Sunday, January 11, 2009

Hot chocolate: Belton grad takes top prize

By TOMIE LUNSFORD
Telegram Staff Writer

When she turned 16, Jennilee McCaffrey didn't want a car. She wanted a KitchenAid mixer.
'So we got her one,' said mom, Denise McCaffrey of Temple, not at all surprised by the request. 'Ever since she was a child, she's enjoyed cooking. She had a tiny, little apron that she always wore.'
The child cook grew up to be a pastry chef.
And last month, Miss McCaffrey won her first professional culinary contest. She took the top honor - the Hot Chocolate Award - at the Dec. 3 'World of Chocolate' event.
The annual competition is an annual fundraiser for the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, and its goal is to find 'the altogether tastiest treats.'
This year's best-tasting treats were Miss McCaffrey's gingerbread brownies, pecan and peppermint truffles, caramelized banana and spicy milk chocolates.
'Winning was wonderful,' said Miss McCaffrey, a 2000 Belton High School graduate. 'It was probably the most exciting night of my life.' The caramelized banana also won a Judge's Award from Wayne Johnson, a Chicago TV news reporter. He said he favored that candy more than any of the others.
Representing Zelda's Sweet Shoppe, Miss McCaffrey competed against chefs from 30 other vendors.
'And each vendor had anywhere from one to five entries,' Miss McCaffrey said. 'There were so many talented people there. To be listed with them, much less win, is a dream come true.'
Her dream to be a pastry chef roots in her childhood, like her mother said. But it took her a while to realize it.
'When I was growing up, I was always interested in food and Food TV,' Miss McCaffrey said. 'I'd cook at home. I was always ready to try a new recipe.'
Miss McCaffrey also enjoyed helping her father, Edward McCaffrey of Temple, prepare gourmet meals for dinner parties. A podiatrist at King's Daughters Clinic in Temple, Mr. McCaffrey frequently invited guests to his home.
'And (Miss McCaffrey) always added a creative touch to everything,' Mr. McCaffrey said.
But after graduating from Belton High School, Miss McCaffrey chose to study education at Texas State University.
'Cooking was something I enjoyed. I didn't think I could earn a living by it,' Miss McCaffrey said.
About half way through her college career, she changed her mind.
'When I was doing student teaching at Texas State, I incorporated a lot of baking into my lessons. I enjoyed that more than I enjoyed teaching the other stuff, so I thought about going to pastry school.'
She approached her parents with the idea.
'It really surprised us when she said she wanted to quit school,' Mrs. McCaffrey said. 'We said, 'No, You're in college. Finish it and then you can do whatever you want.' So she did. She finished college and went right on to pastry school, and we supported her decision. We're very proud of how hard she's worked.'
So in 2005 after earning her Texas State education degree, Miss McCaffrey enrolled in the French Pastry School in Chicago. Her successful completion of the six-month program earned her a three-month externship at the Payard Patisserie & Bistro in New York.
'I got to do a lot of baking there,' Miss McCaffery said. 'And I love baking. I love things where you get to measure. It's kind of like chemistry, and I was good at chemistry in high school.'
Her mother attests to her daughter's baking skills.
'Every Christmas, she bakes the cookies and the breads,' Mrs. McCaffrey said. 'And it's delicious. I don't know where she got all that talent, but it wasn't from me.'
The chefs at Payard could see Miss McCaffrey's baking talent as well. They paved the way to her first paying job at the Bouchon Bakery in New York.
'I worked there for two years,' Miss McCaffrey said. 'I was getting paid to bake, and I loved it. But I had fallen in love with Chicago and I wanted to be back there.'
So by the summer of 2008, Miss McCaffrey had obtained the position of pastry chef at Zelda's Sweet Shoppe in Skokie, a suburb of Chicago.
'I started to focus more on chocolates at Zelda's,' Miss McCaffrey said. 'I learned how to make them, and I found out I was good at it.'
Her success at the World of Chocolate event proves that she's not just boasting.
'Winning something like that validates my leaving home,' Miss McCaffrey said. 'I did something right.'
She said her decision to leave Texas was risky.
'I really am a small-town type of girl, and if anyone had told me four years ago that I'd be where I am today I'd say they were crazy,' Miss McCaffrey said. 'I was the one who was supposed to get married and start a family in Temple, and everyone else was supposed to move away, but somehow things didn't end up that way.'
And she's glad for it.
'The night of the World of Chocolate event was unbelievable, and I will never, for the rest of my life, forget the feeling I had when I won,' Miss McCaffrey said. 'To have people say, 'I consider myself a connoisseur of chocolate, and your are the best chocolates I've ever had in my life' is unbelievable. It told me that maybe I do know what I'm doing.'

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