Sometimes, you have to search the world to find your true love. That's what happened to chef Deb Pellegrino, an Ocean City native and Egg Harbor Township resident.
After earning her degree from the Academy of Culinary Arts in Mays Landing, Pellegrino traveled the world, working as a chef on a private yacht, among other exciting posts. But eventually she followed her heart back home.
"I fell in love with my husband and I fell in love with pastry. The casinos really had that experience to offer, being so elaborate and all about entertainment," she says. "I get to create showpieces every day at work, and we do gourmet from scratch."
These days, Pellegrino is the executive pastry chef and responsible for all the sweets and desserts served at 38 restaurants around Showboat Casino Hotel, Bally's Atlantic City and Harrah's Resort. She gets to work with her hands all day and nurture her "wicked sweet tooth." On top of all that, her husband Mark, a chef at Carmine's Atlantic City, cooks for her at home, while she takes care of dessert.
"I'm tasting all day. I thought I would grow tired and stop, but if anything, it's grown worse," she says. "I drive into work thinking about what I'm going to make and what we'll have to make each restaurant special so it's not the same thing. I put a lot of pride into what I do."
Pellegrino says she always can be wooed with pfeffernusse cookies, a little German cookie whose street name is "pepper nuts." She says she enjoys the unexpected flavor - from spices such as cardamom, black pepper and cloves - as much as the simplicity of it. Despite some unusual ingredients, pfeffernusse are not hard to make, Pellegrino says.
"I love so many things about these cookies. I love them at the holiday season because they taste like soft, crispy gingerbread," she says. "You actually find black or white pepper in a lot of German or European recipes because it accentuates the sweetness. A little white pepper in the filling of an apple pie brings out the flavor of the apples."
Pellegrino sees her work as edible art - in 2011 she designed a chocolate dress and headpiece that could be worn down a runway, twice, by a live model - and loves to capitalize on the "every day is a party" theme of the casino hotel where she bakes, Showboat. Where else could you have a competition centered on eating King Cake?
Today, world-class competitive eaters will see who can consume more of the rich, colorful King Cake. But they needn't worry about choking on their prize, as the lucky charm usually hidden inside one of the cake's pieces is not included in Pellegrino's confections.
In countries with Christian traditions, such as Spain, King Cake often is served in the weeks leading up to Three Kings Day in early January, which celebrates the late arrival of the kings or wise men who followed the star to bring gifts to the baby Jesus. The pieces of the cake often are marked with strategically placed fruit or colored frosting, and a coin or trinket is hidden in one piece, signaling the person who "wins" the honor of buying or making the next cake.
In Louisiana, and parts of the Southeast that celebrate Carnival, the cake is served on Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, and the bright purple, green and gold symbolize justice, faith and power.
"I don't put the baby because I'm afraid someone will choke on it, I think it's weird to put non-food products in food, " Pellegrino says, adding she pipes rich lemon, cheese or cherry filling in to her cakes. "A lot of bakers don't like to put the plastic in while it's baking because it could melt. But you can push it into the hot dough from underneath when it's baked. Just lift it up from the bottom when you put it on a cake board and no one can see which piece it is, and it won't fall out."
Pellegrino believes some people get intimidated by the precise proportions needed when baking at home, so she advises measuring out all the ingredients and placing them within easy reach before starting, just like on Food Network. And don't get overwhelmed if you find you're missing something. A favorite trick of hers is to substitute molasses-added white sugar for brown sugar when she lacks the latter.
"It adds flavor and moisture, and you really can't tell the difference in a cake," she says. "Also taste the cake batter before you put it in the oven; just like you shouldn't cook with cheap wine, it should taste good as a batter."
A final tip: "I know it's corny, but I always say put love into whatever you're baking; no one is allergic to it and I've never had a complaint there was too much love in anything I've served," she says. "I genuinely feel if you bake with your heart and soul, it comes through and that's why desserts taste so good."
Contact Felicia Compian:
•2 .25-ounce packages active dry yeast
•1/2 cup white sugar
•1 cup warm milk (110 degrees)
•1/2 cup butter, melted
•5 egg yolks
•4 cups all-purpose flour
•2 teaspoons salt
•1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
•1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
•1 8-ounce package cream cheese
•2 1/2 cup confectioners' sugar
•1/4 cup lemon juice
•2 tablespoons milk
•1 tablespoon multicolored candy sprinkles
In a large bowl, dissolve yeast and white sugar in warm milk. Let stand until creamy, about 10 minutes.
Stir the egg yolks and melted butter into the milk mixture. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, salt, nutmeg and lemon zest. Beat the flour mixture into the milk/egg mixture 1 cup at a time. When the dough has pulled together, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and supple, about 8 minutes. Lightly oil a large bowl, place the dough in the bowl and turn to coat with oil. Cover with a damp cloth and let rise in a warm place until doubled in volume, about 2 hours.
In a small bowl, combine the cream cheese and 1/2 cup confectioners' sugar. Mix well. In another small bowl, combine the remaining 2 cups confectioners' sugar, lemon juice and milk. Mix well and set aside.
Turn the dough out onto a floured surface. Roll the dough out into a 6- by 30-inch rectangle. Spread the cream cheese filling across the center of the dough. Bring the two long edges together and seal completely. Using your hands shape the dough into a long cylinder and place on a greased baking sheet, seam-side down. Shape the dough into a ring and press the baby into the ring from the bottom so it is completely hidden by the dough. Place a well-greased 2- pound metal coffee can in the center of the ring to maintain the shape during baking. Cover the ring with a towel and place in a warm place to rise until it doubles in size, about 45 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Bake in preheated oven until golden brown, about 30 minutes. Remove the coffee can and allow the bread to cool. Drizzle cooled cake with lemon/sugar glaze and decorate with candy sprinkles.
•1/2 cup molasses
•1/4 cup honey
•1/4 cup shortening
•1/4 cup margarine
•4 cups all-purpose flour
•3/4 cup white sugar
•1/2 cup brown sugar
•1 1/2 teaspoons ground cardamom
•1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
•1 teaspoon ground cloves
•1 teaspoon ground ginger
•2 teaspoons anise extract
•2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
•1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
•1 teaspoon ground black pepper
•1/2 teaspoon salt
•1 cup confectioners' sugar, for dusting
Stir together the molasses, honey, shortening and margarine in a saucepan over medium heat; cook and stir until creamy. Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature. Stir in the eggs.
Combine the flour, white sugar, brown sugar, cardamom, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, anise, cinnamon, baking soda, pepper and salt in a large bowl. Add the molasses mixture and stir until thoroughly combined. Refrigerate at least 2 hours.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Roll the dough into acorn-sized balls. Arrange on baking sheets, spacing at least 1 inch apart.
Bake in preheated oven 10 to 15 minutes. Move to a rack to cool. Dust cooled cookies with confectioners' sugar.