Injection molding is usually thought of as an industrial process used to manufacture intricate shapes out of plastics.
For Gloria DeAngelo, it's a form of edible artwork – but the principles are similar.
She forms hearts and flowers by injecting petals and leaves into molded, flavored gelatin and serves them up at Maxim's Brookfield restaurant as a light dessert – although, she says, some customers hesitate to dig in.
"A lot of people say, 'Oh, I can't eat it, it's too beautiful,'" DeAngelo said.
Beautiful they are, and at first view, her creations' verisimilitude might make most insist they must be real blossoms set in clear jelly. But anyone could do that.
No, every petal – and in some of her chrysanthemums, there are dozens – is individually formed inside its jiggly dome. DeAngelo uses syringes of different shapes, slipping in the business end and then sliding it backward as she presses a thin layer of color and naturalistic shape.
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It's done quickly and confidently, with a surgeon's sure skill and an artist's eye. In a matter of a couple of minutes, DeAngelo can transform a blank hemisphere or heart-shaped form into what looks like an heirloom paperweight from your grandmother's parlor.
Only about a month into the whole new experiment, she invented the hearts for Valentine's Day.
A fondness for teaching, a passion for cooking
DeAngelo did not set out to be a pastry chef. In fact, her first professional training was as a kindergarten teacher.
Born in Milwaukee, DeAngelo was taken back to Mexico as a small child and raised in the city of Puebla – famous for its cuisine, including the renowned mole Poblano, though not necessarily for cutting edge pastries.
"My parents had a restaurant – a seafood restaurant," DeAngelo said. "There weren't too many of those in Puebla." (It's in central Mexico, far from the ocean.)
"My mother was a very good cook and a baker, but fairly simple. We made cakes and pies, but not very decorated."
Twenty-two years ago, DeAngelo moved back to Milwaukee, having been trained as a teacher but lacking one skill needed to get a job here.
"I didn't speak a word of English," she said. "So, I enrolled in the English as second language program at MATC. While I was there, I learned about the culinary program, and I decided I wanted to be a chef and have my own restaurant.
"It took me five years to finish all that."
A pastry chef hidden inside her
DeAngelo got a job at a restaurant near the airport, but, she said, she didn't like it much.
"I was making salads," she said. "It was pretty boring."
But then one day, someone asked her if she could make a cake. Why yes, she could.
The results were so admired, she was put on pastry duty straightaway. With that, DeAngelo felt she should learn more and went back to MATC – where, after an assessment of her talents, she was told to go get back to work and come back again as soon as she was ready to teach.
And so she did, launching Cakes By Gloria at 5th and Lincoln in Milwaukee and honing her skills as a professional baker and business woman.
Before long, she was back at MATC, where she was hired and continues to teach as a pastry kitchen instructor.
Maxim's makes the most of her talents
Eventually, word got around to Maxim's, at 18025 W. Capitol Dr., and two years ago DeAngelo was hired there as pastry chef. It's a part-time position, but it fills a need for her to bake and create dessert items for an audience.
"I like it here so much," DeAngelo said. "There are the things we do, that they have done. But then I'm told I can do what I want, make new things. It's a lot of fun."
It's a boon to Maxim's as well.
"It means a lot to us, so much, to have Gloria here," said Maxim's' manager Tony Hererra. "She takes us to a new level. She's so creative, to look at what she does – and then to taste – our customers love it."
For Valentine's Day, Hererra is looking forward in a business-like way to the multitude of heart-shaped gelatin flowers DeAngelo has been turning out for days (and nights, up until 2 a.m. Tuesday with more late hours planned Wednesday).
"I think it's going to be a big seller," Hererra said.
Noticed by local business group
Among DeAngelo's admirers are the members of the Milwaukee Metro Networking Group. About 35 of them, business people with an interest in sharing ideas and supporting one another, meet each Thursday for lunch at Maxim's.
"This is our third year of doing this, every Thursday," said Tammy Ehrett, and independent sales director for Mary Kay cosmetics and member of MMNG. "Then along came Gloria. She's the one who's making our desserts.
"One day, she came out and asked me to do a makeover. She'd been listening to us. She wanted to take advantage of what any of us had to offer. And then, just recently, she became a member."
That day, just a couple of weeks ago, DeAngelo, at her first meeting as a member of the group, brought everyone a sample of her latest creation – the gelatin flower.
"I was just so impressed by how creative it was," Ehrett said. "She's a very, very talented woman. What a great gift for someone."
It's a whole new thing
What Ehrett didn't know at the time was how new the gelatin flower process was to DeAngelo. She'd only just started.
"I've been doing this maybe just a little over a month," DeAngelo said.
Besides introducing hearts along with flowers for Valentine's Day, DeAngelo is just touching the inner surface of the gelatinous possibilities. Can you inject chocolate? Can you mix flavors? What are the limits to injectable desserts?
Right now, DeAngelo is doing what she's seen done. She makes no claim to having invented the process.
"Chefs are doing it all over Mexico," she said. "There's a couple of people doing it in Chicago."
"I don't think so," DeAngelo said. "I don't know of anybody else."
DeAngelo didn't even learn the skill under the tutelage of a Mexican master.
"You Tube," she said. "That's where I saw how it's done."
Love Maxim's, love Brookfield, do it for Evelyn
Ehrett believes that DeAngelo could make a big business of gelatin flowers at weddings and other affairs, and the chef is open to opportunities. But she's pretty happy at MATC and Maxim's, and she has other ideas as well.
"I'm working on something I'd like to patent," she said. "It's a 'quick-icer' decorator for individual wedding cakes. I have the idea, and I've talked about it with people at MATC and they think it can work. I have to develop it."
In the meantime, teaching pastry at MATC and producing it at Maxim's fulfills most of DeAngelo's heart's desires. But she's really driven by one love.
DeAngelo lives with her husband, Peter, and daughter, Evelyn, 19, in New Berlin.
"Evelyn is my life," DeAngelo said. "Everything I do, I think of her.
"When I make these flowers, every petal I make, I say, 'Mi hija, mi hija."