Traci Anello

The Power in Food


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The Day I Didn’t Hate Chocolate

You read that right. Today is the day I realized I didn’t hate chocolate. Hard words to read coming from a pastry chef who loves to work with it.

For years I have spent creating decadent cakes, traditional cookies, rich pies and a host of other desserts using chocolate from all over the world. It was my every day thing to do. What did people like? How could I recreate this dessert or that pastry using a variety of chocolates? It was my life. It consumed my every menu. I went to bed thinking of how I can make something completely off the cuff to waking up and finishing what I started thinking about before bedtime.

Years ago I was a pastry instructor for a college level program. Up to that point I had been entering the chocolate show held in Portland, Maine for myself as well as some restaurants I worked at. I was very successful at this event. My first award was a three layer ganache cake that I had made while on a movie location in Georgia in August. Do you want to really test your strength in baking?? Do it in 100* weather with 100% humidity.  I had to create something that would hold up to that southern heat and everything that came with it and at the same time have incredible rich flavor. This cake was it. It was the perfect first entry and I won Best Cake. That was pretty cool. I went to win the next year and a stretch of 5+ years after that and before long, I had 12 total awards to my credit. So back to the program. While I was teaching, I decided this event would be the perfect event for my students to experience competition. After getting the approval of the director of culinary arts, I broke the news to the students. They were thrilled. There were several categories we could choose from so we picked a few. I also told them their presentation would be judged as well. We decided to enter the “Best Alternative Dessert” category. This was any dessert out of the ordinary like vegan or gluten free. Someone actually tried to cook a sole dish with chocolate. It was an epic fail too. The place smelled like the Charles River in Boston in the corner they were cooking this dish.  There are just some things that chocolate doesn’t marry. In this case, it was fish. We decided to make a vase of fruit flowers dipped in dark chocolate. The students carved beautiful patterns on the pears. We chose exotic fruits like the start fruit that would resemble a flower. We dipped them half in chocolate and using skewers (also dipped), they creatively displayed them in the pear vase. The students won that category. It was such a satisfying victory for them and the program. For me it was a nice feeling to upgrade the program to an award winning one as well. We were the first culinary school to enter and I’m happy to say the following year, another culinary school participated. That was very good competition for the students. Not to mention all of the amazing local businesses that entered. Portland is a very competitive market in the pastry field so this was a very healthy challenge. The following years we made biscotti, a cholate raspberry torte and a few other desserts. The program did well. I was approached by a team member of the event and was asked if I’d like to be a judge the following year. I was honored actually and agreed. Then I thought about how I wasn’t a fan of chocolate. I’d have to taste each and every entry. I was having second thoughts. It was the sweetness I didn’t like. Anything very sweet like candy or rich desserts just wasn’t my thing to eat. I loved making them but thankfully I wasn’t  obsessed with chocolate. I don’t curl up and watch marathons on Netflix with a quart of chocolate ice cream or Oreos. Now a loaf of fresh crusty bread and (at the time) a nice hunk of cheese and there’s my comfort zone. I think that comes with being Italian. I always hoped there was a bread competition but it just never happened. I would have loved critiquing that.  Anyway, I did agree to judge the following year and sure enough, I got the candy category. Can’t get an sweeter than that. There were 10 entries, all different from each other. At each table was a local celebrity, a culinary expert and some other invited guests. I actually loved this part because I’m a teacher at heart. As everyone tasted the entry, they all had some very interesting opinions and questions. My real role was judging the technical field. You can love or hate a piece of candy but if it comes down to three really good tasting candies, only one can be the winner and  the technical merit plays the deciding factor. That was my expertise. The competition was really tight for the candy category. These businesses that really go for the right to be named the best are giving it their all. These contests are not cheap to enter. You have to have a minimum of something like 600 pieces per entry. You enter a couple of desserts and that’s a lot of sweat, money and chocolate not to mention the labor that goes into preparing for one of the shows. There’s a lot on the line so when it comes down to those three great tasting candies, you better have your mind on the job. After entering this show so many times, I knew what each entrant put into it or at least had a very good idea. I’m a firm believer you should only judge events you’ve entered previously. You have to understand the effort that goes into it. This was  great event and I enjoyed every year I participated whether a judge or entry.

Chocolate is a funny thing to work with. There’s really great chocolates from India as well as Belgium. There are awful chocolates that have very little actual chocolate in them. It’s a wide open field. Once you find what you like, generally that’s what you stick with. It really depends on taste, texture and the ability to work with it. The temperature of the product has to be right and the atmosphere has to support it as well. Recipes are very specific about how to melt chocolate and cool it down. There a whole world of techniques out there and wonderful pastry chefs that have shared their wealth of knowledge on it. If I had to pick an expert to recommend, it would be Jacques Torres. He’s an absolute wealth of everything chocolate. He’s an artist for sure. His pieces are show stoppers and his ability to teach is beautiful. If you’re interested in learning, look him up and I’m sure you’ll agree he is a true master. He’s pretty funny too. I love watching his videos.

So why is today the day I stopped hating chocolate?? Well, I was headed out to do some laundry. The place I go is right next to a health food store. So I put my laundry in the machine and walked over to get something to drink. There’s this beautiful chocolate on the market called HU. It was started by a brother and sister. I’m a big supporter of family started businesses. I love the packaging and the fact it’s organic and vegan. I bought some recently and sent it to my daughter to try. She’s my best critic when it comes to any food. She honest and to the point. She loves this brand. Today as I was cashing out my drink, I saw a bar that had almond butter and quinoa in it. Who thinks of that??? Almond butter and quinoa together?? Is this another case of “You put your almond butter in my quinoa?” or “You put your quinoa in my chocolate?” Or did two people really just think this one through and decide to be gutsy? Either way, it got my attention. I bought the bar. I felt great supporting HU Kitchen (out of NYC) and I was about to eat a chocolate bar for the hell of it. It’s got puffed quinoa in it so how can it be bad for you?? I took the first square and let me tell you this. When I put it in my mouth, it was the best piece of chocolate I’ve ever had. The combination of an excellent dark chocolate with almond butter and puffed quinoa snapped me out of years of deprivation of chocolate. Who are these people?? Who are these creative chocolatiers?? And why weren’t they ever entered in the chocolate show years ago when I had to judge that category?? This was such an epiphany. I realized at that very moment that I didn’t hate chocolate anymore.  Thank you to HU Kitchen for creating such a masterful bar of pure love. This, my friends, is 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.