An insider's view of the Connecticut dining scene
Nov 1, 2013
02:01 PMThe Connecticut Table
'Small, Sweet, and Italian,' Sweet Maria's New (Waterbury Bakery) Book of Mini Bites
The arrival of the holiday season gives rise to lots of thoughts. Plans for Thanksgiving, and wish lists for gift-giving and receiving rank high at the moment, and interwoven with those is another shared, defining theme—food, as in feasts, finer and heartier fare than in fairer weather and a seasonal amnesty from sweet-treat restrictions.
That’s where Maria Bruscino Sanchez—aka Sweet Maria—comes in.
The owner and baker for nearly 24 years at Sweet Maria’s in Waterbury, a Connecticut destination bakery for cakes, cookies, biscotti and more, Bruscino Sanchez recently released her latest cookbook, and it’s a perfect one both for this time of year and for how we like to live, and eat, now.
In Small, Sweet and Italian, with 75 recipes and simple, straightforward instructions, “The mini sweet trend takes an Italian holiday with recipes like Cappuccino Hazelnut Cupcakes, tiny Torta Caprese, mini Italian cream horns, cannoli, Bellini and Limoncello cupcakes.”
The word “mini” is the key here; these are small bites that are far more delicious and satisfying than they are filling—meaning you can sample a variety without guilt.
“Mini everything has taken hold of the entire bakery industry,” Bruscino Sanchez writes at the beginning of the book, which, before digging into the recipes, offers an ingredients/pantry section, notes on the necessary equipment, helpful mini primers on baking techniques and even a section on pairing desserts with dessert wines. (Maria Bruscino Sanchez, above; Donna Cloutier photo.)
Quality over quantity has become the preferred culinary balance, which offers just the right equilibrium, Bruscino Sanchez said over coffee and cream puffs with strawberry-mascarpone filling at the bakery recently.
“I grew up in a family where small portions meant a meal to serve twelve!” she writes in an opening section of the new book entitled La Dolce Vita means “The Sweet Life.” “Many of us love keeping up traditions, yet our lifestyles have changed to eat smaller and lighter. By baking minis, you can have it all: flavor, tradition, and variety.”
In that spirit, Bruscino Sanchez is offering her legions of devoted fans, and those who will discover her through Small, Sweet and Italian, (St. Martin’s Press; $27.99) an Italian-accented way to “sample two or three desserts. Indulge—they’re tiny.”
Tiny they may be, but the flavors—they’re big, rich, sweet and distinctly Italian.
Lemon-almond amaretti or Sicilian cannoli paired with a strong double-espresso: That’s culinary/cultural perfection.
Zeppoli di San Giuseppe or pumpkin biscottini with a hot cup of tea and a good book by the fire: That’s pure Italian comfort.
Or how about hibernating on a cold, dark weekend night with a good movie queued up on the DVR and Apples in Pastry With Brandy Cream on the sideboard to look forward to enjoying with the film—after a dinner of Lasagne Quattro Formaggi or Artichoke and Spinach Lasagna, paired with a rich Italian red wine? (Bruscino Sanchez can be savory, too, but more on that later.)
And none of those tempting thoughts even mentions the potential of Small, Sweet, and Italian to be the smartest pre-holiday purchase you make, the one that returns delicious, family-bonding dividends in every party and visit with friends and relatives from now into 2014.
“I always baked at home with my mom and my grandmother,” said Bruscino Sanchez, whose recipe for becoming one of Connecticut’s most famous and in-demand bakers evolved as she added ingredients to her life narrative.
“My life as Sweet Maria started in a close-knit Italian-American neighborhood,” she writes in the book. “I was surrounded by my grandmother, her sister, her sister-in-law, her cousin, and more relatives. It was a great way to grow up, with a huge extended family that helped nurture my budding passion for baking.”
That Italian-American tradition is extremely important, and not just for yielding delicious results. When Bruscino Sanchez recounts that her father was a barber for 50 years, and that the family didn’t eat until he came home—and he didn’t come home until all his customers were taken care of—she doesn’t have to offer what comes next: “I was always trained that the customer comes first.”
It’s clear in everything Bruscino Sanchez does in the bakery, which was just redone and is warm, welcoming and molto forte la tentazione.
May through June is the busiest time, with weddings and graduations, and, of course, “All the sacraments need cakes,” Bruscino Sanchez said. Sweet Maria's also makes biscotti that is sold to coffee shops all over the country—her husband, Edgar, handles that and fulfillment for the bakery—and there’s also a do-it-yourself cupcake bar, which attracts school events and children’s parties.
“The mix of things seems to work,” Bruscino Sanchez said. It works so well, and Sweet Maria's cakes, cookies, cupcakes, pastries and more are so beloved that folks from all over Connecticut and beyond make the effort to travel to a bakery located in a Waterbury neighborhood the uninitiated might see as a challenge to find.
Sweet Maria’s has been in the current location for nearly 14 years, and was in another nearby spot for 10 years before that, after Bruscino Sanchez had launched the bakery in her home in Waterbury, where she still lives, and where—in an updated kitchen—she did all the baking for Small, Sweet, and Italian, which she said, “was one of the pleasures of this book.”
The baking was the easy part; Bruscino Sanchez recounts her efforts at documenting it all in photographs in a blog post: “For some reason I thought, sure, I can do the food styling for this new cookbook. I mean, I food style every day. Whether it’s a simple birthday cake or an elaborate wedding dessert table, it all has to look great. Details are a part of my job. Plus I’ve been a witness at multiple photo shoots as to how this stuff actually gets done. I’ve always been fascinated with the art of photography and how it transforms the subject. Cakes that look barely mediocre seem to shine on-set with the just the right lighting. Like a miracle. So months before the manuscript was due, along with eight color photos, I starting raiding my Mom’s closets for vintage plates and linens for the shoot. Then I started shopping like crazy. I think I bought every white tiered cake plate in this hemisphere. My dining room table was strewn with this stuff for months as I plotted each shot. Are there too many items in each shot? What items should I show? And on and on … Many sleepless nights and horrible practice shots later, I packed up the car for Boston. I knew that Scott (http://www.scottgoodwin.com) would handle the photography for me as soon as I signed the book contract. We had worked together on numerous Intermezzo shoots and he had shot the The New Lasagna Cookbook, too. … .’
While Bruscino Sanchez’s path to becoming a regionally-famous baker is clear—her family heritage, the fact her first job was at a bakery, where she learned how to decorate cakes, and her abiding love for baking—the status of being a cookbook phenomenon came about in a different way.
When it came time for college, Bruscino Sanchez went to Post University in Waterbury for a degree in marketing, and then she worked for a small advertising and marketing agency. That path primed her to recognize the appeal of taking a class on how to sell a cookbook, and that class taught her how to write a proposal.
“What I basically learned is that I should get an agent,” she recalled, which she did, and the agent showed her proposal for Sweet Maria’s Cookie Jar to St. Martin’s. The rest is sweet history. Next came Sweet Maria’s Italian Cookie Tray, then Sweet Maria’s Cake Kitchen, Sweet Maria’s Italian Desserts—and, yes, The New Lasagna Cookbook.
And that’s where the savory side comes in. The lasagna book, Bruscino Sanchez said, came out of conversation with her agent in which they were making analogies to cake in that you can make lasagna ahead of time and “the sauce is like frosting.”
“I’m pretty proud of it,” Bruscino Sanchez said, especially for the book’s new interpretations of lasagna variations.
“Maria Bruscino Sanchez has a secret: she’s just wild about lasagna,” the publisher’s description of the book says. “She just can’t get enough of that hearty deep-dish Italian favorite, stuffed with juicy fillings, sauced to perfection and bubbling over with cheesy goodness. … She has scoured the world for inspiration to create a book brimming with delectable lasagna triumphs from traditional versions to classics with a twist to new-wave, meat and vegetarian varieties. Tempt the taste buds with such crowd-pleasers as Lasagne Quattro Formaggi, Artichoke and Spinach Lasagna, Pulled Pork Barbecue Lasagna, and many others. Completing the book with starters and salads, as well as some delicious desserts, Sanchez provides the tasty blueprint for a meal bursting with flavor for every craving. … .”
So now, courtesy of Bruscino Sanchez and Sweet Maria’s, you have everything you need—except bread and wine—for total flavor-immersion, comfort and satisfaction as autumn transitions into winter, whether that involves intimate hibernation dinners at home or festive events.
Of course, there’s always letting her do the baking, and heading to Sweet Maria’s to bring home the sweet bounty. (The holiday menu is online now.)
Upcoming book-signings and tastings with Sweet Maria
Friday, Nov. 8, St. Mary Magdalen School Wine Tasting, Oakville. 7 to 10 p.m. For information: http://www.smmsoakville.org/
Monday, Nov. 11, RJ Julia Booksellers, Madison, 7 p.m. For information: http://www.rjjulia.com/
Wednesday, Nov. 20, Whittemore Library Naugatuck, 6:30 p.m. For information: http://www.whittemorelibrary.org/
Saturday, Nov. 23, Otis Library, Norwich, 1 p.m. For information: http://www.otislibrarynorwich.org/
Tuesday, Dec. 3, Prospect Public Library, 6:30 p.m. For information: http://www.prospectct.com/library/
Wednesday, Dec. 4, Cucina Casalinga, Wilton, 11 a.m. For information: http://cucinacasalinga.com/
'Small, Sweet, and Italian,' Sweet Maria's New (Waterbury Bakery) Book of Mini Bites