Professional baker. Amateur cook. I love rallying folks around new ideas in food and flavor, and am a staunch advocate for homemade dinners on Sundays. I’ve worked in the Test Kitchen and Decorating Room at Wilton Industries for the past 6 years, developing recipes to drive product sales, advising decorators on their cake designs, and traveling the country on televised media tours. I’ve worked with top food bloggers and vloggers on their content, and have written lots of pieces and filmed many videos myself. There’s a trail of cake flour behind me leading back to my bakery days. I’ve made more cakes than I can count; for birthdays, weddings, and retirements, for divorces, lay offs, and random Tuesday nights. I’m also a Food Network Cupcake Wars winner, because you can never have enough cake. I’ve been an intermittent caterer, a wedding consultant, a menu planner for food start-ups, and had an extremely short-lived stint as a line cook.
Can you start by telling us a bit about your background (what you do now and what other experiences)?
I was a career changer really early on. After graduating from undergrad, I worked in ad sales for 5 years. It sounds silly, but at the time I was watching a lot of TLC wedding shows, and I really started getting into wedding cakes and how artistic they can be. I then decided to go to went to pastry school in Chicago with the idea of making wedding cakes. After graduating from pastry school, I started working in bakeries, making a lot of high end wedding cakes and other pastries. I worked in bakeries for 5 years around Chicago, then I found my way to Wilton and I have been with Wilton for 6 years. I started in the test kitchen testing new products from ourselves and competitors and developing recipes, and right now I am the Director of Content Development and Photography Projects. I also do a lot of online teaching for Wilton at Craftsy,com. I have 4 classes now, and 2 more classes coming up.
Why did you decide to get into food?
Well I started thinking about baking back in junior year of college. Where I’m from, everybody went to a 4-year college and then went into the professional world, it was very typical. After college, I had a very liberal job at a weekly newspaper, similar to the Village Voice in New York! I had awesome client and it definitely wasn’t a typical 9-5 schedule. But I was STILL not super happy and finally pulled the plug and decided to pursue baking full-time.
Another thing I noticed is, at that time with the advent of the food network, there was a huge generation of people who became career changers. The Food Network really inspired a lot of people to start cooking as chef started becoming famous. Chefs are the new rockstars, and I think that’s awesome!
What type of food do you like to create or how would you describe your style (i.e. cuisine, specialty, etc.)?
When I’m at work, I do all sweet things, 95% desserts. We focus on very American desserts, like layer cakes, brownies, cookies…typical American things. We look to use ingredients the typical consumer buys in the grocery store.
Personally, I don’t bake a whole lot for fun anymore. If I’m doing something for myself, it will be SUPER simple. I use a lot of fresh ingredients, whatever fruit I can get, I will make something out of the fruit. Or I’ll try a weird flower. In my personal life, I’m more adventurous in cooking than I am in my work. I like play with savory things in desserts. I can just tell you I’m very OVER bacon right now. I’m into herbs or other savory spices, pairing those into desserts. Or I’m into using ingredients from different countries that most Americans are not familiar with. It could be totally similar to something we have here, it’s just called something different.
I recently had my pantry redone, and that forces you do go through a lot of the stuff you accumulated over the years. I found some really interesting things from travel – like pearl sugar (found in Belgium), which are quarter-size balls of sugar. This is what they put in Belgian waffles, and it adds a little bit of crunch. I found Italian cake mixes, vanilla bean dusting sugar…whenever my friends travel I beg them to bring me back something interesting to play with.
Where do you usually look for inspiration for recipes? / What is one book you most often recommend to aspiring bakers?
I love buying cookbooks. Dorie Greenspan is amazing and she’s got tons of book. Rose Levy Beranbaum – she is the Queen of Cakes. She has a book called the Cake Bible, and she just released a new version called Cake Bible 2. All her recipes are tested and developed…she tells you why she chose the ingredients and what the science is behind baking with those ingredients. I love her. When I’m looking to start a new recipe, so much of it is science. You need ratios and proportion that will work. Baking is slightly different than cooking in that you are really depending on chemical reactions to happen. It is good to start with a recipe that works, and then tweak it to make it different.
How did you get involved in Cupcake Wars and what was the competition like?
It was in 2011, and I did it with a lady at the 1st bakery I worked for, who now owns her own business. She is a mentor and we talk frequently, and got the opportunity to do it for her business. We had a friend who knew the producer for Cupcake Wars, who asked us to try out, and it just took off from there! It wasn’t super nerve wracking to be on TV since at that point I had worked with some TV productions, the competition is super nerve wracking, but the TV part is fine.
The production crew brings you there for the full week, but the taping is just one day. The clocks are real, and it’s very stressful, very tiring. On that day, we got there at 630 in the morning, and because we kept advancing, we were there until 11 at night. It was a super emotional day, and I was running at 110% the entire time. It was probably most grueling thing I have ever done at that point, but now a few years later when I look back upon it, I’d do it again.