New employees at Chase and Lunt insurance company never spend one moment of their first day at the Newburyport office feeling nervous. Kathy Gaiero makes sure of that.
As each new employee arrives at work for the first time, he or she finds a huge, handmade welcome cookie, baked and decorated by the Amesbury customer service representative.
While Gaiero, 58, admits the cookies began as a little joke, the ritual has fast become a favorite tradition at the State Street building.
“I’ll never forget walking in and seeing a peanut butter-chocolate chip cookie the size of a small bike tire that said, ‘Welcome princess Katie!,’” Katie Howlett wrote in an e-mail. “It was covered in purple and pink frosting, had Jolly Ranchers for gemstones, and featured a light-up tiara. I immediately felt at home in my new office.”
As her co-workers learn right away, Gaiero approaches baking with gusto — and a fun-loving attitude. She’s responsible for creating the birthday cake each month for the office birthday parties, and supplies food for company events and the art show receptions Chase and Lunt hosts for the community. And her pumpkin cake is considered a favorite breakfast item by her colleagues.
“I can’t tell you how many times she’s brought in lunch for a co-worker or randomly surprised us all with goodies first thing in the morning,” Howlett wrote. “She’s regularly saved me with a quick recipe to impress at parties, or thoughtfully sends me the information on dishes she thinks I’d love. She does all of this out of the kindness of her heart ... and her love of baking!”
That love first took hold when Gaiero was just a pre-teen, she said. One day she watched as her sister quickly made a coffee cake. It looked amazing, Gaiero said, and like something she could do herself. So, she got started simply creating cakes and breads from boxes of mix.
Her interest in baking is coupled with her love of cooking, she added. As a child growing up in Haverhill, she learned many basics of cooking and tips on creating meals from her father. Her parents, Victor and Jeannette Gaiero, owned Uptown Supermarket in Haverhill and the family lived upstairs from the store.
Often, she visited her father in the kitchen and watched as he prepared dishes like beef stew, fish chowder and baked beans to sell to customers.
“I learned a lot by watching him,” Gaiero said. When she was 13, she told her father she was ready to make the family dinner one Sunday. She served roast pork and squash to her impressed parents and siblings, she said.
These days, Gaiero continues to impress her family with her tasty treats — often made with the help of her “sous chefs,” her grandchildren, Addy, 6, Brady, 9, and Colby, 7. The three often offer their advice and suggestions, Gaiero said, noting that it was Colby who first suggested she try making peanut butter-chocolate whoopie pies.
“You can’t go wrong with peanut butter and chocolate,” Gaiero said.
It was for Addy that Gaiero first baked her now popular Barbie cakes. While it started off as a birthday dessert, Gaiero admits the cake is requested much more often that once a year.
“She’s 6 and I’ve already made about 12 cakes,” Gaiero added with a laugh.
While Gaiero loves to look through her pile of cookbooks (“I sit and I read them, it’s like therapy for me,” she said), she also frequently searches the Internet for recipes.
“I love making cookies,” she said. “It’s relaxing.”
But for certain events, such as Thanksgiving, she always returns to her family’s favorites. Next Thursday, she’ll bring the stuffing for dinner, made with her mother’s recipe.
For Gaiero, cooks and bakers must have a love for the activity, as it all comes down to enjoyment.
“You’ve got to love doing it,” she said. “If it’s not fun, don’t do it.”
She doesn’t worry so much about presentation, as long as her creations taste good, she said, and urges other cooks to keep that in mind. The first cake she ever baked stuck to the pan, she recalled, and she initially hesitated to ever want to bake again.
“Nothing’s perfect,” she said. “You just keep trying and have fun. You can always start over.”
We’re looking to share the recipes and secrets of amateur cooks who have a knack in the kitchen and consistently amaze their family and friends with their culinary skills. If you know a great cook or are one yourself, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
FROM KATHY’S KITCHEN
Below are recipes for some of Kathy’s favorite sweets, as well as two of her favorite Thanksgiving side dishes:
Prep time: 15 Minutes
Total time: 15 Minutes
1 1/2 sleeves of Saltine crackers
1 stick butter
1 cup brown sugar
2 cups chocolate chips (1 package) If you like, try different varieties, such as peanut butter or white chips.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare a cookie sheet by lining with aluminum foil and spraying the foil with nonstick cooking spray.
Arrange the crackers in a single layer on the baking sheet so there are no empty spaces in between them. Crush any remaining crackers into small crumbs and set aside for now.
Place the butter and brown sugar in saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir while the butter melts and bring to a rolling boil.
Once boiling, carefully pour the sugar-butter over the crackers on the baking sheet in an even layer, trying to cover most of the crackers. If you miss some spots, don’t worry as the toffee will spread in the oven.
Bake for 5-7 minutes until the toffee is bubbling all over. Carefully remove the pan from the oven.
Sprinkle the chocolate chips on top of the hot toffee. Place back in the oven (make sure oven is off) for about 1 minute to allow the chocolate to melt.
Remove from oven and sprinkle the top with reserved crushed crackers.(You can make it gourmet by adding chopped nuts or dried fruit to the top, or adding swirls of white chocolate).
Place the pan in the refrigerator for about 1 hour to set the toffee. Shake off the excess crackers and break up into pieces and store in an airtight container for up to a week.
2 Hershey bars
12 regular size marshmallows (cut in half)
1 cup graham crackers
1/4 cup confectionary sugar
6 tablespoons butter
1 can dolci frutta semi-sweet chocolate (found in the fresh fruit section); use 1 can per 24 s’mores. There will be some left over. Don’t put extra chocolate on the s’mores.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Melt butter, mix in graham cracker crumbs and sugar to combine.
Grease muffin pan. Evenly dispense the mix into muffin pan and press down with a shot glass or something similar.
Bake for 5 minutes.
Break chocolate into pieces and place one piece in each cup.
Place 1/2 a marshmallow into each cup (cut with scissors).
Bake for 2 minutes. Take out of oven and cool for 15 minutes before removing them with a spoon.
Once cooked, melt the dolci frutta chocolate in the microwave and dip the tops of the s’mores into the chocolate. Cups do not have to be refrigerated.
PEANUT BUTTER WHOOPIE PIES
1 box yellow or white cake mix
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup oil
1 small box vanilla instant pudding
I use a pastry bag but you can spoon it on. I usually double the filling. If you do that, use the whole container of the large marshmallow fluff.
1/2 cup butter (1 stick)
3/4- 1 cup peanut butter(chunky or smooth)
2 cups marshmallow Fluff
1 1/2 cups confectionary sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
I usually put a dab of filling on top and place 3 mini peanut butter cups on top, available in the candy aisle. You can also put some along the side.
Heat oven to 350. Line cookie sheets with cooking parchment paper or lightly spray with cooking spray.
In a large bowl, beat the ingredients for the cookies with electric mixer on low speed until moistened; beat 1 minute longer on high speed. Drop as 1/4 cupfuls or more, two inches apart onto cookie sheets. Flatten them out a little.
Bake 13-16 minutes or until set (do not over bake).
Cool 2 minutes; remove from cookies sheets to cooling racks. Cool completely, about 15 minutes.
In large bowl, beat filling ingredients with electric minx on high speed until light and fluffy. For each sandwich cookie pie, spread about 1/4 cup filling on bottom of 1 cooled cookie. Place other cookie on top. Put a dab of filling on top with mini peanut butter cups.
Note: This recipe can be made with any cake mix.
MOM’S FRENCH STUFFING
1 8 ounces frozen package of Jimmy Dean’s original pork sausage, thawed
2 pounds of 80/20 hamburger
5 pounds of all purpose potatoes
1 large chopped onion
2 sticks of butter
1 box of Bell’s Seasoning
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon garlic powder
Fry the hamburger, sausage and onion in a large frying pan until well browned. Add salt and pepper to taste.
While you’re doing that, peel and boil the potatoes with salted water until done. This will take about 20 minutes.
Drain the potatoes and put back in the same pan. Add the butter, hamburger, sausage and onion mixture with the potatoes. (You can drain the excess fat if you like, but it’s not necessary).
Add the garlic powder, Bell’s Seasoning and 2 sticks of butter. Mash together until all blended. Depending on what you want for the consistency you might want to add milk to the mixture.
ROASTED BUTTERNUT/ACORN SQUASH
1 large acorn squash (peeled and cut into cubes)
1 medium butternut squash(peeled and cut into cubes)
3 large carrots (peeled and cut into cubes)
1 medium parsnip (peeled and cut into cubes)
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup canola oil
3 tablespoons minced fresh parsley (use dry if you don’t have fresh)
2 tablespoons paprika
2 teaspoons salt
1 tsp garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
In a large bowl, combine the first four ingredients. In a small bowl, combine the remaining ingredients. Pour that over vegetables; toss to coat.
Transfer to 2 greased 15-by-10-by-1 inch in baking pans (2 cookie sheets with a 1/2 lip on the side)
Bake, uncovered, at 425 degrees for 40-50 minutes or until tender, stirring occasionally.