now also Rustica Bakery. But it’s her own Café Cerés, which she opened in partnership with chef Danny del Prado in 2021, that may best showcase her particular pastry style, one found nowhere else in the Twin Cities. Her pastries meld flavors like pistachio, tahini, za’atar, and olive oil with the caramel tones of brown sugar and brown butter, and even (for some pastries) earthy whole-grain flours.

An assortment of pastries on wooden blocks on a white counter behind glass.
The pastry case.
A croissant topped with a bit of pistachio on a black plate on a wooden counter.
McKenzie’s pistachio croissant.
Shawn McKenzie wearing a headband, a black graphic T-shirt, and black apron, smiling in front of a brick wall.
A braided bagel coated in sesame seeds on a plate with za’atar, lox, tomatoes, and labneh.
The Turkish bagel, coated in sesame seeds.

This year, McKenzie has gained even wider recognition for her contributions to the pastry scene. Café Cerés’s cookies, cakes, tarts, croissants, breads, and bagels (here a braided Turkish version coated with sesame seeds) earned her a 2023 James Beard nomination for outstanding pastry chef, a national category. Winners will be announced at a Chicago ceremony on June 5.

Understanding McKenzie’s menu requires a trip back in time to 2018, the year she joined Penny’s Coffee as executive pastry chef. As part of research for a new menu, she and co-founder Ben Hertz traveled to Jerusalem, where they spent a week wandering through the markets of the Old City. “Going through the markets, that was an experience I don’t think you ever really get to [have] — our closest thing is the coop or going to the farmers market,” says McKenzie. She met a vendor selling gold and scarlet mountains of turmeric, paprika, and other spices, and ended up sourcing from them for the cafe.

McKenzie was already familiar with many flavors from the eastern Mediterranean and western Asia — back in Eugene, Oregon, she’d spent three years working for an Iranian chef who sold dishes like spanakopita and orange basmati rice salad at local markets. “I had a little bit of what I wanted beforehand, but then going there kind of gave me the other half,” she says. She brought tahini grapefruit babka, honey turmeric twists, challah, and garam masala ginger snaps to the Penny’s menu.

Two hands with rings and watch cutting dough on a wooden counter.
McKenzie in the kitchen.
Shawn McKenzie and lead baker Victor Cardenas, both wearing black aprons, preparing dough at a wooden counter in an industrial kitchen, with another person in the foreground to the right.
McKenzie (left) and lead baker Victor Cardenas.

McKenzie left Penny’s in 2020 — but when the cafe’s Linden Hills location closed that year, she partnered with chef Danny del Prado, a longtime friend, to open Café Cerés in the space. (The cafe has since expanded to two other locations in Armatage and downtown Minneapolis.) Many of her themes from Penny’s transferred to the menu, blooming into new forms. “There’s a lot that you can do with these spices — it’s not just sweet, it’s not just savory,” says McKenzie. “Everything that we have, there’s some element of rose, or pistachio, or walnut, fig, olive oil, za’atar. It seemed like they were such a mesh.”

Thus the mandarin tart’s hazelnut-laced crust and olive oil curd, which, compared to a butter base, McKenzie says, has a smoother flavor and a texture that’s less vulnerable to temperature changes. Her carrot cake is made even earthier with the addition of tahini, which contrasts with the simple tang of the cream cheese frosting. A pear and yuzu Danish is finished with Egyptian dukkah spice; cinnamon rolls match cinnamon with coriander; the Turkish bagels are served with a cool smear of labneh and za’atar.

A tartine topped with eggs, sesame seeds, chili oil, and thin slices of jalapeno on a black plate on a wooden table.
The Turkish egg tartine.
A slice of tahini carrot cake on a black plate on a wooden table.
Tahini carrot cake.
A dark chocolate cookie with caramel chunks on a round white plate on a light wooden table.
The zephyr rye cookie.

Café Cerés serves plain and chocolate croissants, hallmarks of a classic French pastry menu, but the pistachio croissants are the most popular, their buttery layers arcing above a sweet, nutty center. McKenzie makes her croissants with brown sugar, which speaks to another element of her style — imparting a richer, more complex, brown-butter flavor to dessert forms that typically lean into the unchallenging sweetness of white sugars and flours.

McKenzie’s chocolate zephyr rye cookies, studded with chunks of caramelized white chocolate, are a great example. Ample dark cocoa gives them their midnight flavor. But where in a typical chocolate cookie, cocoa and sugar meet transactionally, bitter and sweet competing, the zephyr cookie melds its almost-savory notes together: the cocoa, the toffee-like white chocolate, and the malty rye flour base. McKenzie says her interest in alternative flours comes from her Pacific Northwest roots. Her chocolate tahini cookie is made with a whole-wheat base; her molasses cookie, no longer on the menu, was made with buckwheat; even her strawberry lemon scone has a cornmeal base.

McKenzie says that Café Cerés’s savory menu is expanding, adding to its current offerings of tartines, prosciutto and basil croissants, and muffulettas. She’s envisioning plates with toasted challah or levain bases, drizzled with olive oil and za’atar. “I’m excited to see where we’re gonna evolve from what we just started two or three months ago,” says McKenzie. “It’s a pretty simple menu, but I’m hoping to see it expand.”

Disclosure: Some Vox Media staff members are part of the voting body for the James Beard Awards. Eater is partnering with the James Beard Foundation to livestream the awards in 2023. All editorial content, including this post, is produced independently of the James Beard Foundation.

A large cafe space with a long white counter and many people sitting inside.
Café Cerés in Linden Hills.

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