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Mindy Segal and her Gourmet Pot Desserts

Photos: Martha Williams; Lettering: Luke Lucas

Mindy Segal Marijuana

The acclaimed chef is tackling the budding market of marijuana-laced treats

“Now, have you ever had edibles?”

Mindy Segal and I are in the kitchen of an Airbnb rental house in downtown Denver. She’s sprinkling broken-up bits of peanut brittle into silicone molds that will, soon enough, be filled with marijuana-laced chocolate for us to taste. But first the renowned Chicago pastry chef needs to perform a quick pot background check on me.

“Yes, I have,” I answer.

“How have you eaten them?” she asks.

I mention multiple experiences with skunky-tasting brownies hastily prepared in college apartment kitchens, a gummy or two clandestinely pulled from a Ziploc baggie at a concert, a plate of graham crackers topped with weed-infused peanut butter passed around at a friend’s party.

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“And you were really high, right?”

Past edible-induced embarrassments come to me in flashes: eating a medium Domino’s pizza by myself in one sitting, spending an afternoon watching disc 5 of the first season of The O.C. multiple times because nobody felt like standing up to change to disc 6, and, saddest of all, falling asleep in the front row of the dolphin show at the Indianapolis Zoo.

“Yeah.”

“Well, you won’t be with this.”

Late last year, it was announced that Segal would be partnering with the Chicago-based marijuana cultivator Cresco Labs to launch her own line of both delicious and medically appropriate pot desserts that give a nice, mellow buzz rather than the stupefying high of most homemade so-called edibles. The news filled both food- and pot-obsessed corners of the Internet with glee.

The 48-year-old culinary whiz, who was named outstanding pastry chef in 2012 by the James Beard Foundation, has built a loyal following over the years, starting in the kitchen at MK and branching out to Mindy’s HotChocolate, her dessert showcase in Bucktown. Segal is far and away the highest-profile food personality to get into the pot game.

This mid-February trip to Colorado, the nearest state where the recreational use of marijuana is legal, is the last of those she’s been making to refine her recipes and ensure—before she hands over production to the staff at a brand-new commercial-grade kitchen she will oversee at Cresco’s Joliet facility—that introducing marijuana to her concoctions doesn’t adversely affect the flavor. Since Illinois allows for medicinal use only, she won’t be able to taste-test once she gets back to Chicago. Her line’s trial run, Mindy’s First Batch, was due to hit dispensary shelves in April, with a full release slated for May. So this is, more or less, her final chance to calibrate the products that she will put her name behind.

Segal grabs another pinch of brittle, muscle memory taking over as she chats (she’s made these treats hundreds of times, albeit the noninfused versions). She dusts her hands off on her dark jeans, tattoos snaking up her arms. Her dyed red hair is short and wavy. She’s recently washed off a faceful of heavy makeup and removed the fake eyelashes from a promotional photo shoot earlier in the day, and she seems relaxed, much more in her element.

We’re joined in the kitchen by Cresco CEO Charlie Bachtell, a 37-year-old blond in glasses, jeans, and a Patagonia down vest, who is overseeing the proceedings. On the counter next to us is a selection of some of the weed-infused candies currently sold in Colorado. He assures me there will be no comparison between this stuff and Cresco’s offerings. “What makes ours different is you won’t be able to taste the cannabis,” he says.

“What makes it different,” Segal chimes in, “is Mindy fucking Segal.”

The thing about pot edibles is that, historically speaking, they taste terrible.

Even so, the appetite for them is strong—in Colorado, for instance, almost half the pot purchased comes in edible form. I nibble bits of the ones Bachtell procured: chocolate bars that call to mind the chewy-chalky texture of wax lips and expired Easter candy, dry cookies that fill my nostrils with potent pot odor, toffees that manage to taste both sickly sweet and dirty at the same time. Many of them, say weed bloggers, are some of the more delicious ones on the market.

Worse, their levels of THC (the chemical that actually makes you feel high) vary dramatically from batch to batch, according to a Johns Hopkins study released last year, so every weed-coated gummy bear is a gamble: annoying if you’re enjoying them recreationally, infuriating if you’re using them to treat chronic pain.

“If there’s one black eye on cannabis,” Bachtell says, “it’s the horror stories. And it’s not people saying, ‘Oh, I smoked so much and it was terrible.’ It’s the ‘I had the worst experience of my life because I ate three brownies and didn’t feel anything for two and a half hours and then I did.’ ”

That is one reason Bachtell had no plan to offer edibles when he and some friends (and former coworkers at the residential mortgage firm Guaranteed Rate, where he served as general counsel) founded Cresco Labs a few days after Illinois legalized medical marijuana.

Understanding the other reason requires a little background on Illinois’s medical marijuana program. Unlike in, say, the weed wonderland of California, you can’t walk into your doctor’s office, say you’ve been feeling a little anxious lately, and walk out with a prescription for pot. Only 40 conditions have been approved by the state to be treated with cannabis, and they’re all serious (and difficult-to-fake) illnesses, such as cancer, HIV, and Parkinson’s.

Even after being diagnosed with one of these conditions, you must wade through a byzantine application process that requires multiple doctor’s visits. Little wonder that only 4,400 Illinois patients had been granted prescriptions as of January, a number well below the tens of thousands that marijuana advocates had hoped to see in the program’s first year. (To supplement its revenue, Cresco plans to license Segal’s recipes to manufacturers in states with looser laws; in fact, the company is already working on deals in Seattle and Portland.)

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Initially, Bachtell says, edibles didn’t feel appropriate for a medically focused program. (He comes back to the word “appropriate” a lot, his regulatory compliance background showing; over the course of answering one question, he uses it nine times. “It’s kind of our guiding principle,” he explains.) Cresco was making medicine, and people don’t take medicine because of how it tastes.

“We were focusing on [the plants themselves] and products with consistent application—pills, tinctures, tablets,” he says. “Those things can be accurately and precisely dosed.” Cresco, which in February 2015 was awarded three of the state’s 21 cultivation licenses, takes that aspect so seriously that it is adding a testing facility to its 40,000-square-foot Joliet space to meticulously monitor the THC content of its products.

But Bachtell warmed to the idea of edibles during a business trip to Denver last year to research the cannabis industry. He saw how well that market segment was doing, and he started thinking about the vitamin C gummy bears he gives to his daughter, how there seems to be a growing desire for medication that’s pleasurable to take. “There’s a reason why people like edibles—it takes longer to absorb but gives you sort of a metabolized high,” he says.

Cresco decided that the best approach would be to handle the infusing of the pot into the product itself but to outsource the recipe development to a chef. A few names were bandied about—the crew at Bang Bang Pie, for one. But Cresco reached out to Segal’s team first.

Twenty-four hours later, Bachtell says, he heard back from Segal herself: “And she goes, ‘I’ve been waiting for one of you guys to call me.’ ”

The partnership (Segal has a stake in the business but won’t disclose details) makes perfect sense for someone like Segal, and not just because of her dessert background. For one, she’s a consummate multitasker, able to juggle both businesses. When we first met two months earlier at HotChocolate, she answered interview questions while also advising her kitchen staff on the night’s menu and noticing (and directing the removal of) a particularly offensive pile of dog poop perilously close to the restaurant’s entrance.

For another, she’s at a transitional moment. She has run her own restaurant for more than a decade, and last year she wrote a cookbook, Cookie Love. “I can’t be a pastry chef in a restaurant for the rest of my career,” she says.

Even before Cresco reached out to Segal, her lawyer had suggested she look into edibles because of their market potential. Segal certainly has no ethical qualms with getting into the business. She has openly admitted to using marijuana in the past to treat chronic back pain and migraines. And though it sounds conveniently mushy, she was ready to do something to help people: “I see it as an extension of what I do now. It’s no different than baking a cake for someone to make them feel better.”

 

It took less than a year for Segal to get from that initial phone call from Cresco to the Denver house we are now standing in. Its electric-blue walls and tasteful Star Wars–themed velvet paintings are delightful, but the real draw is the professional-caliber kitchen. It’s so nice, in fact, that just a few months prior, Girl & the Goat chef Stephanie Izard rented the place to host a dinner party, a fact Segal learned while chatting with its owner (who had no issues with his kitchen being used to test edibles). Draped on one of the midcentury chairs in the dining room is a pair of jeans Izard left behind, which Segal has offered to bring back to Chicago.

Segal will launch her line with two products: the aforementioned peanut butter, chocolate, and brittle combo and a chocolate confection with bits of toffee, smoked almonds, and caramel. Eventually, they’ll be joined by a variety of granola bites. (One will include candied ginger and pepitas.) She has no intention, however, of making the stoner classic: the pot brownie. “They’ve got a shelf life,” she explains. “They’re perishable.”

She lays out her ingredients: gallon bags of chocolate disks; plastic containers of toffee, peanut brittle, and almond chunks; a squeeze bottle of caramel; a jar of sea salt; a jar of Skippy peanut butter—and a container the size of a contact lens case with a marijuana concentrate from which the terpenes (the chemicals that give pot that potent, harsh flavor) have been removed.

This particular concentrate came from an indica-sativa hybrid plant grown by Denver Relief, an operation that Cresco used as a model for its Joliet facility (which state law prohibits me from seeing—Segal herself has to be accompanied to its kitchen by someone with security clearance).

There are lots of ways to extract THC from the marijuana plant. You can force it out with butane; you can agitate the buds in cold water or pressurize them with carbon dioxide. For its edibles, Cresco is opting for carbon dioxide extraction: a bunch of plants are stuffed into a pressure-cooker-like machine along with some carbon dioxide gas. Then the pressure is upped, and the THC is forced out as a concentrate.

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Getting that concentrate to blend properly with the chocolate (a mix of brands of dark and milk chocolate calibrated by Segal) will be the trickiest part of this whole endeavor. Segal is uncertain how best to do it—she waves Bachtell over for assistance at one point, wrinkling her brow. At room temperature, the concentrate is tacky, like tree sap, seemingly impossible to incorporate into even well-melted chocolate. “I’m just going to put this directly in? I don’t have to heat it first?”

“You don’t have to heat it first,” he says. He senses her disbelief. “I wouldn’t put it in the microwave.”

“Here’s what I’m gonna do,” she says, grabbing a pan and filling it with half an inch of water. She places the container in the water and turns on a burner. The concentrate quickly becomes a liquid smooth enough to swirl into the chocolate—the day’s first discovery. For today’s purposes, she measures out precisely 0.2 grams, as advised by Bachtell, using a kitchen scale (it takes a few tries—the stuff reverts to its tacky state as it cools and has to be reheated), and when the concentrate is fully incorporated into the chocolate, she uses a spatula to shovel the mixture into a squeeze bottle. It’s a rudimentary process; the kitchen in Joliet has a machine for tempering and dispensing chocolate.

Segal shakes the squeeze bottle and starts squirting marijuana-infused chocolate. Each piece from this trial run will turn out to have about 2.5 milligrams of active THC. That’s a quarter of the strength her edibles will be sold at in Illinois—the moderation made, I find out later, so as not to zonk me out completely while on assignment. Most people can deal well with 10 milligrams of THC, though some patients going through chemotherapy, for instance, take several times that amount over the course of the day.

It’s not long, maybe 30 minutes or so, before the chocolate sets up. Segal pops out the hefty pieces, which are each about the size of a two-bite brownie. (For her April test run she will wind up using rectangles, but today they’re squares and cups.) I try a peanut brittle one first.

It’s incredible.

The peanut butter and chocolate have merged so completely that I taste neither one nor the other but both at the same time, perfectly balanced and perked up by finely milled bits of peanut brittle crunch. The toffee-almond bar is equally excellent, enlivened by the pools of caramel. I realize with some sadness that, because I suffer from none of Illinois’s current qualifying medical conditions, this could be the only time I will ever get to eat these.

As the evening progresses, I’m feeling loose and mellow, miles away from the brain-crunching highs of edibles past but still under the influence. My perpetually anxiety-tightened shoulder muscles feel like liquid. I really enjoy my dinner.

Whether it’s due to their sheer deliciousness or my delayed-onset munchies, I eat another one of the peanut brittle bites before bed. I reply to a few texts, though I find myself communicating using only the pizza and smiley-face-wearing-sunglasses emojis. I stay up for another hour or so watching episodes of Broad City on my laptop before pleasantly drifting off. I sleep great.

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