Sunflower Bakery is gearing up for Chanukah

Mira Lottes makes Chanukah cookies at Sunflower Bakery in Gaithersburg.
Photo by Andrea F. Siegel

Multicolored dreidels and sparkling blue Magen Davids line trays to await baking. Nearby, the royal icing is drying on menorah cookies. More cookies, and cupcakes with blue and white pillows of frosting, will follow in coming days in this small space in Gaithersburg.

This most likely will be the last Chanukah here for Sunflower Bakery, the nonprofit kosher bakery that trains young adults with learning differences and related issues for work in pastry arts, baking and other aspects of the food industry.

The bakery is relocating to Rockville by the summer, having outgrown the Gaithersburg space. It’s hard to imagine 200 pounds of Chanukah cookies plus at least 50 dozen Chanukah cupcakes are being produced here in a matter of days — along with other seasonal baked goods.

The move will quadruple its space to 5,000-plus square feet and allow the bakery to expand its offerings for students and customers, says Sara Portman Milner. She is a co-founder of Sunflower and director of student services. The program, piloted nearly decade ago at Beth Sholom Congregation in Potomac, now adds only one or two new students every five weeks, enabling chefs to work closely with each student.

“The key to all this is teaching them in the way they learn best so we can tap their talent, tap their skill and build their self-esteem,” Milner says.

For students who haven’t felt successful in school, success at developing new skills fairly quickly is a big confidence boost. Teaching methods tailored to each student’s learning style accommodate a range of issues — learning disabilities, anxiety and more — in this six-month on-the job training program. The program has grown to have between 12 and 16 graduates a year in recent years.

Obviously, this isn’t like baking at home, where amateurs turn the kitchen counter into a sticky mess and check on cookies in the oven during TV commercials. Paying customers want a product that excellent and consistent in every way.

On Wednesday, as the bakery was winding down before Thanksgiving, intern Mira Lottes, 24, was decorating menorah sugar cookies, carefully brushing the dough with egg whites and shaking sparkling sugar crystals on top to create rows of menorot with blue candles and golden flames.

She’s made cookies here before, but this is a first for Chanukah cookies. (Her mother is Jewish, but baking Chanukah cookies was not a tradition.)

“You really have to figure out where your shaker is on the cookie to get the right space on the cookie,” she says. She repeatedly wipes down her workspace to remove any stray sanding sugar. In a moment, the tray will join the others waiting to be baked.

Having a clean and organized workspace is part of preparing students for jobs where good habits and professionalism matter. Turning to Lottes, she commends the student’s attention to detail: “I see you are working clean.”

Lottes says the atmosphere and training style at Sunflower are helping her grow confident in her work, unlike the embarrassment she recalled as a youngster in school. “Here, they understand. Here, they help you,” she says.

“It’s actually teaching me what to expect in the kitchen,” she says.

Next to her, Gladys Martinez, 21, brushes and sprinkles her menorah cookies.

“A lot of the recipes I would learn one on one,” she says, explaining that she worked side by side with a chef. It was a good way to learn due to her dyslexia, she says. A summer graduate of the program, she has been employed here to help meet seasonal demands for baked goods.

In addition to baking, students learn time management, grooming and work flow, and obtain “ServSafe” food handler certification, to make them competitive candidates for jobs – and nearly all are hired within six months of graduating.

“Chanukah isn’t a big baking holiday,” Milner says. Not like for Thanksgiving, for which they made 781 pies. Or Rosh Hashanah, when hundreds of apple, honey and other cakes, plus cookies rolled out of the ovens. Or Purim, when they made 30,000 hamantashen.

Sunflower has a sister program geared toward customer service; it operates through Café Sunflower, located in the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington building in Rockville. While both programs are for people age 18 and older, for high school-age students there is an “exposure” program for pastry arts at the bakery and an internship program at the café.

Plans for the move call for expanding the skills taught to fill two kinds of requests: One, for adding students with other disabilities, and the other, for accommodating would-be customers elsewhere.

Milner says Sunflower plans to add bread making — challah and other breads. And it hopes to extend its reach by shipping its products.

Some people “do not have the fine motor skills” that making and decorating cakes, cookies and pastries demand. “We can expand to those people as well. That’s the packing and shipping and the bread making,” she says.

Martinez says she learned something else: Before coming to Sunflower, she knew the words dreidel and menorah but “I never really equated it to the image.”

Now, after using cookie cutters and creating brightly colored Chanukah treats, she’s learned the shapes and the holiday’s sparkle.

Adds Lottes, “If you ever have questions about Jewish heritage, ask me.”

Andrea F. Siegel is a Washington-area writer.

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