Penn Valley Pundit: Pastry chef churns out tasty treats |

Penn Valley Pundit: Pastry chef churns out tasty treats

This is a new column celebrating the people, places and activities that define the Penn Valley, Rough and Ready and Smartville areas of Nevada County. If you have an interesting person or subject to feature in this column, or a newsworthy item, please e-mail

On a brisk winter’s day, when you open the door to Arlene’s Pantry in Penn Valley, the air is warm and redolent of cinnamon-scented baked goods, apple pies and sinfully rich champagne truffles. It’s hard not to feel good in this old-fashioned store with owner Arlene Johnson, a petite woman who looks like everyone’s grandma baker, ready to greet you and chat for a while.

But don’t let the grandmotherly looks fool you. Johnson has raised seven children, has had a handful of successful commercial baking businesses and this kind-hearted but scrappy woman has moved clear across the country and taken care of herself for the past 23 years after losing her husband to cancer.

Nevada County foodies know Johnson from the baked goods, mustards, preserves and coffees she sells at various farmer’s markets during the summer. In the colder seasons, her devoted following drives to Penn Valley to get their fix of cherry turnovers, cheesecakes and homemade fudge.

In a world of mass-produced goods, Johnson is a true artisan baker and she has some pretty firm opinions on what baked goods should be like. “I don’t overbake my apple pies. It’s not applesauce. I don’t over sugar either,” says Johnson. “I don’t use substitutes but I do use natural sugar since it is a natural substance.”

Johnson doesn’t eat the profits, either. Her favorite meal is a prime rib dinner followed by vanilla ice cream drizzled with crème de menthe – not a baked good in sight.

She first started baking shortly after marrying in 1949. “The husband had to have his pie every day,” she said.

As seven children followed, Johnson baked 50 to 60 dozen cookies a week, at their home outside of Rochester, N.Y. Money was tight so Johnson fixed all the meals and baked.

“I liked angel food cake because I could get eggs for 25 cents a dozen,” Johnson added.

After her husband died, Johnson moved west, eventually winding up in Nevada County. She bought the Grass Valley Cheesecake Co. in the late 1990s, and later, bought the Heart’s Confection candy store in Penn Valley. In 2002, she moved to the Penn Valley Shopping Center and opened Arlene’s Pantry.

“I like baking, the finished product and people’s response to it. If they really like something they tell you,” says Johnson. This year she is planning on offering tea service in the afternoon, a perfect complement to all those delightful confections that surround the little café tables. What better spot to spend a few moments enjoying the pleasures of homemade pastries?


The Penn Valley Chamber of Commerce will hold its 2006 kick-off Thursday at the Penn Valley Firehouse, 10513 Spenceville Road, Penn Valley. It is open to the public. For more information, visit the Web site at or call the Chamber office at (530) 432-1802.


The Penn Valley Lions Club is participating in the annual Lions Club Student Speaker Contest open to all high school students, grades 9-12. This year the topic is “The Internet Ð Hero or Villain?” The winner in this event, encompassing clubs in Nevada and California, will receive $20,500 in scholarship money. First round of elimination is at the local club level, so students, sign up for the contest at the Penn Valley Lions Hi-Graders on Monday, Feb. 20th at 7 p.m. at the Penn Valley Firehouse. For more information, contact Lions Club member Bob Webster at 432-0171.

Jean Deitz Sexton is a freelance writer in Penn Valley. Her column appears every other Monday. Send information to Jean Deitz Sexton at The Union, 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley 95945; e-mail; or fax to 477-4292.

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