Ask the Expert: Maria Rizzo, the Baker!

By Wellness360 Magazine
Maria Rizzo

Maria Rizzo is the owner of Sugar, Refined., a local bake shop in Newberry, FL. Maria and her team makes incredible custom cakes, creates delectable cupcakes, and pushes the limits with treats like key lime banana pudding, turtle brownies and salted caramel eclairs. To see all of the amazing creations that come from Sugar, Refined., follow @sugar_refined_bake_shop on Instagram!

What is the difference between being a “baker” and a “chef?” Aren’t they the same thing?

A baker bakes and a chef cooks. They do share some things in common, but the focus is very different. In cooking, a chef can be much more creative and experimental, whereas baking requires more precision. The creativity for a baker comes in the final presentation (my favorite part!), not so much in the recipe itself. Different tools and skills are needed for each profession. It’s also important to note that “chef” is a title given to the head or “chief” of the kitchen. He or she is in charge, and often has sous chefs, cooks and even bakers under their supervision.

Why do people on those baking shows “weigh” their ingredients?

Baking relies on chemistry, and chemistry is a precise science. In order for your product to rise correctly, maintain its structure and just taste good, certain chemical reactions must take place. For the reactions to occur, exact measurements need to be made. Measuring by weight is the best way to ensure you are using proper amounts. Think of it this way:
I can fill a measuring cup with sifted flour or I can fill the same cup with flour packed in tightly and pressed down. Either way, it’s still a cup…but it’s a much different quantity of flour. If I weigh my flour, I will use the same exact amount each and every time.

How do you come up with your signature flavors, and what is your favorite?

I love things that bring a sense of nostalgia and bring me back to childhood. It makes me happy, and I think it sparks joy in others as well. I’m also really inspired by holidays (all of them!) and the seasons. My favorite flavors are the ones which make you say “Mmmm…this tastes like _______!” (fill in the blank: fall, summer, Christmas, etc).

What is the most common mistake amateur bakers make?

Too many substitutions! In cooking, I think of recipes as suggestions: here’s the basic idea, but you can run with it…add a pinch of this, throw in some of that, leave out the mushrooms, season it to taste. In baking, you just can’t do that. Sure, that cake would be amazing if you just took out half the milk and replaced it with fresh-squeezed lemon juice. But, you didn’t realize that the acidity counteracts with the leavening and the fat ratio is now completely off. Suddenly you’ve got a flat, dense cake that doesn’t ever seem to cook all the way through.

My team is absolutely amazing at developing new flavors all the time, but we know what we are doing. We know what can be added, omitted and replaced. And, of course, there’s some trial and error. I always encourage people to come up with new flavors and new recipes, but if you don’t have a fundamental knowledge of baking, you’re going to be disappointed with what comes out of the oven.

Does preheating the oven really matter?

Yes! ‘Nuff said.

A lot of people mess up their recipes because they interchange dry and liquid measuring cups/ spoons. Aren’t they all the same anyway?

Dry measuring cups/spoons are meant to fill and then level off with a straightedge for accuracy. Liquid measuring cups/spoons are meant to fill and pour. Again, accuracy counts. You’re not going to get an accurate measurement of dry ingredients if you are using a cup with a spout.

Tell us when a bake went wrong!

Baking always goes wrong! You learn to realize it’s an occupational hazard. Even the best of bakers will have times when that cake just doesn’t rise or the middle stays gummy. “I just don’t know what happened”…you hear it all the time! It’s usually human-error with inaccurate measurements.

What is your favorite thing to bake and why?

Again, I love to bake according to the holidays and the seasons. Things that are festive and represent all that’s going on around me. I’m Italian, so my passion lies in Italian pastries. To me, they are the epitome of comfort food and they truly warm my heart. A good pasticciotti is pure joy.

What is your least favorite thing to bake and why?

I’m not much of a bread baker. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good, crusty, salty loaf of bread, but I find the actual baking of it to be kind of boring.

What is the #1 mistake people make when ordering a wedding cake?

Thinking their guests don’t care what kind of cake they get. I understand that budget can definitely be an issue. Some couples opt to cut costs by ordering a scaled-down version of a beautifully decorated, chocolate hazelnut torte with delicate raspberry mousse and Champagne buttercream, but only enough to feed 1⁄4 of their guests. The rest are served a small square of sheet cake from the local big box store. How do you decide who gets the good stuff and who is not worthy? And how would it make you feel as a guest who is awaiting that amazing chocolate hazelnut cake, only to receive a square of previously frozen, dried out, white cake? People like to think, “nobody cares about the cake.” They’re wrong!

How far in advance does someone need to request a wedding cake? What is the process?

Most couples order their cakes about 8-10 months in advance. Depending on the season, (in North Florida, the “season” is away games in the fall!) we can book up even earlier than that. It’s not at all unusual to have to turn away couples who thought that 3-4 months ahead was plenty of time, when, in fact, we are already completely booked.

Typically, couples will reach out with some ideas of what they’d like and we can provide a ballpark price quote based on their design inspiration and guest count. If our quote falls within their budget, we will schedule a free consultation and tasting where we will discuss more details of their event and draw up a more precise design. If they choose to hire us, we ask for a deposit to hold their date, and we will continue to work with them throughout the process to finalize all of the details.

How do you feel when a customer asks to substitute a flavor or ingredient?

That all depends. When customers ask us to create new flavors for them, I get really excited! It’s a great challenge and some of our most popular and even signature flavors have come from those types of requests. It’s different though with dietary restrictions. Allergies and sensitivities are real, but when people ask if we can make a gluten-free, sugar-free, dairy-free, eggless cake, the answer is going to be no. At that point, what we’re making wouldn’t even technically be a cake. I just can’t do it. Maybe there’s another dessert we could come up with, but it’s not going to be a “cake!”

To bake at home, do I need the most expensive baking ware? What should I splurge on?

Save your money on bakeware and splurge on ingredients! Unless you’re a full-on enthusiast, you really can get away with less expensive tools and equipment, at least in the beginning. What really makes a difference is using high-quality ingredients. Have you seen the price of vanilla lately? DON’T let it scare you into buying the cheap stuff! Get the best quality butter and pure vanilla you can find. Use real bakery emulsions rather than grocery store extracts, use fresh fruits and use the right type of sugar according to your recipe!

What is the longest time you have ever spent on a cake?

Most decorative embellishments need to be made in stages, several days ahead in order to have adequate time to dry and set. Baking, cooling and setting can take an entire day, and generally, cakes are not iced and assembled until the day after they are baked. All tolled, most intricate cakes can easily take about four full days to complete.

How tall was the tallest cake that you ever baked?

About 4 feet. After being placed on the table, we needed a 6-foot ladder to assemble it!

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