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The Accidental Restaurateur: Joanie Swords
Montana Senior News, Dec.2015/Jan. 2016
Unlike contestants on televised food competitions such as Chopped and Top Chef, Joanie Swords has never aspired to culinary glory. Back in 2010 when she opened Harper & Madison (H & M) Joanie dreamt only of opening a neighborhood shop featuring hand-crafted scones, muffins, cakes and other treats from her oven. The last thing she expected was for H & M to become one of the Magic City’s most beloved eateries as well as a destination for summer visitors looking for creative local fare.

“I didn’t mean to open a restaurant; I thought I was opening a bakery,” recalls Joanie. “I put five sandwiches on the menu and bought a used espresso maker figuring someone might want a sandwich or latte. After three days it was clear I’d opened a restaurant not a bakery.”

Although passionate about fine food, Joanie focuses on more than high-quality ingredients. She strives to bring a bit of Europe and the big city to Billings, not only through handmade pastries, but also through a friendly atmosphere where patrons and staff know one another by name and feel at home over paninis and quiche.

“I’ve told my staff they have the power to change people’s lives by giving customers their full attention. It’s important to look people in the eye and hear what they’re saying whether to take a lunch order or listen to what’s on their mind,” remarks Joanie, whose 12 employees include her son Madison, the current night-time baker. “Giving that personal attention plus something wonderful to eat or drink is giving comfort in a way that has existed forever.”

Joanie has lived in Billings since she was six, when her family moved here from Wyoming. As a child, she was not especially drawn to sifting flour and creaming butter. However, she does have fond memories of making cookies. When she was ten, her older brother Dick served in Vietnam. Joanie’s chosen method of expressing her love and support for him was through baking countless chocolate chip cookies, which she sent overseas packed in coffee cans.

“I later learned the cookies never got there in one piece. Dick didn’t mind, though,” laughs Joanie. “Whenever they arrived, he made friends that day.”

Her baking skills might have plateaued with cookies if not for a part-time waitressing job she took in 1988 with Hart-Albin Company’s Le Petit Cafe. The kitchen manager, a classically trained chef, decided to leave soon after that and a replacement had to be found. Despite never having proofed yeast or wielded a pastry brush, Joanie was hired. The chef trained her during a three-week crash course, which ultimately altered her destiny.

“The cafe’s owners, who had previously done the baking, were available to help later, if I needed it. They had more confidence in me than I had in myself,” remembers Joanie. “I learned to make pastry cream and buttercream, baguettes, Danish, and more. The chef taught me in the traditional way with no mixes. I’m grateful to this day for that introduction to baking. At H & M, we also do everything from scratch. It’s real food with no preservatives or chemicals.”

From the start her efforts proved successful, though she admits she would be mortified today to serve her first cakes to anyone.

“I learned to make cakes through trial and error. There is no other way to learn than by doing. To be a good baker takes patience. There are some things you can’t do quickly. You also have to be precise, pay attention to detail, and practice a recipe lots of times till you get it just right,” states Joanie, whose 12-hour work-day typically begins at 4 or 5 A.M. depending on the number of that day’s pastry and cake special orders.

She gets centered for her long shift by plunging her hands into dough, deftly kneading and rolling as each recipe requires. After so many years, Joanie’s hands know the routine by themselves, giving her a chance to ponder other things as she works.

“I have two hours all my own to be at that table without interruptions. It helps me focus on the rest of my day and what has to be done. Besides that,” she adds, “it’s comforting and calming to have delicious aromas coming from the oven as I work.”

H & M is the third business that Joanie has begun and sold. So far, she has invested five years in this restaurant and is still coming up with innovative ideas she wants to test drive—ideas such as her festive farm-to-table summertime dinners. These popular al fresco meals have people lining up to get on the waiting list for a seat as well as just to help out—for free—as a server. The interest is not surprising considering Joanie describes her clientele as, “people who are looking for something fresh and homemade, that doesn’t come in a plastic wrapper and that was made by two hands that very morning.”

Her advice to someone considering opening a food business is straightforward and applicable to any start-up.

“Be as prepared as you can and have your eyes wide open to the time commitment it will take,” she states. “I had a dream and a passion for food but found this business was more about creating a place where you can build community. It’s pretty magical how food can bring people together. It’s a great thing to witness.”

Harper and Madison posts this cinch-to-make dessert recipe on their web site. It is perfect for a holiday, special celebration, or whenever you have a craving for chocolate. If you like a more intense chocolate flavor, increase the chocolate another 1 to 3 ounces.
Molten Chocolate Cakes - Six servings
5 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped
10 Tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter
3 large eggs
3 large egg yolks
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
1/2 cup flour
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Butter six 3/4 cup soufflé or Pyrex dishes. Melt chocolate and butter together in a glass bowl in the microwave on defrost setting. Cool slightly. Whisk eggs and egg yolks in large bowl to blend. Sift flour and sugar into the egg mixture, whisk together, then whisk in chocolate mixture.
Pour batter into dishes, dividing equally. Cakes can either be cooked immediately or covered and refrigerated for up to a day. Bake cakes until sides are set but center remains soft and runny, about 11 minutes or up to 14 minutes for batter that was refrigerated. Run small knife around cakes to loosen. Immediately turn cakes out onto individual plates. Serve with vanilla ice cream or dusted with powdered sugar.

This is an adaptation of one of Harper and Madison’s most requested recipes. You can easily cut it in half.

4 cups all-purpose flour
3 T granulated sugar (If you prefer sweeter scones, add another tablespoon of sugar.)
2 t baking powder
2 t baking soda
¼ t salt
½ pound (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, diced in small pieces
Grated zest of 2 oranges
2 eggs
1 cup plus 2 T buttermilk
1½ cups dried cranberries
Raw or granulated sugar
Jam for serving (optional)
Whipped cream for serving (optional)
1. Combine flour, granulated sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a large bowl; mix well. With a pastry blender or your fingers, cut in butter and orange zest until the mixture resembles fine granules. (You can also pulse these ingredients in a food processor.)
2. Whisk together eggs and buttermilk in a small bowl. Pour over the dry ingredients and toss in cranberries. Stir just until the ingredients come together and a soft dough forms. If dough seems too dry, add another 1 or 2 tablespoons of buttermilk. Be careful not to overmix the dough or the scones will be tough.
3. Pat dough into a circle on a lightly floured board and cut it into 16 wedges. Or divide dough in half and cut each half into 8 wedges. Place scones an inch apart on an ungreased baking sheet. Sprinkle each scone with raw or granulated sugar* and refrigerate 15 minutes or up to overnight.
4. Bake the scones at 375 degrees until lightly browned on top, about 20 minutes. Cool on a rack. Serve warm or at room temperature. The scones are best if eaten the day they are made but may be frozen and gently reheated.
*   Instead of sprinkling the scones with sugar, you can drizzle an orange glaze over the baked scones.
1/2 cup plus 2 T confectioner’s sugar
4 t freshly squeezed orange juice
Blend together sugar and juice till smooth. Drizzle over scones 15 minutes after they have finished baking.
For more information, visit or call 406-281-8550.