Traci Anello

The Power in Food


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When creativity is rewarding

Wedding cakes are a perfect way to express your creativity. They are a sculpture that you create out of sugar. They are the center piece of the wedding reception. They are beautiful and elegant but never more than the bride herself. They are an expression of your creative side.

I started making wedding cakes about 20 years ago. The first one was for a customer of the restaurant I was working at. We had a very good reputation for desserts and so this customer decided that our cakes would become her wedding cake. Now let me tell something, you can make cakes all day everyday until the cows come home but when you get yourself involved in a wedding cake, you better know what you’re doing. So, I didn’t. I’m just putting it out there. Never volunteer. With that in mind, this bride knew exactly what she wanted. I think it was at that moment, I would never watch Martha Stewart again. This cake was all about Martha. What happened to the cakes we made here?? Even Martha would approve. Surely she should be told. Hardly. I soon learned the bride gets what the bride wants. It was a learning experience and one I would never forget.

I sat down with her and asked her what her “vision” was. She was all set with pictures. Great. She wanted this exact cake but with our cake flavors. I’m 1/2 way there I thought. It was the typical now fondant (which wasn’t typical then) cake with sugared flowers, extensive bead work and sugar lace. Did I mention this restaurant had a bar? The entire time she was talking I was thinking “Shaken not stirred, Shaken not stirred”. I had to do this. I knew somehow I could pull it off but this was no ordinary cake.  After the bride left and we had a decent deposit, the work began. Sketching the cake out and a lot of flower work was ahead of me. I had 6 months to sweat this one out. As the months went by, it seemed to be getting easier. I made so many flowers out of sugar I was going to offer them to FTD to sell. The wedding was now two days away. The flowers were done. The cakes were being baked. The fillings were being prepared. So far so good. The night before the cake was put together and placed in a cool room so it had time to set. All that means is the cake has time to settle so there are no surprises on the drive. Now let me tell you, the delivery of a wedding cake is more stressful than the initial meeting with the bride. I had 15 miles to drive in the summer in a tourist town. It was going to be a slow ride. With every cake, you must have a “crash” kit. This contains spare flowers, buttercream, pastry bags, spatulas and Advil. Since this was my first cake, I didn’t have the “crash” kit. I didn’t know better. It was the only cake I didn’t have one. Thanks to a fellow pastry chef who was there when I returned from my delivery. Best third degree talk I ever got.

The vehicle runs about 10 minutes with the air conditioner. I go into the kitchen and pick a victim for the ride with me. No one wanted any part of this so of course the new dishwasher is recruited. His only job is to hold the pan steady that the cake is resting on. I look over at my new partner on the way over and notice he isn’t breathing. This kid is scared to death. That was enough to relax me because I couldn’t let him see me sweat. So I told him,”It’s no big deal. You’re doing a great job”. He gives me deer in headlights eyes look and then takes a big breath. If he only knew what I was thinking at the same time. I was petrified.
We get the cake there and by the grace of the Good man, I didn’t need the crash kit. The cake was set up and I checked with the caterer to make sure it was to their expectations. When I got the nod, I couldn’t run out of there fast enough. The kid?? Right on my tails. After a big sigh and a few good laughs, he became my new cake co-pilot.

The beauty of these cakes is you can offer different flavors for each tier. I often do. If a bride and groom are at the initial meeting, I will ask them each what their favorite flavors are. Each tier becomes their favorite and then a neutral flavor is number three. If there is a budget constraint, no problem. I’ll offer a ceremonial cake that is two tiered and then a sheet cake in the kitchen for additional servings. Cupcakes are a great way to work with a budget and still be beautiful. Just add an 8″ ceremonial cake on the table so the couple has something to cut. I’ve made whoopie pie cakes with the color scheme as the fillings. I’ve made assorted pies for a Fall wedding and the most elegant French wedding cake: The Croquembouche. This is an amazing display of culinary talent. It’s cream puffs filled with a vanilla pastry cream and then dipped in very hot melted sugar and arranged in a cone shape. The remainder sugar is then quickly spun to make an angel hair to arrange around the display. Sometimes I add sugared violets. Weddings are as wide as the imagination will carry. No request has been too weird. Well, maybe a few have been a bit odd but not for the couple. I’ve also done gluten-free weddings which any one of these ideas can be made 100% gluten-free. Almost anything can be made into a wedding cake.

For me, after 20 years, wedding cakes have become somewhat easier to create. Even though every one is as different as the bride herself, they offer a challenge and just rewards when finished and delivered. There’s a great sense of satisfaction. It’s a sculpture. You are a sugar artist that has been hired to create this center piece.
Although experience helps to make the events leading up to the delivery more tolerable, the delivery itself has never gotten easier. It’s still white knuckled, no breathing and a quick dash out the door. And when you get out the door and back in your vehicle it’s then you realize that creativity is very rewarding.

 

This cake pictured is a gluten-free cake that I made for a beach wedding. The sea shells are hand-made and a use a little blue to pull through the white chocolate to tie in with the hydrangeas. The weird thing I was talking about? You can’t see it but the bride asked as a surprise if I would draw the symbol for Star Trek where they needed to cut the cake as a surprise for her groom.


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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!


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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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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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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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