The Sweet Life
[At Home with Nichole Hensen: Nichole's Fine Pastry & Café]
Story by Tracy Nicholson
Photography by M.Schleif Photography, catering photo by Fernweh + Liebe, café food photo by Maria Slette
When Nichole Hensen opened her pastry shop in Downtown Fargo's Block #8 in 2003, she couldn't have begun to imagine the big impact her small-batch baked goods would make. Sixteen years later, Hensen is well-known and celebrated as the region's premier pastry chef. Specializing in traditional European and classic American favorites, Nichole's Fine Pastry is a local sweet-spot for savory bites, delicate desserts and steaming espresso. Hoping to find her secret recipe for success, we headed to her home on Fargo's historic eighth street where she treated us to a French favorite - salade nicoise, and a classic strawberry shortcake recipe with a Midwestern twist.
A Sweet Slice of Life
Arriving at Hensen's cottage-style home of 19 years, we were greeted by her two, nearly identical, orange tiger-striped cats. Just like her pastry shop, her personal home is warm and welcoming - with an informal, sit down and stay awhile vibe. She has spent years remodeling her charming one bedroom, one bath home; adding coffered ceilings, taking out walls to create a more open concept and relocating the staircase. Deemed unlivable by many, Hensen saw beyond the drawbacks. "There's been so much work done that I don't want to move anywhere," laughed Hensen. "Every old house has its drawbacks, but for me, it's close to the shop and I enjoy what's here." Hensen lives here with her husband of nearly five years, Joe Leggio. Originally from Baton Rouge, Leggio has been a school teacher in Fargo-Moorhead for over 20 years.
In the stairwell of her home, Hensen features a vast collection of art, many from local artists who have displayed their work on the walls of her pastry shop. Artists include Barbara Benda Nagle, her aunt, Ila Osman, Deb Connolly, M. Ringdahl, Gin Templeton, David Norstad, Bea Pappas and Kim Jore.
In the dining room, Hensen showed us to an antique cabinet where she keeps a collection of delicately painted, floral china on display. "I'm not a frilly girl, but for some reason, I really loved these; it's fun to mix new and old," said Hensen. "My dad's aunt had started collecting them, then when she passed away, I inherited the cups, saucers and dessert plates; one set for every month."
Nichole's Salade Nicoise
As a starter or a meal, Hensen's French-influenced salad consists of seared tuna, asparagus, hard-boiled eggs, tomatoes, onions, capers and potatoes.
"This salad originated in the town of Nice, France, and I've included a bit more than what they'd typically include," explained Hensen. "I seared the tuna in a cast iron pan, then cooled it to slice. Then I boiled little potatoes, cooled them for slicing, then tossed them with a lemon vinaigrette and parsley. I sliced up tomatoes, sautéed the shrimp, blanched the asparagus, hard-boiled the eggs and included a bed of greens underneath for presentation." Garnishing the platter even further is capers, olives and red onions.
"For Mother's Day, this would be a really fitting menu - it's just a selection of different things that on their own aren't hard to prepare, but once you put them together, it's really quite pretty," said Hensen.
Nichole's Strawberry Rhubarb Shortcake
"I wanted to put a twist on the typical strawberry shortcake, so I mixed it up with rhubarb," said Hensen. "Yesterday, I cooked the rhubarb down on the stove with a little sugar, then let it sit overnight. To mix the strawberry with the rhubarb, I made a puree and pulsed in some of the strawberries to keep the color and flavor. For the base, I use my version of a sweet biscuit - it's similar to a scone with coarse sugar on top.”
MAKE AHEAD OF TIME:
If you would like to incorporate the rhubarb flavor, cook fresh or frozen rhubarb with a little sugar and water on the stove - until the rhubarb breaks down. This mixture should be made ahead of time and served cold, layered in with the strawberries.
Whisk the dry ingredients together in a bowl. Cut butter into half-inch chunks and add to dry mixture. Toss to coat and separate butter chunks. Process in a food processor so butter is pea-sized or smaller. Transfer to a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Gradually add cream to the mixture until a dough forms. Roll dough on a floured table until dough is 1 ¼-inch thick. Cut pieces with a 2-inch round cutter. You may push scraps back together—however, be careful to not overwork the dough. Place shortcakes on a parchment lined pan. Brush the top with egg wash and sprinkle with coarse sugar. You may freeze OR bake immediately. Bake in a 400-degree oven for approx. 20-25 minutes.
While the shortcakes bake, slice strawberries and toss with a splash of lemon juice and 1/4 to 1/3 cup of granulated sugar; I like to skip the sugar and use honey.
Let macerate for 15-20 minutes.
When ready to serve, slice shortcakes in half horizontally and layer with strawberries and dollops of whipped cream. If using the cold rhubarb mixture, I like to layer this along with the fresh sliced strawberries when assembling. I prefer to use really heavy whipping cream and a high-quality vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste to flavor.
[ Pretty Pairings ]
Shotwell Floral & Greenhouse
For the floral arrangements, we simply sent Shotwell's head floral designer, Cindy Schmeets, two photos of Hensen's home. With a bit of inspiration to work with, she created two arrangements that offered a splash of spring color and contrast to complement the home. Schmeets' arrangements feature a variation of purple iris, white freesia, ornamental kale, eucalyptus, white astilbe and pink ranunculus; a combination that coordinated perfectly with Hensen's floral tea sets.
Shotwell Floral & Greenhouse
Bernie's Wines & Liquors:
"This gorgeous, traditional salad needs an equally beautiful, laid-back, summer day wine. The Juve & Camps Cava Brut Rose is just such a wine. This sparkler from Spain, made from Pinot Noir grapes, is light enough to not overpower the delicate nature of the salad, but has enough body and balanced acidity to compliment some of the more standout elements like the tuna and the capers. The color is dark and rich with bright flavors of red berries, so make to save a glass for the shortcake."
Beyond the Kitchen: Nichole Hensen
Hanson grew up on a farm near Glenburn, North Dakota and attended UND, where she earned a degree in Information Management. Although her career in accounting first led her to the corporate office of Scheels, Hensen couldn't calm the itch to explore her culinary interests. Soon, she was headed to Alaska where she worked two summers at a remote fly and fishing lodge, coming back in the winter to work beside another famed, local chef, Gordy Richardson at The VIP Room. After her second summer in Alaska, Hensen enrolled in pastry school at the Culinary Institute of America in Greystone, California.
Finding herself in a sea of budding chefs and low wages, Hensen returned home and spent five years honing her skills at The VIP Room before making the decision to open her own pastry shop. Under her meticulous watch and 5:30 am starts, Nichole's Fine Pastry & Café would make nearly everything from scratch, striving to support the family farms and homegrown products that were near and dear to her.
Inside Nichole's Fine Pastry & Café
Inside her charming Block #8 storefront, Hensen created a boutique-style environment that would transport her team and clientele to another world. Playing on the French-influenced ambiance, she originally set her sights solely on the creation of desserts, but after an expansion in 2010, the café was born.
Surprisingly, when Hensen first opened her pastry shop, she was not anticipating offering lunch or designing wedding cakes. Her glass cases were filled with homemade desserts like crème brûlée, chocolate cake, caramel pecan bars, cocoa truffles and fruit tarts. As Fargo's demand for distinguished desserts increased, her menu grew ripe with creations like the Chocolate Feuilletine tower; a chocolate cocoa cake, layered with hazelnut crunch and dark chocolate mousse.
Today, Hensen's shop offers an array of signature mousse cakes, cheesecakes, cupcakes, pies, tarts, cookies and bars. Classic desserts like the Éclairs, Cannolis and Napoleons, are served alongside aromatic, loose-leaf teas, coffees and espressos. She has won a long list of local awards, and last year was recognized as having the "Best Cake" in North Dakota by Food Network, for her Lemon Curd Layer Cake.
Beyond the case desserts, Hensen's shop caters to both intimate and elaborate weddings and events, offering an array of specialty tiered cakes, sack lunches, sandwich trays, cookie plates, breakfast pastry plates and confections.
For those who prefer savory over sweet, the café side serves up fresh and homemade soups, sandwiches, wraps, salads, quiche, egg bake and pasta bakes. For a quick bite on the go, choose from a selection in the café's case or try one of their new "Nibble Boxes", featuring a charcuterie-style lunch portion of select meats, cheeses, olives and breads.
For more information, contact:
Nichole's Fine Pastry & Café
Hours of Operation:
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