C is for Cookie

By Fabiana Santana

home baked Italian cookie recipesIntroduce me to a single woman who doesn’t enjoy a home-baked cookie and I’ll introduce her to Tina Casaceli, owner of Milk & Cookies Bakery in New York.

Tina Casaceli grew up in Rochester, New York, in a food focused family. She learned to make Italian cookies and desserts from her grandmother and worked alongside her father in his ice cream and pizza parlor. From the get go, Tina knew that she belonged in the food world.

“My love of food comes from my family and the way they always made food part of good memories.”

Tina trained at the Culinary Institute of America and quickly discovered that the sweet stuff was for her. After graduation, she perfected her skills in some of New York City’s acclaimed restaurants and bakeries, such as Mad 61, Manhattan Ocean Club, and Burke & Burke. Then, she made the decision to make cookies. For all of New York City. In September of 2007 she bought the Milk & Cookies Bakery and has been making cookie monsters out of everyone who sets foot inside the door.

“The bakery was first started by a couple that had no experience in baking. The wife was bored with her office job and liked baking so decided to open up a cookie bakery. It wasn’t long before the challenges of running a food business got to them. Then she had a baby and lost all interest. They put the bakery up for sale, and a friend of mine told me I should buy it. I thought she was nuts.”  But one couples passing interest was Tina’s dream come true.

After all, who doesn’t like cookies?

As busy as Milk & Cookies keeps Tina, she also dedicates her time at helping other people’s dreams come true. She is the Director of Pastry and Bread Arts at the renowned French Culinary Institute where she oversees the development and graduation of over 800 pastry chefs each year.

The French Culinary Institute’s The Fundamental Techniques of Classic Pastry ArtsThis year, the school is releasing their first complete technique pastry focused cookbook, The French Culinary Institute’s The Fundamental Techniques of Classic Pastry Arts. Reading the book is equivalent to reading the course work for the pastry program, so you get to go to school, without leaving your kitchen.

How did you make the decision to focus on cookies?

For me, being a pastry chef for about 20 years, cookies just seemed so easy, and still my favorite. I thought it would be a simple thing to control for consistency and all that. Much different than a full French patisserie where there are all different kinds of product. I also thought that I could open up Milk & Cookies anywhere. It is such a great concept. Good for adults, good for kids.

What are the most popular cookies?

Definitely still the Chocolate Chip.

Do you experiment with cookie recipes a lot?

We play around all the time at the bakery. But some of our best flavors have come from young interns. They use flavor ideas form things like Ben and Jerry’s ice cream and incorporate the flavors into a cookie.

What is the most inventive cookie you have created?

We took the sugar cookie base dough added bananas, walnuts, caramel bits and dark chocolate and butterscotch chips. They were to die for. People still ask when we will make that special again.

FCI just released The French Culinary Institute’s Fundamental Techniques of Classic Pastry Arts. What does the book cover?

The units are Tarts, Pate a choux, Puff Pastry, Cakes (classic cakes but not decorated like special occasion cakes), viennoiserie( sweet breakfast breads like croissant, Danish, brioche, scones, muffins, etc), and Petits Fours. The book is definitely technique drives and covers all the basic techniques in pastry. There are about 650 photos many step-by-step process photos.

What is more important in a kitchen: technique or the fundamentals of all the basic pastry recipes?

I think technique, once you have a good understand of technique, you can make any recipe. A good pastry chef should be able to look at only the ingredients and the amounts and know how to put it together.

There is a science to pastry. Are the best pastry chefs scientifically focused?

Not necessarily, I think that good pastry chefs are generally more detail oriented and have the patience to take the time to weigh out ingredients and wait for things to bake and cool before being able to finish.

What are the most popular recreational pastry courses at FCI?

Definitely our chocolate classes. They sell out every time, second would be our fondant and royal icing, where students learn different techniques for cake decorating with fondant and royal icing. And 3rd would be our sugar paste flowers. This is something everyone wants to learn how to make these days. It is not generally a pastry chef thing, however, due to demand we need to know how to make them.

Does the book cover cake decoration as well or is that something better learned in class?

Not so much cake decorating, this book focuses on teaching how to make a really good cake and filling. The decorating comes after with a lot of practice.

Why do you think women are more drawn to careers as pastry chefs over men? Well, that is not necessarily true. In Europe you will find mostly men as pastry chefs. Here in the US it has become most popular just in the last 20-25 years for women to be pastry chefs. I think it is a perception that pastries are more delicate and need tender loving care which women are more apt to be interested in. Pastries are pretty, woman like to decorate and make things pretty.

Do you eat dessert? What is your favorite?

Of course I eat dessert. I love dessert. So much that it is hard to pick a favorite.

I really love chocolate…good chocolates are so wonderful.

What is in your fridge right now?

Funny thing…I have been on a raw food diet for the last 4 weeks, so there is not much, raw cashew butter, some salad, left-over raw lasagna from Pure Food and Wine and a raw chocolate ganache tart that I can’t wait to have after dinner tonight.

What is the one, go to dessert recipe every woman should have in her arsenal? Chocolate Heaven Cookies these are made with melted chocolate, sugar, melted butter, just a little bit of flour, eggs, chocolate chips and nuts if wanted.

They are decadent, fudgy, and just delicious.

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