At the end of the first dinner party I attended in Hollister, about 10 years ago, shortly after moving to San Juan Bautista, the host brought out a beautiful cake and just said “Heavenly Bakery,” as if it were a rare and special treat.
I don’t recall the cake, but I remember it was very good. I became a regular customer, not so much for the cakes but for the fruit pastries and the many varieties of bread, particularly the croissants.
Heavenly Bakery was opened in 2010 by Sheila and Bob Stevens, who owned Knife & Fork Cafe on San Benito Street (now closed). Their motive was purely selfish—they wanted to keep baker Carlos Hernandez close by so he could keep supplying them with his bread.
“I was working as a pastry chef at a restaurant called The City House, where the Grove is now on Highway 156,” he said. “I was also baking bread for Sheila and Bob, and when the restaurant closed, I told them they better stock up on hotdog and hamburger buns because I was going to move somewhere else.”
The day after he made his announcement, Bob told him that he had seen a “for sale” sign up at a bakery on San Benito Street, near his restaurant, and he had just bought it for Hernandez.
“It had everything we needed to get started,” Hernandez said. “Many people knew me from The City House, but I did not know anything about downtown. But Sheila knew lots of people in town, and she spread the word to her customers, so it was a success right away.”
Hernandez, 41, grew up in Mexico and has been a baker all of his life. He learned to cook at an early age while helping his mother in the kitchen.
“She was not so much a baker,” he said, “but she showed me her recipes, and I helped make our regular meals. I learned enough to open a small cake shop when I turned 17. When I decided to try something bigger, I traveled to North Carolina and started working with pastry chefs, including some from France, who taught me more.”
His years of experience have made him a perfectionist in his baking, and he is always looking for improvement.
“I built the business with my recipes,” he said. “I work on them until they meet my taste and my idea of quality. I do not stop until I think it is the best, and only then will I start selling it.”
As anyone who has tried to bake can tell you, a level of technical artistry is needed to achieve the best results. For Hernandez, every day can be a new challenge for his talents.
“The secret to baking is that even if you use the same dough and the same recipe, things will change every time,” he said. “Everything affects the bake—like the humidity, the weather, it all changes. Proofing is very important; I think that’s one thing people do not do correctly. We let our bread proof all night long. You have to take everything into account, but when the planets align, the bake is going to be super good.”
The bread might be proofing all night long, but it will not be alone in the bakery. The production of each day’s goods always begins the night before.
“We have three bakers,” he said. The first one starts at 2 a.m and starts baking, the next one comes at 4 a.m. and starts making the bread, and then I come in at 5 a.m. and take over. We will finish with pastries at 7 a.m., just as the customers come in.”
While inflation has hit the bakery as hard as it has in food service everywhere, Hernandez is aware that many of his regular customers are seniors on fixed incomes and is trying hard not to raise prices.
“Some of our customers come in for breakfast, and then they are back for lunch,” he said. “Lately, maybe you don’t see some of them back again that day because they can’t afford it. So you have to take care of your customers—that’s what keeps us going. Honestly, the love the community has shown for us, even during the pandemic, makes me feel comfortable, like I belong to Hollister.”
Since I am a regular customer of the shop, I asked Hernandez to select things for us to try that I usually do not buy when I come in.
I usually get apricot or apple turnovers, which have a generous amount of fruit wrapped in lightly browned and iced dough. They are great warm or cold and remind me of the ones my grandmother from Ohio used to make for us kids.
If they have croissants—which sell out fast—I usually grab a couple of those, too. I use them for warmed chicken sandwiches, and the bread holds up nicely to re-heating, maintaining a nice crispness in the crust.
And if I need an extra reward, I will add their flat buttery oatmeal cookies, which have an outstanding balance of chew and crunch.
With that in mind, Hernandez selected a few other treats, leaning heavily on his stellar assortment of cupcakes.
The Desserts of Heavenly Bakery
Strawberry Cupcake – The first cupcake we tasted was pure strawberry, from the cake to the strawberry mousse frosting to the slice of fruit on top. While the cupcake itself is perfectly moist and packed with flavor, the star here is the frosting. As is the case with all of the cupcakes I tried, there is restraint in the use of sugar in the mousse, making this taste more like a strawberry milkshake than frosting and keeping the flavors from being overwhelmed by the sweetness.
Italian Rum Cupcake – If asked, I would have called this Tiramisu because it has all of the same flavor notes. The cake is soaked in a coffee-rum mixture and topped with a hazelnut-vanilla mousse and white chocolate-mocha pearls. It is elegant and refined in a way you don’t expect from a cupcake, both in flavor and presentation. These would be a knock-out addition to dinner parties as a light dessert.
Chocolate Mousse Cupcake – I am at a bit of a loss on this one because my recorded tasting notes for it are just me saying, “oh, that’s good,” over and over again. But it is not a cupcake you will forget; the chocolate cake, chocolate mousse, and chocolate ganache are all made from scratch and light as a feather. It is like eating a creamy chocolate bar with distinct chocolate flavors harmoniously blended together. Delightful.
Carrot Cake Cupcake – I love carrot cake but, being allergic to nuts, can rarely find it without walnuts. This is a nut-free version, and it is absolutely delicious. Chewy, dense, and moist with a great texture, combined with the cream cheese frosting, and cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg spiciness, you have a perfect bite of carrot cake. This recipe, according to Hernandez, took 10 years to perfect, but he has created a wonderfully complex comfort food cupcake here. This is the one I would recommend as a great introduction to the shop.
Lemon Drop Cupcake – With the lemon cupcake topped with lemon frosting and filled with lemon curd, the three different tones of lemon bring a bright, fresh flavor that is like the fruit picked straight off a tree or solid lemonade. This one grabs your attention from the first bite and only improves as you hit the lemon curd. If I were to use one word for the goodies I tried in this tasting, it would be “balance:” Hernandez wants you to taste every ingredient’s flavor. The sweetness and sourness here are carefully restrained, which lets all the flavors come through without one overwhelming the other.
Cinnamon Cronut – Croissant dough that has been formed, flattened into a disk, baked, and covered in cinnamon and sugar. They are much lighter than a cinnamon roll, with all the flakiness of a croissant. These warm up very well but are fine straight out of the display case. Warmed or not, this would be nice with some hot cocoa to dip it into.
Fudge Brownie – Where the chocolate mousse cupcake was restrained, this is as straight-up chocolate as you can get. Crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside, the thin brownie is drenched with chocolate ganache, with a white chocolate swirl on top. Very rich and very sweet, this practically begs to be savored with a cold glass of milk. If you like chocolate, start with this one!
BenitoLink thanks our underwriters, Hollister Super and Windmill Market, for helping to expand the Eat, Drink, Savor series and give our readers the stories that interest them. Hollister Super (two stores in Hollister) and Windmill Market (in San Juan Bautista) support reporting on the inspired and creative people behind the many delicious food and drink products made in San Benito County. All editorial decisions are made by BenitoLink.