Judith Norell is one of those extraordinary people who prove that anything is possible with the right amount of passion and hard work. When she was sixty years old, she retired from her life as a concert harpsichordist. Instead of using her retirement as an excuse to pick up new hobbies and spend her days in leisure, Judith decided to pursue arguably one of the most time-consuming careers - baking.
Judith had always enjoyed baking. As a little girl, she would watch her mother bake bread and relish the pieces of dough her mother handed her just for play. Judith used baking as a way to create balance in her otherwise musical life. Whenever she could find time apart from performing, traveling, and conducting, Judith would make breads and pastries. "Music is very ephemeral," she told me. "Most musicians love working with their hands." Whether it is baking, or pottery (Judith's daughter, a concert violinist, is also a ceramicist), those with careers in music choose to embrace hobbies and arts that leave them with something a little more permanent than songs and symphonies.
Making the shift from being a musician to baking was not smooth sailing. After working as an apprentice at Amy's Bread, Judith discovered that it was difficult to find a job. People questioned her ability to lift a flour sack due to her age and gender. Judith then turned her sights towards France, a country that she calls, "The home of great bread." She studied with Gerard Mulot, allowing her knowledge of baking to grow. She admired the French practices: "The French bakers actually know the farmers from whom they buy the wheat," she explained, adding that it is difficult to operate bakeries like that in the United States due to the number of independent farmers and the expense.
Upon Judith's return to the United States, she worked at Le Pain Quotidien for a short time before discovering a "For Rent" sign on a property across the street from her apartment. She befriended the landlord, Georgia Stamoulis, who ultimately became her partner, and opened Silver Moon Bakery in 2000. The name, Judith informed me, comes from her experience as a long-time meditator. In Buddhism, Buddha is referred to as "the silent moon in the sky, illuminating everything." Family and friends suggested that "Silent Moon" might not be the best fit, especially since the bakery would not be very silent, given Judith's desire to play classical music over the speakers, and so she decided to christen her new bakery "Silver Moon."
Silver Moon was the "first upscale commercial establishment in the area," a fact that Judith has mixed feelings about. She realizes that she was at the start of a trend, which ultimately saw a lot of the local cafes and stores getting priced out. Ultimately, she recognizes that neighborhoods change, and she is happy to provide a community center for those living nearby. "I know a lot of the people," she pointed out. "It's my home."
As for the items that Judith bakes, most of her ideas come straight from "her imagination." She is delighted to have discovered a new pastry or a new combination of flavors. Judith is always concocting new ideas for things to try in her oven, but not before doing a bit of research. For instance, she started baking her famous "Bath Buns" after reading about the treats in works by Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. She learned that they were sweet breads with caraway seeds and confit on top. The result was a bun that was crunchy with a slightly sweet top. She is also well known for her chocolate orange baguettes and her corkscrew sourdoughs. "I love sourdoughs," she revealed, before enlightening me on their history and that humans have been making sourdough for a thousand years ??? "And they feel healthy and nourishing."
When I visited Silver Moon Bakery in the summer of 2016, I felt like I was stepping into a special city oasis. Both the outdoor sounds and extreme heat disappeared as I entered the cool, calming shop. I met Jennifer, a staff member, who showed me the rows and rows of pastries and breads. "It's just a happy place to be and work," she stated, and the other employees smiled in agreement. She is proud that "everything is done here," which is impressive, considering that mixing dough is a 24-hour process.
In addition to baked goods, Silver Moon offers a selection of smoothies, and a menu of vegetarian sandwiches. Judith generously packaged up some pastries for the Manhattan Sideways team, including a chocolate chip brioche (with chocolate generously spilling out of the sides), a cinnamon brioche, and a pommier (in Jennifer's words, "so simple, so buttery"). Each item was more scrumptious than the next.