Archana Rao, Pastry Chef/Owner, Love Street Cakes

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!

Favorite bakeries/patisseries?

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 ounces sugar
1 pound butter
1 1/2 pounds flour
3 eggs
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.

Royal Icing
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.

*Photos by Christine Han Photography for Pantry Confidential. All photos on Pantry Confidential are original and copyrighted. Please credit and link back to our site when using our images, thank you.

Dorothy Neagle, Co-Founder of Good Food Jobs

Dorothy Neagle, Co-Founder of Good Food Jobs

Entrepreneur, mother, food altruist. Three equally important and weighty roles that our new friend Dorothy seems to manage with graceful aplomb. This Bluegrass State native, who incidentally owes her great eye to a background in interior design, found a way to share her love of food and community to an eager audience hungry for both when creating Good Food Jobs. Oh, and can we just take a minute to point out her insanely enviable Victorian era porcelain skin?

Read on to learn more about Good Food Jobs and Dorothy's favorite squash pie recipe!

Please tell us what you do.

As a co-Founder of Good Food Jobs, with my lovely partner Taylor, most of my work is done in front of the computer (the paradox of creating a website to build community is that we have to make an effort to get out and be in the community, physically rather than electronically). Although we strived to create a website that was user-friendly and do-it-yourself, we personally review and approve all jobs posted on the site, so there can be a lot of day to day work. As with most jobs these days, there’s a tremendous amount of emailing. And I also do a lot of the graphics for the site, including print materials and miscellaneous things like that. That part is fun enough that it doesn’t feel like work.

How would you describe your food aesthetic/cooking style?

Homemade and comfortable. I grew up watching my mom make everything from bread to apple sauce from scratch. I love the process involved in making even simple things, like pancakes or mashed potatoes.

What are your favorite kitchen utensils or gadgets?

When I was growing up, we didn’t have any simple gadgets, we had things like a giant tabletop apple sauce grinder that spit pulp and peel out the side while fresh hot apple sauce poured from the front; or an unwieldy, hand-operated ice cream churn that took what seemed like half the day to use. When I went to college, I discovered more elemental things like whisks (a fork really is not a good substitute – sorry, mom) and lemon squeezers. I still don’t go for anything too fancy or specific – I love a big wooden spoon, a plastic spatula to help you get every inch of brownie batter from the bowl, a good microplane for zesting citrus.

Where do you shop for kitchen supplies?

Where do I not shop for kitchen supplies? Okay, you asked first… I love even the big chain kitchen stores like Williams-Sonoma or Sur La Table, but living in New York I feel it’s my duty to make the trip to the occasional one-of-a-kind spot, like New York Cake & Baking Supply on 22nd Street, or to wander along the Bowery for discounts. I also love Fishs Eddy for things like glassware – that’s where I found the perfect glass lemonade pitchers this past summer.

What are the top pantry essentials in your kitchen?

I don’t know what I’d do without dairy: we always have butter, cheese, milk, yogurt, eggs and ice cream. (I’ve tested the theory that you can make a meal out of anything if you put a fried egg on top of it.) I also keep plenty of dried beans, pasta, and polenta on hand. And we couldn’t live without olive oil and good sea salt. I’ve always had a jar of peanut butter in the pantry, since way before we had a baby on board.

Do you have secret, surprise or unexpected ingredient you love to use?

My secrets are pretty simple. I use lots of butter or olive oil, and salt. I use lard in my pie crusts (except when my Jewish in-laws are coming for dinner, of course!) and I actually cut the sugar in most recipes by at least half.

Favorite cookbooks/blogs/sites?

I always feel compelled to confess that I’m not good at keeping up with food blogs, even though I have one! But the one that I return to over and over is Smitten Kitchen. Cookbooks are another story - if the kitchen is my house of worship, they are the holy texts. My mother passed on her reverence for The Fannie Farmer Cookbook and The Vegetarian Epicure Book. Recent favorites are Rustic Fruit Desserts and Once Upon a Tart (a great café in Soho). I use Nourishing Traditions for basic things like mayonnaise and chicken stock.

Has having a baby changed the way you cook/eat at home? How do you determine your meals?

All I can think to say is… having a baby changed EVERYTHING! But yes, it did change the way we cook, mostly by narrowing the focus down to ease above all else. I also put more energy into preparing things in advance, and making things that freeze well in bigger quantities. Meatballs in tomato sauce is a good example. Or pie and quiche crusts.

What are your favorite dishes to make at home for you and your family?

I love to make dishes like lasagna or quiche that require assembly, but lately we’ve been making a lot of meals out of vegetables and adding a cheese and a nut – like roasted cauliflower with parmesan and walnuts. Or Brussels sprouts finely chopped and sautéed with almonds and feta. This time of year we’ve making lots of soups: butternut squash with coconut milk, curried corn chowder, broccoli cheddar, Italian wedding soup - those are always perfectly simple with a piece of crusty bread and butter.

Function meets design with sleek Global knives and a stainless steel compost pail.

Rich Squash Pie

Adapted from The Fannie Farmer Cookbook

Basic Pastry Dough for 9-inch pie shell (recipe follows)

1 cup pureed cooked winter squash
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup sugar
3 eggs, slightly beaten
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon salt

Preheat the oven to 425F. Line a pie pan with the pastry dough. Combine the remaining ingredients in a large bowl and beat until smooth and well blended. Pour into the lined pie pan. Bake for 10 minutes, then reduce the heat to 300F and bake for 45-60 minutes more or until the filling is firm.

Basic Pastry Dough

Courtesy Group Recipes

For 8-inch Single Pie Shell:
1 cup + 2 tablespoons flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup shortening
2 to 3 tablespoons cold water

For 9-inch Single Pie Shell:
1 1/2 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup shortening
3 to 4 tablespoons cold water

Combine the flour and salt.

Cut in the shortening using a pastry blender or food processor on "pulse."

Combine lightly until the mixture resembles course meal or really tiny peas.

Sprinkle water over the mixture 1 Tbsp at a timeand mix lightly with a fork or your hands. (If you used a food processor, transfer the mixture to a mixing bowl before adding the water.)

Use only enough water so the pastry will hold together when pressed gently

Who is your biggest food inspiration?

Although my parents had the most influence on me, I’d have to say that my partner Taylor is my biggest inspiration. She never seems to tire of being in the kitchen, and her enthusiasm is infectious.

Any chefs/food producers you admire and why?

I have the most admiration for farmers. There is nothing more appealing to me than having knowledge of the natural world. When someone can tell you the difference, in sight, texture, and flavor, between one squash and the next, it makes me feel full of wonder, like a child. No one knows more about flavor than the farmer, because he or she knows about the soil conditions and the weather patterns and the ripest moment for each crop. And there’s nothing like taste testing by picking something right off the vine.

Do you have a tasty hole-in-the-wall you'd be willing to share?

We love going out for pizza or tacos, and in our house it’s Di Fara for the former and Tacos Matamoros for the latter (both in Brooklyn, of course).

What do you like to listen to while you cook?

Just about anything. Some favorites are Louis ArmstrongJoni MitchellDolly Parton– things that remind me of home.

Whose pantry(ies) would you like to raid?

Mark Bittman, Martha Stewart, Ruth Reichl.

What is your go-to dish that's sure to draw raves from guests?

Having dinner guests feels like a distant memory of a former life, but if I remember correctly, we always loved making spaghetti and meatballs with roasted broccoli.

What's your idea of a perfect dinner party?

The potluck isn’t thought of as a very sophisticated affair, but I love when guests bring something. It makes everybody feel good to share, and no matter how inspired you might be feeling as the host, it’s always nice to have some collaboration. The scene would be a mid-summer evening in the country, everyone a little worn out from the afternoon’s outdoor pursuits, eating outside at a big table, or in the grass. It would always involve fresh berries for dessert, picked that morning at a nearby farm, and hopefully an excuse for whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

Please share your best tips for novice home cooks.

Try not to overthink it. A great meal can be very simple. And don’t be overwhelmed by the effort it takes to make simple things, because the results (once perfected) are more than worth it.

*Photos by Christine Han Photography for Pantry Confidential. All photos on Pantry Confidential are original and copyrighted. Please credit and link back to our site when using our images, thank you.