Traci Anello

The Power in Food


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Gingerbread houses are not just for Christmas…

When you think of gingerbread houses, you think of Christmas and the snow capped roof, decorated trees and the festive feeling of the holidays. What about the rest of the year?? Gingerbread is not just for Christmas. It’s for any holiday or even just for fun.

You could even make a gingerbread house for a friend who has just bought a new house or camp. Wouldn’t it be fun to give them a house made to look like the one they just purchased?? No? Not so much? We’ll stick to the holidays for now but someday you’ll thank me for that little plug.

The house in this picture is a haunted gingerbread house made entirely out of edible pieces except for the base it stands on. The idea came to me while at my bakery I had a conversation with a customer who said she couldn’t wait for the holidays because she loved making cookies and candy houses. So I asked her why she was waiting for Christmas. Make them for now. I told her by the weekend I’ll have a haunted house and send her the pictures (she was from out-of-state).

So I started this house like I do all of the others, with a cardboard template. I built the initial model out of cake boards and put it together. Then the fun part begins. This is where your creativity side comes out. You have to think haunted and then think of food products to match. So I searched online for haunted houses and after about what seemed like a thousand but was only maybe 100, I had a good idea about what I wanted. Just staring at the pictures, I wanted trees with no leaves, ghosts, bats, pumpkins stained glass windows and broken shutters. Pastillage (pronounced: PA-stee-aj) is made from sugar and corn syrup. You roll it our like fondant or pie dough. It gets hard really fast so you have to work quick. With the help of a co-worker, we used this for most of the work other than the actual gingerbread. We used the rice Krispie treats to make the land and a base for the house. The trees were made from grape stems. Now some would argue that’s not edible but I would disagree. You can eat it. You just won’t enjoy it. It’s edible. Once the house is up, the decorating begins. Be creative. By the time we were done, we stood back and took a long look. It was fun and it was pretty awesome. It was a great piece for the customers to look at. The local paper came in and took pictures that was in the paper right before Halloween. It really drew quite a few customers which was really nice for us.

The best place to start is to draw your house out of cardboard and tape it together. Keep it small enough to work with. You’re not moving in. Cut out your windows and doorways. Then untape it and trace your dough around it. Bake the gingerbread and then let it cool at least over night but two days if you can. Let it sit out so it gets nice and dry. The best part about a haunted house is if you accidentally break a piece, ice it together. It’s a haunted house. It does not have to be perfect and you don’t want it to be. I always make two sets so I have backup ready. What I mean by that is I always have extra pieces because you never know when you’ll need them and you don’t want to wait two days for replacement parts.

To make the stained glass windows, just lay the gingerbread flat on a baking pan and place crushed life savers (like a powder) in the window and make sure the candy is touching all four sides of the window. Bake as usual. This is a great way to make stained glass cookies. Then once the window is baked and cooled, you can crack the window like a broken window. Let your mind have fun. Cool effects like these will make you a cool adult to the kids.

The best part for me was the more people who looked at this house, the more people I was hoping would take this idea and run with it. How many were going to go home and create a house of their own. How many kids were about to have a great time with an adult and learn about making these houses. How many of those children would grow up and someday make one with their own kids. See where this is going?? This is how I like to teach. If you plant an idea and make it easy to do, people will follow. This is how new traditions are created. If even one person tries this idea by reading this blog, one more child in the world just benefitted from quality time. And this all started over a simple conversation.

*Gluten free friends, you can make any gingerbread house you want as well. GF gingerbread dough works just as well. There’s no reason why you can’t be in on the fun too. Make the pastillage (no gluten there) and the icing (no gluten there either). Take a traditional recipe and substitute Gf all-purpose flour and xanthan gum.


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Gingerbread on Broadway

The first semester of culinary school can be a bit nerving. You have to learn about new instructors, meet other students and prepare for your hands on lab classes. What you’re not quite prepared for is the invitation for 5 students to compete in a gingerbread contest in New York City on Broadway known as The Gingerbread on Broadway at the Marriott Marquis . It gets better. These are 5 students who have never baked a cookie, rolled a rolling-pin across a sheet of gingerbread let alone 120 sheets of gingerbread, used a commercial convection oven or a 30qt. Hobart mixer…until now. This gingerbread house had to be made entirely out of edible products. How hard can that be?? Read on…

The challenges come into play when the contest is first announced. Everyone wants to go. Now the weeding out process begins. This contest requires 40 hours of work which is after class 4 days a week. You have to participate in every class. There’s a lot of work that has to be done by everyone. One by one they filed out the door until there was 6 (one alternate). We’re building a team. I thought this was more of a challenge than building the house or transporting it 5 hours in a rented van.

Eventually we build a team and the work begins. For me, the most important condition was that who ever was in this, wanted to learn. They were willing to listen and try new techniques. This is all about learning. It’s a quick crash course on baking and decorating but more important, a course on trust and working together.

First order of business is what to build. They decided they were representing Maine and a lighthouse was the perfect way to do that. They chose the Nubble Lighthouse as a team. My insides were saying, “A light house? And it has to travel all the way to NYC down the Massachusetts Turnpike and through the streets of New York?? Don’t scare them. Keep this thought to yourself”. And so I did.

We start by building the house out of cardboard and constructing it together. This became our template. Then a quick course on mixing and rolling out dough. This was not so easy. Not a problem as this is where the learning continues. Then we had to decided how to stabilize the house. After staring at the picture of the Nubble for what seemed like hours but was only one hour, it was decided that the land would be made out of Rice Krispie treats and we could dig a foundation to sit the house in. Genius! I have learned that two of my team members work construction during the summer.As I learn the members, I learn their strengths. I have another person who loves to make beaded jewelery. She was perfect for the window work and trim. Each night was a new experience. There was excitement, tension and a lot of concentration. These would eventually be students in my baking and pastry class the next month. The house is constructed and now the creativity for the outside begins. We have a sugar made santa in a boat. This actually happens at the Nubble every year so that was important to include. We made lobster traps all out of sugar, a rocky shore and Christmas trees decorating the yard made with local candies. You can’t see them but behind the house are woodpiles made of pretzels and two cats playing in the snow. We used writing gel for the water. We used and made so much candy!!! It looked great!! I was so proud of my team.

Travel time! In all of my years making wedding cakes, I can tell you the delivery is the most painful. If it’s going to happen, it’s during the delivery. The entire night before, I prayed that every horrible driver  take the day off from work. We loaded the van and created a “crash” kit of extra gingerbread, candies, icing, pastry bags and Tylenol. After a long drive and solid white knuckles and a lot of laughs, we arrived.
We made it in one piece as did the house. However, we made the maximum size house allowed under the rules. No one told use we had to reserve a handicap room if we did that. The house wouldn’t fit in our room.I offered to sleep with it in the lobby but the staff said no. How out-of-place would I have looked sleeping in the lobby in New York? After a conference with the hotel staff, our house got its own suite, two floors a bar and a piano. We could not sleep in the suite but our gingerbread house would be safely locked in the room with a window view of Times Square.

After a sleepless night, we retrieved our gingerbread house and went to the conference room to set up. The room was decorated beautifully. There were 6 other schools there. We were the underdogs. I brought the students around to meet the other schools and to check out their work and make mental notes for next year. The judging began and consisted of culinary experts, architects and hotel staff. We walked away and sat in the next room chatting about the other incredible houses. My students were up against some pretty well known schools. I had complete faith in them because I watched them all grow in 6 short weeks. Once allowed back, the judges would come to your table and critique the work. This was a very important step for the students to experience. The awards were announced except for the People’s Choice which the public votes on and they have 3 weeks to do so while your house is displayed. Unfortunately we did not win the grand prize. I explained it was the People’s Choice award they wanted. It’s the award chosen by the public. Just three more weeks.  I told the students they were winners long before we arrived here. They learned to build a team, work together, be creative, learn several new skills and put together a beautiful gingerbread house. There wasn’t much I could say to make them feel better. It was a long ride home.

Three weeks later, we get the call from the Marriott. We won the People’s Choice award!! The students were thrilled!! The college was thrilled and the local news covered the story.

This was the most incredible 6 weeks I spent with brand new students. We all learned so many lessons including myself. We walked away with an award, new skills and most important, new friends.

Gingerbread houses don’t have to be this big. Start with a small house for little hands. Build a tradition with your kids or in the community. It builds strengths, courage, self-esteem and creates memories that will forever be remembered.


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Fall in love with gluten free baking

Tonight is the night I am going to try to put a stop to the panic attacks gluten-free baking tends to bring on. I’m not handing out any meds here just straight sound advice.

When a person had been diagnosed with celiac disease, it feels as though your world of fine cuisine fades away with the evening sun. It’s over. You have to adjust to cardboard with powdered sugar for dessert. Cardboard with tomato sauce and some kind of cheese for pizza and you have to toast every tiny piece of bread you get your hands on. Well, those days are over.

The competition for gluten-free foods is at an all time high right now. There are amazing products popping out of kitchens made by families who decided they’ll make their own food. This is a good thing. Competition is a wonderful tool to motivate every producer, baker and chef to improve what’s being made every day. That means one thing. Better products every day. How would you feel if I said the best products will come out of your own kitchen? Perhaps I need the meds? Wrong answer. Read on.

What I want to share with you is a very easy secret that I want you to share with everyone you know. Every recipe for cakes, pies, cookies and whoopie pies (It’s a New England thing.) you have in your old recipe box is every recipe you’ll ever need to be the best at what you do. Why you ask?? Because these recipes are traditions in your family that you are going to be able to pass on to your children gluten-free or not. Those cookies you remember as a child with your mom or grand mother are the same ones you’ll enjoy every holiday. The trick? Just substitute a good All-purpose gluten-free flour cup for cup and a little xanthan gum for stability. That’s it! I converted every recipe I used in my traditional bakery to gluten-free successfully. Don’t be afraid. You can do this. It seems the panic attacks come from all of the weird ingredients and different flours. Don’t worry about that. Just get the flour and let the gluten-free gurus do all of the work figuring out what flour goes with what.

The best recipe to try this method with is brownies. They are pretty fool-proof and most brownie recipes have very little flour. Just try it. Every weekend I make pumpkin donuts and apple donuts by using my recipe for pumpkin bread and apple bread. I simply substitute Gf flour and add some xanthan and before you know it, you have everyone’s attention with the Fall aroma. No one will ever know they are gluten-free.

There are some other tricks I’ll share with you as I go. The real kicker here is you don’t have to invest in a ton of cookbooks that you don’t need. It’s all right there at your fingertips. All I ask is that you take a deep breath and focus on the fun behind the food you will create. When you realize how easy this can actually be, you’ll enjoy cooking and baking again. You’ll find your creative side and fall in love with it all over again.

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How it all started…In my sand box

As I started to think about what to write tonight, I had this thought about how it all might have started. I’m going to give you a quick trip back to the 70’s. Don’t worry. There won’t be any funky music or bad perms. This is just a fun look back at how I started at what would eventually become my life long career in the food service industry as a chef.

When I was quite small sometime back in the 70’s, my dad built my 2 brothers and two sisters as well as myself a sand box. It was a good-sized sand box so that at least three of us could play in it at the same time. I have to admit, when there were three of us at the same time, it never ended well. Most of the time I would wait them all out and have the box to myself. One day I decided to mix some sand with water and “bake” them in the sun on the ledge of the box. I got them to the point where I could flip them over like a pancake. This was pretty cool. I started to experiment with different textures to see which types of sand (which was all gluten free by the way) would work best. This really happened. At my young age, I suddenly had created my own “job” everyday and my lab was my sandbox. Lucky for me we didn’t have cats so “sand castles” were not a problem until later when our neighbor started harboring cats. Then and only then their cats became a work hazard. Anyway, Everyday I knew if the sun was shining, the office was open. On rainy days, I would sit in my room and sob. I just wanted to go outside and play.

Little by little, utensils would be missing from the kitchen, the spatulas, the strainers and eventually a cookie sheet. Finally my dad took a walk outside and would retrieve his kitchen tools (which were really mine by then because possession is nine-tenths of the law). Not in dad’s court.

He decided one day to get me an Easy Bake Oven. It might have been Christmas time. The first time I think I went through all of the mixes in about one hour. I was a master. I already learned about textures in my own sand lab. Now I had to learn to read directions and follow them. To this day if I had the internet back then, I would have sent them an e-mail to tell them they needed to adjust the textures. I would go outside and pick fresh native blueberries and put them in everything. I have to say “Bless my father”. He was a real sport. Dad worked two jobs and every time he would come home and try to take a quick nap, I was knocking on his door to give him another treat. He ate every one of them. I was on to something.

One day I ran out of mixes and went through the cabinets to look for anything I could bake. Ah, a box of jello? Certainly I could make this work. I mixed the jello and put it in the little two-inch pan and gently slid it into the oven. It took about 1 minute and suddenly it sort of exploded and covered the light bulb. What a let down. First I thought I failed and would never be able to bake again. Then I had a young person’s panic attack and thought it was back to the sand box. Lightbulbs! In the hall closet! I was back in business.

When I was out of mixes, I would try pancake mix. At this point, I was more interested in the science about what I was making than the actual recipe. That would all fall into place when the time was right. It wasn’t all about the taste but the textures.

Fast forward some 30 or so years, this is how I bake today. I taught college level culinary arts for about 8 years. I couldn’t take them all outside to play in a sand box to play with different sands so I created different types of flour to see how well they could come up with the right combination of flour and water. Just as I had done in my sand lab. I teach people that recognizing what the batter looks like is as important as how it will taste. If the texture isn’t right, the outcome won’t be either. Just ask the jello.

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Back to pie crust…Crimping

To crimp or not to crimp…Not a famous quote but probably should be.

Crimping a pie crust is as individual as you are. It’s a necessary step to a successful pie and the one you create becomes your signature.

In Webster’s Dictionary, crimping is defined as “To cause to become wavy, bent or pinched as in to pinch or press together in order to seal”. Well said. Now if Webster’s had a sense of humor they would finish the definition with : “Because if you do not seal properly, you’re going to have a blow out and a heck of a mess to clean up”. That’s the truth. Even though it’s a necessary step, it’s a decorative step as well. Remember, if the pie looks amazing, it’s already starting to taste amazing.

The different styles depend on how you’re feeling that day or if you have developed your own signature way. At some point you’ll make enough pies that you develop your own style. Mine is the simple yet effective “pinch”. The pinch is when you take your thumb and pointer and create a “v” with your tips. Then you take your opposite pointer and press it into the “v”. Each time you will place your thumb in the last crimp. This is a very popular method. The clown ruffle is a crimp that is smooth and looks just like the ruffle around a clown’s neck. Use the same thumb and pointer on one hand and then turn the opposite thumb flat to create the shape.Some others are the dreadful looking fork press. Just take a fork and smash the two crusts together. Not attractive at all but it’s out there so I’ll just consider this a for warning. Remember, what you do outside the crust, reflects the inside. If you’re ever with someone who is doing this, now’s the time to show them a beautiful decorative crust. Best excuse for you to rescue them and cover up that mess. The decorative look is after you finish the crimp, make small cut outs like little leaves or circles. Egg wash the entire crimped crust and then lay each leave on the crust overlapping the last. Leaves are especially nice for this in the Fall. I have posted the pie crust with the circle overlay to show you. I have also posted a picture to show you how to do the entire crust with circles. This is a nice trick because you can create vents without intentionally puncturing the crusts. Just leave small vents when you lay the circles down.

If you’re making a gluten-free crust, working with small circles is a very easy way to work with that crust. It can be a challenge to move a large circle without cracking it. Whether you’re gluten-free or not, these tips work very well for any pie.

If you are making a single shell, it’s a really good idea to make the complete shell already with the crimping done and then freeze it. You only have to freeze it for an hour but remember, you have butter in the crust (you better be using butter!) and as soon as it hits that oven, it might want to relax. This is just an insurance to be sure your quiche or cream pie (heavens!) will hold up. I like to make a batch of pie dough and then make them all single shells and have them ready to go in the freezer.

So that’s my lesson on crimping. I never thought there was that much to know but I guess once you start talking about it, there’s more than you think. There’s more than I thought! Feel free to add any ideas you have. Remember to have fun. Making pies with kids and watching them create their own styles (sorry about the mess) is actually more fun than eating the pie itself. It’s almost time for the holidays so you have plenty of time for a few dress rehearsals. How bad can that be? Here’s a quick tip: If it’s that bad (including the blowouts): Regardless of what it looks like, save it by putting a serving of the pie mess in a dessert glass and add a scoop of ice cream and another scoop of the filling. People will think you made the best dessert ever! And do you know what? You just did.

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Confectionery Miracle worker

Today was a rather interesting day. I was called a “Miracle Worker”. I managed to have a favorite cookie for a little friend who asked for it out of the blue and just happened to have made them. I thought a miracle worker? Just for having the right cookie? If miracles were that easy it would be my full time job. So then I thought, “Why can’t they be?”. Now I’m no Saint Theresa nor would I ever claim to be. As a matter of fact, anyone that knows me would be laughing hysterically right now if they heard me say that. However, how many times have you been called an angel or a saint just for doing something thoughtful and meaning it? I think even a small box of homemade cookies could really make someone’s day. Including yours for making them. There’s something to be said about being the person that creates in the kitchen for everyone. It’s a wonderful feeling and when you have that wonderful feeling, that’s what goes into what you are making. That’s the love that I am talking about when I say what you put into food, they will receive. Maybe that’s YOUR little miracle.

My point is, sometimes it IS as simple as a cookie. Think about someone who could really use one right now. Not so much the actual cookie itself but the act of kindness that goes along with it. Remember I talked about balance the other day. The thoughtful act of making a small batch filled with simple ingredients and a little love will go a long way. You have the balance of the love, taste and presentation.

Shortbreads come to mind when I think simple. It’s got six ingredients and can be made into just about every conceivable shape you can think of. Linzors are my absolute favorite. A nice crisp cookie with a fresh raspberry jam (bonus if you made the jam!) and a little dust of powdered sugar. I also like to make these with a chocolate filling inside and a gentle drizzle over the top. Placed in a small box with some pretty paper and a decorative little bow, this is the kind of little miracle you can create for someone.

*Gluten free friends, you can make a version of these exact cookies by substituting gluten free all purpose flour and xanthan gum in your recipes. Shortbreads are a very easy cookies to convert. Even the Scottish bakers add a little white rice flour for texture.

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Food is a balance

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Food is a delicate balance sometime. Such is life.

My philosophy is what you put into food, people will receive. What that means is it’s a very careful balance of flavor, texture, esthetics and love. Although carefully put together, it does not have to be difficult. It’s quite the contrary.
Let me give you an example: One of the moments I most enjoy is when my daughter comes over for dinner. Even though I have fed this child (who is actually 25 but they’re always “your child”), I still carefully plan what I want to serve and how I’m going to prepare dinner. I know what she likes. Fortunately she has a very open palate so I can even create something outside the box. A typical meal starts with a trip to the farmers market (in the summer) to see what looks fresh and vibrant. There has to be color. Once I get that far, now I can start to develop the menu. Then I walk around the market and maybe see a nice goat cheese, organic eggs and fresh herbs. Now I’m thinking a fritatta or a simple omelet. I pick up a few of those beautiful tiny red potatoes for a side dish and hit up the local farmer for some fresh peaches for dessert and my menu is done.

From a nutritional stand point, I have the basic food groups and farm fresh to boot.Now I play a soft jazz and prepare dinner. Everything is carefully washed and gently chopped. The peaches are sliced and just barely sauteed in a little honey, cinnamon and a pinch of ginger. The kitchen smells great. The music sounds great and now with the aroma of a medley of vegetables and herbs, the conversation flows. There is love in the kitchen shared by a mother and daughter.
She sets the table and lights a candle. As we begin our meal, the conversation starts about how it was prepared and soon turns to a trip down memory lane about meals from the past. Ones that we prepared together or others when friends came over to share. There are a few about the disasters that happen from time to time (we’ve all had them. Even the James Beard chefs). Sometime those situations turn into new recipes.

The important thing is, it’s all about the love. The love that went into choosing the ingredients, to the preparation to the service. The love you receive when you taste the sweetness of the peaches. When you find the perfect balance, the rest of the meal will follow.

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Quiche makes an easy meal anytime.

Quiche is one of those menu items you generally see on a brunch menu. The truth is, it can make any meal anytime a quick and easy task. There are many ways you can approach this. You can make your shells up ahead of time and freeze them so they are ready when you are. You can make the entire quiche and freeze that so it’s completely ready when you are. Or you can just have someone else make it and lose out on the feeling of satisfaction when you serve it. The last one sounds a little harsh but I’m here to give you a boost into cooking for yourself. Let’s face it, you know you want to do it so I’m here to help.

Generally I like to make a batch of shells up all at once. I use 6″ pans so I can make several varieties of quiche all at the same time. It’s a real time saver and if you already have them ready to go, make a pie too for dessert. Pie dough works the best and holds up very well in the freezer. If you’re hosting a brunch or just making it for your family, choices are good. I suggest making a simple cheese quiche. That’s a no fail pleaser. Other suggestions would be: Lorraine (bacon), smoked turkey and portobello, garden vegetable, caramelized onion and goat cheese, sun dried tomato and fresh basil and my family favorite: Italian with bits of salami, capicola, roasted peppers and provolone cheese. Your choices are as broad as your imagination. Feel free to share them on this blog.

Construction is very simple: Place the cheese on the bottom followed by the ingredients of your imagination and then the filling. Here is a simple basic quiche filling that will make 6 (6″) quiche:

12 large eggs
1 quart of half and half
salt and pepper to taste
dash of worcestershire sauce
1/4 cup of fresh chopped parsley

Whisk this all together and fill the quiche where it meets the bottom rim of your pie crust. I bake them at 350° for about 30 minutes, depending on your oven. When they have a slight giggle, they’re ready. Remember, they’ll cook a bit longer once they’re out of the oven. The beauty of quiche is it can be served warm or at room temperature.

This is a basic recipe so feel free to add herbs of your choice as well. See what’s in the fridge for leftovers from the night before. I bet that will make a pretty cool quiche unless ofcourse it’s spaghetti but hey, you never know. People are covering bacon with chocolate now a days and calling it good. Just don’t put that in your quiche.

Serving suggestions to go with your homemade (yes, you did it!) quiche are as simple as the dish itself. A few ideas could be fresh fruit, a garden salad, crispy roasted potatoes, crusty baguettes toasted and lightly buttered and maybe even just a small dish of cottage cheese flavored ofcourse with a few herbs.

If you are following a gluten free diet, use the basic recipe and gluten free pie shells. There’s no reason why you can’t join in on this fun too. I have made many Gf quiches and honestly, no one could ever tell the difference. Most of all of my recipes I can convert to gluten free very easily for you and i’m happy to do so.

This is quick and simple meal. Take the time to give it a try and remember to take pictures. I’d love to see them. Tomorrow we will conquer pie crust. It’s that time of year and with a few simple tricks, you’ll be known as the pie lady in no time!


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The most amazing Italian breakfast sandwich ever!

I want to share with you the most amazing breakfast sandwich ever. I created this little masterpiece at my bakery in Wells, Maine which was then known as “Anello’s Pastries”.
This sandwich consisted of a well toasted Asiago bagel with a thin layer of Cabot butter, a farm fresh egg, warmed hot capicola and imported provolone cheese. People would line out the door for one of these which usually turned into two. The crispy toasted bagel with a soft chewy middle, the spicy flavor of the capicola and the sharp taste of imported provolone cheese was the best start to the day.

Just because you’re gluten free doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy life too.

There is a very good gluten free version of this sandwich: Bake off GF rolls ahead of time but add Asiago cheese to them before they go in the oven. Freeze the batch. When you’re ready, pull one from the freezer and toast. use a farm fresh egg, a sice of GF capicola and Gf provolone cheese. Deitz and Watson has Gf meats and cheeses as well as Citterio which is my favorite. Lightly butter the roll, add warmed capicola and the provolone will melt on it’s on. You should probably make two. I’m just warning you because the one who doesn’t want to dare try the Gf version will ask for a “small” bite because the aroma is amazing. Then they’ll ask for another bite. Just give them the sandwich and keep the second one for yourself.

Breakfast is the start to the day. With a sandwich like this, you not only treat yourself to some Italian love, you treat the whole family.


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Gluten free can be beautiful

Wedding cakes should always taste as good if not better than they look. That’s not as hard as it sounds.

There are plenty of GF all purpose flours on the market. Most of them ate pretty good too. My advice is not to search the entire Internet for a cake recipe. Instead, look inside the passed down recipe box. Find that favorite cake and simply replace the all purpose flour and add appropriate xanthan gum. Youd be surprised at the incredible recipes you have at your finger tips.

This particular wedding cake was created for a couple in Maine. The tier flavors are chocolate raspberry, chocolate white chocolate ganache and lemon raspberry. The shells are all handmade from chocolate.

This cake was served to all the guests and yes, there were requests for seconds!

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