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Archive for the ‘bakery’ Category

Blueberry Season!

Sorry for the delay in posting but this has been a very busy time in my life!  As you likely know, the bakery that I co-own with my wife Jill recently underwent a major expansion and we have been working like mad to get everything up to speed.  I barely had time to eat, let alone cook, so I’m glad that we’re up and running and I’m able to fall back into some sort of routine.

During the time that we were closed, strawberry season came and went and so we were forced to cancel our annual strawberry festival.  The bakery did reopen for blueberry season though, and I’m been consuming my fair share of the delicious little fruits that New Jersey is so proud of growing.

This past Friday evening, The Sweet Life Bakery attended the Hammonton farmers market.  Since there was a blueberry theme that evening at the inaugural market, we planned an all-blueberry menu.  Earlier in the week, we got our first delivery of fresh Jersey blueberries and Brittany went to work preparing them into many different blueberry desserts.

On the day of the market, the blueberry pies went into the oven, where they bubbled through the lattice-topped crust and filled the bakery with the unmistakable smell of summer.  Blueberry corn muffins puffed and browned in another oven, while on a different rack, the shortbread shell of blueberry hamantashen formed a caramelized crust around the blueberry filling.  Fresh blueberries simmered with lemon juice and zest in a pot on the stove, soon to become tart blueberry lemonade.  While those goodies baked and cooked, Brittany stirred a floury cobbler dough in a stainless steel bowl until it came together in a sticky mass.  She then scooped the topping over a blueberry cobbler filing in little metal cups, our first of the year.  (Jill and I couldn’t help ourselves and put one cobbler aside for a late evening treat for the two of us.)  Two tarts were to be going to the market as well, little blueberry crumb tarts and blueberry almond tarts, both cooling silently on a rack near the oven, waiting to be boxed up and shipped out.  The kitchen was a veritable blueberry factory.

Within a few hours of the blueberry madness, everything was gone, off to Hammonton to be bought and consumed, taken home to various dinner and breakfast tables around south Jersey and enjoyed by many.  Such a cool thought, the knowledge that the food and drink that was created by our team goes out into the world to bring a smile to the faces of those who eat them.

For dinner that night, I still had blueberries on the brain.  We were still at the bakery, a late night ahead of us, and five cooks (including myself) to feed.  What I hadn’t had in a long time was good old-fashioned blueberry pancakes, so the urge to have a breakfast dinner came on strong.  I went online and found a simple enough recipe, and so I got to work making dinner.  I added a touch of lemon zest to the recipe, and scaled out the remaining ingredients.  The eggs separated with ease, and I whipped the whites into a stiff, frothy mix.  The wet ingredients went into the dry, and then the whites were folded in to give the batter a light fluffy consistency.  Lastly, fresh picked blueberries were folded in.

One of the new pieces of equipment we got was a nice flattop griddle, and I had already heated it up and loaded the surface with diced potatoes, breakfast sausage from Serra Sausage, and strips of bacon.  After the meats came off the heat, the pancakes went on.  Silver dollar sized pools of batter quickly browned and bubbled and I flipped them over to cook on the other side. I quickly cooked some eggs to finish the meal, and toasted some bread.  Maple syrup and butter for the pancakes, katsup for the potatoes.  The pancakes were so good, and the warm blueberries literally bursted when they went into my mouth.  Blueberries really do make pancakes amazing, and I’m going to have to cook them again sometime soon.  And if you haven’t cooked blueberry pancakes, or anything with fresh Jersey blueberries, I suggest you do so soon.  With blueberries, the possibilities, much like the deliciousness, is endless!

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(Inter)National Pie Day

Brittany Jackson with coconut custard pies ready to go

Last Saturday was National Pie Day, and even though it seems as though there is a special day or month devoted to all sorts of random things, I’ve taken a special liking to this particular one.  Perhaps it’s because I love pie, or perhaps it’s because I’m always looking for a good excuse to make and eat pie.  It’s a good thing my wife and I own a bakery, because it certainly makes it easy to make a lot of different pies without actually having to eat them all!

We figured we’d make several different pies that we don’t normally prepare.  Since it’s winter, we were going to focus on making mostly cream and custard pies.  After a little scrounging around in the freezer though, we did find several bags of frozen local fruits and what better of an occasion than to use them now, when the wind blows cold and the landscape is grey and bleak.  We found cherries, blueberries and some organic raspberries from Happy Valley Berry Farm.  Yum, summer berry pie would definitely be made.

After some discussion we settled on a menu.  In addition to two of our standards, apple and key lime, we thought we’d try out a chocolate peanut butter pie and a chocolate malted pie, a banana cream pie and a coconut custard pie.  Those and the summer berry pies would keep us busy enough.

Then the earthquake in Haiti happened and all the feelings of despair and hopelessness and, especially helplessness, clouded our joy for pie day.  Since we felt we should do something to help, even something little, National Pie Day became an opportunity to help.

There are so many charities to use, so many options for donating, where do you start to look?  Since we’re passionate about all things food, and since we have a visceral connection to the act of eating, we typically choose to focus our volunteering efforts towards food related charities.  I did a little research online and found that the World Food Program has one of the lowest administrative costs among aid agencies (around 7%) and is ‘highly rated’ by charitynavigator.org with four starts out of four.  Perfect.

We did a little advertising, only to guests of the bakery through our newsletter and facebook fanpage… just a few words to let them know that 100% of the proceeds of the pie sales would go toward Haiti relief.  The response was immediate and powerful.  Orders starting rolling in via e-mail and facebook.  Folks started calling us, and before we knew it, within twelve hours our fundraising goal had been met and within 24, it had almost doubled.  One of our employees, Kate, decided to donate her wages for the day and everyone at the bakery decided that the tip jar collections would go towards the fund.  Everyone was opening their hearts and wallets and it was wonderful.

So we got to work making pies.  There was a whirlwind of activity in the kitchen, chocolate and vanilla crust had to be made, bananas needed to be sautéed in butter and brown sugar.

Kate Fellows and the author making pies for a good cause

Pastry cream had to be cooked, and peanut butter mousse was to be prepared.  Key lime filling and chocolate malted filling was baked, apples were sliced, and cream was whipped.  It was a mad dash of pie making and it was great to feel like we were actually doing something meaningful.  As Booker T. Washington once said, ‘If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else’

Krystal Ruiz-Mesa picks up her pie!

Krystal Ruiz-Mesa picks up her chocolate peanut butter pie!

All told, we sold almost 100 pies and gathered many donations as well.  It’s a testament to the people of Vineland, how generous and heartfelt they were to support our efforts.  It may not have been very much money that we raised in the grand scheme of things, and it seems like nothing in the scope of the disaster that has befallen our fellow brothers and sisters down in the Caribbean.  But every little bit helps, and so I wanted to take this opportunity to send a shout out to our Sweet Lifers… thank you!

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Jill and Stephen at the CIA

Jill and Stephen at the CIA

Several months ago, Jill and I were invited to return to our alma mater, The Culinary Institute of America (CIA), to put on a cake decorating demonstration for our fellow alumni as part of a reunion weekend.  We were honored to have been asked, and we agreed with much enthusiasm.  After all, it had been several years since we had last been to our beloved college and October in upstate New York is a beautiful time of year.

We prepared the bakery accordingly, and left it the capable hands of Brittany and Ariana.  The drive up was uneventful and a mere four hours after leaving Vineland, we arrived in Hyde Park.  The campus was beautiful and it was great seeing the old sights; the bakeshop where Jill and I first became friends, the kitchens we worked in, the classrooms where we learned so much…

After settling in and finding a home for the cake (and various equipment) that we had brought, it was time to eat!  We went first to the Apple Pie Bakery/Café, where we drank espresso and ate a lovely brioche tart filled with spiced mascarpone and topped with candied butternut squash.  This was far more avant garde than the pastry that Jill and I made when we attended that class, which was a curious surprise!

Stephen celebrates his birthday with Jill and Paula

Stephen celebrates his birthday with Jill and Paula

Since it was my birthday, my mother-in-law treated us to dinner at one of the restaurants on campus, the Caterina di Medici, which specialized in Italian cuisine and is the shining jewel of the five eateries on campus.  We started with cocktails, which I rarely get, but hey, it was my birthday!

We ended up eating very well that evening, the standouts being Garganelli al Ragù (a pasta similar in shape to penne, served with a classic Bolognese meat sauce), Costolette d’agnello con Peperonata e Zucchine (Lamb Rack with pepper/tomato stew and sautéed zucchini), several ridiculously good Italian cheeses as well as a platter of bite sized cookies and candies.  The service and food was excellent, especially considering the staff is composed primarily of students who rotate in and out of the kitchens every few weeks.  It was good to be back on campus, and we left quite satisfied.

Jill demonstrates cake decorating while Stephen answers questions about running a small business

Jill demonstrates cake decorating while Stephen answers questions about running a small business

The next day was the day of the cake demonstration.  Our nerves were a little on edge leading up the demo, as the gravity (at least in our minds) of what we were doing caught up with us.  For the most part though, we were relaxed and excited to be there.  The demo went off without a hitch, and in addition to Jill showing off her cake-decorating prowess, we got the opportunity to talk up Vineland and south Jersey to the roughly 60 people who were in attendance from all over the country.  It was a good time, and we hope to do it again in the future.

The Sweet Life Bakery cake demonstration was a success!

The Sweet Life Bakery cake demonstration was a success!

Stephen enjoys the alumni dinner

Stephen enjoys the alumni dinner

That evening was the alumni dinner, and if there’s one thing you do at the CIA, it’s  eat well.  After the demo, we had time to change at our hotel before heading back to campus.  We walked into the main hall and were greeted by students of the soon to be graduating class, who had organized and executed the entire alumni dinner.  Platters of wine, both still and sparkling, were being passed.  The sparkling was good, dry and crisp, but the still wine was gorgeous in its fruity aroma and full body.

In addition to the wines, there were little hors d’oeuvre being passed.  My favorites were tiny piles of cold, rich lobster salad on crisp round toasts, and triangles of toasted bread on which sat a thumb-sized piece of seared fois gras that hid a dab of lingonberry jam.  Fois gras is, in my opinion, the height of decadent dining, and I relished the opportunity to eat several of these bite-sized delicacies (doubly so since they were complimentary!).

A selection of NY cheeses

A selection of NY cheeses

What Jill and I hadn’t noticed when we first arrived was a table of cheeses that was set up outside the dining hall.  We meandered over to discover that there was a wide selection of cheeses all from New York available for us to sample.  There were quite a few creamy goat cheeses, a few pungent sheep milk cheeses, and several classic cows milk cheeses.  I am an avowed cheese-a-holic, so I was in hog heaven at this particular table.

Dinner soon followed; rich lobster bisque, butternut ravioli, and pumpkin crème brulée among other delicious foods.  Again, everything was wonderful and like the previous evening, everything was done by the students.  I must say, I was proud of them.  To put on a banquet of such high caliber is no easy task, and not only that, they ended up raising over $6,000 for scholarship funds through a Chinese auction to boot!

It was great visiting the CIA.  It’s a beautiful campus, stunning actually, but what I liked most (and what I liked most when I attended) was the passion for food that is evident everywhere you look.  The dorms are named after culinary spices; kitchens display student chefs learning their trade, and everyone (students and visitors alike) eat well… very well.  It’s definitely my kind of place.

Close up detail of the Sweet Life cake

Close up detail of the Sweet Life cake

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Talula’s Table

The Sweet Life Gang is getting bigger!

The Sweet Life Gang is getting bigger!

The crew of The Sweet Life took another culinary adventure recently, this time to Talula’s Table in Kennett Square, PA.  I had heard about Talula’s Table last summer when a piece aired about it on the radio, and so Jill and I had been wanting to make the short trip over there ever since.  In fact, soon after the piece aired last summer, my mother went and raved about it, and so our resolve to visit had been steadfast since then.

Jill and I actually first visited two weeks ago with my mother and sister, and we had such a positive experience that we needed to take our crew with us so that they could experience the phenomenal service, excellent food, and unique concept and atmosphere.  We also wanted to return because unbeknownst to the four of us, the day that we visited coincided with the 24th annual Kennett Square Mushroom Festival.  Mushrooms are a big deal there, since the town bills itself of the ‘mushroom capital of the world’ and so needless to say, there were severe crowds, little parking, and a general crushing feeling.  Regardless of the mass of people in Kennett Square that day though, we felt that there was something special at Taula’s Table and we needed to return on a more normal day.

The very next Sunday, the eight Sweet Lifers piled into two cars and began our road trip to Pennsylvania.  The traffic was light and the weather was perfect, and we arrived there about an hour and a half after leaving Vineland.  I had heard that downtown Kennett Square was very cute and so I had expected to feel pangs of jealously walking down their ‘main street.’  But seeing the stereotypical downtown cutesiness made me realize how far Landis Avenue has come in the two years since we opened The Sweet Life.  Kennett Square was cute, but Vineland’s downtown has its own unique feel and I didn’t feel any sort of jealously from the ‘main street’ I was visiting.

The family table at Talula's Table

The family table at Talula's Table

Then we arrived at our destination, the eight of us forming a stream a people as we walked in the open door with gusto.  Jill and I had made nice with the manager, Titus, the previous week and she welcomed our group warmly.  I went to the back of the self-described ‘gourmet food market’ and hovered around the one large family table in the rear of to save our group seats while everyone else explored the medium sized shop.

Oh and how there was much to explore!  The front windows featured much plant life (which Jill especially loved), as well as a few prime sunlit seats.  Along the walls were shelves with jams and jellies, pastas and sauces, oils and vinegars.  Many gourmet products were to be found, and before we left, we managed to grab a few boxes of organic teas.

But first, we were hungry.  In addition to having grab-n-so salads and sandwiches near the front of the market for those in a hurry, towards the back of the retail area was where the good stuff was.

There were refrigerated cases of house-made sausages, ravioli, soups, and salad dressings.  A cold case in the back held copious amounts of delicious cheeses, as well as platters of such dishes as lobster pot pie, eggplant rollatini, fresh succotash, mac n’ cheese, roasted beet salad, lamb tenderloin kebabs…  An old-fashioned pie saver case near the cheeses held a modest variety of fresh baked bread; baguettes, sourdough loaves, soft rolls and pretzels.

Needless to say, we ate quite well.  Titus arranged a nice platter of six different cheeses, complete with a little dish of local honey. Small plates of food arrived one after the other, and we each had our favorite dishes.  In my mind, the succotash, cheeses, and lobster pot pie stood out.  Everything was phenomenal though, and I kind of didn’t want lunch to end.

A beautifully prepared cheese platter

A beautifully prepared cheese platter

Of course we had dessert and coffee after the food.  Behind the seating area in the front there was a small coffee bar with a tiny pastry case full of tarts, mini-cheesecakes, and chocolate tortes.  On the other side of the bar, a rack of cookies, scones other baked pastries stood admirably.  The peanut butter sandwich cookie was my favorite, although the slice of carrot cake seemed to be the most popular with the rest of the crew.

Talula's staff kept the Sweet Life team happy!

Talula's staff kept the Sweet Life team happy!

For the true foodies out there, Talula’s Table in Kennett Square is definitely worth checking out.  While on a road trip there, you can also stop at Longwood Gardens (which is a few minutes away), any of the wineries or antique shops in the area.  But the real star in my mind is the unique and incredible dining experience at Talula’s Table.  Cheers!

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Family Table

I’ve had the pleasure of going to several friends houses for dinner lately.  There’s not much that I enjoy more that to share the dinner table with good friends and family.  Last week, Jill and I made plans to go to a friend’s house for dinner and a movie.

We arrived at their house early in the evening.  Ariana greeted at the front door with the comforting pleasantries of being welcomed into house of good friends.  Jill and I were led into the kitchen, which was warm and active from of the buzz of cooking.  Snacks were laid out on the kitchen counter, in a little seating area that offered Henry (the cook) the opportunity to socialize and snack while he put the finished touches of dinner together.  Wine was poured for each of us, a crisp white Riesling from Germany that tasted perfect on this late summer evening.  The family gathered around the appetizers, and talked and drank and snacked on the three delicious cheeses that Deanne had picked up earlier in the day when she was in Cape May.

Friends gather in the kitchen

Friends gather around Chef Henry in the kitchen

There was also a plate of thickly sliced tomatoes, fanned out between slices of buffalo mozzarella, tufts of fresh basil, a drizzle of balsamic vinegar and a healthy amount of EVOO.  It was so simple, and that’s what made it so good.  The tomatoes had been picked up down the street, from a little farm stand that still works on the honor system, earlier in the day.  That very morning, the tomatoes were still getting nourishment from the Vineland soil, breathing the air and gathering energy from the sun.  By the end of the day, they were ours to consume.

After some time had elapsed, dinner was closer to completion.  Henry checked the stuffed peppers in the oven, while Deanne began to prepare the kale dish.  She was happy to say a portion of the kale had come from their garden.  I hadn’t had kale in a long time, and looked forward to tasting theirs.  The table was then set and soon we were ready to eat.

Nicole anticipates a great dinner while Will helps in preparation

Nicole anticipates a great dinner while Will helps in preparation

The food was very good, and I savored every minute of it.  The stuffed red peppers were filled with a quinoa mixture (a delicious, extremely healthy grain that has a slight nutty flavor and delicate crunchy texture), all topped with a hard grating cheese and then baked.  The lightly braised kale retained a nice amount of texture, a little chewy with just a touch of crunch.  It was studded with thin slices of sun-dried tomato, which added a tiny blast of salty, intense tomato flavor.  With these two wonderful dishes went a nice fresh salad and slices of crusty black-olive studded bread.

After eating, it was movie time and we enjoyed watching Air Guitar Nation with full bellies.  As soon as the movie finished and we had stopped laughing, I assembled the dessert that I had brought for the evening.

A sweet end to a great time with friends

A sweet end to a great time with friends

Vanilla ice cream sandwiched between two fresh baked chocolate chip cookies and drizzled with a little rich chocolate ganache that I melted in the microwave.  For the next few minutes, the relative silence was punctuated by the sounds of happy groans.

But it wasn’t the food that was the highlight of the evening.  It was the company, the act of sharing a dinner table with friends and family.  There’s something about sitting down together, sharing a meal, and talking about the happenings of the day that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

At the bakery whoever is working, as well as occasional visitors, sometimes join us sit down for family meal.  We all take a little break from the craziness of the workday to sit down, eat, and share what’s going on in our lives.  It allows us all to take a deep breath, and show that we value good nutrition and emotional well-being.  Obviously our dinner companions of last week felt the same way.  Jill and I were honored to have been able to share such a nice meal with them, to be invited into their home.  Cheers!

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Summer Holiday 2008

NYC… spells nick to me.

So we’re back from the trip part of summer holiday 2008. NYC was awesome, we visited a lot of bakeries and ate a lot of desserts. We saw some cool window displays and of course, we saw Ed and Reg… Jill’s aunt and uncle. They rocked The city rocked and we loved it.

Next was the Poconos. We had a good time there, ate some good food, but basically relaxed. We did some hiking, reading, and watched movies at night. It was nice.

So we’re back in Vineland, working this week and some projects, but we’re not open again until next Tuesday. See you then!

There’s pictures in the picture section of our Myspace profile named ‘Summer Holiday 2008.’ Check ’em out if you wish and leave some comment love.

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Thanksgiving week is done (almost). We still have a lot to do for the Holiday parade on Landis Avenue this Saturday, but Thanksgiving is done until next year. We made it! Many many thanks go out to Sara Molinaro, Jill’s mom, and Stephen’s dad for putting in a LOT of hours for free at the bakery. Thanks to Brittany as well for being so enthusiastic about working several 15 or 16 hour shifts in a row. It was crazy busy, but we really had a good time.  We think we did around 163 pies, in addition to several dozen brownies, cupcakes, challah, cakes, cookies, etc… It was awesome, and we are very happy with almost everything. (I say almost, because there are a lot of ways that we could improve.)And lastly, thanks as well to all of our customers for supporting us and inviting our pastries into their home and the homes of their families!

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