Antoinette Woods loves to cook - and that's a good thing, because whenever there is a party or gathering, people look to Woods to supply the treats.
"At my job we are having parties all the time, and I'm always asked to make stuff," the 47-year-old Egg Harbor Township woman said. "I just love it."
Woods is a former casino cocktail waitress who now schedules patients for radiology at Atlantic Medical Imag-ing in Somers Point. But her friends and co-workers - particularly those who have tasted her cupcakes and cookies - think she missed her calling.
"Everyone always says 'You're in the wrong business' or 'You should have your own bakery,'" Woods said. "It's nice. It makes you feel good."
Woods' love of cooking goes back to her childhood. She grew up in an Italian neighborhood in south Philadelphia and credits her mother, grandmother and "all the old-lady Italian neighbors up the street," with teaching her kitchen fundamentals and helping to build her supply of recipes.
Woods was the youngest of Anthony and Carmella Nuciforo's five girls. She has some recipes from her mom, but recalls it was her grandmother, Filomena Marconi, who really saw to her education in the kitchen.
"She lived with us a good 15 years. She was the big cook, and I learned a lot working with her," Woods said.
Woods remembers afternoons and even-ings spent helping her grandmother make fresh gnocchi, ravioli and other Italian favorites.
"She would make me roll out the dough for them. For the home-made ravioli, I would cut out the ravioli with a glass for her and I would mix up the ricotta for her," Woods said. "You name it, I did it. I loved it. That's why I keep doing it."
Her work with her grandmother got such good reaction that it encourage Wood to continue her cooking.
Woods moved to Atlantic City in 1987, landing a job at the Sands Casino Hotel - a post she held for two decades.
"During that time, I was still cooking at home. Even after being on my feet all day, I would still come home and cook," Woods said.
It was during this time Woods also started developing a reputation for baking terrific Christmas cookies.
She had been collecting cookie recipes from friends, family and the women in her old neighborhood.
Her family loved the cookies, which encouraged Woods to bring some trays to work.
"They went crazy - the bartenders, the other girls - they all liked them," Woods said. "It just kept going and going and going."
She would start making her cookies weeks ahead of the holiday so she'd have both variety and quantity on her holiday trays.
With her reputation as a good baker, it wasn't surprising that Woods started getting asked to supply other baked goods for family and office celebrations.
"I'm always asked to make stuff," Woods said.
Recently, friends have been raving about her cupcakes - a treat that started out with a boxed cake recipe that Woods modified.
"I started out with just the chocolate cake mix and then I added my own stuff to it and made my own frosting," Woods said. "My husband says I can't make anything the way it is. I have to make it my way."
When she brought 75 cupcakes to a nephew's christening, even the staff at the venue were impressed.
"All the waitresses were coming up to me saying 'Oh my God, these are the best cupcakes we've had," Woods said.
Woods said its her attitude toward her baking, not any particular skill, that make her cookies and cupcakes so good.
"I think that when I do it, I put all of me into it, my essence. I find peace when I do it," she said. "When you love something so much, that's the end result."
And while Woods enjoys cooking and baking, she does like to keep her party work to a few tried and true offerings.
"My mother-in-law, Annmarie Woods, is a great cook. She makes this lasagna: now I've always made lasagna for my family, but she's perfected lasagna," said Woods, who has now developed her own version based on her mother-in-law's dish. Friends, however, shouldn't expect their favorite cook to show up with a tray of lasagna at their next gathering. That's one temptation Woods has vowed to avoid.
"When I started making it my family went crazy over it. But it's a lot of work," she said.
Contact Steven V. Cronin:
•One box of Betty Crocker Super Moist Milk Chocolate cake mix
•1/3 cup oil
•Substitute 1 cup of the water for one cup of sour cream
•1/4 cup water
•1 teaspoon of cinnamon
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix all ingredients as per cake mix directions. Fill 24 cupcake paper cups 3/4 filled. Bake for 20 minutes. Cool
•8 ounces softened cream cheese
•1 stick butter softened
•2 cups powdered sugar(10 x)
Mix ingredients. Use pastry bag for frosting and decorate as desired. For the spring theme I used a non pareil candy in the center of a vanilla spritz cookie. I tinted the dough with green for the stems and yellow for the flower.
•1 1/2 boxes of lasagna noodles
•4 pounds ricotta
•2 cups grated pecorino romano cheese
•3 tablespoons chopped flat leaf parsley
•Salt and pepper
•Large package of sweet sausage out of the casing, chopped
•Small package of beef cubes
•1 onion, chopped
•6 cloves garlic
• 4 large cans of Tuturosso crushed tomatoes
•2 small jars of Francesco Rinaldi original tomatoe sauce
•3/4 cup red cooking wine
•1 large can of water
•4 tablespoons flat leaf parsley chopped
•4 tablespoons dried basil leaf
Directions for gravy
Brown sausage, remove from heat. Brown beef cubes. Saute onion and garlic. Add crushed tomatoes,tomato sauce, wine, water, salt, pepper and basil. Add sausage. Cook for three hours
Directions for lasagna
Cook lasagna noodles in salted water until 1/2 cooked. In large lasagna pan, put 2 tablespoons of water and a couple tablespoons of gravy. Put in a layer of noodles, slighly overlapping. Add ricotta filling. Add a layer of gravy and sausage. Add shredded mozzarella cheese. Repeat two more times. Add a layer of noodles. Top with sauce, sprinkle of grated pecorino romano and a little mozzarella. Bake one hour covered 350 degrees . Let sit 2 hours before serving(very important)
Chocolate chip biscotti
•1 stick butter softened
•1 cup sugar
•2 tablespoons almond extract
•1 tablespoon lemon extract
•1 tablespoon vanilla
•3 cups flour
•1 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
•12 ounces mini chocolate chips
Mix sugar and butter. Add eggs. Add almond, lemon and vanilla extracts. Add all dry ingredients. Add chocolate chips last. Preheat oven 350 degrees. Shape dough into two large loaves. Put on greased cookie sheet. Bake 1/2 hour. Take out of oven and while still warm cut into diagonal wedges. Return to oven and bake three minutes more on each side.