Out of

The Bedroom Baker

by Maia Puyat

Photos courtesy of Ellie Estrada.

How Chef Ellie Estrada created some of the year’s most sought-after pastries from her childhood room.

W hen she shifted Hello Stranger from a degustacion-style supper club into a bakery during the pandemic, Chef Ellie Estrada started out sharing a kitchen space with her brother, who also runs a food business selling frozen gyoza. “I’m only gonna get a handful of orders every week and it’s gonna be chill and I can go back to all my other hobbies,” she thought at first. But as her bombolonis, cookies, sourdough and brioche breads quickly ascended into unexpected levels of hype, the half kitchen space she was using ceased to be enough. So, she decided to move upstairs. “I cleared out my desk where I used to work in highschool. I cleared out the computer, all the textbooks, the bench, and I made it into a bread making space.”

A long wooden desk lines the marigold yellow walls of her room. On the shelves, rows of ingredient containers and kitchen tools—her mise en place—have found their new home. “I kind of found a way to turn this whole unused part of my room into where I, now, make all of the bread, all of the pastries. Everything happens in that space now.”

Stationed at the corner of her childhood bedroom, Chef Ellie has been able to create things inspired by the things she loves and excites her. In fact, for her Valentine’s menu, she created her own version of Mendl’s signature cream puff tower from The Grand Budapest Hotel. Hello Stranger’s version is larger—gigantic, even—covered with melted chocolate, and garnished with flowers and nuts. This was a fun partnership with her brother, as they once had a small cream puff business called Soft Peaks. “We were brainstorming and we were like, what are some films that turn on your cravings for pastries, specifically? And my brother answered in a heartbeat, ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel.’” She described the iconic escape scene where the prison guard opened the Mendl’s box and paused when he opened the bakery’s blush pink box. He took in the beauty of the pastries and thought that they were too beautiful to destroy. “[My brother] was like, it would be really cool if we could replicate something to that degree.”

The Grand Budapest Hotel-inspired cream puff by Hello Stranger.

Apart from the delicate beauty of the pastries, she landed on The Grand Budapest Hotel because it evokes a similar feeling to what she wants to achieve with her food. “The mission-vision of Hello Stranger has always aimed to be something to look forward to,” she explained. She wants her pastries to be a 30-second relief from a long day on Zoom. A time for her customers to focus only on pouring chocolate on top of the cream puff. “Little things that trigger mundane excitement but, at the same time, that’s all we’ve got right now.”

Another otherworldly creation was her red velvet cake inspired by the movie Midsommar. “I love that it’s a horror film,” she says. “A lot of heinous things are going on the entire time but it’s such a beautiful setting. You’re in the middle of this beautiful nordic summer in peak summer months so there are flowers everywhere and they’re trying to entice you with their alternative way of life.” Midsommar stars Florence Pugh as Dani, an unbeknownst American traveler who suddenly finds herself at the center of a bloodbath splashed against warm-colored flowers in full bloom. Chef Ellie’s red velvet cake is similarly adorned with flowers, and an ode to what “real” velvet cake should be like. “It’s supposed to be flavored with beets, chocolate, different types of wine vinegars and spices. There’s a lot of things that are supposed to go into red velvet cake and that’s what makes them so special.” She likened it to a really good carrot cake, which mixes in fine slices of carrots into the batter. “We ended up just using powder which added just enough mild beet flavor. It was a fun cake and I loved that it paid tribute to one of my favorite movies.”

Hello Stranger’s red velvet cake inspired by Midsommar.

To Chef Ellie, her creative process is a mix of what she wants to eat and what her customers are telling her they want to eat. Take her bomboloni, one of her best-selling products. When asked how it came about, she said she made it simply because she was craving it. “I start off asking myself: what do I wanna eat? What do my peers wanna eat? How can I translate that into something a little different and kind of twisted in a way that makes you excited about something you eat pretty regularly,” she says.

“I know people are hoping that I’ll copy a recipe from a San Francisco bakery and it’s like, yeah I could do that, but at the same time this is good too. Try it, and if I make this and you guys like it then this is something that was born here. It’s ours. It’s not just a copycat thing.”

She constantly rotates the menu on Hello Stranger, keeping only a select few best sellers staple. Since she personally manages the Instagram account, she is more attuned to everything her customers are saying. If two or more of them ask for one specific item, she’ll bring that back next week. Or she’ll experiment with a new version that goes into the flash sale. “There are other things I’m itching to try, so I think of other experiments, and that mostly has to do with ingredients that are available. I think about what I can get at its absolute peak quality at this moment right now.”

Hello Stranger’s best-selling bombolonis. (There’s some doughnuts too.)

The Fleur de Liz Pappardelle is Chef Ellie’s signature dish, a pasta entree delicately adorned with small flowers. While the pattern appears random, the process is meticulously calculated. Each flower is cut and placed precisely to create the illusion of randomness—that somehow, it just serendipitously ended up a beautiful bouquet on the dough. “That’s the goal, always, to make you feel like nature made it.” The Riccio di Mare, another pastra creation, also follows this thinking of her wanting people to “see” nature. Since it’s a ravioli dish with uni ricotta with an egg yolk in its center, she wanted to mimic the aesthetic of a sea urchin. “I couldn’t make it just all black because that’s kind of boring. But then when you think about sea urchins, like when you crack them open out of the ocean, it’s like such a wild contrast of jet black and bright gold yellow. So I felt like, how can I kind of express that?” In the end, she created a black-and-yellow marbled ravioli.

As much as her dishes are celebrated for its presentation, for Chef Ellie, flavor is still and always the priority. Like how the Riccio di Mare came to be, her marbled brioche Rorschach bread had gone through a similar journey of flavor first and then design after. “I thought using hibiscus would be really interesting and I wanted to make that the center, but when it didn’t really work out the first time, you start itemizing the why’s.” Hibiscus, which is typically used in teas, starts to take a more acidic form once it’s baked at higher temperatures. As she worked the hibiscus into the dough, she felt the acid start to break down the butter. “It’s a lot of cause and effect. The artistry part and the working with colors, these are kind of happy accidents once you write down your observations, you start to see a pattern. Once you understand how the ingredients work, then the actual artistry starts to come in because you start to know which reaction you’re doing.”

Hello Stranger’s Riccio di Mari with uni ricotta and egg yolk.

Chef Ellie has gone through three notebooks since starting Hello Stranger. The pages are all filled with her experiments, untried recipes, and a daily log of her sourdough experiences. She likened her sourdough log to a journal. “ All of these elements you never really considered before suddenly become big players in what will make your bread wonderful.” Sourdough is a surprisingly sensitive type of bread. It is largely affected by the temperature and weather that it’s baked in. So much so that many bakers even think baking sourdough in a tropical climate is setting yourself up for failure. But Chef Ellie rose to the challenge. Every time she baked, she noted down whether it was a cloudy day, if it was humid, and if there were any temperature changes. That way, it became easier for her to single out specific variables that affected her bread.

This practice came in handy when she started to uncover some of the “untold secrets of the food world.” When she was experimenting with adding sourdough to flaky pastries, she discovered that it wasn’t as simple as adding starter to your dough. “They never mention this in any of the books I’ve read or in any of my research, I had to ask someone else.” She often reached out to other bakers and “bread pros” with more baking experience she’s met in the Bay Area for advice. “Italians have their own secret version of their starter that I’ve never heard of in my life but when I started asking more pro bakers about it abroad, then they all mentioned this elusive pasta madre, which is this dry sourdough ball.”

The discoveries did not end there. She’s always wanted to create dry pasta—the ones that come in the perfect shell shapes. That process is called extruding, and it actually uses a different type of dough. It’s a drier kind that doesn’t become mush when it goes through the extruder machine that shapes it and cuts it up. “It’s the kind of dough that you probably couldn’t make by hand,” she said. Many of the home cooks on Tiktok or YouTube that attempt to make it at home use egg pasta dough, which results in a really wet dough seeping through the extruder, like play doh running through toy soft serve machines. “You need an extruder and you need somebody who makes that type of pasta dough. It’s one of those industry secrets where digging on the Internet is not gonna be enough. It’s one of those things where you need to find a gatekeeper who knows what they’re talking about and just beg them to help you.”

Chef Ellie’s childhood bedroom turned makeshift kitchen.

Despite all her recent success, Chef Ellie remains humble. That’s why she’s never afraid to ask for help and often finds herself doubting whether her success is real. “There are times where you second guess yourself like - is it just because of the hype train? I do have those thoughts that makes me feel like maybe it’s just okay, maybe it’s just fine, and this is all just hype that will eventually die down. Then other times you have a second and I pop a donut in my mouth and it’s like, no, it’s pretty good, I like it.” In fact, she is more afraid of letting her customers down than she is of getting a recipe wrong. “I get a really negative kick from letting anybody down.” The most heartbreaking thing for her is seeing the messages of customers that missed out. Flurries of “how did I miss it,” and “why did it sell out so quickly.” Rhetorical questions that Chef Ellie wishes she had answers to. “It’s effort and you just feel bad that people exerted this much effort to try your product but you just don’t have enough.” Her hiatus, now, is to try and actually address that problem. And the first step is moving out of her bedroom.

While having a bedroom bread lab is a nice gimmick, it’s become more of a hassle than a strength. The lack of space and kitchen tiles has put an unnecessary amount of pressure on her - wooden floors are a lot harder to clean whenever she spills. More than anything, having to babysit her work in a space originally meant for rest has blurred the lines of her life entirely. “I think I’ll be the first to admit that there really isn’t much of a balance at this point. I do have two days off a week but those two days are also spent working.” She spends Zoom dates with her boyfriend folding boxes and can’t bring snacks into her room. Her dog had to move out, too. “I think that’s when it dawned on me that I need to take a hiatus, hire people, and have a space, because, if not, no one else is gonna care enough to do it. I’m gonna end up resenting it, which I don’t wanna do. I still wanna like cooking and I wanna still love my customers.”

She also wants to return to what her business was at the beginning: making course menus inspired by her customers. “Now, we’re just kind of exploring different avenues to how I can make both happen for myself. What it’s looking like is that the bakery will probably fund the restaurant in the future, which is totally fine with me. I really do enjoy baking.” Despite the sheer chaos that had come with being a one-man bread baking army, Chef Ellie is going to miss this era of Hello Stranger. It’s one that she’s grown to love. “Even if I’ve done these recipes hundreds of times at this point because of the bakery, I still really enjoy the work.” She loves that the people are as excited about her bombolonis as she is because making these filled donuts had become her escape. “It’s how I move forward. It’s how I cope with everything that’s going on in the world.” And that is what she wants for her customers, too.︎

Maia Puyat is the creative director for Type A Coffee and a freelance writer..