Our kitchen in Boulder, Colorado, sits quietly among the foothills of the Front Range, far from a main road. We don’t have a big sign that shows people where to find us; as a matter of fact, we don’t have any sign at all. You need to enter a security code to get inside in the morning, and set it again when you leave at night. Some people might find this unusual, having to bake under security cameras that watch you 24/7, and, truthfully, at first it was a bit strange for all of us in the kitchen. But now we don’t even think about it.
I’m Karin Lazarus, founder of Sweet Mary Jane Bakery. I’ve been baking since I was eight, when my mom gave me a Sunbeam Mixmaster and a Betty Crocker cookbook. My mother kept our family’s pantry stocked with all the goodies Hostess had to offer, plus what she herself baked. We ate sweet treats all the time: homemade chocolate pudding with toasted walnuts and a dollop of freshly whipped cream, Linzer cookies filled with raspberry preserves and dusted with powdered sugar, icebox cookie cake, and chocolate chip cookies baked at the drop of a hat, just because. She’d even top homemade waffles with a big scoop of vanilla ice cream and pure maple syrup. That got me out of bed in the morning! I had the biggest sweet tooth in the universe, and my mom made sure I could satisfy it. But even back then, I wanted to make things on my own.
After baking my very first batch of chocolate chip cookies, my family’s oohs and ahhs were such a thrill. Oh, I was hooked. I was a Girl Scout, and of course I sold Girl Scout cookies, but as I was delivering boxes to the neighbors, I fantasized about having made the cookies myself. In the summertime, while other kids set up lemonade stands, I opened a cookie stand. Baking, I saw, was not only fun but profitable. Best of all, it made people happy.
That’s what I’ve aimed to do ever since.
In high school, I baked for head shops in New York City—you know, those funky little stores that sell hippie clothing, incense and perfume (patchouli!), and drug paraphernalia. Way back then, it was uninfused goodies, things like rose petal sweet bread, banana bread, peach bread, and assorted cookies and brownies. I doubt I made enough money to cover the ingredients, but I didn’t care; I loved doing it. I baked all through college, too, for family gatherings and also for friends. Nobody I knew ever went without a birthday cake. I made delicious treats for when the munchies struck, and took special requests for party desserts. I was thrilled that people wanted me to bake for them.
I married after graduation, and moved to New York with my husband, Charley. My degree was in photography and I immediately found work as an artists’ representative. Although I enjoyed the job (and it certainly paid the bills), it wasn’t something I felt passionate about. I wanted a business of my own, and I knew it had to revolve around cooking. So I signed up for catering classes in Chelsea. This covered both cooking and the business end of things, and it was great fun. Living in the city, I was surrounded by wonderful restaurants and—especially important, given my sweet tooth!—bakeries: Dean & DeLuca, Vesuvio Italian Bakery, The Silver Palate, Chelsea Market. There was a tiny Italian place across from our apartment on Sullivan Street, and I used to walk over and get the best biscotti before heading to work. During Lent, they made hot cross buns and sold them toasty warm and slathered with fresh, creamy butter, and there were lines of happy customers out the door. Owning a bakery, I thought, must be the best thing in the world.
A few years later, my husband and I moved to Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. White sand, hot sun, the beautiful sea. Charley worked as a builder while I kept busy with private catering jobs, parties for locals and for the tourists who come to the Caribbean to sail. Once our daughter, Lucienne, was born, however, we decided that it was time to return to reality—we wanted to raise her in the States. We lived again for a while in New York, then moved to Boulder, Colorado, and after some years, I found myself a single mom. This coincided with a faltering economy. Work was hard to come by. I wrote and tested recipes for a healthy lifestyle magazine, which I loved doing, although the pay was modest and it was difficult to make ends meet. Then I met a wonderful food stylist who taught me the tricks of that trade, but here in Boulder there is not much call for that sort of work. Also, I wanted to be baking and having people eat the food, not just making it look beautiful while rendering it inedible with styling tricks. So while these jobs kept me afloat and provided valuable experience, I was still dreaming my bakery dream.
• • •
Making confections is an art form. Every aspect of the process requires creative attention, from deciding what to bake to the final product. I love sifting flour, creaming together butter and sugar, adding in fragrant extracts and a pinch of salt. I love the comforting scents that fill the kitchen, and the thrill of coming up with clever garnishes. I especially love that magical moment when you pull a baking sheet from the oven and know that what you’ve made is absolutely perfect.
I am forever dreaming up new creations. Inspiration is everywhere. It might be a new ingredient I’ve just seen in a store or online (Himalayan pink salt!), or a particular combination of flavors that I’ve never tried, like caramel corn, blueberries, ice cream, and peanut butter. Retro desserts inspired confections like our Carrot Cake Cookies, while more modern tastes led me down the road to Chai High Truffles. The change of seasons is always a fine time for discovering and celebrating new tastes. I look for comfort in winter, brightness for spring. Summer is for cool and refreshing sensations. Warming flavors make fall feel festive.
Our day in the kitchen begins early. We check orders, preheat the ovens, melt chocolates, and bring butter and eggs to room temperature. Everything is measured, ready to go before the baking process begins; this is known as mise en place. Proper mise en place ensures that all your equipment and ingredients are on hand the second they are needed in a recipe, and also ensures that you won’t forget to add an ingredient. The brownies are in the oven, baking away, the sweet scent of chocolate filling the air, and then you get a sinking feeling that you may have forgotten to add the sugar. . . . We’ve all been there.
Once preparations have been properly made, we bake. We make frostings and dip confections. We package and label. Signature desserts, such as our award-winning OMG! Brownie Cheesecake Bars and Key Lime Kickers, are always on the order board.
At the end of the day, we lock up just like any other business. But at night, an armed security guard watches out for the treasures inside our door. Because we are not just any old bakery: Sweet Mary Jane is a medical marijuana bakery.
• • •
The idea of opening a marijuana bakery snuck up on me so quietly I can’t say exactly when and how it took hold. In the mid-2000s, Weeds, a series about a widowed suburban mom who sold marijuana to survive, became a sensation on cable TV. I read an article about the health benefits of cannabis, watched a few news reports on medical marijuana dispensaries in California. Although I hadn’t used marijuana in years, I became intrigued with the idea that this plant could improve lives. I’d known since high school, of course, that cannabis could be baked into treats—remember the pot brownies in I Love You, Alice B. Toklas? But now, for the first time, I thought about starting a business that combined medical marijuana with my love of baking.
I knew that Colorado’s Amendment 20, passed in 2002, allowed for legal possession of marijuana for medical purposes, but the amounts permitted were small—no more than two ounces—and the amendment applied only to qualifying patients or caregivers. In 2007, a Colorado judge had overturned the required five-patients-to-one-caregiver ratio, opening the door to wider sales, but there was always a fear of prosecution, especially at the federal level. A theoretical problem, in my case, as I had no startup money.
Toward the end of 2009, with my daughter off at college, I traveled to Tortola for an extended visit. I was, at that time, in the habit of sending recipes in to cooking contests, and before I left, I entered my Chocolate-Filled Pandan Dumplings in TuttiFoodie—Scharffen Berger’s Chocolate Adventure Contest. Then I promptly forgot about it—winning a recipe contest is like winning the lottery: largely a fantasy. The following spring I learned that I’d won the $10,000 grand prize. I jumped for joy. (Seriously, I jumped, laughing and screaming, “I did it!” You can watch a video of the judge, Chef Elizabeth Falkner, making the recipe on my website, www.ilovesmj.com. It’s delicious, by the way.) Suddenly, I had startup money.
Meanwhile, the laws in Colorado had changed. With the passage of HB-1284 in 2010, commercial dispensaries, grow operations, and the manufacture of edibles became fully legal. What I’d always thought was a good idea now seemed like a great one.
From Tortola, I excitedly called dispensaries and spoke with owners. There have always been people selling, baking, and growing marijuana, but they mostly operated underground; you wouldn’t find them on a member list at the local Chamber of Commerce. I had so many questions for these intrepid souls. What kind of people used medical marijuana? What specific conditions did it help? And what was the best way to administer the drug? Everyone was friendly and supportive and said that I should come see them when I returned to the States. I got on a plane, thinking happily, Now I can start my bakery.
Back in Colorado, I read everything I could get my hands on about cannabis. I’d always been interested in fresh and healthy eating, but now this interest took on urgency. I learned about the specific healing properties of cannabinoids, how they match endocannabinoids, compounds produced naturally by our own bodies. Cannabinoids affect a range of human physiological processes; among other things, they help balance mood, alter the perception of pain, and can positively affect appetite and memory. (See Health Benefits from Cannabis; see also Appendix A for a handy chart, and Appendix B for a list of websites that provide further information.)
I applied for a Red Card. (Red Cards are issued by the Colorado Department of Health and Environment to residents over the age of eighteen, and are required to purchase medical marijuana.) Then I visited dispensaries. I hoped to learn as much as I could about the business, which was then in its infancy. I spoke with owners and met many patients. It was eye-opening, hearing how cannabis had changed their daily lives. In addition to smokable weed, most dispensaries stocked edibles: store-bought wafer cookies made into sandwich cookies with a homemade, infused-cream filling; chocolate brownies; lollipops and gummies. I knew there was a market. But without a solid industry history to examine, there were no proven formulas for how to run such an operation, no guidelines for how to bake properly with marijuana, or to grow.
I worked on a business plan for the bakery. This was loosely drawn at first and for my eyes only, but eventually I showed it around. My parents were supportive from the get-go. They lived in New York City, and at first couldn’t fathom that marijuana was legal in Colorado—they were worried that I might somehow be arrested; every time we spoke on the phone, they told me how proud they were of me for being brave. (My dad passed away in 2012, and I so wish he could have seen this book, and that I’m still not in jail!) My daughter, Lucienne, who was in her sophomore year at George Washington University, became my greatest support. Each time she returned to Colorado, she helped with ideas for the menu and names for products. (Once she graduated, she came back to Boulder for good, and she is now part of the family business.)
Early on, a handful of friends stood behind me. Others thought I was crazy. “You’re going to put all that prize money into . . . weed?!” The idea was challenging. And the more I investigated the nitty-gritty of the business, the more daunting it seemed. For one thing, opening a marijuana bakery meant dealing with government bureaucracies.
Obtaining a Marijuana Infused Products license is the first step to opening a bakery. The application requires proof of residence, and you must give verifiable addresses for the previous five years. You must provide a detailed financial history, including bank and credit card statements and tax returns, and state where the money to fund the business will come from. You must also disclose your arrest record, if you have one, and the details of any bankruptcy proceedings, and you must be fingerprinted. And before you do any of this, you must have already secured a location for your business, either buying or renting, and it must be legal to run a marijuana business out of this space. Then you must prove legal possession of the premises to the state, and give them a diagram of your space showing where everything—refrigerators, ovens, cabinets, and countertops—will go, including the cameras. Then there are the fees! And oh, by the way, be prepared, because the rules change all the time. Rules about labeling, state-mandated warnings and recommended doses, THC (the active ingredient in marijuana) levels, how many doses are in each product, how exactly it has been infused, and which plant the marijuana came from.
It was overwhelming—I was overwhelmed.
So I set aside the business plan for a while. I asked myself a question: Why did I want to open a marijuana bakery? To answer it, I followed my heart. I went back into the kitchen and baked.
• • •
Here I’d like to give a shout-out to those anonymous, adventurous souls who first realized we could bake brownies with weed. What a spectacular idea. Back in the good old days (or maybe they were the bad old days?), you’d choke down an overbaked brownie flecked with bits of something that tasted like lawn clippings. But I knew it was possible to create confections that would be like portals to our fondest memories. I didn’t want to make “stoner food.” I wanted to bake as I would for a regular bakery, making beautiful treats that tasted as good as they looked.
I started small, testing infusing processes and recipes in my own home kitchen and giving away the results to friends.
The first treat I made was a brownie called Walnut Fantasy. I’d been baking this brownie forever without weed, and knew it was delicious, so it was relatively simple to tweak the recipe and turn it into an infused treat. My taste-testers loved it. Next up was a brownie called Merciful, with four kinds of chocolate—semisweet, unsweetened, cocoa powder, and white chocolate. This was also a hit. From there, I moved off the brownie path, adding True Confections (a bite-size peanut-butter-and-pretzel confection wrapped in a cloak of semisweet chocolate—check out this) and Pop Star Caramel Corn (which is exactly as it sounds—see here). I was very lucky; not only were these early treats a success, but they remain some of our most popular items.
Some things didn’t work. I failed at making plain chocolates—I never could get the texture right (I’m going to keep trying!). Meringue cookies failed multiple times (though eventually I figured it out), and it took me forever to learn how to make truffles. At first I infused them with hash, but the flavor was all wrong.
I learned as I baked. The taste and color of cannabis can be overpowering. Who wants to eat a green cookie? (To be honest, some people like the flavor. I’m just not one of them.) Fruit, chocolate, coffee, peanut butter, and vanilla are all ingredients that mask the flavor of weed, but with infused butter or coconut oil, you will still taste the cannabis. That’s when I got the idea of infusing granulated white sugar. It changed everything. Infused sugar is magical, with barely a hint of weed in the finished product. This opened the door to further experiments, ways to bring in flavors and textures associated with the holidays, with the finale of a celebratory meal, with sneaking into the kitchen in the middle of the night for a delectable reward.
After testing so many recipes, my faith in the bakery dream was restored. It was finally time to look for kitchen space, which turned out to be no easy task. Imagine calling a landlord and asking if you can set up shop in his space selling weed. Landlords and real estate agents hung up on me when I told them what I was looking for. Then I met a fabulous real estate agent who not only used weed herself but was enthusiastic about the business. She found me the space I am in today. (Thank you, Cathy!)
I applied for and received licenses from both the state of Colorado and Boulder County, built out a small commercial kitchen, and installed a used home oven purchased at a thrift store for sixty dollars—it was only a few steps above my old Easy Bake Oven! In went stainless-steel tables and sinks, a freezer, and refrigerators from a restaurant supply company that sold used equipment.
All the while, I continued to create recipes. I baked and baked and baked. There is a meditative quality to baking in general, but with this kind of product I thought a lot about who might buy it and the medical conditions they would be hoping to treat. I thought about what flavors and ingredients would work well with weed. I made sure that the dosing was always correct. My goal from the beginning has been to produce baked goods that are healthful and beautiful, both to eat and to behold.
Once I had a good selection of products, I packaged up sample goodie bags and brought them to as many dispensaries as I could. I hoped the owners would try them, but nine times out of ten, the goodies disappeared before that could happen. (I wonder where they went?) So I’d start all over again, persisting, until eventually the goods reached the right people. All our baked items are infused with a hefty dose of THC, and soon orders trickled in. I had just enough money to keep myself going, not one penny more, but patients told other patients, and dispensary owners spread the word. Sweet Mary Jane began to take off.
• • •
Today, Sweet Mary Jane is a household name in Colorado’s medical marijuana community. We have twelve employees, a dream team without which the bakery would not exist. This includes bakers, concentrate makers, and a delivery crew. We don’t advertise—we never have—yet the kitchen is always hopping. We sell to more than one hundred dispensaries all over Colorado, sending out more than two thousand delightfully infused treats every week.
What sets us apart is a commitment to making the highest-quality products possible. It starts with ingredients—premium cannabis, good chocolates, real butter, pure vanilla—and continues with our process: Our methods of baking have been carefully thought out, honed, and refined. Orders are custom made. Brownies, for example, are made in small batches. It’s the only way to achieve that rich, melt-in-your-mouth texture.
This attention to detail has paid off. In April 2013, Sweet Mary Jane won the first-place trophy in the Rooster THC Classic for our OMG! Brownie Cheesecake Bars. In November 2013, we took home two first-place awards in the Hemp Connoisseur THC Championship for our Key Lime Kickers. Both recipes are in this cookbook.
One top priority at the bakery now is keeping up with regulations. All employees at Sweet Mary Jane wear government-issued ID badges, received after completing an application that includes fingerprinting and a full background check by the Marijuana Enforcement Division. In 2014, marijuana businesses in Colorado went on to the Marijuana Inventory Tracking System, which tracks products from seed to sale. Every plant and every unit of processed product—whether buds or marijuana-infused treats—must have a radio frequency identification tag attached to it; these are tracked by satellite. Every package sent to a dispensary is batch-numbered and packaged with strict warning labels, and we report every single infused item that leaves or comes into the kitchen. This helps the state ensure that items come from authorized sources.
Our biggest problem these days is cash. Not the lack of it, which handicaps so many small businesses, but what to do with the actual physical cash. It is still a bit like the old Wild West here. Because the sale of weed remains illegal at the federal level, we in the industry cannot bank our money. Many of us have employees to pay, and vendors, and of course we must pay our taxes. And obviously, handling large amounts of cash is dangerous. Safe-deposit boxes, armed guards, and security cameras are all a part of daily life.
In 2014, Colorado decided to address this problem, and there has been encouraging talk of creating a cannabis co-op. Colorado lawmakers have already approved the world’s first banking system designed to accommodate the marijuana industry. Governor John Hickenlooper has signed the bill. But the Federal Reserve must give its blessing before the bill’s provisions can take effect. We shall see.
The rules for staying compliant change all the time, but that’s okay. Legal marijuana is new. We’re all learning. The only thing I know for sure is to expect the unexpected.
I wouldn’t trade what I’m doing for anything. For all the challenges of this business, the rewards are greater. Every time a patient calls Sweet Mary Jane to tell me how much their symptoms have been helped by one of our products, I feel an uncontainable joy.
The confection business is sweet.
A Note from Karin
There are tricks to baking with cannabis, referred to throughout this cookbook as bud, weed, or marijuana. All that stands between you and a fabulous, infused, homestyle-with-a-twist confection is know-how. In the pages that follow, I will teach you the secrets of creating sophisticated desserts and cult favorites. You will use natural, whole foods and fresh, adventurous ingredients to create goodies that are good for you and a pleasure to eat.
Before you start, please read the Infusions chapter (all the way through!) to make sure you understand dosing. Do not bake one single thing until you do. I mean it.
I recommend that you also read through Health Benefits from Cannabis; Equipment, Measurements, and Terms; and Ingredients. There’s no such thing as being “too well informed.”
Begin with the recipes for the lowest dosages of Buddha Budda, Coconut Bliss, or Hey Sugar!. Always wait two hours before taking another dose; edibles can take a while to kick in. (Please see here for the major differences between oral and edible cannabis.) And remember: These confections look exactly like something you’d find in a bakery, while being emphatically only for the twenty-one-and-over crowd. So KEEP OUT OF REACH OF CHILDREN.
Cookbook authors will almost always tell you to taste as you are cooking, but I am telling you not to. We all love to taste the batter, but please don’t do that with these recipes. (Put down that cookie dough!) Either bake the dessert uninfused, to see if you like the flavors, or bake an infused dessert and taste it after you have divided it into doses. Every single dessert in this book can be made uninfused; just substitute regular butter, coconut oil, or sugar for the infused versions. And a final word of warning here: If you cook with weed, your kitchen will smell like weed.
I think that’s everything I wanted to tell you. And so . . .
Bakers, start your ovens!
Health Benefits from Cannabis