When you bite into the heavenly-scented babka or buttery apple strudel available at Junda’s Pastry Crust and Crumbs, it is more than a sweet indulgence. You become an honored guest at master baker Christopher Junda’s extended family table. Ancestry, local history, antiques and heirloom recipes are all essential ingredients baked into the classic breads, cakes and pastries found within the rustic display cases at the Jamesport, Long Island community bakery.
Junda’s is set on a small embankment on the North side of Route 25, commonly referred to as “the Main Road.” It is a solid, two-story, white-shingled structure with green trim. Helen Junda greets me warmly inside the shop. She has shoulder-length dark hair and is friendly and conversational. Married to Chris, she is the business manager for the bakery and describes to me the couple’s journey that led to opening a bakery in this tiny hamlet on the rural North Fork of Long Island.
As I walk with Helen, it’s a bit like having someone take you on a tour of their home for the first time. Her pride is evident, and while Junda’s is a business, it is clear that the concept of “home” is intimately connected to the baked goods. She describes how Chris – who received his culinary training at Newbury College in Massachusetts – was between jobs as an executive pastry chef and started selling homemade pies from the porch of his parent’s home in Jamesport.
“He sold out in an hour,” Helen explains.
The pies were so popular that Jamesport residents started buzzing about the need for a bakery on the North Fork. Soon the couple set their sights on the most historic structure in town. The building was built in the 1700s and is believed to be the oldest home in Jamesport. Helen leads me to the attic, where centuries-old hand-hewn beams and the original brick chimney are visible.
The original owner may have founded Jamesport, and slaves are believed to have once worked the property. It was an antique store when the Jundas approached the owner about purchasing the house and land. Once they acquired the building, the Junda’s would spend three years on renovations. A large refrigeration unit was added, along with professional ovens and mixers. The formal parlor of the original building became the retail space. “Chris wanted to create an old fashioned bakery that was like a home,” says Helen.
The hectic demands of the modern world dissolve away and the tantalizing aromas and homespun, country feel of the parlor room cabinetry whisk you back to a bygone era. The floor beams are original and an antique pie rack from a beloved aunt is stocked with scrumptious wares.
Helen describes how Chris loved antiques and had a passion for art. Pastry is indeed his artistic medium. The assortment of baked goods is staggering – European-style artisanal breads, babka, chocolate linzer heart cookies, pies, pear frangipane tarts, German pfferneuse, lemon coconut cake, individual pies, tarts and cakes, individual babka, black and white cookies, and jelly- and custard-filled doughnuts. While the hackneyed “kid in the candy store” phrase comes immediately to mind, it doesn’t come close to describing the confectionary fantasy that greets you at Junda’s. A steady stream of customers file into the store. One of them tells me that the line of patrons is typically, “out the door.” Another gazes dreamily at the display cases and asks for “one of everything.”
Like a favorite relative, Helen moves through the store, assembling a bag of samples for me to take when I leave. “Chris uses all butter,” she tells me. “Most bakeries use a combination of butter and shortening.” In the kitchen she slices a piece of Junda’s signature apple strudel, a recipe inherited from a retired German baker named Alfred who worked for a time at the store.
We encounter Chris in the kitchen. He has just concluded a meeting with a couple who are planning their wedding. Junda’s supplies exquisite tiered cakes to the wedding receptions that take place in the vineyards of the North Fork. One wall of the bakery is covered with notes of thanks from couples who began their lives together with a slice of wedding cake from Junda’s.
Chris is a stocky man, and wears a tan golf shirt that is adorned with multicolored splatters of frosting. We gather around a work bench to hear his story. He reminisces about Sunday trips to the local bakery as a child, summers on the East End of Long Island, the pies his family purchased at Briermere Farms in Riverhead and the relatives and trained bakers who have influenced his career. Chris maintains that he always knew where he’d end up. Today, he is both an artisan and a curator.
“We’re an Eastern European Bakery,” he explains, pointing out that he is of Polish descent and Helen is from an Italian family. Recipes are not the kind that are typically written down, but those that are passed down from one generation to another. Chris learned to bake “by texture and feel” from relatives and professional bakers, measuring ingredients by the handful. “It’s all hand done. It’s all done the old way.”
His father supported his efforts and helped in the renovation of the bakery. Chris even had connections to the original building, and would visit the owner of the antique store that preceded the bakery. “I never bought an antique from him, but I bought his house,” Chris smiles.
With Chris handling the baking, and Helen handling finances, he says they “make a good team.” He still has an apron that belonged to an aunt. The “Aunt Alice Cake” – a chocolate cake with peanut butter frosting – is named after a relative who taught him the recipe. Fruits and vegetables are purchased from the local orchards and farms. His first customer still gets an honorary cake each year. Chris makes old fashioned jelly-doughnuts because his customers like them. And, the apple strudel bequeathed by Alfred the German baker flies off the shelves at Junda’s
It is a family business, deeply rooted in the community. “All these people watch over me,” Chris says. “The name is Junda’s. I’ve modeled it after my relatives because of what they instilled in me.”
Chris returns me to the parlor room, where we are met by my friend Mary Ellen, a North Fork real estate tycoon. We say our goodbyes to Chris and head on to our lunch engagement.
Later, back in Mary Ellen’s living room, we open the bag to examine the goodies packed by Helen. We taste German pfferneuse, delicate and crumbly, scented with nuts and spices. There are decadent butter cookies, fruity Linzer hearts and a cookie filled with dark, chocolate Grenache.
Then, we unwrap the apple strudel. Tender golden apples – with a juicy, just-picked sweetness – are tucked into translucent, shimmering layers of pastry, kissed with the delicate aroma of cinnamon and dusted with powdered sugar. It is a luminous creation, and tastes far superior to anything ever purchased at a typical bakery establishment.
With a single, succulent bite, we become a part of Chris and Helen Junda’s baking legacy.
Junda’s Pastry Crust and Crumbs is located at 1612 Main Road, Jamesport, NY, 631-722-4999.
©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved