Traci Anello

The Power in Food


Leave a comment

A favorite pie and a slice of cheesecake are all part of the power in food

This Thanksgiving plans were all set. I was going to New Jersey to have dinner with my sister Kim, her family and some dear friends. We talk about the menu months prior and everything started to line up. I love cooking in her kitchen. It’s beautiful. The set up is perfect and the balcony filled with fresh herbs is right outside the door. I always head out there with my coffee and a pair of scissors. There’s fresh thyme, chives, sage, basil, rosemary and mint. It’s how I picture Alice Waters everyday gathering her fresh herbs for her salad or for her roasted vegetables.

Well, sometimes plans change and it can happen very quickly. For us, it happened in the blink of an eye. I got a phone call four days before Thanksgiving that my dad had fallen and was in the hospital. He cracked 9 ribs and was in a lot of pain. Thankfully he was stabilized and was resting. On the way to the hospital, my step mother got in a car accident. The second phone call I got about her accident was hard to hear. Thankfully she was unhurt, as was the other driver but her car was totaled. Immediately it was clear that the game plan for Thanksgiving was about to change. After talking with my sister, it was decided that I would stay back and drive to Massachusetts instead for the holiday meal. It was a no brainer actually. My dad needed to stay rested once he got home. So I made the call to my step mother and told her I would be down on Thursday to cook the meal. I was more than happy to do this. It meant they didn’t have to leave the house and they were going to get one hell of a dinner. This is where a quick change of plans can be a good thing. You never know in a given day how things are going to change. If you go with it and adapt to the current situation, it can become less stressful for everyone. Love is a wonderful driving force and it can create some beautiful moments out of an unfortunate set of circumstances.

I came up with a menu and the very next day went to our local butcher and asked about an eight pound turkey breast. They were sold out which was to be expected so it was off to the supermarket in town which I always try to avoid because I prefer to support local businesses. Fate had a different path for me. I went into the store and couldn’t find what I needed. An associate from the meat department approached me and asked if I needed help. I was a bit surprised because customer service in a corporate setting is a thing of the past. But this man was very happy to help and I was very happy to let him. I told him I was looking for a turkey breast about 8 pounds.   He said he was almost certain they were about to put an order in for some that would arrive the following morning and he checked. Sure enough, I was in the right place at the right time. I was able to order one with the understanding that I needed to be at the store early to assure it would be there. The associate was looking every where for a pen while I was thanking him several times. I wanted this meal to be the best for my family and it meant everything had to line up two days prior to Thanksgiving. He played a big part in making this happen. Where there’s a will there’s a way. So I took my favorite pen out of my checkbook and handed it to him. He wrote down my information and went to hand the pen back when I told him to put it in his pocket and hang on to it. I don’t know who was more appreciative. Was it me for getting this order in or him for getting a nice pen? It was a wonderful quick moment that ended in us both wishing each other a nice holiday. These are the important little victories in life and this was just the beginning.

The next morning, I was supposed to be at a local bakery to help the owner make her yearly mega pie order. By now it’s a tradition to do this with her and her amazing staff every year. But first I had to pick up my turkey breast and sure enough, it was ready. I was thrilled. I brought it home and placed it in my refrigerator and then off to Kennebunk to make what would be 145 pies that days. I was thinking of dessert for our meal on my way to the bakery. I decided I would make my dad’s favorite pumpkin cheesecake and his wife’s favorite mincemeat pie. That would make them both very happy and given the circumstances we were in, it was the exact thing to do. I love food and I especially love he power in food. So while I was in the middle of this pie marathon, I was trying to figure out when am I going to have the time to pull these desserts off the day before the big meal. Out of the kindness of this bakery owners heart, she said for me to just make the pie while I was there. Thank you!! So I did which meant it was a real time saver for me and I also got to roll out a beautiful homemade pie crust. Out of the 145 pies I made that day (146 including this one), the mincemeat was my favorite. The meaning behind this pie was of pure love. When you know what someone’s favorite dessert is and you make it, there’s a lot more than ingredients going into that pie. Love in Love out. The cheesecake I put together that night. I thought of my grandmother, Marietta Straguzzi, and the love she used to put into my dad’s meals. Maybe I was channeling her love and techniques. I like to think so because I never measured the ingredients. It was a little of this and a little of that just like she used to do.

Thursday morning I packed up my car and headed to Massachusetts. It was a perfect trip down and I stopped and grabbed a couple of coffees from my dad  and Ginna’s favorite coffee shop. I got to the house and hauled all of the good things I brought down with me. I took the pies out of the bag and showed Ginna her mincemeat pie. She was really happy. When my dad saw his cheesecake he was willing to dine on that first and eat turkey later. He’s  funny guy my dad. He loves to eat and loves his desserts.  It was nice to see him getting around. He was very sore but he stayed in the kitchen and we talked while I prepared the meal. I knew once he started to smell everything cooking, it would stimulate the healing process. That’s what food does. When it smells good, it looks good. When it looks good, you associate it tasting great before you even stick your fork in it. The healing starts. You’re happy and excited in anticipation of a great meal shared with family. We had turkey breast, two types of stuffing (I’m plantbased so no animal products on mine), roasted squash and carrots (all produce was organic too), mashed potatoes, roasted head of cauliflower, green beans, gravy, fresh rolls and the cranberry sauce. My dad, his wife, my brother Tony and I all sat around the table and laughed and ate a lot of food. It was the best time. It was very special to me and them.

This was a meal that wasn’t planned and would not have taken place at this holiday if not for the unfortunate events that took place with my dad. This was a total reset moment for me. This meal was so special and meant so much to each of us. There were a lot of hugs and love in that room. How can that not be healing?? It’s an important lesson that when an event happens that’s devastating and hard to embrace, you have to go with what’s important for everyone. You have to create a new set of circumstances that will bring a good feeling for each person including yourself. We did it in less than a day. It was the right thing to do. It created some very good memories. It brought back some important traditions. These would have all been lost that day if my dad hadn’t fallen. I’m not saying they wouldn’t have had a nice day otherwise because they most certainly could have. What I’m saying is, this situation created an opportunity for four people to reconnect and enjoy a nice meal together. The conversation was fun. The food was good. Love was abundant. It was a beautiful day that came to a close with a favorite pie and a slice of cheesecake.

I’m very thankful for my family. I’m also very thankful for the power in food.


Leave a comment

Spooky shortbreads

Yesterday I wrote about gingerbread houses and how they are not just for Christmas anymore. Today I wanted to share with you very simple ideas with shortbreads. If you are making gluten free cookies, these same rules apply. Remember, just because they are gluten free doesn’t mean you have to miss out on the fun.

The cookies in the picture are a plain shortbread that is filled and drizzled with semi sweet chocolate. I then added two little eyes for a “mummy” effect. You want to put the eyes in while the chocolate is still wet so they will stick. You can use any filling you want. You can even make these as a chocolate shortbread with a white chocolate drizzle. Raspberry jam with the chocolate drizzle and little eyes could look just as creepy and still taste great. The goal here isn’t just to make a scarey cookie. It’s to create a scarey cookie that looks, well, scarey but tastes really good.

The little eyes can be purchased online at the website: http://www.cakedeco.com. This is Pfeil and Holing and they will have just about every conceivable sugar decoration you could ever think of and ever need. While you’re on this website, check out some of the cookie cutters they have. The bone cutter is really cool. You can make a sandwich cookie with them and use the chocolate or raspberry filling. The top can get more chocolate or just dust it with confectionery sugar. When I had my bakery, we used to make them and call them “Good boy people treats”. The joke was if you got your husband to do anything on the “honey-do” list, then you could reward him with a bone. That’s a true story. It was funny at the time. We sold alot of them. I can tell you that!

The whole idea behind making fun food is you get the chance to be creative and give someone something you made that is actual special. Even mummy cookies can be special. Think outside the box! This is alittle off the cookie subject but those of you who know me know sometimes you really have to follow what I’m saying because I bounce from topic to topic and eventually come back to what we were talking about. Sorry but these wheels are constantly turning! Anyway, here’s a great little dessert for kids. It’s called “Worms in a bucket”. Now this is outside the box! Actaully it’s in a bucket. Usually at a dollar store you can find mini plastic sand buckets. Fill them 3/4 of the way with chocolate pudding. Use the instant kind. You’re not being graded on this assignment. Then take gummy worms and stick them half way in the pudding with some hanging over the edge. Use chocolate cookie crumbs and sprinkle quite a bit of them all over the top like dirt. If you have some shortbread bones, stick them in for fun too. Worms in a bucket!! You will be the coolest parent for sure! If you’re going to a big party, use a big bucket and watch people dive in. Did you see how I tied the shortbread into this?? See, I came back to the original subject.

The nice thing about making shortbreads is that they freeze really well. If you have a free day, make a batch and freeze them undecorated. Then they’re ready when you need them. Just pull them from the freezer and decorate. The fun part about making these cookies is they cut very clean from the cookie cutter so it’s an easy one for kids. Most shortbreads do not have raw egg so they can sneak some dough and you don’t have to worry about them getting sick. If you have an allergy to dairy, just substitutue Earth Balance for the butter. Don’t use margarine (yuck) because it has added water in it and it will show as bubbles in your shortbread. I use Cabot unsalted butter and I love it!

Visit cakedeco.com and after you “flip” through the pages, your wheels will start to turn too. Baking is fun and baking new cookies means starting new traditions. Every holiday brings new ideas. Halloween is a fun one because even if it gets messy, it’s Halloween. Break the rules!


Leave a comment

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.


Leave a comment

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.


Leave a comment

A love affair with pie crust

With Fall on our heels, it’s time to find that pie crust recipe that year after year you said you were going to tackle. Then everytime you’re ready, the phone rings, the mailman’s at the door (do they still do that?), or the kids need help with their homework (you should still do that!). Any reason was a good reason not to attempt the obvious. This year is going to be different. You’re going to create a love affair with your pie crust. This year, I’m going to give you a pie crust that is so easy to make, everyone will want you to make the holiday pies. Then and only then, you will probably regret this post but it will soon pass and before you know it, you’re opening your own bakery. Okay, not so fast but always a possibility.

There are so many different types of crust for various pies. This will be an all around easy to make blue ribbon winner. Actually, it has won awards. You can use this for quiche, fruit pies, cream pies, turnovers, tart shells, crostadas…The list goes on.

For those of you who are gluten free, the directions are exactly the same except you will substitute GF all-purpose flour for the traditional all-purpose plus add xanthan. I’ll include that in the recipe.

This basic but incredible recipe can be made by hand, in a Kitchen Aid with the pastry hook (looks like a “J”) attachment or in a Cuisinart style food processor.

Here’s the recipe that will make Four 10″ pie crusts.

Ingredients:
3 cups of all-purpose flour (or pastry flour)
1 cup (2 sticks) Cabot unsalted butter, cold, cut into small cubes
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup very cold water

*Gf readers: 3 cup GF all-purpose flour plus 3/4 teaspoon xanthan gum

1. By hand:
Place the flour, salt and butter in a bowl. Using a fork or a pastry cutter, break the butter up until the mixture resembles cornmeal

Kitchen Aid:
Place the dry ingredients in the mixing bowl. Add the butter and mix on low until the mixture resembles cornmeal.

Cuisinart:
Place all of the dry ingredients and the butter in the processor. Using the pulse button, press with quick pulses until the mixture resembles cornmeal. This is the quickest method.

2. Slowly add the water until almost all of the dry ingredients are absorbed. It should still look alittle dry because you will form the dough balls withy your hands. The warmth of your hands will bring the dough together. You want to be very gentle with pie dough because once the gluten forms (what gives the dough its stretch), it can become tough.

3. Divide the dough into 4 balls. Wrap in plastic and let set in the fridge for about an hour. You can even make these the day before. Just pull them a half an hour before you’re ready to roll it.

4, Place some flour on the counter (clean ofcourse). I only use about 3 tablespoons of flour at a time. Because you’re rolling the dough on flour, you’re adding more flour into your dough so don’t roll it into a handful of flour. Gentle. We need to be gentle. Gentle equals a light flaky crust.

5. Roll into a 10″ round for a 9″ pie pan. Lay the bottom crust down on a sprayed with non stick spray pie pan and prepare the top.

I always cook my fruit fillings the day before so they are cool and ready to fill. Never put a warm filling of any kind into a fresh rolled out crust. The advantages to making your filling ahead of time are well worth the effort. You know what the filling will taste like before you bake it so no surprises. The consistency is exactly what you want it to be so again, no surprises. All you have to do is brown the crust which takes about 40 minutes. You eliminate that horrible dome with the huge air pocket when you cut into an apple pie. By cooking your pie filling, that will never happen. That in itself is well worth it! Plus, and this is a big plus, any filling you have leftover makes incredible ice cream sundaes or a quick parfait with vanilla sponge cake (aka Genoise).

Crimping the edges is as individual as snowflakes. It’s whatever work for you.Be sure to fold the top crust under the bottom crust along the edges and then pinch them together. I brush my top crust with an eggwash (1 egg plus 1 tablespoon of water). Then I take extra dough strips and cut our really cute designs. Ever wonder what to do with all of those mini cookie cutters?? Place those little guys on your crusts. Cut a vent hole for the steam to escape. Very important those vent holes. If you forget, you get a blow hole out the side of your crust. Not attractive but can always be disguised with a scoop of ice cream when you serve.

This is actually a quick lesson. I’ll have more tips to follow. I think if you have gotten this far, you’re love affair has started and there’s no reason to turn back now. Follow through and enjoy the rewards.

Tomorrow, crimping tips and decorative top ideas. Plus, how to make rolled out dough ahead of time for a quick construction.

Remember, post pictures!! I’d love to see them. And most important, go ahead and volunteer to make the pies this year. It’s your best year yet!!