The first time I visited Shandaken Bake in Tannersville—an eager nine minutes after it had opened for the day—there was already a queue 12 people deep.
The line sparkled with excitement. Locals and weekenders swapped insider tips about their favorite pastries. I heard the woman in front of me deliberating about whether to order a chubby squirrel and I found myself whispering fervently to her that it was my go-to and that she absolutely had to get one. (A box of those comforting slabs of scone-meets-coffee-cake stuffed with cinnamon streusel and molasses-and-vanilla-stewed apples was the whole reason I had trekked up from Phoenicia that morning.)
“When I was selling at the Pakatakan Farmers Market it was a very similar situation,” says Shandaken Bake owner Craig Thompson. “There could be 10 to 20 people waiting in line and I never really had to explain my style of baking because by the time they got to the front they had already had a conversation with someone else in line. There is this sense of community that people experience waiting in line to get their little pastries, and I love nurturing that.”
A mostly self-taught baker, Thompson creates the kind of rustic, seasonally influenced pastries that evoke some distant memory of my grandmother’s kitchen. Not too fussy, they’re the kinds of cakes, pies, biscuits, quickbreads, and cookies I imagine myself whipping up at home on a snow day or after a particularly good haul at the farmers' market. But they’re better, more dialed-in. And there’s a whimsical panache to Thompson’s styling that takes his desserts far beyond the realm of the home baker.
The key lime pie is expertly balanced on the edge of tart and sweet with a buttery, crumbly graham cracker crust that has just the right amount of salt in it and a cloud of whipped cream perched on top. There’s a spiced olive oil carrot cake that is dense yet tender, with a bright twist of lemon that perks up the rich, creamy frosting. At any time of the year, a flaky tart stuffed with whatever sweet thing is in season in the Catskills, from spring’s first rhubarb to peak fall apples, is ready for devouring.
It’s taken Thompson almost 30 years to hone the dozen or more items you’ll find rotating in and out of his custom-made pastry cases. The Main Street, Tannersville location, which opened in June 2022, is his first ever brick-and-mortar shop. “For at least 25 years, the seed has been planted in my mind that I would love to open my own little pastry shop,” he says.
The Sense Memory of a Perfect Dessert
It was at college in Thompson’s home state of Kansas where the baking bug first bit. After a particularly delicious slice of a friend’s Derby Pie, he began baking from the cookbook it came from—a compilation of recipes from B&Bs across the country. “It became my teaching tool,” he says. “I still have it in the bakery in this little hutch. You can see how well-worn it is, caked in patina, with the cover mostly ripped off.”
As he cooked through its recipes, Thompson began tweaking things here and there. “I began trying to find the path to matching or surpassing all these positive sense memories from my life,” he says. “Take a chocolate chunk cookie. I would ask myself, ‘Is this the ideal chocolate chunk cookie of my memory?’”
His template for experimentation: Start with what you love and work your way toward creating that every time you make the recipe. “I didn’t know that was what I was setting out to do at the time, but over the years I’ve created a repertoire based on that,” he says.
It was around that time, while Thompson was working as a server at an upscale restaurant in Kansas City, that he encountered the work of pastry chef Nancy Stark. “The restaurant was just breaking into these new concepts of cooking, and I remember having a slice of gooseberry pie with an unsweetened, plain frozen yogurt on the side and it really blew my mind,” he says. “Just because a restaurant was higher-end, the pastry didn’t have to be architectural. It could be rustic and honest and simple and hold its own.”
In 2002, after almost 15 years honing his craft creating the desserts for an art gallery in Manhattan, Thompson and his partner Marc Wolf moved to Shandaken in the northwest Catskill Mountains. He befriended Peekamoose owners Marybeth and Devin Mills and began baking out of the restaurant’s kitchen and selling at the Pakatakan Farmers Market in Halcottsville. It was there that he came up with the name Shandaken Bake, a playful spin on the ubiquitous grocery store brand Shake ‘N Bake.
“My time there really started to inform a deeper relationship with the growing season because I was surrounded by farmers," he says. "Back then, that was a new concept to me. I had never been surrounded by farm culture. I began to celebrate each thing in its season.”
In 2011, Thompson’s friends and restaurateurs Jeni Glasgow and Reuven Diaz invited him to come to Drogheda, Ireland to help them design the menu at Brown Hound, the companion bakery to their hugely popular Eastern Seaboard Restaurant (both of which closed during the pandemic). “I went over to Ireland and I taught their baking staff the pastries I make,” Thomspon says. “I loved my time over there. One of the highlights was when [food writer] Donal Skehan came with his crew and I did a master class of my rustic tart.” In 2012, the Irish Times named it best bakery in Ireland.
The next year, Thompson moved back to New York City and was invited to sell at the New Amsterdam Market in the South Street Seaport. The market’s all-regional sourcing requirement led him to develop one of his most beloved autumn offerings: roasted parsnip bread. “I wanted to make my chocolate banana bread, and I even asked if we could find the closest port and banana,” he chuckles. “But this local farmer had these beautiful parsnips that I roasted, then pureed down with maple and apple cider, and I treated them like bananas.”
Dessert Time at The Pines
Hurricane Sandy shut down the New Amsterdam Market after its first season, and Thompson took a break from baking professionally until 2016, when he and his partner were called back to the Catskills. They found a house in Elka Park close to Wolf’s job as the new executive director of the Mountaintop Arboretum, and they began frequenting the restaurant at the Pines in Mount Tremper, owned by Jeremy Bernstein, aka singer-songwriter Burnell Pines.
“At the time I had seen some press about the Pines, and there was something about it that spoke to me as a kindred spirit to what I do,” says Thompson. “Jeff Bailey, who makes the genius Heavy Feather Coffee, was starting to do a morning coffee program there, and one night Jeremy asked me over mezcal margaritas and delicious food if I wanted to do the pastries. I just found myself saying yes, and I came in at 4am the next morning.”
For the next five years, Thompson ran the Pines’ dessert program, serving up the best of his expansive repertoire (and making this writer a mega-fan in the process). On any given weekend, there would be ethereal chocolate puddings that far surpassed my childhood memories, puckery key lime pie bars, silky coconut cream pies, chewy chocolate chunk cookies, cinnamon-spiked chubby squirrels, impossibly tall cupcakes, and rustic tarts bursting with every kind of fruit.
It was during that time that the chubby squirrel, which Thompson had been making for years, got its official name. The pastry was inspired by one he used to get at a bakery in the West Village, which went by the name of monkey bread (no, not that monkey bread).
“I loved the simplicity of it. It was this flaky, crumbly scone that had this core of cinnamon sweetness, and it was so good with a cup of coffee,” he says. Though the bakery ended up closing, the memory of that scone lived on in his mind, and he started dabbling with baking it on his own. Later, he stewed apples and added them to the center streusel and everything clicked into place.
When Thompson began working at the Pines, the topic came up of changing the pastry’s name from monkey bread to one with a woodland creature at home in the Catskills. “It was Jeff that said ‘Well it looks like the puffy tail of a squirrel,” Thompson says. “It has now become this thing for so many other people. I love people’s sense of discovery with it. There’s this whole mythology of the Chubby Squirrel.”
A Tannersville Bakery Takes Shape
Last year when Thompson turned 51, he knew it was finally time to open his own brick-and-mortar bakery. “I realized it wasn’t going to sit well with me if I didn’t do it,” he says. “I didn’t want to be in my 60s or 80s still regretting carrying that dream.”
He approached Sydney Frasier, the owner of Sundry in Tannersville, about using the empty space next to his store, which looked like it could be the perfect size for a bakery. “I told him, 'If you’re not going to put something in that space I’ll put a bakery there,'” Thompson says. “And three months later I found myself saying it again.”
After 17 weeks of build out, Shandaken Bake opened on Main Street in June of last year. Thompson, who bakes everything, also runs the shop and always has a smile and a kind word to offer his customers. The baked goods are known to sell out relatively quickly, so you should get there on the early side of the day to make sure you get to choose from the full selection. There is always a diverse array of sweet treats on offer and one savory item for balance that Thompson calls “baker’s lunch.” During the holiday seasons, pre-orders for full pies are a hot ticket.
The shop’s decor is cozy and refined. The walls are painted a soothing, sophisticated taupe, further warmed by the wood countertops and pastry cases. Custom bench seating in one window offers a sunny nook that looks out onto the street, and there is more seating along one wall. You can grab a cup of Heavy Feather Coffee and sit for a bit while enjoying a pastry or two with friends.
“I‘ve had so many people come through and say ‘I always hoped there’d be a little bakery in town,’” Thompson says. “There’s a feeling of nostalgia and this sense that one of the ideal qualities of a town is to have a bakery. It’s so nice to be able to do that in my community that I live in.”
6036 Main Street, Tannersville
Open Friday through Sunday, 10am to 2pm
@shandakenbake on Instagram