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Let them eat cake at The Baker's Joint

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When Johnson & Wales opened in 2004, the assumed expectation among many was the creation of myriad restaurants throughout the states by throngs of culinary grads. But what was overlooked then was the real possibility that baking and pastry grads would look around Charlotte and see opportunity.

That's what Cleveland native Rochelle Courey thought when she graduated from Johnson & Wales University in 2008, just before the economy tanked. The opportunity here in North Carolina seemed more promising than Ohio, especially since this area lacked neighborhood bakeries. Armed with degrees in Baking and Pastry Arts, and Food Service Management, the 25-year-old Courey opened The Baker's Joint: Café, Bakery, Cakery, a charming bake shop in Cornelius, last March. Store manager Rene Piechnik is also a J&W pastry chef grad.

Without street signage, this wonderfully auspicious bakery is almost hidden from view by the overwhelming feeling that this shopping center — Jetton Village — is vacant. But don't be fooled by the deserted parking lots. Once inside the bakeshop door, a magical atmosphere will engulf you and a terrifically friendly all-woman team will enthusiastically guide your selections.

Pastries of extreme goodness line the shelves of the glass display cases. Croissants, properly flakey and entirely satisfying, are bested only by their stuffed siblings — the first-rate almond and the pain du chocolat. Although Courey has yet to add bread to her lengthy roster, she has a strong list of expected pastry items: gingersnap, and peaches and cream scones; muffins; buttermilk and sweet potato biscuits; cornbread; and sticky buns.

On other shelves are cupcakes, brownies, cookies and tiramisu. But mixed among the traditional offerings are the exceptional nods to Courey's ethnic heritage. Her father is of Lebanese decent, her mother is Hungarian, and her hometown of Cleveland has strong Polish roots.

Thus, potato, potato and cheese, and sauerkraut pierogies are available daily. Lady Locks — a Hungarian cream horn — and a Hungarian walnut or cream roll are also here. This nut roll is made with a European sensibility of sweetness — not a cloyingly saccharine Americanized version. Courey offers more than baklava (which is also made here). She makes the labor-intensive ma'amoul, Lebanese shortbread pastries filled with dates and walnuts. These pastries are eaten throughout the Middle East, including Israel, typically on holidays such as Easter, Ramadan and Rosh Hashanah. Courey will soon offer her own creation of an apricot and non-nut ma'amoul for those with nut allergies. Additionally, the bakery makes gluten-free and sugar-free items.

The Lebanese spinach and meat pies, or fatayer, at lunch are similar to Greek spanakopita and kreatopita. (Note: Throughout Greece, especially at its famous fast food Everest, spinach and meat pies are made with bread dough, not phyllo.) Here, the warm bread coalesces neatly around the interior of ground beef or savory spinach. Also at lunch, the bakery has slices of focaccia pizza, four-inch tarts, hummus, tabbouleh, salads, and chicken and tuna salad croissant sandwiches. With Courey's 10-year cake decorating experience, cakes are a strong suit. Baklava cheesecake has a spot on the menu, too.

What more could you ask for, except a second store in Charlotte, perhaps? The Baker's Joint is, in every sense, a real find.