Renato Poliafito

F&W Star Chef

» See All F&W Chef Superstars

As the duo behind Brooklyn’s Baked, Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito are known for spectacular cakes, brownies and other sweets. Here are Renato’s holiday essentials, from the best food gifts to a super-useful baking cheat (read Matt’s take here).

What are your favorite holiday food gifts?
I’m Italian American; my parents are both from the same small town in Sicily. My favorite holiday food, period, is panettone. I absolutely adore it. I did not like it as a child, but I grew to love it, and now I look forward to it come holiday season. Not only do I love eating it with Nutella or as French toast, it also makes a phenomenal bread pudding. I don’t have a specific brand that I love; I tend to look for one that’s Italian.

What’s your favorite holiday cocktail?
I tend to like drinks on the sweeter side, so I do like a nice spiced eggnog, like everyone else. But I also like a nice amaretto, straight up or on the rocks. That’s a nice sweet ending to a meal. That warm, slightly spicy flavor always reminds me of the holidays. I suppose it’s a little like the almond flavor of panettone: Italian pastries and sweets in general tend to have that almond-y, hazelnut-y, or pistachio element; they tend to rely heavily on the nuts. A great marzipan cake, an almond cake, all of those flavors remind me of winter.

Can you name great entertaining tips?

  1. Don’t overcook. Sometimes people have a tendency to prepare so much food and have so much left over because you don’t want your guests wanting. Yet at the end there’s enough food left for two parties. I’m the victim of my own devising here, so every year I try to be more realistic.
  2. Keep your events intimate. Especially during the holidays when there’s a lot of unnecessary added stress, the need to go over the top and invite everyone you know, I’ve never applied that to myself. I’ve tried a couple of times to have this big event and end up not enjoying myself at all. If you keep things intimate with your closest friends you’ll have a much better time.

What’s your most requested recipe, the one dish you’re most known for?
Our Sweet & Salty Cake is the thing we make the most of at the bakery. We were known for brownies—and still are—but the Sweet & Salty Cake is our calling card now. It’s a chocolate cake with inner layers of salted caramel and whipped chocolate ganache frosting. I think people have become obsessed with the sweet-salty combination; it’s one of those trends that’s become a mainstay because it’s so appealing. It’s a combination that always worked together, people just never put a name to it, and now they seek it out.

Our most requested recipe is our Peanut Butter Banana Cream Pie. We only make it seasonally, in spring and summer, but we demo-ed it on a Bobby Flay show, so it’s obviously increased in popularity. It’s in our second book.

What’s your favorite cookbook of all time?
The recipes I usually refer to the most aren’t from cookbooks, they’re my mom’s recipes. Over the years that I’ve not lived at home, I’ve compiled a number of her recipes in a folder that I’ll refer to whenever I need a sauce or specific pasta or meat dish.

What’s one technique everyone should know?
How to fold. A lot of people misinterpret “folding” as an instruction to continue mixing vigorously. Folding is a specific technique, different from mixing, that you use when you’re at the final stages of something, or have to combine something delicately enough to reach a correct result. Like when you’re folding flour into brownie batter, or adding mix-ins like chocolate chips into cookies, you have to be very delicate and there’s a certain point where you want to stop. Mixing is incorporating the ingredients together and there’s no set limit as to how much you can mix; you can keep stirring until the cows come home (unless the recipe says stop stirring once all ingredients are combined). Mixing can also be done with a whisk or a spoon or a blender, whereas with folding you definitely need a spatula to scoop from the bottom, cut through and flip over, and you keep doing that motion as you turn the bowl. It helps to have someone show you, but once you do it, you’ll realize your hands are moving in a different way.