Q&A with Baking Queen Hattie McDaniel – Indianapolis Monthly
During the pandemic, Hattie McDaniel went from leading the baking team at Cunningham Restaurant Group to starting her own business that leverages her restaurant experience while giving her time for a life that was not possible with 80-hour work weeks. Now that the flour dust has settled, we caught up with McDaniel – between his Ivy Tech classes, his Zoom tutorials and his competitive powerlifting sessions.
What are your days like now?
I do a lot of different things that fulfill my creative need and also make money for me. I’m an Assistant Instructor at Ivy Tech where I teach Intro to Baking, Baking Science, Classic Baking, and Yeast Breads. It’s part-time and varies depending on enrollment and class schedule, so I also teach Zoom classes to home bakers. I also do recipe development for restaurants and other food businesses.
Early in COVID, Sahm’s hired you to help launch and oversee its Coffee Cake of the Month program, and now you’re checking out other restaurants, including Main and Madison Cafe in Franklin. What are these business relationships?
It depends on the needs of the business. Ideally, they have a basic menu, and I give creative input and refine it. I think about what suits their brand and restaurant concept and start developing recipes from there. Once I find a good recipe or flavor profile, I take it to their team and train them on how to do it. The places I work with already have some really great people on staff. They just don’t always have time to think outside the box. They are so busy with their daily chores that there are no overtime hours to play or try out different flavors. This is where I come in. With Sahm’s, their original sour cream coffee cake is a traditional family recipe, so I couldn’t really touch it, but I like its versatility, and I can play around a lot with different toppings and textures to achieve a flavor profile totally different.
You earned a reputation as a baking prodigy when you helped open Cunningham Restaurant Group’s Vida in 2016 at the ripe old age of 22 and then led the team that opened CRG’s first stand-alone bakery, Croute, in 2019. How do you feel now when you look back at that time?
I appreciate it, but it was also very difficult. It was 60 to 80 hours of work per week, and I was not well placed mentally. It paid off because I got respect and attention from the city, but it wasn’t sustainable.
You must have had mixed emotions, receiving so much attention and responsibility on the one hand and struggling with the schedule and workload on the other.
I learned to wear a lot of hats and compartmentalize because I was producing for the storefront bakery, as well as all the different menu concepts for the CRG restaurant. I really had to be able to shut off one side of my brain and focus on one concept at a time, which is useful now because I work for more than one company. I have to think in different terms now – does this fit the Main and Madison brand? Does it correspond to the Sahm’s brand? Not just what I want to do, but what really fits their businesses. It taught me that I have to set limits to protect my brain and tell people when I’m at my limit. During this time when I was working so hard, I noticed such a decrease in my creativity because I was in survival mode.
Croute closed in a year, then restaurants were closed for a while at the start of COVID. You left CRG during this period. How was it after such a whirlwind four years?
At the start of COVID, I thought we were going to be back pretty soon. And then I remember realizing one day that we weren’t going to go back there for a while, and that they probably weren’t going to have a job for me because it wouldn’t be necessary to have this specialized pastry job anymore. . I felt a sense of relief not having to carry that load. The combination of company expectations and my expectations had been overwhelming. It was a chance to create my own opportunities. That’s when I started doing the Zoom courses for home bakers.
I took one of your Zoom classes at the start of COVID and was amazed at how much I learned in just a few hours on a Saturday afternoon. How do you like teaching people remotely, with you in your kitchen and the rest of us in our own homes?
I really like that. The hardest part is keeping up with everyone’s individual cuisines and making sure I keep the class going at a good pace. I want to make sure everyone gets enough attention and no one is left behind. I really slow down and repeat myself a lot, making sure I’m listening to what each student is doing.
What should people expect when signing up for a course?
I provide a shopping list with all the ingredients two weeks in advance, as well as an Amazon wishlist of supplies that might be hard to find locally. For example, I did a creme brulee class and sent everyone a list of torches and where they could get them if they wanted to have one in their own kitchen. The classes are designed for beginners and you don’t need to know anything about baking. I walk everyone through every step of the recipe, and then I’m there for them before and after class if they have any questions.
What is a pastry or dessert that is harder to pull off than you think?
I think one thing that people say is going to be really easy is a batch of cookies, but a lot of things can go wrong with a basic cookie – not creaming the batter enough, mixing it all up, or measuring it wrong Ingredients. There are so many shades. And that’s why I think Zoom classes are so beneficial. Because I can show you exactly what mine looks like up close on the screen.
What about something that’s easier to do than people think?
What is your favorite dessert to eat?
I love a good soft serve ice cream. And Danes. There is so much work to do and it is a complicated process. You must respect Danish.
You have a long career ahead of you, but when you look back, is there a particular dish or pastry you are most proud of so far?
Definitely the ricotta donuts at Vida. This will be my legacy. We were working on developing a donut recipe for the opening, and I was inspired by my grandmother’s dumplings for the texture. That was the starting point for the recipe, and it really exploded from there. There have been many other desserts I’m proud of, but this one stands out the most.
You have this other side of you that surprises a lot of people. You are a competitive weightlifter. First, a basic question. What is the difference between a powerlifter and a bodybuilder?
Bodybuilding is when you get on stage and flex yourself, but weightlifting is just about strength.
how did you get in there?
My husband is a strength trainer, and he made me do weightlifting when we started dating eight or nine years ago. Then, about six years ago, I started taking it more seriously and started competing. We hope to return to the national championships this summer. We compete in the USA Powerlifting Federation because it’s drug-tested competition, so you know everyone is natural and clean, and you’re not competing against people on steroids.
What’s the most you’ve ever raised?
We went to a competition last fall and I had a personal best deadlift of 165 kilos, or 363 pounds. I like to compare this to sacks of flour. That would be eight 50-pound bags. So I’m just imagining four 50 pound bags of flour on each side of the bar. It would be fun to have a graph of that.
Why do you think you like sports so much?
I’ve always been a bulkier girl. I was on the swim team and I have broad shoulders. With powerlifting, it’s not about how you look, it’s about how strong you feel. You don’t have to depend on someone else; the harder you work, the better you will get. When I was working so much at Cunningham, training was a good time to be alone. It was just me, the bar and my own strength.