- Associated Press - Monday, May 8, 2017

CORINTH, Vt. (AP) - Alice Mower, the chef behind the one-woman pastry business Alice’s Kitchen, received her culinary training relatively late in life. A former administrative worker in a financial research lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Mower had always admired the science and art of baking.

Since she started Alice’s Kitchen in 2014, shortly after graduating from a pastry-making program and moving to Corinth, Mower’s baked goods have crept into such local haunts as Dan and Whit’s in Norwich; My Brigadeiro in Hanover; and the Local Buzz coffee shop and Colatina exit in Bradford.

But even as her business grew, the desire to give something back always gnawed at her, she said. After wracking her brain over what she had to offer, she realized she was already offering something worthwhile through her baking: “a smile,” she said. And who, she asked herself, needs that smile more than a soldier stationed overseas?

“I realized I have no concept of what the daily life of a soldier in Iraq is like,” she said, “but I can only imagine what it feels like to be so far from home, doing such a brave thing.”

Mower launched her program, called Soldier Cookies, in January. She liked the idea of sending out comfort food to as many people as possible, she said.

“I can make one box of cookies, and one soldier will open that box, but then in all likelihood (that soldier) will share with everybody around,” she said. “I could spread that smile with just that one step.”

On a recent sunny Monday morning, Mower, 57, was transferring freshly baked M&M; cookies to a cooling rack in her Corinth kitchen.

Her choice of recipe was deliberate: Mower has been fine-tuning her strategy for sending cookies, and has learned that resilience is an essential ingredient to every batch.

“When you think of M&M; cookies, you’re thinking of something quintessentially American,” said Mower. “Also, the M&M;’s don’t melt in the heat as much as chocolate chips do. And they’re not too fancy, so they’ll stay intact for a few weeks.”

Mower works out of her home at the top of a hill in Corinth, where her kitchen offers stunning vistas of the valley below.

“Now you see why I like to work from home,” she laughed, gesturing out the window to where her two chestnut horses were grazing on the hillside. “But the kitchen is great, too. I knew I wanted a commercial kitchen when we built the house, so I was able to get just what I wanted.”

She wheeled around to face her white marble countertop, a 630 pound triangular behemoth sourced, like most of what goes into her kitchen, locally. Her eggs are from Corinth. Her maple syrup is from Topsham, Vermont. Her “flour of choice, far and away” is from Norwich-based King Arthur Flour, her butter from Cabot Creamery and her marble countertop - both the visual and functional centerpiece of her workspace - from the quarry in Danby, Vermont.

“This thing is my baby,” she said, running her hand over its glossy surface. “A pastry chef’s dream.”

But her original dream, one she had harbored for years, was to become a pastry chef in the first place. After having children, Mower transitioned from her job at MIT to working from home as a bookkeeper, until one day, “the stars aligned,” she said.

Chez Boucher, a small culinary school in Hampton, New Hampshire, had changed the hours of its professional program. Mower realized she could attend the program during the day, then drive home to Kensington, New Hampshire in time to pick up her youngest from the school bus.

At Chez Boucher, Mower learned classical French pastry-making, and fell in love with the elegant precision of tortes and tarts. “I think it just felt familiar,” she said. “My mom was a really good baker.”

One of the now-signature products of Alice’s Kitchen evolved from a recipe she learned at Chez Boucher. She calls them Parisians. They’re moist, flourless almond cookies, drizzled with and cradled in a bed of hardened chocolate sauce made with Callebaut chocolate, a Belgian couverture renowned among chocolatiers for its high levels of cocoa butter.

After finishing culinary school in 2009, Mower continued to bake at Chez Boucher, and later debuted her recipes at the Exeter Farmers’ Market as a way of “testing the waters,” she said.

She initially started Alice’s Kitchen with the idea of filling wholesale orders, but has since discovered that she also loves the creativity and personal touch of custom orders, and collaborating with local chefs to concoct something new. She recently created vegan peanut butter chocolate pillows for a wedding, and she makes a “signature cookie” for Dan and Whit’s: a maple butter cookie bearing a dark chocolate stamp of the general store’s logo.

She doesn’t send her Parisians overseas, though, as they are too tender to survive active duty. Instead, her cookie boxes consist of “old-timey favorites,” she said. “Things that make (them) think of home, or maybe remind them of what they might have eaten growing up.” Hence the cookies studded with M&M;’s, the “good ol’ gingersnaps” whose large crystals of sanding sugar lend both sparkle and crunch, and her own maple butter sandwich cookies (a secret recipe she does not share) as a “fun little Vermont-y thing,” she said.

Upon researching the best methods for sending treats to troops, Mower stumbled upon the aptly named Treat the Troops, a South Carolina-based nonprofit that has sent more than five million cookies to soldiers to date. Inspired by the organization’s success, Mower set out to model her Soldier Cookies program after Treat the Troops.

Taking her cue from Treat the Troops’ volunteers, or “crumbs,” as they’re called, Mower has been perfecting her packaging technique. She carefully double-bags and seals seven dozen cookies into a large flat-rate box, and cushions those bags with packets of marshmallow hot chocolate mix. Finally, she writes a handwritten note thanking the soldiers for their service.

Though Mower is not operating at quite the same level as Treat the Troops, having just sent out her 10th box of cookies, she said the feedback she’s received so far has been heartwarming.

“I got an email back from one of the soldiers - I didn’t even know they had access to email! - and he said that both boxes of cookies I sent disappeared in 24 hours,” she said. “The line that brought me to tears was, ‘You don’t know how it feels to receive a box from home.’”

Though she has been asking around on her delivery circuit for names of soldiers deployed overseas, and continues to follow what she called her “fortuitous trickle of leads,” she said the biggest challenge is finding recipients.

Because the names and addresses of soldiers are usually kept private, either by policy or preference of the family, Mower said she does not expect Soldier Cookies to become Treat the Troops overnight.

“People don’t know me from Adam yet,” she said. “I think it will pick up more with time.”

Once it does, she might look into becoming a nonprofit, since she provides the service free of charge, she said.

For now, she is happy to stay small, so as not to lose her connection to her product.

“Getting bigger means hiring employees, and that means getting away from what I enjoy doing most in the first place,” she said. “Which is all of it.”

For now, Mower just wants to figure out how to fit more cookies into the boxes than the seven dozen she usually finagles.

“It’s kind of like a technical puzzle,” she said. “Which is to say, like most things in life.”





Information from: Valley News, www.vnews.com

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