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Charlie’s Charity: Introducing Open Arms’ Bakers

Margaret Chamberlain makes a giant batch of pretzels for the next day’s meal delivery.

Some days baking at Open Arms’ kitchen is like being on a Food Network show and being handed an unexpected ingredient that you have to make the star of your dish.

One time it was a donation of 350 pounds of cashew butter; another time 10 cases of tiny apples. Donations run from dried figs and Greek yogurt to cases of lemon pie filling and puff pastry. All have found their way into cookies, bars, coffee cakes or muffins—but not without some creativity on the part of the two bakers/pastry chefs, Margaret Chamberlain and Annamarie Rigelman.

The puff pastry was used for blueberry turnovers; the Greek yogurt was subbed for buttermilk in muffins and coffee cake; the lemon filling filled donuts, and the tiny apples were painstakingly peeled and made into applesauce for cookies. The cashew butter was more of a challenge since it doesn’t have the flavor of peanut butter, Chamberlain said. She had an experienced baker as a volunteer that day and he suggested they make an almond orange pound cake. They used 2 pounds of almond paste and 8 pounds of cashew butter (reducing their supply to just 342 pounds). For the orange flavor, Chamberlain was instructed to liquefy an orange, rather than use extract, by tossing the whole orange, peel and all, into a Vitamix. “I said, ‘I can’t do it,”’ she said, laughing. “He said, ‘you can do it.” The orange liquefied and the pound cake was a hit with their clients. Since all ingredients have to be listed on labels that are attached to the food items, a fresh orange trumps an extract or a processed food. 

Annamarie Rigelman shows off the six-inch birthday cake every client gets on his or her birthday.

Don’t get us wrong, donations are welcomed with open arms, so to speak. Because the kitchen staff and volunteers are baking for people with life-threatening illnesses, they have to take into account a variety of dietary needs when they bake the mandatory goodies for meal deliveries. 

Both Chamberlain and Rigelman are experienced bakers with impressive local pedigrees. Chamberlain had her own bakery at the Midtown Global Market, Bread Star Rising, for a number of years. Open Arms has given her the freedom to learn new things and share her skill with volunteers who are eager to learn to bake from a professional.

The bakery is the most popular volunteer spot, she added, and not just because the volunteers get to eat cookies. Since the cookies are packaged and sold for personal and corporate holiday gifts, we’re guessing getting a free cookie is probably more coveted than leftover broccoli from the main dishes. 

Rigelman worked at Lucia’s in Uptown for 20-plus years. “I left when it changed ownership,” she said. Working for Lucia Watson, whose farm-to-table restaurant had a 30-year run, was perfect for her, because Rigelman had young kids at the time, and Watson was accommodating. And she sent her to places like Venice, New York and Paris, all expenses paid to sample the local pastries and breads. “We’d buy lots of food and stand at the trash can to taste and then throw the rest of it away,” she said. But she couldn’t bring herself to take just one bite and pitch the rest. “I’d would bring it back (to the hotel),” she said. The pastries she didn't eat, she'd pull apart to see how they were made.

The challenge at Open Arms is learning to take favorite recipes and “scale them up.” For instance, when Rigelman decided to use the recipe for her mother-in-law’s popular Cowboy Cookies, she had to multiply the ingredients times 80. Small recipes don’t always go big in the same way. Plus they have to make a vegan, gluten- and dairy-free version. 

The job is rewarding on multiple levels: a sunny kitchen to bake in, lots of interesting helpers, the chance to teach and to make a difference in someone’s meal time. Remember conventional wisdom instructs us: Life’s short, eat dessert first. 

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