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Tim Brennan, owner of Cravings in Webster Groves, was apart of the KMOV-TV series Ask An Expert for six seasons.
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Cravings is the only Martha Stewart-approved caterer in theSt. Louis area, and the restaurant and bakery offers cateringfor breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
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USA Today named Cravings as one of the top ten places toeat dessert. The bakery and restaurant has also been recognized by People magazine and CitySearch.com.
By Barbara Gibbs Ostmann
A midnight Christmas Eve brunch for seventy-five close friends, followed hours later by a family feast for about sixty relatives. There’s nothing to it—at least, not for Tim Brennan, baker extraordinaire.
Tim, the mastermind behind Cravings Restaurant and Bakery in Webster Groves, loves the Christmas season. He enjoys the traditions and the food. Maybe, the reason is that Tim has plenty of good friends, close relatives, and great recipes to go around.
Tim comes from a large Irish-Croatian Catholic family; he has five brothers and two sisters. When the family gathers today, there are twenty-four nieces and nephews and ten grand-nieces and -nephews.
“We usually get together at my house,” says Tim. “I’m just a few doors down from the house we grew up in on Russell Boulevard in St. Louis.”
A Family Feast
The family gathers around 4 PM on Christmas Day for a feast of traditional fare with a few surprise twists.
“Ham is always on the menu, but I like to serve multiple meats,” Tim says. “One year, I served lamb chops, another crown roast of pork. There’s always some sort of shellfish: shrimp or crab.”
For his family, the most traditional food item for the family meal is povitica, a Croatian baked good that is sweet but not actually a dessert.
“It’s really more of a breakfast food, but I always serve it for Christmas dinner,” Tim says.
Povitica may not be a dessert, but it is a family custom, which calls for walnuts that are ground to a paste and soaked in milk with honey and cinnamon.
“My grandmother and my mother both made povitica,” Tim says. “My older sister Pat and I worked on the recipe and perfected it. I shape it like an over-sized brioche in a nine-inch pan with a topknot.”
Tim bakes about 150 poviticas every season for his younger brother, Michael, who handdelivers or ships the pastries to the lucky people on his list. They are the third generation to carry out this annual practice.
Somehow, amid running his restaurant and bakery and catering dozens of holiday events, Tim finds time to bake about a hundred different types of cookies.
In French reveillon style, Tim celebrates with friends at midnight on Christmas Eve. He goes to mass at 10:30 pm and then rushes home to welcome guests.
This party “is more breakfast-focused because it is so late at night,” says Tim, who prepares everything from quiche to bacon.
“I set up different bars in different locations in the house,” Tim says. “I always serve champagne. One bar might have mimosas or bloody marys. I always serve a special fruit juice, such as blood orange or white peach.”
The party winds down around 4 AM on Christmas morning, and twelve hours later, his family begins to arrive.
It might sound daunting to some home cooks, but for Tim, who juggles the demands of a busy catering company, wedding cake business, bakery, and restaurant, it is exhilarating. After twenty-nine years in the food service industry, he still has a love affair with cooking and baking.
The Road to Cravings
Tim returned to the St. Louis area in 1979 after finishing his bachelor’s degrees in English literature and marketing at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, and earning a master’s degree in Anglo-Irish literature at University College Dublin in Ireland.
“I never stopped baking from then on, even when I taught at community colleges and Washington University,” he says. “I thought it was a ludicrous proposition to go into baking professionally because I wasn’t formally trained, but that didn’t stop me from baking. I used to go ice skating every week with a group of friends. I would prepare four to eight desserts each time, and they would critique them. And of course, I baked for all family functions.”
The seeds were planted for Tim’s future baking career when he started working at Zimfel’s, a coffee shop in the Central West End of St. Louis. He shared items that he baked at home with the staff, and as a result, they convinced him to make tarts and scones for the store. By baking these treats for the coffee shop, he met Pat Millstone, a successful caterer in the area.
“She called me for desserts five or six times a week, and I went on location to events to make sure the items were served properly,” Tim says. “I learned a lot this way.”
Tim finally rolled the dice in January 1984 and opened Cravings as a wholesale bakery in the basement of his church, St. Joseph’s Croatian Church. Soon, his wedding cake business started booming. But individuals couldn’t buy the cakes at the church because it was wholesale only, so they came to his home, or he personally delivered the cakes. After nine years at the church, it was time to make a move, so Tim opened Cravings Restaurant and Bakery in 1993 on Big Bend Road in Webster Groves.
At first Cravings was a bakery. Then, it expanded by adding a lunch menu and, later, a dinner menu. “Catering became a big part of the business,” Tim says. “I love it. It’s a good vehicle for trying new things; you get good feedback. Catering is always different. It’s a great test market.”
Baked Goods and Beyond
Once Cravings got settled in its stand-alone location, the restaurant started receiving regional attention and winning him awards.
The hazelnut zuccotto, lime blueberry bombe, and apple galette are award winners, but other goodies are also staples on his menu, such as the chocolate cranberry torte, lemon bars, and the cappuccino dream tart.
Although his desserts have won him accolades, Tim can concoct more than just sweets. Both the lunch and dinner menus at Cravings feature seasonal soups, a variety of salads and sandwiches, and entrees. Sandwiches are made with your choice of homemade bread—French, sweet Portuguese, or wheat berry—and include curried chicken salad, tuna tapenade, and other options. Entrees vary from wild mushroom tart to chicken and roasted vegetable risotto.
Although Tim has firmly planted his roots in the Show-Me State, he still loves traveling and draws culinary inspiration from his journeys.
“I love Paris, New York City, Vienna—really, anywhere I go,” he says. “There are few places that aren’t on the map with good food these days.”
He thinks Vienna has the best ice cream. On a bike tour along the Danube River in Austria’s Wachau Valley, he first tasted Grüner Veltliner wine, which is now on the Cravings wine list. He also loves the cuisine of Thailand for its complexity of flavors.
A fitting cuisine for the Show-Me State has grown out of his global gallivanting. Missouri, an inherently eclectic state, has long been called the southern-most Northern state, the eastern-most Western state, and vice versa. Tim Brennan, with a history of travel, cooking, and baking, has developed a broad palate and created a cuisine with the one thing that matters most to Missourians: flavor.