Mirachelle Anselmo is a chemist by training but a food scientist by temperament.
As an undergraduate student at North Central College in Naperville, she conducted research on the Maillard reaction — the scientific name for the browning of food — to see if different kinds of sugars formed different products post-reaction. While working toward her master’s degree in organometallic chemistry at DePaul University, she helped customers at Floriole, a patisserie in Lincoln Park.
When Chicago went into lockdown during the spring of 2020, Anselmo, like many others, began baking more at home. She began with simpler experiments: sourdough starter and banana bread. “The typical pandemic starter kit,” she said.
She progressed to braided chocolate babka and other enriched-dough pastries, and started selling her baked goods at local fundraisers. Eventually, Anselmo set her sights on what food writer and chef Claire Saffitz declared “the highest achievement in all of pastrydom”: the French croissant — with a nod to her own Filipino roots.
On a warm, sticky day in June 2021, Anselmo made her first batch of ube croissants.
“It was an absolute fever dream to think I could develop an ube croissant, filled with ube halaya,” she posted on Instagram, alongside a photo of a marbled cream-and-purple croissant. “That dream has now become reality, and that reality tastes really good.”
Developing the recipe took months of painstaking trial and error, not to mention dozens of disappointing batches. Now, almost two years later, she has built up a following that anticipates her vibrant purple pastries with the same eagerness you might expect from sneakerheads waiting for a limited-edition shoe drop.
Anselmo’s croissants — with ube, a purple yam common in the Philippines, incorporated into the dough itself — are striking in color and shape, with their modern, slashed tops. They also highlight ube in multiple forms. In the latest iteration, Anselmo mixes powdered ube with confectioner’s sugar to dust. Ube (pronounced OOO-beh) also stars in the homemade ube halaya — a jammy violet spread typically made with grated ube, three kinds of milk (coconut, condensed and evaporated), butter, sugar and salt — at the center of each croissant.
Even though ready-made ube halaya is relatively easy to find at Asian grocery stores, Anselmo makes her own as a way to explore her first-generation Filipino immigrant identity.
“I just wanted to experience it,” she said. “Cooking and baking all these Filipino foods is another way for me to connect with the culture that has been so far away from me since I’ve grown up.”
The ube-infused dough, however, was the major breakthrough.
“In early 2021, I [didn’t] know if the ube extract was going to mess with the gluten formation,” she said.
She first tested adding ube extract to the sheet of butter that gets folded into the dough. But she noticed that incorporating the extract into the butter made her lamination process more difficult.
“Your butter layer has to be pliable, not squishy,” Anselmo said. “Adding [ube] extract, you’re adding basically like an extra oil to the butter layer. It gets squishier, and it’s hard for it to cool down and harden.”
Adding the extract to the dough itself produced better, more consistent results.
Anselmo’s chemistry background influences her baking style — but not in the way one might expect. She uses a kitchen scale to weigh out ingredients now, but she jokes that if a seasoned baker had seen her old process, they would have been absolutely baffled.
“Baking is all about precision,” Anselmo laughed. “But up until this month, I was definitely true to my background and baking like a synthetic inorganic chemist because all of my measures were eyeballed.”
While organic and analytical chemists are extremely precise when they create chemical compounds, Anselmo said inorganic chemists like herself sometimes have a little more flexibility — and that translated into her initially using measuring cups as rough guides, not rules.
“You’ll want to calculate your reaction to the ten-thousandth place, or four decimal points, but sometimes you can’t get that exact. It’s like, let’s just get it in the ballpark of this amount,” she said.
“Everything was according to feel; does this dough feel right?” said Anselmo. “And now baking according to weight, well, I can guarantee you that it’ll feel right if I just weigh everything out.”Several months after she baked her first batch of ube croissants, she launched her brand “ate pastries” and started announcing her pastry drops on Instagram under the account name @atemadethat. “Ate” (pronounced AH-teh), means older sister in Tagalog, which Anselmo is in her family.
“My whole family calls me Ate,” she said. “I honestly feel like I’m everyone’s big sister trying to feed them.”
And for non-Filipinos who might read the word as the past tense of “eat,” Anselmo explained, the name of her home bakery is a learning opportunity.
“It’s just inserting another Filipino word into the Chicago food vernacular,” she said. “I want there to be a conversation, kind of like [with] Kasama” — the Michelin-starred Filipino restaurant in Ukrainian Village that made the Tagalog word for “to be included” a household name.
Despite the pandemic’s impact on the city’s restaurant industry, the Filipino food scene is thriving, and for Anselmo, the burgeoning interest in her country’s cuisine mirrors her own journey reconnecting with her culture.
“I was born in the Philippines, and then [my family] quickly assimilated to American culture,” she said. “The only way I could get in touch with my Filipino culture was through food.”
Anselmo incorporates Filipino flavors like ube and buko pandan — an electric green dessert made with young coconut, pandan leaves and sago, a gelatin-like starch — in her baked goods, as well as more traditionally French varieties like chocolate and plain butter. And that’s intentional: She wants to expose more people to Filipino flavors in pastries so they remain exciting but are no longer a novelty.
“I want Filipino food to be as common as [tacos],” she said. “I’m not saying it’s gonna be me, [but] I want that to happen.”
Anselmo sells her ube croissants and other pastries — buko pandan caramel buns and pain au chocolat — at Four Letter Word Coffee, a cafe in Logan Square. Co-owner Ria Neri started a pastry program with microbakers during the pandemic when her wholesale supplier closed down.
“We stayed open, but as a coffee shop, we still needed pastries,” Neri said.
She got in touch with a pastry chef she knew was out of work and asked if that chef would be willing to bake for Four Letter Word. Over time, that one connection grew into a daily pop-up rotation featuring local microbakers like Anselmo.
Anselmo delivers two to three dozen pastries to Neri’s coffee shop, and the customer response has been enthusiastic.
“When it’s her day, [we] always sell out,” said Neri. “[We] sell out by 10:30 a.m. or sometimes 9:30 a.m. — and we open at 8 a.m.”
Inflation has increased the cost of ingredients like European-style butter and, consequently, the price of microbaker pastries, but Neri said the cafe’s customers continue to support Anselmo and other home pastry chefs.
“People are willing to spend a little bit more on something that is unique and good. A lot of heart goes into [the pastries],” Neri said. “I mean, with Mira, it’s really a labor of love.”
Snag an ube croissant for $6.50 at Four Letter Word Coffee at 3022 W. Diversey Ave. in Logan Square on Fridays, Saturdays and every other Tuesday from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. — if you’re lucky.
Charmaine Runes is WBEZ’s data/visuals reporter. Follow her @maerunes.