“Don’t even get me started on gluten free!” laughs pastry chef Hannah Hedley, when the topic of dieting and restricting certain food groups was brought up. She admits, “I ate s’mores bars for breakfast this morning. If I’m going to push dessert on to other people, I have to drink my own Kool-aid.”
Recently starting her very own pastry business, Harper James Bakehouse, Hannah knows what it’s like to constantly be surrounded by—and covered in—flour, sugar and buttercream frosting. Named after her two children, this new endeavor has been a long awaited and well-deserved leap of faith.
While not formally trained, Hannah has always loved to cook and knew she wanted to work with food from a young age. “I used to love Emeril Lagasse back in like, 7th grade,” she admits with a mimicking, “Bam!” reminiscent of Emeril’s favorite dramatic gesture. After she graduated from UC Davis, she decided to pursue her love for cooking and got a job as a prep cook at Brix Restaurant in Yountville.
While at Brix, she learned the mechanics, trials and nuances of working behind the scenes in a large restaurant. On her second day, the head pastry chef was so far in the weeds on a chaotic night that Hannah offered to assist her with some of the pastry tasks. It was then that Hannah’s passion for creating all things sweet began.
After two years at Brix, Hannah left to take a position at the world-renowned Meadowood Napa Valley Resort as a pastry chef. There she spent four years working in the innovative and competitive environment. Her small, five-person team was responsible for all the desserts and various baked goods for the hotel, catering and banquets. This opportunity allowed her to diversify her portfolio of sweet and savory treats in a fast paced atmosphere that she thrives in. But after welcoming her second child, Hannah decided it was time to make her own hours, and that’s when Harper James Bakehouse came to fruition.
Hannah’s specialties include a variety of rustic yet elegant sweets including toffees, tarts, and French macarons, but Harper James Bakehouse’s most awe-inspiring creations are the cakes. Traditional gum paste and fondant aren’t Hannah’s style; instead she opts for a more natural look which gives her treats their signature flair. “I’m really into semi-naked cakes right now, with different drips on them.” Hannah compares her current favorite trend to the bark of a birch tree, “with textured, rustic buttercream and fresh flowers.” Her cakes have a presence that makes them not only striking to look at, but intriguing. Leaving them semi-naked means you can see the various layers of cake and filling underneath the thin layer of buttercream icing. With delectable ganache artfully dripped down the sides and the tops decorated with various accoutrements, such as her signature macarons, fresh flowers and seasonal berries, the visual is fresh meets whimsical.
As a resident of Yountville, the quaint town in the heart of Napa Valley’s wine country, Hannah is located in a culinary wonderland and garners much of her inspiration from her surroundings, specifically, her family. In fact, her husband is the executive sous chef at the garden-inspired restaurant Lucy, and is no stranger to using nature’s seasonal offerings as the showcase ingredient. Hannah even jokes that their 4 year old daughter Harper already knows all of the edible flowers, thanks to her husband. “He used to take her to the French Laundry garden every morning and pick little things for her to try. Now, she’ll walk up to Violas and eat them. Some of the plants she walks up to, I don’t know if it’s edible or not because I wasn’t there for that lesson!”
Harper James Bakehouse is aptly named and flawlessly melds Hannah’s craft with her lifestyle. Capturing a very genuine side of Napa’s culinary culture, it’s apparent that Hannah is doing what she loves. And while this new adventure is in its early stages, business is already lined up, proving Hannah’s expertise is worthy of sharing.
Q & A with Hannah
What is your favorite secret ingredient when you bake?
Sour Cream!!! It’s also my favorite food. In cheesecakes, cakes, and even caramel sauce!
What do you listen to while you bake?
Elizabeth Mitchell “You Are My Little Bird” album. It’s children’s music that my daughter loves.
What is your essential kitchen tool?
My rubber spatula. I’ve been using the exact same kind since the day I started at Meadowood. It’s slightly curved so it folds batter the best!
What is your go-to pastry you make to impress?
My semi naked cakes with chocolate drips.They have such an organic quality to them, like a Birch tree stump. Or my French macarons, those babies took years of practice.
Sweet or salty?
Both! I love bits of salt in desserts. Like in chocolate chunk cookies or vanilla cake batter.
Favorite alcoholic beverage?
Lagunitas IPA for sure! But I love a crisp rosé on a summer day.
If you were reincarnated as one food, what would it be?
A casserole, they are so lazy but man, are they delicious!
Tips for creating the perfect cake?
Don’t over think it and keep it simple! A simple vanilla cake with rustic buttercream and fresh flowers is always a crowd pleaser. Don’t try to make something too complicated.