On a crisp, long-shadowed Saturday morning, my husband and I jogged to Veronika’s Pastry Shop in historic downtown Billings. A train rumbled west as we traversed onto Montana Avenue. Inside the small bakery, marked by images of France’s Eiffel Tower and Russia’s Basil Cathedral on the front windows, half a dozen people huddled in line.

Warmth enveloped us as we stepped into the alcove of this new European bakery featuring pastries from France, Eastern Europe and Russia. Aromas of rich buttery sweetness greeted us.

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The Last Best Plates -- Veronika's Bakery, Billings

Pastry shop owner Veronika Baukema holds a tray full of warm goat cheese pear tarts on a recent morning. Baukema immigrated to the U.S. from Uzbekistan in 1999. She arrived in Billings speaking only a few years of English and worked as a clerk at Walmart and as front desk help at the Ponderosa Inn before opening her bakery Labor Day weekend of 2017.

Toby Baukema stood behind the counter serving customers on this morning. Veronika, his wife, worked with deep concentration as he tried to lighten the air.

“Veronika says ‘I don’t do nasty donuts,' ” he told one customer — with a smile — as he listened to see if his wife was paying attention.

At that moment, she slid a hot tray of apple and peach tarts into the cooling rack.

“I am not listening to you,” she said.

When we got to the counter, ordering an apple tart from fresh out of the oven was a no-brainer.

Behind us were Tim and Joyce Ludewig, who secured almond croissants.

“I like everything in the bakery because the pastry just melts in your mouth,” Joyce Ludewig said.

Tim added, “You can tell Veronika is passionate about what she is making. Everything is made from scratch.”

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The Last Best Plates -- Veronika's Bakery, Billings

The popular pastry shop opened on Montana Avenue in Billings on Labor Day weekend 2017.

With the encouragement of her daughter and husband, Veronika opened her bakery within the past year. Since her Labor Day weekend debut, Veronika starts her day at 4 a.m. on Tuesdays through Saturdays. She makes around 100 pastries each day. Her puff pastry dough is made from scratch with European-style butter.

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The Last Best Plates -- Veronika's Bakery, Billings

Veronika Baukema makes about 100 pastries per day and closes her doors once she’s sold out, which most often happens before noon.

When everything sells out, she locks the doors and begins the dough making process for the next day. She usually sells out by noon, so it's best to get there early.

Though French-style baking most influences her creations, it was her grandmother Paulin and father’s sister from Uzbekistan who inspired Veronika’s love of baking.

“My aunt was always a great baker, a great cook,” she said. “You have to have passion and love.”

Growing up in Uzbekistan, Veronika baked to supplement the family income.

“My dad was always surprised that I could fix something from nothing, like apple upside down cake. My mother would go from one office to another, selling our goods. She would go to the hair salon, dentist office,” she said. “When I moved to the United States I never thought I would do this again.”

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The Last Best Plates -- Veronika's Bakery, Billings

In the front window, a portrait of the Uzbekistan-born owner's maternal grandmother, Polina Vasilevna, is surrounded by images of pastries. "She taught me so much," says Veronika Baukema who as a young woman baked and sold pastries to supplement her family's income in Uzbekistan.

Veronika left Uzbekistan in 1999, arriving in Billings knowing only a few words of English. Her first task was to pass a driver's license exam. Studying the dictionary, reading books and listening to the radio jump-started her English language journey. Once she secured a license, it was Noreen Peterson’s classes at Billings' Lincoln Center that furthered her skills.

Working as a clerk at Walmart and later as front desk help at the Ponderosa Inn forced her to speak English, eventually advancing to employment at a collection agency and legal secretarial work.

“At the Inn, I learned how to answer the phone. It was quite funny. People did not expect someone with an accent and hung up on me,” she said.

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The Last Best Plates -- Veronika's Bakery, Billings

Veronika Baukema visits with customers in her tiny pastry shop on Montana Avenue in downtown Billings.

These days Veronika focuses on baking pastries. The French inspiration shows in her offerings of almond croissants, pain au chocolat and chocolate bouchon. The southern French and Eastern Europe inspirations come with pain aux raisins and raisin escargot. Escargot is French for snail, so Veronika is playing on the rolled shape.

Closer to her roots is the traditional Russian vatrushka. In Poland, they call it Kolaczki. A vatrushka is a Russian pastry filled with cheese with fruit on the outside. Hidden in a refrigerator behind the counter is honey cake, a traditional multilayered Russian dessert.

On the sidewalk, steam rose from the apple tart as we unwrapped it. When the last crumbs fell from our chins, we reluctantly ran back home.

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The Last Best Plates -- Veronika's Bakery, Billings

Uzbekistan-born Veronika Baukema makes about 100 made-from-scratch pastries each day in her shop on Montana Avenue in downtown Billings. (Clockwise from top left: vatruska topped with fresh blackberries, kouign-amann, poppy seed brioche, another kouign-amann, cream cheese pinwheel with raspberry filling topped with fresh blackberries, a goat cheese and pear tart, chocolate croissant, almond croissant with powdered sugar, raisin escargot. Center left is a turnover with raspberry filling; center right is a pear fabregé with almond marzipan.)

Russian rugelach cookies

Makes about 36 cookies

Ingredients:

4 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon baking powder (or baking soda)

1 1/3 cup unsalted butter

3/4 cup sour cream

1 cup chopped walnuts

1/2 cup brown sugar

Confectioner’s sugar, for dusting

Directions:

Whisk together flour and baking powder. Cut butter into pats and work into flour mixture until crumbly. Mix in the sour cream. Dough should be soft and not sticky. Wrap dough in plastic, chill for at least one hour. Pulse walnuts and sugar in a food processor to coarsely chopped crumbs.

Divide the dough into three pieces. Working with one piece at a time, roll into an 11-inch circle. Using a pizza cutter, slice through, cutting into 10 to 12 triangles. Sprinkle the top of each triangle with walnuts and sugar, and roll triangles like a crescent. Place rugelach cookies on parchment lined baking sheet. Bake in preheated oven at 350 degrees for about 25 to 30 minutes. While warm, dust cookies with powdered sugar.

Stella Fong, author of Historic Restaurants of Billings and Billings Food hosts Flavors Under the Big Sky: Celebrating the Bounty of the Region for Yellowstone Public Radio.

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TheLastBestPlates.com is a digital destination that serves up Montana's tasty food, travel and culture stories … one bite at a time.

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