Canyon Bakery, a rustic pastry retreat, hides in Topanga’s outdoor theater
On Sunday mornings, a drive on a winding mountainside road and a turn into the parking lot of the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum performance center will lead you right to Patrice Winter’s rustic the Canyon Bakery. It is the culmination of decades of homespun wild-fermented baking, ferrying muffins, bread and cookies through the canyons and along Pacific Coast Highway to Topanga and Malibu shops and restaurants and a long-held belief that she would one day open a storefront of her own.
It took her 12 years to make it happen and, naturally, she says, she spent all that time rehearsing in the kitchen.
Now, near the theater’s bubbling fountain and a small slope of fresh herbs — appearing in Winter’s tarts, quiches and other pastries — the Canyon Bakery is open to the public. Once a week, it becomes a tranquil gathering place for all who seek her naturally leavened breads, pizzas, peach-and-hazelnut croissants and hand pies spilling with fruit from the Santa Monica Farmers Market.
“It’s science, in a way, but it has love and emotion in it. It’s not just a scientific thing, and trust me — I couldn’t tell you anything about the science of baking,” Winter said. “I did not do chemistry, but I’m intuitive; the dough speaks to me.”
She constructs those doughs with heirloom and locally grown grains she mills on-site and transforms into fluffy whole-grain cinnamon buns, Shakespeare-shaped cookies (a nod to the theater’s regular staging of his works), rosemary-scented boules, coconut-sugar florentines and za’atar-crusted bagels. The menu changes each week.
The yogi, fitness instructor and seamstress grew up with a love of cooking thanks to her mother, who first put her to work painting Christmas cookies out of a highchair in Lakewood, New Jersey . Winter and her brother then transitioned to standing on Coca-Cola boxes to reach the kitchen counter. Winter first became enamored of breads and sweets during weekly family trips to a Jewish bakery. When she moved to Los Angeles just after graduating high school, she stumbled upon lavish hotel brunches — especially the Biltmore’s, where the croissants and other pastries piled high on tables inspired her to focus on baked goods she could make her own. She’s done it for five decades.
A cross-country drive with a friend first landed them in the San Fernando Valley. Soon after, Winter passed by an entrance to Topanga Canyon at night. Intrigued, she came back to visit the next day, and then moved there the following week. It didn’t take her long to establish her now half-century-old sourdough starter, which she christened Lady Hawk.
In the early 1970s, after reading about wild fermentation, the baker gathered a few heirloom grapes off the property she was renting — a sprawling estate founded by L.A. dance-hall magnate Fred Solomon — and placed them in a jar of water. The wild yeast found naturally on the skin of the grapes formed her starter, which is used today in nearly every item available at the bakery.
In 2008, after decades of home baking, the wife of one of Winter’s fitness students, Ellen Geer — the daughter of Will Geer who serves as the theater’s current artistic director — suggested she use a vacant building on the grounds to house a bakery. The plan was always to open the Canyon Bakery to the public, but as Winter brainstormed business models, she found she was overwhelmed with her farmers-market appearances and wholesale operations, whose deliveries were made by her husband, Dave Winter, known in the community as “the muffin man.” (He now serves as bookkeeper and greeter: tracking Venmo payments, jotting down orders, welcoming guests and keeping track of inventory.)
In 2020, after years of waiting and planning, Winter finally opened the Canyon Bakery to the public — five days before L.A. County’s COVID-19 shutdown in March.
She flipped to a pickup-only model, putting out a call on Instagram that the business would remain open and that anyone could text her directly for menus or to place an order. Soon, Winter said, she was texting menus to 300 to 400 people every week. (Prices on her menu range from $4 to $25.)
Since then, her bakery’s popularity has continued to grow — she often sells out by 11 a.m. every Sunday — and Winter has plans to expand. She’s adding an espresso machine and wants to redesign the small kitchen to also include a store that will feature a baker’s rack displaying the day’s fresh-from-the-oven pastries and breads, while a refrigerated section will stock her hibiscus iced teas and other drinks. She envisions shelves of pantry items and jams of her own creation, and products from other local producers, with a focus on Topanga Canyon.
After all, the Canyon Bakery is just as much about Topanga and its community as it is about rustic baked goods. In a sense, it’s a love letter to what Winter believes is a very special place she fell in love with more than 50 years ago. “I said to myself, ‘I’m gonna move up there,’” she recalled, “and within one week I moved, and I never left.”
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