2017-06-01 / Dishing

A Blended Vocation

Maura McConnell’s journey to gelato nirvana in downtown State College
Michele Marchetti | Photos by Matt Fern

Every Tuesday at 4 a.m., Maura McConnell turns off her alarm, reaches for her black pants and T-shirt and quickly manipulates her hair into her signature side braid. Forty-five minutes later she’s opening the door to Sauly Boy’s, where she’ll transform 50 cups of sugar, 9 gallons of milk, 8 cartons of eggs and 4 gallons of cream into the bases that will become about 400 servings of  Stella’s Gelato. Her favorite part of this weekly ritual comes around 10 a.m., when she wipes down the glass on the display case and lovingly sets up the flavors that have been taking over her brain and — not that you’d know it, given her lithe frame — making up a large portion of her diet.

“By 11 a.m., I’ve tasted 18 warm bases and 18 finished flavors, so 36 bites of gelato,” she says.
McConnell’s journey to her current role as the doyenne of State College gelato is a lesson in the randomness of life. But it also underscores the notion that mothers can put their professional lives on hold to take care of their kids and carve out a fulfilling professional life of their own bold creation once those adults-in-the-making are nearly formed.

About five years ago McConnell, 52, answered an ad for a cupcake decorator at ndulge Cupcake Boutique on West College Avenue. The owner wanted to try gelato and McConnell thought, That sounds like fun. I’ll learn. She bought some books and headed to New York City for a class. When ndulge closed its doors in late 2012, McConnell started knocking on new ones, visiting State College restaurants with samples.

She lacked formal culinary training, working first as a high school teacher and later, pre-kids and post-master’s degree, as a health practitioner in cardiac rehab. Yet, in some ways, a second act in food made sense. For years she ran a weekly dinner at her church. Whether there or in her home kitchen where her quest to make the perfect tiramisu turned into an experiment that spanned years — and paid double dividends by providing a starting point for tiramisu gelato — she channels a mother whose food was family legend. “Food was just so central to our life growing up.”

After clicking with the owners of Irving’s, McConnell found a new home for her gelato. The idea was to bring gelato to Irving’s, but the owners needed to finish up a few other projects first. So they hired McConnell to help. She kept taking on more and more responsibility and, two and a half years later, was promoted to manager of operations. “There is an advantage to being older,” McConnell  says, considering her success. “People like the mature presence.”
Today she oversees Irving’s,

Fiddlehead and Sauly Boy’s, the restaurant that brought back her gelato. Her influence can be seen everywhere: The house sauerkraut at Sauly Boy’s is her mom’s recipe, and she’s currently dreaming up a new salad for Fiddlehead.

Despite the peripatetic nature of a job spread over three restaurants, McConnell is a calming force who prides herself on meticulous work habits and a thoughtful approach to food that, in this town, too often feels flat. During a recent gelato tasting, she offered the blackberry lemon basil with the following qualification: “It’s really good, but it’s going to be amazing when I can pick the basil that morning. It will be so different.”

McConnell sells the crowd favorites, such as the Toll House cookie-inspired gelato that sold out one recent evening after a bus pulled up and a track and field team took over the restaurant. But she gravitates toward the flavors that require a bigger investment from the recipe creator — and the eater. She loves talking about her flavors and wishes she could spend the entire day sitting behind the counter handing out samples.

“The lime cilantro is really neat,” she says. “You get this lime, and then I always tell people, now wait, because you aren’t going to get the cilantro for a little bit. So don’t eat it fast. Because it’s just this aftertaste that’s really earthy.”

From the fresh mint (“It just throws you into your backyard”) to the pumpkin bread gelato (a riff on the recipe she has been using for the past 20 years) McConnell’s creations are an expression of the food, flavors and processes that have shaped her life. She doesn’t use stabilizers or preservatives simply because she always cooked her kids food that was as natural as possible. And she eschews anything that detracts from the dessert’s star ingredients. “There was some talk of jimmies,” she says. “But it should just be gelato.”

McConnell is fiercely protective of her method, adhering to small batches that require patience. She recalls the class she took in New York and how her excitement melted when the teacher started pulling out the premade mixes. You won’t see these or flavor packets in the Sauly Boy’s kitchen. Once the bases meet McConnell’s standards, she adds the pure extracts and other carefully picked ingredients, agitating the final product as little as possible. “I love being in the process,” says McConnell. It’s one that demands a high price tag: a to-go pint costs $12.95.

On a beautiful May afternoon that fills nearly every table and brings in a customer who has been ordering the peanut butter chocolate gelato nearly every Monday afternoon since opening, McConnell walks to the back of the kitchen and turns on the Carpigiani gourmet gelato machine that currently retails for about $15,000. She pours in her base and starts churning the dense delicacy that tastes like the sophisticated cousin to ice cream. (Gelato uses less cream than ice cream, but because it churns for less time, the end result is creamier.) A few minutes later, as a beautiful mess of coconut chip gelato cascades wave by creamy wave into a large metal bowl, McConnell glows with gratitude.

“My dad hated work,” McConnell says, pausing once again for another taste. “It was something he had to do. But this feels like a vocation — a blended vocation.”

She’s been working in the kitchen with her kids every weekend for the past three years. He daughter can be seen taking orders at the cash register, and the gelato will be on the menu at her high school graduation party later this summer. McConnell is dreaming up something with ginger — a nod to her daughter’s upcoming international travels and an omnipresent culinary spark that’s always churning up something new.  •SCM

Cream Cheese Pound Cake
2 1⁄3 c. sugar
3 sticks butter, room temp
8 oz. cream cheese, room temp
1 tsp. vanilla
6 eggs, room temp
3 c. all-purpose flour

Heat oven to 300 degrees. Butter and flour 3 bread loaf pans. Beat cream cheese and butter, scraping bowl constantly. Add sugar and beat until very fluffy. Add two eggs and beat well, scraping bowl. Add flour and remaining eggs alternately, beating well in between. Stir in vanilla. Divide among the pans. Bake until toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, approximately 60-75 minutes. Remove from oven, scrape around the perimeter with a butter knife. Allow to cool around 20 minutes. Remove from pans and allow to cool completely.

I c. water
½ c. instant espresso granules
1 c. sugar
4 Tbsp. Kahlua

Boil water, coffee and sugar until sugar dissolves completely. Add Kahlua. Allow to cool to room temperature.

2 oz. bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
4 Tbsp. unsweetened cocoa

Stir together.

3 8-ounce cartons mascarpone
1 tsp. vanilla
1 pt. heavy cream
powdered sugar to taste

Cream mascarpone and vanilla. In separate bowl whip cream and powdered sugar to desired sweetness. I do not like it too sweet. Fold into mascarpone. Set aside.

Assemble in a glass 9 x 13 pan or a ceramic baking dish about the same size.

Slice the pound cake into 1-inch slices. Place a slice in the coffee mixture and allow to soak for a bit to absorb the coffee. With coffee side down, place in baking dish. Continue with more slices of cake into you snugly fill the bottom of the baking dish. At this point if you have coffee left you can pour in between the slices and the cake will soak up more. It really depends on how much soaked cake you want and how much plain cake you like. Spread the mascarpone on top of the cake slices. Sprinkle with chocolate mixture. Chill.

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