Archana Rao, Pastry Chef/Owner, Love Street Cakes
Imagine your days filled with sugar and flour, surrounded by confections so beautiful and unique, you're a coveted fixture on the New York wedding cakes circuit. On top of that, you also happen to be married to one of the most talented young chefs in town. Talk about a culinary power couple! Yeah, we'd say it was pretty much a no-brainer when our friend and formerly featured pantry, Jamin Mendelsohn, suggested we get together with Archana. When the pastry chef isn't busy whipping up gorgeous creations for couples and celebrities, she's generously lending her time baking for a good cause - in today's case, Jackson Pollack-inspired sugar cookies for a children's arts charity. So clever, no?
Read on for every baker's best secret and find out who really rules the kitchen in this household!
Hi Archana! Please tell us what you do. Did you always want to be a pastry chef or was this a career change?
I design and create cakes for weddings and special occasions. I think I always knew deep down that my place was in the kitchen, but as the child of two doctors I never considered baking a real career option. After undergrad I got my first taste of the professional kitchen when I was hired as a pastry cook at Tabla - things clicked right away and I knew that I’d found my calling. I started culinary school at the CIA the following year and I’ve never looked back.
Why "Love Street Cakes"?
My husband, PJ, is a fan of The Doors, and one of our favorite songs of theirs is Love Street. Years ago he said that's what I should call my future dream bakery, so when I started on my own I thought it was the perfect name for a wedding cake shop!
How would you describe your food style and where do you draw inspiration from, in terms of both taste and aethetics?
My style is clean and elegant, and I take a lot of inspiration from my Indian heritage, especially from the architecture and embroidered textiles in bright colors. I get inspired by anything and everything: clothes, paintings and drawings, paper and fabric designs, floral arrangements, etc.
In terms of taste, I like to keep things simple and delicious and I love to re-imagine classic flavor profiles. The dining public is very knowledgeable about food these days, so there’s a tendency to over-do it with obscure ingredients and complicated techniques, but that’s when things become muddled and confusing.
I draw great inspiration from my father’s mother, whose cooking and dinner parties were famous in our family circle. She also had an incredible artistic sensibility and loved quilting and crafts, and I grew up helping her in the kitchen. She definitely passed on the love for baking to me and even though she’s no longer with us, I feel her presence whenever I’m in the kitchen. [Editor's note: The cookbook pictured below, "Vindu," was written and published by Archana's grandmother, who realized how important it was to preserve and teach cooking traditions to younger generations of her family -- pretty incredible!]
We know that your husband is also a chef! What are some of your favorite dishes to make at home together? Is it hard sharing a kitchen with a fellow chef? ;)
My husband PJ is the chef de cuisine at Ai Fiori and he’s incredibly talented, but the kitchen at home is my territory! I do most of the daily cooking but every so often he’ll be in the mood to whip up something special, and I learn a ton by watching him work. Our home kitchen is only big enough for one cook at a time, but we love to work together when we’re doing dinner parties in a bigger space. We make a great team because we have different areas of expertise and can help each other without getting competitive.
How much of a sweet tooth do you have as a pastry chef? Are you into savory cooking?
As a kid I had a huge sweet tooth - the majority of my childhood memories revolve around some sort of dessert experience. Now I’m older I tend to crave more salty stuff, maybe because I’m surrounded by cake and frosting all day!
Baking is my profession, but I consider savory cooking my favorite hobby. With baking you have to stick close to the recipe or things won’t turn out, so I love the freedom of cooking where you can always throw in this or that to adjust flavors and consistency.
What is a go-to dish that's sure to draw raves from guests?
I find that anything made with love and quality ingredients will make your guests ooh and ahh. Even the simplest dishes seasoned well can impress!
What's your idea of a perfect dinner party?
If I could, I’d throw dinner parties every week. My idea of a perfect evening is a lively party at home with a dozen or so close friends, plenty of good wine and sparkling conversation. My dream is a big open kitchen where people can hang out while I cook so I don’t have to miss the fun, and a big table where we can all sit down to enjoy the latest dishes I’m trying out.
Top pantry essentials in your kitchen?
Butter, sugar, flour, eggs, always! For cooking: olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic.
Do you have a secret ingredient that you love to use?
I always add some salt to sweet dishes to enhance the other flavors; it’s a baker’s best secret. PJ and I get a lot of food gifts from friends, all sorts of fancy salts and exotic spices from honeymoons and holidays. It’s always fun to add a pinch of saffron to something, or hit it with yuzu juice or a drizzle of truffle oil.
Favorite kitchen utensils or gadgets?
Baking equipment doesn’t have to be fancy - if you have a bowl and a spoon you can manage to whip something up. But if you’re going to splurge on anything it should be a good stand mixer - my KitchenAid is by far my most used piece of equipment in my kitchen. My favorite tools are my mini offset spatula and my immersion blender, for which I find endless uses. And I love my Silpats, non-stick silicone baking mats. For cooking it’s essential to invest in some quality heavy-bottomed pots and pans; they make all the difference.
Where do you shop for kitchen supplies?
I buy cake pans and equipment at a restaurant supply store on the Bowery, and most of my specialty baking stuff I order online, from Global Sugar Art or Sugar Craft. In a pinch I can usually find what I need at Broadway Panhandler or NY Cake and Bake (the source for many of the magical disco dust colors below!). New York is full of great specialty stores like JB Prince, where you can get really fancy precision equipment, and Korin where PJ buys Japanese knives.
Best tips for novice home cooks/bakers?
If at first you don’t succeed, try again. Baking takes patience and practice, and you will get better. Also, taste your batter before it goes into the oven to make sure you didn’t mistake the salt for sugar!
*Pastry tip: Use a blowtorch to warm a metal bowl to give buttercream icing a perfectly smooth consistency.
Drape a mixer with a kitchen towel to prevent dry ingredients from billowing out!
Bouchon Bakery never disappoints - the croissants are flaky, the baguettes are crusty, and the pastry case is always full of gorgeous treats. I also love Bottega Falai for Italian breads and fruit tarts. For chocolates I go to Bond Street Chocolate on East 4th, where Lynda Stern spikes her truffles with tequila and St. Germain. She also makes these amazing chocolate statues of Buddha and Jesus and covers them with edible gold; they make great gifts.
Cupcakes are making their way out - what do you predict will be the next sweet trend? Whoopie pies, macarons...?
New Yorkers want their sweets to be portable and playful - that’s why we fell so hard for the cupcake. Thanks to Mad Men, people my age and younger are nostalgic for an era we never experienced the first time around, and retro desserts are in. A pudding shop opened up in my neighborhood and it’s been packed, and I think this summer will be big for popsicles.
1-2-3 Cookies with Royal Icing
1-2-3 Cookie Dough
8 oz. sugar
1 lb. butter
1 1/2 lbs. flour
Pinch of salt
1. Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
2. Add eggs one at a time until they are incorporated.
3. Mix flour in until it's just incorporated. Chill for at least one hour.
4. Roll out and cut into desired shapes with cookie cutters.
4. Bake at 325F until golden brown.
2 egg whites
4-5 cups powdered sugar
Whisk sugar into egg whites until you get a glossy paste that holds a medium peak. Decorate to your heart's content!
Thanks for a colorful day, Archana! Be sure to check out her beautiful cake creations on Love Street Cakes and more casual fare on her personal blog, Don't F With Chef.