Mark Kramer of Susan Lawrence Gourmet Foods in Chappaqua once shared his glittering vision for holiday entertaining with us.
We still remember how he artfully walked us through two approaches, from the extravagant affair to the intimate gathering.
Kramer’s thoughtful attention to this virtual exercise, one that detailed everything from trends to menus to décor, was as memorable as the hypothetical parties would have been.
When we realized that story ran back in 2011, we knew it was time to catch up with Kramer.
And that’s what brings us to the bustling Susan Lawrence retail shop, café and bakery on a recent afternoon, where we settle into a cozy corner table to find out what the executive chef, creative director and proprietor has been up to since our last “official” WAG visit.
In a word — plenty.
As he says, “It just keeps going — and growing.”
Kramer has not only launched an expanded Susan Lawrence website chock-full of tempting photographs but also useful tips.
“I still make them read a little bit,” he says with a laugh, noting “Mark’s Journal” remains a popular attraction, with his 2011 post on “The Rules” for being an ideal party guest reposted to much acclaim.
Kramer continues to expand the Susan Lawrence menus with ever-evolving offerings — often influenced by his travels — of prepared foods and catering for special events, including weddings.
It’s the place, as it has been for decades, to grab a gourmet salad for lunch, entrée for dinner or hostess gifts selected from the packaged goods ranging from sauces to gourmet popcorn.
“The beauty of having prepared food is you can concentrate on your beautiful table setting or (on) one or two dishes,” he says.
Kramer shares a menu for an upcoming party he will cater, which gives a glimpse into his unwavering attention to detail. Among the welcoming drinks is a white peach and lemon spritzer that will be served in mason jars with fresh mint, while six types of passed hors d’ouevres will include watermelon gazpacho shooters and pan-seared tuna on nori rice rolls with wasabi and sesame glaze. The “Gathering Table” offerings will range from grilled lobsters with summer Béarnaise sauce to smokehouse sausages and hot dogs, served with toppings such as onion fig jam, lingonberry ketchup and Dijon and German mustards. Accompaniments range from pink grapefruit slaw to Silver Queen corn salad with lime, cilantro and avocado.
“Even though it’s kind of fancy, people are rolling up their sleeves. It’s summer.”
And the fireworks birthday cake will be complemented by blueberry streusel pie squares, lemon meringue tarts and more. A S’mores bar, anyone?
A BIT OF MUSIC, A LOT OF ITALY
Did we mention he continues to juggle it all while feeding his passion for classical music? Kramer is both founder of and a musician in Ars Antiqua — his specialty being the viola de gamba. The Baroque music ensemble is known for its period specialists and instruments as well as its intimate concerts at the Gothic-style The Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Chappaqua — events that most always end with a Champagne reception or elaborate dessert buffet.
“It’s a really special thing, those concerts,” he says. “Musicians come from all over the world… Each concert kind of transports you for the evening to somewhere back in time.”
And Kramer himself was recently transported to another world, spending a month in Italy last year on a trip that has him writing his first book, one with the working title, “Camporempoli: Italian Food for the American Table.”
As they always have, Kramer’s world travels affect his perspective — and his arsenal of recipes.
Last year’s “month in Italy cooking,” found him renting an 800-year-old farmhouse, Camporempoli, in Chianti. Every day, Kramer says, he entertained 10 or 12 guests, family and friends, for meals.
“I would spend the entire day cooking,” he says, smiling at the memory.
“The whole place is absolute magic,” he adds, with him finding ingredients on site (rosemary, apples, walnuts) or in local markets.
“The Italians, they really created the idea of farm to table,” he says. “They’ve been doing it for centuries.”
As an example, he shares the story of purchasing gorgeous apricots one day at the market, turning them into a galette so good he returned the next day for more fruit, to the amusement of the vendor.
“She laughed at me and said, ‘Why would we have them again? This is what’s in season today.’”
It was a moment that made a lasting impression: “I think that really inspires you to create.”
And create he did.
“We had zucchini in every form and fashion you can imagine,” he says, mentioning zucchini flowers stuffed with cheese among other preparations.
“Nothing gets wasted. A piece of stale bread is like gold. I wish America could be so caring about every last thing.”
Indeed, he came home with his long-held, eco-minded beliefs reaffirmed — and some new perspectives.
“I don’t think I appreciated the Hudson Valley more than when I went to Italy,” he says. “How stunning Tuscany is? You realize how fertile the Hudson Valley is.”
His network is tapped to source everything from free-range eggs to organic poultry, heirloom-variety apples to artisanal cheeses and honey. He also offers an organic free-stone peach variety he has trucked up from Georgia, creating a mini peach market in front of the shop toward the end of summer.
Sometimes his sourcing is really close to home, as in the gardens of his own Putnam County home.
“Flowers and a huge amount of fresh herbs,” from rose petals that will be crystallized to sage or French tarragon, are drawn from his own perennial and formal English herb gardens.
Getting away for that memorable trip was a challenge, he admits: “I ‘paid for it’ in advance,” he says of the hectic pre-trip business to deal with.
But in the end, he says, “It was probably the best month of my life, to be able to cook and live like an Italian.”
“Since then, a lot of those dishes have trickled into our repertory here,” he says. The trip even sparked a theme for one of his popular dine-in evenings at Susan Lawrence, meals likened more to a dinner party than restaurant outing, with “The Cuisine of Camporempoli: A New Menu Inspired by a Month-long Cooking Sojourn in Tuscany.”
For Kramer, it’s all about bringing his experiences home to Susan Lawrence.
“After 34 years, people know me and I think they trust what I bring home from traveling is going to be really special.”
To that end, Kramer insists WAG take a taste of Italy with us, sharing a package of Ricciarelli cookies, a classic almond confection of Siena. On his journey, he sampled what the label further describes as “soft clouds of almond goodness” and worked to create his own recipe.
“There’s a little crunch on the outside, soft on the inside,” he says. “I got back and was obsessed.”
And now, thanks to his further sharing his Italian experience, so are we.
Camporempoli Apple Cake Recipe
“Inspired by the wonderful ingredients at Camporempoli growing on trees just outside the kitchen, olive oil and Tuscan honey from a local farm and Vin Santo from the vineyard across the valley. Buon appetito.” – Mark Kramer
3 cups green apples, peeled and diced
1 1/2 cups lightly toasted, coarsely chopped walnuts
2 teaspoons finely minced lemon zest
1/2 cup finely ground lightly toasted walnuts (for dusting pan)
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 farm-fresh eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
For the glaze:
1 cup confectioners sugar
2 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon whole milk
1 tablespoon Vin Santo
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Generously grease a 10″ Bundt pan or tube pan and dust with the finely ground walnuts making sure the nuts adhere evenly to all inside surfaces.
Mix together apples, walnuts and lemon zest. In a separate bowl, blend all dry ingredients. In another bowl, beat sugar, oil, olive oil, eggs and vanilla until light and fluffy. Fold in dry ingredients and apple mixture. Pour batter into prepared pan and bake for about 60 minutes or until center of cake just springs back when lightly touched. When cake is cool, transfer to plate.
Blend all ingredients until smooth and brush evenly over entire cake.
Serve warm with vanilla gelato.
The retail store, café and bakery of Susan Lawrence Gourmet Foods is at 26 N. Greeley Ave. in Chappaqua. For more, call 914-238-8833 or visit SusanLawrence.com. For more on Kramer’s musical career, visit ars-antiqua.org.