Carol Konyha: Freelance Dessert Designer

Search the translation of "kitchen" from English to Hungarian and you will find the word konyha. Search for the most moist, well-balanced chocolate cake in Phoenix and find Carol Konyha, freelance pastry chef and custom clothing designer.

Carol's classic desserts are featured on the menus of the Coronado Café (triple layer chocolate cake), Urban Beans (cardamom coffee cake and double layer chocolate cake) and by special order through those eateries by those in the know. She frequently consults with restaurant owners who seek her out for help with creating and upgrading their dessert offerings.

Carol avoids the spotlight, quietly perfecting her signature pastries and desserts. This past holiday season, eight gingerbread houses conceived and executed by Carol were on display at After Hour Gallery as part of a whimsical and artful Gingerbread House auction to benefit Neighborhood Housing Services of Phoenix.

We recently caught up with the busy freelance dessert designer in her home and felt a small measure of creative envy gazing at the delightful holiday displays covering every window and corner, from Pee Wee Herman perched atop the tree to the charmed golden beaded window above the kitchen sink.

follow the jump for more creative inspiration with Carol Konyha

Did you bake a lot when you were growing up? We had a lot of chores growing up. There were seven children. My father died when I was eight, and my mother was a single working Mom with a family to support. We cooked, did the housework and yard work. In doing those household "chores", like cooking, we had freedom to experiment. My mom didn't use recipes to cook; she loved books, and collected cookbooks that she used for ideas. My mom and grandma would bake, traditional Hungarian baked goods and I was around when they would bake together.

What other kind of dishes did your mom and grandma make?
At Christmas time my grandma made kalacs, traditional Hungarian egg bread, with a beautiful display of rosebuds and roses made from dough to decorate the bread. She baked the bread in her stockpot! It had amazing texture. She also made her own noodles, all shapes and sizes-tiny shells, squares and long thin strands. I remember her covering the table with a clean tablecloth as she worked the noodles. She also made a delicious potato noodle, like a gnocchi, which had walnuts and poppy seeds. My mom and grandma would bake Hungarian pastries like kifli. I was inspired by all the baking they did.

Does your Hungarian background and your family recipes define your desserts?
Well, I love butter and sour cream they taste so good! I do like food and baked goods that are familiar to me. I would call them my ethnic food and comfort food. I also like classic American desserts, desserts made with chocolate and pies, especially fruit pies. My signature dessert is my chocolate cake, its moist and light with cream cheese icing.

Are there other influences on your approach to desserts and baking?
I use Rose Levy Beranbaum's cookbooks as a reference and for baking tips. Her books are filled with detailed information. She thoroughly explains how and why recipes and technique work for certain outcomes. Her background is in science and she brings that attention to detail and knowledge into her writing. She is a perfectionist.

I find inspiration from my dear friend Blossom Jenab, from Canada, where I lived before coming to Phoenix. She's Iranian and cooks fantastic Persian cuisine. She lives her life creating beauty in her days. Her home is beautifully appointed and she is a great cook and gardener. I took couture-sewing lessons with Blossom; we would break for lunch and eat in her garden, taking the time to enjoy the surroundings.

Did you ever sew professionally?
I did and I do. I learned to sew as a child, we made a lot of our own clothes, and it was a way of being practical. I love the glamour of old Hollywood, the fashions of the forties and fifties. I do custom designs, and I wish I had the time to design and make my own clothes. I just completed two Flamingo dresses for a dancer, completely hand sewn.

I once designed a wedding gown for a bride AND made her wedding cakeI met the bride's mother at a party, through our conversation she discovered I designed and made custom clothing and also baked. After a consultation with mother and bride, I agreed to make the bride's gown. When they came for a fitting, I served cupcakes. After tasting the cupcakes, they asked me to do the wedding cake. It was a simple cake design, and the gown was simple in design too, but simple is not always easy, you can't hide any flaws. The stress of doing just the gown or just the cake would have been enough, doing both-I don't think I will do that again!

What else inspires you?
I am interested in projects that build community, and ways of reaching out to help people. I taught baking classes and worked with Chef Vinnie Fonzo at St. Mary's Community Kitchen. I like the work done by Inspiration Corporation in Chicago, training the homeless in food service skills for employment, and Chef Jose Andres' work teaching intercity kids. I am inspired by work that has meaning and gives meaning to life.

Did you attend culinary school?

Before coming to Phoenix I worked on and off baking for restaurants and catering in Canada. I also am a couture seamstress, and even now, I am torn and continue to vacillate between sewing and baking. I really enjoy both ways of creating and working with my hands. I wonder sometimes if I will ever master either (laugh), but I am glad I am good at two practical skills.

So, even though I had experience-cook at a forest service camp, cooking at and running a B and B, baking for restaurants and catering, when I came to Phoenix I felt I needed that certificate and went to culinary school. I wish there were more focus on mastery in American school programs in general. I envy the chefs who have had the opportunity to study in Europe, the culinary school programs there are rigorous.

What do you eat when you are at home or for friends?
I enjoy small dinner gatherings cooking and dining with my friends. I like to bake treats for friends, usually some type of cake. I stay away from fast foods and limit breads and sugar as much as possible. Not counting the decadence of the holidays! I love the Hungarian dry sausage from Stanley's. I enjoy triple cream cheese with rose hip jam. I try to eat a lot of fruits and vegetables, try to eat healthy and fresh. I will admit that butter and the potato skins, with bacon, cheese and chipolte sour cream, at Keegan's are my guilty pleasures.

Will you continue to freelance or do you see a bakery in your future?
I have been fortunate to work at some great resorts and restaurants. I gained valuable experience in both venues. I admire the chefs who can execute consistent quality food in a commercial setting. It takes patience, skill, creativity and speed. I have an independent personality and I enjoy my freelance work, it suits me. I get satisfaction from the relationships I have formed with restaurant owners and chefs in our collaborations. No, I like my independence too much to be tied to a bakery.

Tomorrow, Carol shares a recipe for Cranberry Orange Cake

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Carol Blonder