Despite her youth, Lauren Petri, the pastry chef at The Hamilton, has managed to put a lot of mileage into her career. From a childhood in Annapolis to the culinary program at Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, N.C., to an internship in Switzerland, Petri now rules the sweet side of a prestigious kitchen in D.C.
As it turns out, family members also helped shape her baking passion, too. "My mom did a lot of baking with me," she explained. "She was a homemaker, so while she was making dinner I'd hang around the kitchen and help her put together a salad or I'd measure out ingredients for cookies. I remember this one book we had was called, "The Alphabet Cookbook," and it had pictures of tablespoon and cup measurements for each ingredient and every letter would be a different recipe. ... I would pick out the recipe I wanted to make and my mom would walk me through each step and then let me work through it on my own."
She recalls that as she matured, she started creating her own cookie recipes. "My dad would be gone all day," she said, "and when he came home, he would eat all my cookies." She even started her own at-home baking business in high school to fund a trip to Europe. "My dad would take a basket of baked goods into work each day and sell them to all of his co-workers for me.
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When she turned 16, Petri got a job as a hostess in an Annapolis cafe. Later that year, she helped out in a local bakery. "I would scoop cookie dough, put together desserts platters for parties, and basically do anything no one else wanted to do. I just couldn't get enough of baking," she said. "I've always thought I've had some sort of madness when it comes to being in a kitchen. I'd work for 4 to 6 hours in the kitchen and then go home and bake Christmas cookies for a few more hours."
While at Johnson & Wales, she enrolled in their bakery and pastry courses, and even was elected as vice president of the university's baking club. On breaks, Petri would fly home, walk in the house and greet her family, then start baking.
In addition, Petri can probably thank her father's father for some part of her culinary passion because those relatives owned their own confection shop in Philadelphia. "Although the shop closed down in the 1930s," she said, "my grandfather would make candies for the holidays out in the garage. I have all his old moulds, and I hope to display or use them."
As Petri sets about her daily baking tasks, she acknowledges that baking is definitely a passion, but she thanks her family for its support and encouragement. "It's the encouragement from my parents that has gotten me this far," she said. "They have always been so supportive of my decisions and giving me direction in my life."
What is your comfort food?
I would have to think about that. It depends on my mood, and what I have in my apartment. Normally it would be something salty because I am surrounded by sugar all the time. .... When I went to school in North Carolina, the hush puppies were the most amazing ... sweet potato hush puppies.
Which is your favorite restaurant?
I have two: I went to Woodbury Kitchen in Baltimore, Md., and fell in love with it. They had thought of everything. Then I went to the Fig Tree in Charlotte, N.C., in and old plantation home. I felt transported back in time. In D.C, 1789 is my favorite and Smith Commons on H Street.
What would you do with a year off?
I would go on a food tour ... and start out West in California then Oregon, and go to Tartine Bakery & Cafe, a gluten-free bakery in Oregon. I want to learn that side of baking. Then I would go to Paris and Japan, and hit as many food places for inspiration.
What's in your fridge?
I eat all meals here [at the restaurant]. Frozen fruit and yogurt for an occasional smoothie, and I also have chicken empanadas that I've made and frozen .... and smoked gouda with crackers. I have a weakness for banana-flavored Cheerios, really addictive.
Which is your favorite cookbook?
It would have to be "Amy's Bread" and I love her recipes. She has a bread book and a sweet book. All her recipes are amazing. A lot of basic ones, but really well-tested. I have met her before too, and she is wonderful.
As Petri says, "Pretzel salad is something my mom used to make for my sister and me when we were growing up. I think the recipe originated from an old family friend from when we lived in Northern Idaho. It's a very Midwestern thing. I'd serve it more like a dessert -- it definitely satisfies sweet and salty cravings."
Makes about 16 servings
1 (6-oz.) package strawberry Jell-O
2 cups sliced fresh strawberries or whole raspberries
4 cups salty pretzels
3/4 cup unsalted butter
2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
1 (8-oz. package) cream cheese, at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup heavy cream
The Jell-O layer: Prepare the Jell-O, according to the package instructions. Add sliced strawberries and put in the refrigerator until slightly set, 30 to 40 minutes. Meanwhile, make the other layers.
The pretzel crust: Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Butter or spray a 9-by-13-inch pan. In a food processor or bag crush up pretzels, but leave them in small chunks. Melt the butter over low heat, add brown sugar, and remove from heat. Mix pretzels into butter mixture and press into the bottom of the prepared pan. Bake for 10 minutes or until light golden brown. Cool completely.
The cream cheese layer: Beat the cream cheese and sugar with a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Beat until well incorporated. In a separate bowl whip heavy cream until it has soft peaks. Fold the whipped cream and cream cheese mixture together.
Assemble: Spread the cream cheese mixture over the cooled pretzel crust. Chill for about 5 minutes. Pour slightly set Jell-O mixture over the cream cheese layer and refrigerate for at least 2 hours before serving.