Thursday, December 1, 2011

Baker's Profile

Krystina Castella

Krystina Castella

For cookbook author and kitchen impresario Krystina Castella, whipping up a batch of cookies—or baking cupcakes or cakes—isn't an end in itself. No, the fun really starts after the pans come out of the oven and Krystina gets to work frosting, embellishing, coloring, and constructing. The results may be whimsical or breathtakingly beautiful, but they're always as amazing to behold as they are delicious.

Krystina has a secret advantage in the kitchen: She's an industrial designer who graduated from the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and is now a professor of industrial design at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. She has designed furniture, toys, clothing, and housewares; with her husband, Brian Boyl, she produced a children's book, Discovering Nature's Alphabet, that reveals the surprising patterns in rocks, leaves, and branches.

"My professional design work is all about experimenting in plastic and metal," Krystina told us. "I start with an idea that I want to explore further. Cookies, cupcakes, and cakes are just another medium to work with." But don't worry about her creations being too challenging for non-designers to reproduce: she also excels at breaking down her process into clear, easy-to-follow steps.

Krystina learned to bake in the Brooklyn kitchen of her Italian grandmother. "She baked for the nuns at the convent down the street and delivered cakes to neighbors and friends because she loved sharing her creations," Krystina said. "I learned from her that if I perfected baking, I could make people happy, too." She baked with her Girl Scout troop and for swim-team fundraisers; for her Sweet 16 party she made a huge cake for more than 150 people. When she met her husband-to-be, he dubbed her "Cakie."

Surprisingly, Krystina came late to cookie baking. As she explains in the introduction to her 2010 cookbook, Crazy About Cookies, when she was eight years old she heard a 4-H jingle that went something like this: "It takes a lot of work baking cookies, but you can buy them so easy in the store." "Every time I considered making cookies," Krystina writes, "I thought of the commercial and figured, 'I'll just buy them.'" Instead of baking cookies she sold Girl Scout cookies door to door, eventually earning a merit badge for selling a thousand boxes. Although she enjoyed collecting cookie cutters and decorating books, she limited her from-scratch cookie baking to chocolate chip and oatmeal raisin cookies.

Meanwhile, she published two successful cookbooks, Crazy About Cupcakes and Pops! Icy Treats for Everyone. (For more about those books, see our January 2008 and July 2008 newsletters.) It was finally time, she decided, to take out the box of cookie cutters and start gathering cookie recipes. "I changed them, tweaked them, and then started developing my own recipes and cookie ideas from scratch," she said. "As I got into it I realized that not only was I having fun—I was becoming downright obsessed. My years of fearing the cookie were over—in a big way."

Which doesn't mean she's abandoned her other baking obsessions. Krystina's research for her next book, Crazy About Cakes, allowed her to revisit that fabulous Sweet 16 cake—and to experiment with creative cakes for just about every other occasion on the calendar, too. The book will be published November 1; we're planning to buy copies for all the bakers on our holiday gift lists!

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