Sweet Memories: Nicole Rucker of Gjelina

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Sweet Memories is a new blog series on Good Food where Chloe Chappe talks to local chefs and bakers about the flavors and memories that inspired their food.

Nicole Rucker grew up in San Diego, and while she did not grow up in a house of bakers, Rucker rose to bakerdom through experimenting with baking in college. She won KCRW’s pie contest in 2012 with her pork and peas pie. Rucker is the pastry chef at GTA located at 1429 Abbot Kinney Blvd, Venice, CA 90291.

20121004_nicolepies_0252 Chloe Chappe: Is there any dish from your childhood or past that you make in your bakery today?

Nicole Rucker: I was going to say no, because I can’t think of anything – we didn’t do a lot of baking in my family; but, we lived very close to a Mexican panaderia and we used to get a lot of breads from there because they were cheap, and they made these cookies in that panaderia (and in all panaderias), that are white, pink, or brown and they are like really crunchy, kind of crumbly, chewy sugar cookies that are made with shortening. They were really super good and chewy, maybe because they were stale always, but they have this really distinct special flavor. So I was off for the weekend from GTA, and I asked my sous chef and my other pastry cook to make a new cookie and they came up with this almond sugar cookie, and when I ate it and when the rest of the staff ate it, they all said it tasted like the cookie from the Mexican panaderia that all of us remember eating when we were kids. All of the Oaxacan guys that work for us all remember eating this cookie when they were kids, and I happen to remember eating this cookie when I was a kid even though we didn’t grow up in the same place. It’s weird because that cookie tastes a lot like my childhood, and I didn’t develop it, it’s just something that they worked on together.

CC: Are there any specific smells or ingredients from your past that have influenced your current creations?

NR: I just visited my grandma, she’s 92, and she did all the cooking for our family so the smell that I associate the most with her cooking is the smell of garlic on your hands after you cook with it. That smell is really intense memory-wise for me, but I don’t use garlic in baking very much so, that’s not really it. But also strawberries are a really big thing – the smell of strawberries and the smell of tomatoes – I use both of those things a lot and they had a big influence on me. My grandpa grew strawberries and my favorite dessert as a kid was strawberry short cake.

CC: If you could eat one meal from your past over again, what would that meal be? Why?

NR: When I was a little kid, my grandma, who is Native American, would make this green chili on the stove that was simmered green chiles with garlic and it had cheese in it. It was really spicy, it was so spicy that when you would pass by it the fumes coming off the green chiles would make you cry. And I remember being just tall enough to see it in the pan and smell it, but it was so hot and so spicy I never got to eat it and she doesn’t make it anymore because she would only make it for my grandpa and he’s dead and so I never had it. She wouldn’t make it for anyone else in the family because it would make my grandpa really angry – it was his dish – it would make him really depressed to not be able to eat it.

CC: You won kcrw’s pie contest and are well known for your pork and peas pie. Can you tell me what the craziest pie you have made is? Do you have any new wild pie ideas?

NR: I made a lot of crazy pies when I was working on a pie for the pie contest. I think that the pork and peas pie sounded pretty crazy at the beginning just because of the quantity of ingredients that are in it. They were all really specific ingredients that you would never have on hand at your house. So that’s kind of crazy, but I also did make a meat ball pie, kind of like white trash kind of vibe pies, and I also made a tamale pie. Like those kinds of Betty Crocker stuff that you see and you’re like “oh that’s disgusting” because you’re like too snobby and your food tastes are so elevated that you can’t eat a tamale pie. But I tried making them and they tasted really good, you can make anything good with the right ingredients. I would say that the meat ball pie was particularly insane; it had the famous Gjelina meat balls, buffalo mozzarella and spicy sauce and carrots and I think I put potatoes in it, extra cheese, and it was basically like the most stonerific pie. It was pretty awesome. Maybe I’m boring but I like classic pie so I don’t really mess around too much with weird stuff. The craziest I get is maybe like macerating fruit with earl grey tea, I think that’s probably the most outlandish.