William Werner has a hard-won pastry secret. From his time spent in top San Francisco pastry kitchens like the Ritz-Carlton and Quince to his years creating his own pastry pop-up and farmers market fixture, Werner had soaked in this lesson: "The biggest secret in this business is that people like things inside of things," he says. "If you cut into something and something oozes out, hallelujah."
And so it is with the Rebel Within, a stunning pastry that at first glance looks like a humble muffin. Slice the Rebel open, and brace for a shock of oozing orange-yellow yolk from a perfect soft-boiled egg. Taste it and you'll realize it's no muffin at all, but rather a cheesy-yet-light cake, studded with green onions and sausage. Werner started serving the Rebel Within at his farmers market stand, even before Craftsman and Wolves — his chef-driven "modern pâtisserie" — officially opened in 2012. Today, it is without a doubt a signature item at the shop — not to mention for the hundreds of visitors who score a Rebel each morning and Instagram it, wondering just how the runny egg gets inside.
"The traditional offerings for savory breakfast pastries are kind of boring and tired."
His customers have their theories. "There are people who think we put the egg in after it's baked, or that we freeze the eggs and put them in there," Werner laughs. "They try to make things as complicated as possible; the more complicated, the more exciting." He recalls a kitchen tour with a group of culinary students who also couldn't figure out how Werner pulled off this magic trick.
The thing is, the Rebel Within is pretty easy to make — once you know how. Werner, a detail-oriented chef, simply set his mind to creating a savory cake and didn't stop until he had succeeded. And by all accounts he has: the item regularly sells out, even on weekends when Werner raises production from the standard weekday count of 150 into the high 300s. "I don't want to turn the kitchen into a Rebel production facility," says Werner, hinting at his complicated relationship with the dish that's become so synonymous with his pâtisserie. He'll jokingly refer to the Rebel as his "ball and chain," and speaks openly of having a "love-hate relationship" — mostly love, these days — with the pastry. "I'm really proud of everything we do at Craftsman and Wolves, to have people come in and be like, 'Do you have the egg thing?' It's like, 'C'mon man look at all this [other] stuff!'" But a recent innovation in the dish made Werner fall back in love with it, and today he proudly serves those eager customers their "egg thing." And in many ways, the Rebel really does encapsulate Werner's general approach to pastry: "We try to look at products differently," he says, "and the traditional offerings for savory breakfast pastries are kind of boring and tired."
Below, the elements of Craftsman and Wolves' Rebel Within:
1. The Cake
Looks can be deceiving. In the case of the Rebel Within, the runny egg might get the (Instagram) glory, but the real art of it is in the cake. It's also what came first in the development process, long before Craftsman and Wolves had even opened. After an experience eating a "meat cake" from a small village butcher in Aix-les-Bains, France — a dish with a "weird, acquired taste" where "all the end-parts and scraps were put together" into a cake, baked in a loaf tin, and served by the slice at room temperature — Werner had found a new project.
"I was in love with the cake aspect of it," he explains. "Here in the States, if you call something a cake it needs to be a cake, or someone is going to be pissy about it." But Werner was officially obsessed, and dove head first into developing a savory cake, without sugar, that still had the texture of the more familiar, sweet cake. Werner went through several iterations of savory cake loaves — none sold particularly well at his now-defunct Tell Tale Preserve Company farmers market stand — before serving a cake with hard-boiled eggs and bacon, inspired by classic American breakfast.
Today's Rebel Within is a descendant of that breakfast-inspired cake. After all his testing, Werner's basic ingredient list for the batter is deceptively simple: cake flour from local purveyor Giusto's, which makes for a lighter texture and crumb; raw eggs; reliably neutral grapeseed oil; and housemade crème fraîche. "It has such a great crumb and moistness to it," he beams, "but with a savoriness you'd never really experienced before."
2. The Inclusions
Werner guesses, but to this day still isn't 100 percent sure, that the inspirational "meat cake" at that French butcher shop had some sort of cheese component. For the Rebel Within, he brings the cheesiness by adding both Parmesan and Asiago cheese. Parmesan, Werner explains, is great for baking: "It has a nice dry matter, it doesn't really melt out. It doesn't break, it doesn't get oily. And it adds salt and umami." Asiago, on the other hand, provides a "sharp contrast," its fat creating the "cheesy mouthfeel" Werner is after.
Next comes a healthy dose of green onions. And since it wouldn't be much of a meat cake without meat, Werner adds a good amount of pork sausage. It's not often you hear of a pâtisserie with its own sausage program, but Werner is into making his own, even though it's a two-day process. (His team got lessons in sausage-making from local meat apostles 4505 Meats.) Werner's crew blends together fatback, pork shoulder, spices, and salts; the sausage is ground cold and cooked for the Rebel every morning.
Werner's kitchen team has got the Rebel down to a precise routine, with components always at the ready for morning baking, but between making the crème fraîche and the sausage, the actual process would span three to four days of start-to-finish labor.
3. The Egg
That proto-Rebel Within savory breakfast cake at the farmers market was made with hard-boiled eggs, which was all well and good for Werner, except that it meant that each slice would have a different amount of egg in it. He knew the loaf was the wrong format for the egg — better to have smaller cakes with one whole egg each. He tried making a cylinder, and even had a test batch come out properly. But ultimately, the sides were too thin, "it didn't eat well," and "it was really weird looking." Werner sighs. "You try to satisfy your soul that you're doing something beautiful, not just this muffin," but muffins are what worked as a way to deliver an egg within a cake.
Still, the recipe needed more development. One day, he asked an intern to hard boil some eggs and as sometimes happens with kitchen interns, the eggs were undercooked, just past soft-boiled. But it was a test-run, so instead of tossing the eggs, Werner used them, knowing they'd cook more in the oven anyway. When he cut the pastry open after baking, and saw the still semi-cooked eggs, he and his team had an "aha" moment and knew they needed to "walk this thing backwards and have a liquid center." Within three bakes, Werner got the recipe to where it is today.
Turns out, there's not much to the runny yolk part of the process. Werner's prep crew sends batches of eggs through the Rational Combi Steamer for about six minutes, and then right into an ice bath. Next comes the unenviable task of carefully peeling each egg, a process handled by a prep crew Werner praises for their "gentle" touch with the delicate eggs. And that's it. The egg is soft boiled, peeled, and then it's ready to be placed in the batter.
4. The Assembly
While some components take days to prepare, the actual assembly process is rather quick. First Werner puts the batter together, whisking the eggs and oil before adding the crème fraîche.
Next, he adds the sifted cake batter in thirds and continues mixing. And while he happily demonstrates here how it's done by hand, his staff makes far too many to do each batch this way, preferring instead the help of trusty (large) mixers. Once the batter comes together, he adds the cheese, green onion, and sausage.
Once the batter is finished, Werner spoons it into a piping bag and starts piping a bit of batter into the bottom of muffin tin. Once piped, he uses a spoon (or a gloved finger) to bring the batter up the sides of the mold. The dough is quite thick — and that's a good thing, because the base Werner's building needs to support the weight of the cooked egg headed its way.
Time for the eggs. Werner gives each egg a gentle roll through some sifted flour. It's a key moment in the process; handling the eggs gently, the bakers can feel whether the egg is properly cooked. The flour also plays off the inherent moisture in the egg whites, allowing the batter to stick to the egg. Werner places the egg into the mold, bottom-first. (He laughs, saying that the Rebel is so frequently photographed that Instagram has become a sort of quality check for him, showing whenever an egg has been placed upside down.)
Eggs in place, Werner then carefully pipes batter around and over the eggs: too much batter and it balloons in the oven, too little and the egg over-cooks. He and his crew don't weigh the tins, instead preferring to make this assessment by eye and feel. After piping, Werner "gets rid of the steps," blending the tops with the back of a spoon to smooth out the spiral the piping bag makes. Notice that his muffin tray isn't full. Werner deliberately leaves space between each mold to promote baking consistency in the 455 degree oven — the tin is designed for muffins, not for small cakes hiding eggs.
After 16 minutes in the oven, the Rebels are ready. When it's time to serve them, Werner hits them with a final touch: Tabasco salt. He had been putting out hot sauce, but when a certain food magazine editor begged for salt, it got him thinking: "I didn't want to put salt shakers out, and communal salt is gross. We were infusing sugars, so I decided to try the same for salt and Tabasco." That final touch breathed new life into the dish for him. "Now I just embrace it," he says. "It gets people in the shop. If you come in and have a Rebel, and have this beautiful experience with it, then cool."