Sweet! Rose & Basil serves up healthier desserts

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William Wang and Ioana Holt, the co-founders of Rose and Basil, have cooked up a great new cafe for cakes and coffee in the East Village. Photos by Tina Benitez-Eves

BY TINA BENITEZ-EVES | Growing up as a young girl in Oradea, a small town in Transylvania, Ioana Holt was often tasked with mixing ingredients for cakes, breads and other sweet things that she would bake with her grandmother. Cozonac, a traditional Romanian sweet bread similar to Italian panettone, was one of the first baked goods Holt recalls making. She would knead the dough for hours.

Starting from age 5, Holt was exposed to her grandmother’s homegrown recipes, including a chocolate cake made with both whipped and sour cream. Holt took her grandmother’s nontraditional route, learning chocolate-making in Austria, then starting her own made-to-order baking business.

Holt came to New York in 2012, and earlier this year, opened Rose & Basil, a chocolate shop and bakery at 104 E. Seventh St.

“I think one of the reasons why it’s so important for me — food and making things for someone — is because I associate it a lot with my childhood and my parents,” Holt told The Villager. “I always associated food with family and home, and comfort and love.”

Her early memories of cooking and food are also associated with her parents, who divorced when she was 5. She vividly recalls their last Christmas together — a momentary kiss between her parents, as her mother prepared a festive fruit salad with nuts and honey.

While working on her international baccalaureate, Holt worked at a bakery in Austria, where she honed her chocolate-making skills. Testing all pastries, she finished her time in Austria with a degree, a deeper understanding of chocolate — and a few extra pounds due to the sugar-laden treats.

“It was a shock to my system,” she said. Holt loved dessert — and admits that she would eat it all day if she could — but wanted to make it healthier.

“I said I can do this and not have it make me feel guilty or like I have to run for two hours,” she said.

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Not too sweet, but moist and delicious: The matcha-and-chocolate cakes at Rose and Basil.

After attending New York University for a few years, Holt left school and started Rose & Basil as an online business in 2015. A year later, she reconnected with former N.Y.U. classmate William Wang, gifting him with a few of her gluten-free, vegan truffles during a brunch. He then sampled her breakfast jars — filled with seeds, nuts, pudding, chocolate and fruit — and before long, she had proposed opening a bakery with him. The two are officially co-founders of Rose & Basil.

Heavily influenced by Asian and Western cuisine, Wang shared her passion for good food.

“It was magic,” he said.

Wang, who came to the U.S. when he was 14, gets the gluten-free, vegan approach.

“I believe that people need to be aware of what they consume and why some things might be harmful,” he said. “Many gluten-free, vegan places offer somewhat disappointing food, in terms of taste.”

Pastries are sweet at Rose & Basil, but there’s no sugar added. Holt understands why sugar is used in baking, but does not use it as a preservative in her chocolates, cakes and other baked goods.

“It’s a great way to preserve,” she said, citing the longer shelf life of jams, marmalades, cakes and other sugar-laced sweets. At Rose & Basil, though, things aren’t on the shelves for long; cakes are refreshed in the shop every two days.

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A latte at the new E. Seventh St. cafe — with rose petals on top, straight from the cafe’s backyard.

Holt takes great care in using non-GMO, organic ingredients. She constantly educates customers, through Facebook and Instagram, about the ingredients — such as non-lactose milk from goats and sheep and natural stevia — used in the shop’s baked goods, chocolates and other treats, like rose rugelach, vegan cannoli, Romanian cheese rolls, carrot and matcha cakes.

She added that good food has a lot to do with education and effort on the chef’s part.

“No one makes anything from scratch,” she explained, of how most other bakeries operate. “A lot is made in bulk and made to last longer. That’s where you have added sugar and preservatives — things that you should not have in those quantities. That’s part of the problem.”

Rose & Basil’s menu is seasonal, shifting every four months, since Holt is all about using the freshest ingredients. The shop is also expanding, to the rear. Holt and Wang hope to have the shop’s 350-square-foot back garden, where roses and basil currently grow, renovated and opened by Dec. 15 for private events — everything from prix-fixe dinners and cocktail hours to surprise engagements, small wedding receptions, baby and bridal showers, anniversaries, birthday dinners, small rehearsal dinners, holiday-themed dinners and weekly “secret” dinners.

“Good food is usually associated with the idea of ‘Oh, I’m so full’ or ‘This is my cheat day,’ ” Holt said. “Why does it have to be? Food should always be great.”

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