Newly arrived Venezuelans, part of a recent wave of immigrants fleeing their home country’s chaos, are quickly making their mark on Chicago’s culinary scene with their own unique cuisine.
First to gain a toehold has been the arepa, which has aspirations of becoming the next taco. The corn cakes, split open pita-like and stuffed with meat, cheese, beans and/or veggies, can be found at any one of a half-dozen Venezuelan-owned joints in town.
The next trend on the horizon might well be the golfeado. This distant cousin of the cinnamon roll features a couple of twists that Americans’ Cinnabon-trained palates won’t see coming.
Intrigued? The only place to satisfy your curiosity is Klein’s Bakery and Cafe.
“For golfeado, we are the only one. All the other Venezuelan places are arepas; we are the only bakery,” said Jessica Klein, 31. “We are the only one who have the responsibility to spread the word.”
She and her sister Dayana Klein opened their Uptown bakery, at 4155 North Broadway, in spring 2017 and followed with a Lake View location, at 426 W. Diversey Pkwy., in summer 2019. Though they lack formal pastry training, the women learned to bake at the elbow of their grandmother, who owned a cake shop. Both came to Chicago, along with their respective spouses, from Caracas nearly five years ago.
Golfeados are as Venezuelan as the brownie is American, found at every bakery and something of a national obsession, according to Klein.
“In Venezuela, if you ask [people] where is the best golfeado, they’re all going to say the same three places,” she said.
Klein’s Venezuelan customers, who make up a quarter of the bakery’s clientele, may know what they’re getting into when they order a golfeado, which is typically eaten as an afternoon snack with coffee, but the Americans need a word of caution.
“At the beginning, it was difficult to explain,” said Klein. “They say, ‘Can I get a cinnamon roll?’ I have to tell them, ‘Well, it’s not a cinnamon roll, it’s something similar.’ ”
Similar in that both baked goods share the same swirled shape and are both made from a yeasted sweet dough, but that’s about where the commonalities end.
While the golfeado’s filling does include cinnamon, it also incorporates shredded cheese and shredded unrefined sugar cane, called papelón.
“And one of the very special ingredients that it also has is anise seed. If it doesn’t have anise, it’s not golfeado,” said Klein. “The cheese, the anise, the papelón are the three things that make the golfeado.”
The anise seed lends a subtle, yet undeniable, licorice flavor and also adds texture; the cheese cuts the sweetness factor with a savory component, and the papelón (also known as panela or piloncillo) gives golfeados their distinctive caramel color.
The combination is beyond tempting, said Klein, who confessed that she herself does not normally have a huge sweet tooth. (In fact, she was a dentist in Venezuela.)
“The smell, when they come from the oven, the cinnamon and the anise and everything melting, I have to eat a golfeado,” she said. “That’s the only thing I can’t resist.”
But wait, there’s one final flourish that definitively sets the golfeado apart from its sticky bun relative. When they’re served, golfeados are topped with a slab of cheese instead of a schmear of icing.
Venezuelans are serious about their cheese, Klein said, particularly artisanal varieties of white cheese that are impossible to find in Chicago.
For her golfeados, Klein substitutes a Mexican queso blanco, which is the closest she could find to the real thing.
“In Venezuela, our cheeses are a little bit salty,” she said. “Even this [queso blanco] is not that salty.”
Klein’s menu does include a number of concessions to American preferences, like blueberry muffins. There are also familiar European pastries such as tiramisu, opera cake and macarons, which Klein said her countrymen actually consider Venezuelan, owing to an influx of Europeans following World War II.
“[Venezuelans] who have never traveled to other countries, they will say, ‘No this is Venezuelan.’ And it’s not, but that’s what we grew up eating, because we have this [European] influence,” said Klein, who owes her own last name to a distant European ancestor.
Still it’s the thoroughly Venezuelan baked goods that are the star of the show at Klein’s. Along with the golfeado, top sellers include the cachito, a croissant-shaped bread roll stuffed with ham.
“People here are really open to trying new things. Whenever we have something new from Venezuela, they always want to try,” said Klein. “People are not afraid to try new things from another country. They’ve been very warm with us.”
Patty Wetli is a Chicago freelance writer.