If, on tucking into one of Nancy Ackermann’s flamboyant creations, you feel that you are sampling a work of art, you wouldn’t be far off. Owner of 4 and Twenty Blackbirds Bake Shop which is now in its 18th year in Guilford, Nancy’s early professional life was spent patching together work as a furniture maker after studying woodworking at art school. Unable to afford the expensive machinery to practice her craft, she expressed her creative drive by baking desserts for a local eastern European restaurant while doing carpentry for another restaurant at which she bartended. With limitless energy (“forty hours has always seemed like not enough work,” she tells me), Nancy quickly moved on to a restaurant with a talented head chef whom she would look to for mentorship.
But within two months, the head baker had walked on her job, Nancy was given the role and her workload – to her pleasure – almost doubled. Now, eighteen years on, woodworking is not much more than a warm recollection, although she does tell me, “It came in handy with the shop…I built all the cabinets, laid all the tile.”
4 and Twenty Blackbirds itself is a bright and bustling establishment tucked into a neighbourhood plaza in Guilford. When I enter on a Friday, five young assistants are fluttering around the kitchen in matching tie-dye t-shirts. “It’s tie-dye day today,” Nancy tells me. “Friday’s tie-dye, Thursday’s purple.” What was first a fashion coincidence turned into a weekly tradition that certainly signals a sense of camaraderie the atmosphere behind the counter. The open kitchen allows customers to watch the magic happen and let’s Nancy chat to her regulars, although, “it can be a huge distraction at times, we would get a lot more work done with out it,” she says.
While some of her recipes have been passed down in her family, many can be attributed to her artistic ingenuity. In her early jobs, she would often arrive early to work to experiment and explore with her baking – stirring, whipping and kneading at the will of her imagination. While she keeps a number of standards on the menu each week – including a moist, three-layered carrot cake and a pair of chocolate cakes – she follows fruit through the seasons and uses only Bishop Orchard’s peaches and apples at their peak. I was lucky enough to take home a piece of her Austrian apple cake, which features in store during fall. Look out for the glistening crown of pastry nestled over layers of plump apple and thick custard.
Her cotton candy-like macaroons are subtle and delicate, her molasses cookies fudgy and decadent. Her lemon and pepper biscuits have travelled as far as Ireland to sate the cravings of her loyal customers. And her tie-dye cupcakes, well…inspiration from her t-shirts, perhaps? While she often whips up sweet bread puddings, for salty teeth this week there are savoury puds on the menu, along with foccacias that often feature herbs and vegetables fresh from Nancy’s garden.
Beyond the “aromatherapy” that baking provides, Nancy says it’s the creative element and the ability to connect with people fuels her in a way woodworking couldn’t. And, “If you make a minor mistake, it doesn’t haunt you for the rest of your life,” she says. You enjoy it, you eat it and then it’s gone!”
610 Village Walk
Guilford CT 06437
(203) 458 6900
Open Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 7:30am