At 3, Stella Bussey Parks was making biscuits from scratch with her father; at 21 she was creating baked Alaskas at Emmett's Restaurant; and at 30, she is one of Food & Wine's Best New Pastry Chefs in America.
Dana Cowin, editor-in-chief at Food & Wine, called Parks "a Kentucky pastry chef who creates fun, whimsical, homey desserts."
Parks, the pastry chef at Table Three Ten on West Short Street, started her career in restaurants at 14 and went to culinary school straight out of high school. She graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 2002 and worked for Emmett's. When Chris and Ouita Michel opened Wallace Station, she joined their team. "I wrote the original pastry menu at Wallace Station. The danger brownies are my babies," she said.
Then, Parks had what she calls "a quarter-life crisis." "I needed some adventure in my life." She cashed out her savings and moved to Tokyo. The culinary institute has a work-abroad program, but first Parks wanted to learn Japanese and studied two semesters in Shinjuku. After the second semester she met John Parks. She decided to marry him and to become a pastry chef.
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When she returned home, Parks worked for a year at Bluegrass Baking Co., and then with the Michels again, this time at Holly Hill Inn. "Ouita is everyone's inspiration. She's amazing," Parks said.
Parks left Holly Hill hoping to start a family but ended up with another job offer and not having children. While shopping at Wine + Market, Parks became friends with then-owners Krim and Andrea Boughalem, who were renovating a building on Short Street to open as a restaurant. "When we opened Table Three Ten, I knew we needed a very strong dessert department," Krim Boughalem said. "I had known Stella for a few years and saw she had the experience and spirit to become a great pastry chef. Johnny Shipley, our chef, and I have the same idea and commitment to season, freshness, and simple ingredients in food. Stella matched this philosophy perfectly. She had a certain romanticism when it comes to desserts."
Said Parks: "It was the offer of a lifetime. I have no restrictions. They're tremendous employers. I'm 100 percent in charge of my domain."
Familiar, comfort, nostalgic and satisfying are words Parks uses to describe her creations. "I trained in classical French technique, but I'm not interested in making high-brow desserts, I have a great appreciation for that, but I want people to really feel something when they eat the dessert. I don't want them to merely say this was delicious or this is very interesting. I want them to feel like a kid again and say, 'These animal crackers are like I remember.' "
Everything Parks makes is done by hand, including marshmallows, animal crackers and sprinkles for cupcakes.
Parks has other talents besides making outstanding pastries. She writes about food for SeriousEats.com and Gilttaste.com, and for her own blog, BraveTart.com. She started blogging in 2010, not long after professional photographer Rosco Weber started following her around with a camera. Whatever Parks baked, Weber photographed. "Making pretty desserts is my job, but those desserts always lived and died undocumented. Seeing them in a photo really energized me," she said.
Weber and Parks talked about writing a cookbook but decided on a blog. "BraveTart became a home to Rosco's food photography and my recipes and ramblings," she said.
Recently, Parks researched and wrote "The Unknown History of Red Velvet Cake" for Gilttaste.com. (Read her story at Gi.lt/opXyKF. )
BraveTart, Parks said, "looks like Table Three Ten in the rearview." Readers can find recipes for the desserts she has created at the restaurant. You also can follow her on Twitter @thebravetart.
Here are recipes from Parks.
Sweet potato panna cotta
1/4 ounce gelatin
81/2 ounces milk, divided
10 ounces cream
1 vanilla bean, scraped, seeds reserved for vanilla layer
1 3-inch cinnamon stick
1/4 ounce fresh ginger, grated
4 ounces peeled and cubed sweet potato
4 ounces brown sugar
1 ounces sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
Arrange eight 3-ounce plastic drinking cups (like Dixie) on a baking sheet. Grease lightly with cooking spray. Alternatively, make and serve the panna cotta in champagne flutes or other glassware, which don't require spray.
Place gelatin in a medium bowl and add 11/2 ounces milk. Mix with a fork to ensure no lumps of undissolved gelatin remain. Place a mesh sieve over the bowl and set aside until needed.
Put cream, remaining milk, vanilla bean, spices and cubed sweet potatoes in a small pot and bring to a simmer. Simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally to make sure the bottom doesn't scorch, until sweet potato cubes are fork-tender. Remove pan from the heat, cover and set aside for one hour.
When the hour has elapsed, fish out the vanilla bean pod and cinnamon stick. Use an immersion blender, food processor or blender to purée the sweet potato into the cream mixture. Combine sweet potato/cream purée in the pot with the sugars and salt. Whisk, over medium heat until sugars are dissolved. Once sugars are completely dissolved, strain the hot liquid into the bowl of gelatin. Use a rubber spatula to help pass the mixture through. Discard any lumps or stringy bits that won't pass through the sieve.
Whisk purée and gelatin together until gelatin has melted completely. Transfer warm panna cotta to a small pitcher or measuring cup with a pour spout, and pour the mixture evenly among the prepared cups.
Refrigerate until the mixture has cooled. Once cool, cover the cups with plastic (if covered while the panna cotta is warm, condensation will form on the plastic, drip on the panna cotta and create an unpleasant film on the surface). Refrigerate until gelatin has fully set, about 12 hours. The finished panna cotta will keep, covered and refrigerated, for about a week. Serve with maple syrup, brûléed brown butter marshmallows and homemade animal crackers.
Brown butter sage marshmallows
11/2 ounces gelatin
8 ounces cold water
3/4 ounce fresh sage, chopped as finely as you can manage
11 ounces corn syrup
8 ounces water
28 ounces sugar
1 teaspoon salt
6 ounces unsalted butter (or 4 ounces prepared brown butter, melted)
Powdered sugar for dusting
Unless you have a supercharged motor on your hand mixer, it probably won't survive this recipe. Use a stand mixer if at all possible.
Lightly grease a 9- by 13-ince pan and set aside. Combine gelatin and water in the bottom of a stand mixer bowl. Set aside.
In a large heavy-bottomed pot, combine sage, corn syrup, water, sugar and salt. Set over medium heat and stir gently, taking care to not splash liquid (and thus sugar crystals) up the sides of the pot. Once the mixture starts to simmer, stop stirring and let it cook undisturbed until mixture reaches 240 degrees. Turn off the heat and let mixture stand until it cools to 210 degrees. This is important; if the syrup has not cooled sufficiently, it will prevent the gelatin from setting properly.
Meanwhile, prepare the brown butter. In a small skillet, melt butter over low heat. Turn heat to medium low and cook the melted butter until it simmers, bubbles, stops bubbling, and begins to brown. Once the butter has turned a nice golden brown, remove skillet from the heat and set aside until needed.
When the marshmallow mixture has cooled to 210 degrees, pour it into the mixing bowl with the gelatin. Fit the mixer with the whisk attachment and crank it up to medium speed. Keep whipping gelatin mixture until it has more than doubled.
Drizzle in the browned butter, a tablespoonful at a time. At first, it will resist incorporating and a buttery barrier will form between the marshmallow stuck to the bowl and the marshmallow caught in the whisk attachment. Just keep mixing. It will come together and incorporate in the end. Once you've added all the butter, including any browned bits stuck to the bottom of the skillet, turn the mixer to high for a few moments to make sure the mixture is evenly whipped.
After you've shut off the mixer, scrape marshmallow goo into the prepared pan. Lift up and smack the pan a few times against the counter to dislodge any air bubbles and help the contents level out.
Dust the top of the giant marshmallow with powdered sugar, cover in plastic and refrigerate overnight.
To cut marshmallows, prepare a cutting board by dusting it generously with powdered sugar. Take the pan of chilled marshmallow and literally reach your fingers between the marshmallow and the pan, and pull out.
Dust exposed bottom of the marshmallow with more powdered sugar. Use a chef's knife to cut about 13 1-inch strips. You'll have to stop periodically and clean your knife under hot water. Always dry your knife thoroughly after this step. Once the strips are cut, roll them in powdered sugar so none of the sides is sticky.
Use the knife to cut each strip at 1-inch increments. The marshmallows are probably close to 2-inches tall, so they won't be perfect cubes. Toss these cut pieces in more powdered sugar to prevent them from sticking.
Store marshmallows in an airtight container or a big zip-top bag. They're essentially nothing but sugar, so they have a terrific shelf life, keeping weeks at room temperature, months in the fridge and indefinitely in the freezer.
Note: Be sure to chop the sage into the tiniest pieces you can. If the pieces have any length to them whatsoever, they'll wrap themselves around the whisk attachment, clump together, and essentially remove themselves from the marshmallows in the process. As an alternative, you can grind the sage into the sugar in a food processor. This gives the marshmallows a nice pale green hue and a slightly stronger sage flavor. This is Parks' favorite method, but not everyone has a food processor, and a knife gets the job done if you're willing to take your time.