On the way out, I stopped at the shop at the front of the café and picked up a couple of breakfast pastries and two packages of cookie dough. Later, I discovered that the breakfast "cinnamon brioche" wasn't brioche at all, but a tough, lardy-tasting dough shell filled with sugared nuts. A huge pineapple "French Danish" was too sweet for a wake-up meal. The cookie-dough packages ($9 each) had sketchy instructions -- perhaps everybody is supposed to know how to make cookies. Once baked, the cherry chocolate chip cookies were sweeter than I could stand, the mocha macadamia ones passable. Neither was worth a buck per cookie. When Krasne is good, she's extraordinarily good. When she's bad, she's not good at all. Either way, the creations of the princess of pastry do not sell for people's prices.
ABOUT THE CHEF
Karen Krasne caught the pastry bug while she was a student. "I was working at a high-end pastry/wine bar," she said, "kind of a French café that was in Honolulu at the time I was going to school at University of Hawaii. The woman that owned it seemed like she was having the most incredible life. She was flying to Paris, she was successful in what she was doing, and she was enjoying what she was doing. And I thought, 'Wait! I'm going to go get a master's in science? I must be crazy!' I absolutely loved working with her. Once I got my degree -- it was in food science and nutrition, with a minor in French -- I decided to go study in France. I talked to a few different food people here, since I'm a native San Diegan, to get their suggestions for where I should study. They said, 'The Cordon Bleu.' " Krasne received a certificat de patisserie from that institution.
She opened her first Extraordinary Desserts 17 years ago (the Little Italy store is six months old) but has continued traveling the world and returning to Paris to study specific areas of pastry expertise at the famed Ecole LeNotre and the Bellouet Conseil Ecole Perfectionement. "I've spent the last 20 years taking one or two courses every year," she says.
Does she love sweets? "You know -- I think that I must! I adore working around them, and I love what happens when we make something that's really delicious. I look at it more like a color-and-texture kind of palette. I don't enjoy working with food as much. To me, food is just...I enjoy it and I love to go eat at fabulous restaurants, but pastries are more like little pieces of art.
"I get a lot of my ideas from my travels. There's a lot of inspiration out there, but also, traveling is an opportunity for me to just quiet down in my mind, whether I'm on an airplane or a bench in Central Park, so an idea has a moment to enter. When I'm rushing to work and making sure my baby's attended to and running to the gym and grabbing supplies -- those are not very creative moments."
Karen is a petite brunette, and I asked how she manages to stay so slim when her profession involves tasting (as well as baking) pastries every day. "The gym is part of it, and yoga, and running, and never having a moment to actually sit down and have a meal," she said. "It's really a struggle to stay thin, but the answer is, I love fashion. But I must have put on five pounds when I was tasting things to go into the panini here. I could get into a lot more trouble if I was a food chef."
She attempts to use organic products as much as possible and is now working on soups and salads for the menu. "We try to have things there for a person who can't eat wheat, and for vegetarians and even vegans. I've enjoyed being on all those diets. The one thing I haven't gotten into yet is coming up with things for diabetics."