Out in Montana, where the horizon often gently widens at the peaks of the Rocky Mountains, a baker takes quintessential country cooking to new heights with recipes curated to satisfy the high altitude. Christine Lugo-Yergensen, owner of Sweet Buns Catering, relocated to Montana from Tampa, Fla. after her husband Jake received an offer to become head pastry chef at the Yellowstone Club.
Noticing that her signature chocolate chip cookies were falling flat, Lugo-Yergensen retooled the recipe and tested it with the help of her husband and the very limited literature she found on high-altitude baking tips. However, following that particular section of elevation on the back of a Pillsbury cake box wasn’t that easy.
Lugo-Yergensen described that he is not a chemist but knows enough about hydration, elevation and cooking with elevation to make a difference. “There is a significant difference in elevation (from Florida to Montana),” she said. “Here in Big Sky the air is so dry and your bread needs extra moisture whereas in Florida it needs the opposite.”
After countless rounds of trial and error, Lugo-Yergensen finally found a way to make her cookies as delicious as they once were in Florida—a signature recipe that quickly became her town’s favorite chocolate chip cookie. After this success, she applied this newfound knowledge to other baked goods such as laminated doughs and donuts. Anyone who’s tried making macarons knows how tricky they can be, but Lugo-Yergensen’s recipes thrive despite Big Sky’s altitude, which ranges from 6,000 to 11,000 feet above sea level, according to the Altitude Guide.
building a company
After cooking for almost every event at The Wilson Hotel in Big Sky, Lugo-Yergensen attended one particularly large catering event that gave her the seed capital she needed to officially launch Sweet Buns Catering, opening in 2019 became.
Despite the pandemic, the catering business thrived. “We were busy because it was all drop-off meals,” she said.
Lugo-Yergensen continued to build her success and had a regular stall at the local farmer’s market for almost three years before opening her own bakery in Big Sky Town Center in March.
In June, she was named Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year by the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce. “I’m about 33, have three kids and two small dogs that came from Florida,” said Lugo-Yergensen. “It’s kind of crazy, but it comes from hard work and trying to be different and better.”
A love for the spice
Lugo-Yergensen describes Big Sky as slow-paced and relaxing with lots of family-oriented events. It’s one of those places where everyone knows everyone — a far cry from where she was born in Brooklyn or the Florida suburbs where she grew up.
With a father from the Dominican Republic and a mother from Panama, Lugo-Yergensen knows her flavor profile is different than anything Big Sky is used to. She often teases that she tends to overdo food. For her Dias de los Muertos party, her family showcased the diverse tastes of all of Latin America, rather than just focusing on Mexico.
However, Lugo-Yergensen’s creativity in the kitchen does not only come from her background or family. In 2009 she earned a Certificate in Baking and Pastry Art from the Art Institute of Tampa. From there she worked for several years in kitchens in New York City, Los Angeles, Florida and the Bahamas, including at big industry names like Todd English’s Olives at the W Hotel and Quattro Gastronomia Italiana in New York City.
After a lifetime of traveling and cooking, this mother of three took a few years off to raise her twin daughters Ava and Vivienne and son Leif. And then came Montana. This time Lugo-Yergensen knew she wanted to get out of the kitchen and work in the front of house too.
The future is great (Heaven)
Today, the bakery owner spends her days with her family. During particularly busy times of the year, her children, her husband and even her parents help out in the kitchen. Lugo-Yergensen also welcomes children to the community to learn behind-the-scenes cooking techniques, especially young women.
“We’re starting our own culinary foundation here in Big Sky so that any young girl who wants to be a pastry chef can have a good understanding of what it’s really like,” she said. “It’s difficult for any woman out there in a kitchen to say to a man, ‘No, that’s how you do it,’ so I want them to be prepared and oriented.”
Later, Lugo-Yergensen hopes to publish a book about her family’s recipes and proven techniques for high-altitude baking, not only to supplement the literature on the craft, but also to give those who follow in her footsteps a book have useful resource to consult when the going gets tough.
Aja Hannah is an author, traveler and mom. She writes about diversity, equity and sustainable travel for publications such as AAA and The Independent. As secretary to the central chapter of the Society of Travel Writers, she pushes to prioritize trips that have an eco-tourism aspect or people focus first. She believes in the Oxford comma, cheap flights and a daily dose of chocolate.