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Published February 28, 2023 at 2:16 p.m. | Updated March 1, 2023 at 10:08 a.m.
Gesine Bullock-Prado is enthusiastically enamored of many things. The list includes baking, teaching people to bake, maple syrup, Vermont and her pet goose named Mama. Oh, and brown butter. Of the copper-flecked, nutty liquid gold, the pastry chef gushed during a recent conversation in her White River Junction kitchen classroom, "What's not to love about brown butter? It brings happiness to everything."
The host of Food Network's "Baked in Vermont," frequent TV cooking show judge and prolific cookbook author regularly shares her enthusiasms with her 40,000-plus followers on both Facebook and Instagram. Preorders from a passionate fan base have already catapulted her forthcoming seventh title, My Vermont Table: Recipes for All (Six) Seasons, to a top slot in the seasonal cooking new releases category on Amazon. Unlike Bullock-Prado's previous pastry-focused tomes, this one includes many non-baked savory recipes and unabashedly celebrates her home state.
The cookbook debuts on March 14, purposefully timed for mud season, one of the two "extra" Vermont seasons that are all too familiar to locals but may be new to many of the chef's devotees. Bullock-Prado, 52, often addresses those fans as "sweet people," as in an October 2022 Instagram post in which she wrote, "Sweet people, this morning at 5 a.m. as I was wiping down the school benches, I thought to myself, 'Crikey, I'm so happy.'"
It might all feel a little saccharine if Bullock-Prado didn't come across as so genuine and unpretentious on TV, on social media and in person. During Seven Days' recent visit, she sported blue sweatpants, well-worn UGG boots, a quaint heart-bedecked sweater and her dark hair in a ponytail. She gamely agreed to tromp around the snowy yard of the historic 1793 home she shares with her husband, Ray Prado.
Small-town Vermont is a far cry from Hollywood, from which the couple fled in 2004. Bullock-Prado detailed that transition in her 2009 memoir, originally titled Confections of a Closet Master Baker: One Woman's Sweet Journey From Unhappy Hollywood Executive to Contented Country Baker.
The narrative traces how the couple left Tinseltown, where Bullock-Prado was running her movie star sister Sandra Bullock's production company, for down-to-earth Vermont. A self-taught baker, Bullock-Prado planned to leave her law degree behind and study at the now-defunct New England Culinary Institute. Ultimately, she leapfrogged that step to open a Montpelier bakery, Gesine Confectionary, which she operated from 2005 to 2008.
Five baking books, more than 1,000 in-person and online cooking classes, two seasons of her own Food Network show, and one move to the Upper Valley later, Bullock-Prado has crafted a love letter to her adopted state in My Vermont Table.
The new book is illustrated with painterly photographs of food and scenes of Bullock-Prado gathering backyard sap, foraging for ramps and hanging out with Mama the goose. They were shot by her husband, who works as a television and film storyboard artist and is an ardent cheerleader for his wife and her career.
My Vermont Table grew out of Bullock-Prado's "Baked in Vermont" show, which ran from 2017 to 2018. It paid homage to the Green Mountain State — and, pragmatically, leveraged its broad appeal.
"Vermont is, like, beyond a state, right?" Bullock-Prado said. "It's a state of mind. It's such a vibe ... It's something that people go to for comfort, literally."
The book reflects Bullock-Prado's deep attachment to Vermont from its first recipe (a ramp-and-goat-cheese goose egg bake) to its last (a flourless chocolate cake named for Montpelier's Valentine's Day Phantom). But it also represents her wide range of culinary influences.
During her conversation with Seven Days, she described Vermont as her "heart home," partly due to its resemblance to her mother's hometown of Nuremberg, Germany, and to the Blue Ridge Mountains, near where Bullock-Prado attended college in Charlottesville, Va.
Raised mostly in Virginia near Washington, D.C., she had never been to Vermont before Prado, a Colorado native and Dartmouth College grad, brought her to the Upper Valley for a football game.
"We were courting," Bullock-Prado reminisced with a smile. The pair drove from Hanover, N.H., across the Ledyard Bridge into Norwich, she recalled, "and I'm like, Oh, God, this is it."
In Vermont, Bullock-Prado elaborated, she found "all the things that I love the most: rolling, gentle mountains and very useful, beautiful villages where people actually still did stuff."
Bullock-Prado developed recipes for My Vermont Table based on how she cooks at home throughout the year. "They are inspired by the season, obviously, because of what is available and how you're feeling at the time," she explained. "It's kind of a mood board for the seasons."
Those varied recipes include dishes inspired by her German heritage, such as spaetzle, sauerkraut and her mother's Maggi Seasoning-spiked potato salad. Vermont classics such as fiddlehead quiche, baked beans and apple cider doughnuts appear throughout the seasonal chapters — as do the beloved sticky buns from Middlebury's Dog Team Tavern, destroyed by fire in 2006.
The pastry chef also delivers a few of her signature showstoppers, including a multipage recipe for Maple-Chocolate Baked Vermont, her preferred birthday cake, which involves a mountain peak of chocolate cake layered with homemade maple ice cream and slathered with meringue.
Ingredients run a similar gamut from global to hyperlocal. Bullock-Prado is an avid gardener and forager who tends her own laying chickens and ducks. She harvests vegetables, fruits, wild mushrooms, sumac, ramps, maple sap for syrup and even saffron from her land.
Bullock-Prado said she's constantly amazed by the quality of foods grown and produced in Vermont. "You can make a meal just from things that are so ordinary to us," she said, "but they are truly extraordinary to outsiders."
She recalled running into a friend of a friend in the Northeast Kingdom. "She said, 'Oh, this is my friend. He's the master cheesemaker of Bayley Hazen'" — referring to the award-winning blue cheese from Greensboro's Jasper Hill Farm. "I was like, 'Ooohhhh,'" Bullock-Prado said, sounding far more impressed than one might be, for example, by a movie star.
Bullock-Prado's recipes integrate her international and vegan upbringing. "I grew up using kombu and miso and all those things that are like umami bombs in vegetarian and vegan food," she said.
Her Vermont salt pork baked bean recipe, for instance, includes a vegan alternative made with kombu, vegetable stock and sweet white miso paste. "That will give you kind of the heartiness that you're looking for in that recipe. Add a little maple, and then you're happy," Bullock-Prado said.
"It's my Vermont table," she said of the book's fusion approach.
During my mid-February visit, Bullock-Prado guided me through a maple tuile recipe from the mud/sugaring season chapter. Deceptively simple, it required us to spread a sticky batter in small rectangles on a cookie sheet and then pull them hot from the oven one at a time to roll into tight cylinders like paper scrolls.
Original to Bullock-Prado, the recipe was inspired by her and her sister's childhood love of Pepperidge Farm Bordeaux cookies. "We were obsessed with them as kids," she said, "just the crunch and the butter." She reverse-engineered a classic French cookie recipe called crêpes dentelles to use maple sugar and Vermont Creamery butter.
Bullock-Prado encouraged me to "smoosh" the butter into the sugar with a wooden spoon. "It's so satisfying, right?" she said. When the cookies emerged from the oven, she patiently coached me through rolling one. After a few minutes' cooling time, we sampled them, teeth crunching into buttery, caramelized sweetness.
"There is something magical about baking in that, unlike cooking, it's so transformative," Bullock-Prado marveled. "All those ingredients that are so singular before they go into the oven become completely transformed into something new. It's an alchemy of a sort."
One of the reasons Bullock-Prado loves teaching and sharing recipes is to help show others that "the magic can be yours," she said.
Bullock-Prado taught at King Arthur Baking's school in Norwich for many years, but since 2017, she has focused mostly on teaching in the roughly 450-square-foot renovated carriage pass-through attached to the couple's house. She estimates that she teaches about 90 classes a year. The eight spots per three- to four-hour class cost $110 to $120 and sell out almost as soon as they go live. Students have traveled from as far away as Sweden, South Africa and Brazil.
The couple built the classroom, known as Sugar Glider Kitchen, after Prado happened to catch part of a King Arthur class his wife was teaching. "When it was over," Bullock-Prado recalled, "he goes, 'This is your superpower. This is what you need to do.'"
We had finished the maple tuiles when Prado popped his head into the kitchen. A thaw had prompted a run of sap from the property's maple trees, and the buckets were close to overflowing and would need to be emptied soon. The seasonal cycle continued.
When the couple decided to move from Los Angeles to Vermont 20 years ago for Bullock-Prado to pursue baking professionally, they had no idea how it would go. She remembers thinking, "This is the thing that makes me happy. It might be dumb to take the thing that makes you happy and make a career out of it, because it could ruin it entirely."
As it turned out, she said with a smile, "Vermont is our happy place."
The original print version of this article was headlined "The Sweet Life | A pastry chef spreads Vermont love through a new cookbook"
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