Dawn Casale is expecting guests. Carrying a jar of white balsamic vinegar in one hand and a handful of fresh chives and thyme in the other, she stands before the pine wood counters of her stainless-steel kitchen in Brooklyn, ready to prepare dinner.
“We entertain a lot,” she says. “That’s how I grew up. My mother threw small dinner parties, and hosted intimate get-togethers.”
Casale, owner of a local bakery in her early forties, holds herself with slow kind of dignity. Her mother is from Sicily, she says, which is where she gets her olive-toned skin and hazel eyes.
She moves lightly from cabinet to drawer to fridge in a light cotton dress. She unwraps Pawlet and Sofia cheese and salami onto a wooden cutting board: “It’s an appetizer because guests are hungry when they arrive,” she explains.
Her guests enter: her parents and another grandson. They play with her two children: a 5-year-old son, Nate and 6 month-old daughter, Camille.
Casale chats with them as she tosses cooked farro into a bowl with chickpeas, coriander, some kind of an herb and drops of olive oil. She opens jars of colorful ingredients and whisks cooking knives from the magnetic rack. Her hands grip the knife with familiarity as she chops the broccoli leaves her mother plucked from the garden, pausing to re-align them in mid-conversation.
“I like to cook simply,” she says. “Some of my friends will obsess over some crazy French recipe, picking it apart and perfecting it. I like to go back to the basics.”
Neat rows of various plants can be seen beyond her window: peas, cucumbers, kale, celery, herbs, raspberries. She rattles off a list. She cooks five meals a week, hoping to impart upon her son appreciation for home-cooked food.
Casale was raised in Westchester, New York. Her Sicilian mother brought with her many traditions that take place in the kitchen. “To this day I am able to recall the smell of frying chicken cutlets and the flavor of arrancini,” she wrote on her blog 2012. “Tradition is still steeped in our family gatherings. We still enjoy big meals commencing with antipasto and finishing with fresh fruit and nuts.”
Each year on the first Saturday of December, all the women inher family meet at her Aunt Tina’s to prepare pounds and pounds of fig cookies, she says. The cookies require 33 pounds of flour.
“They were so beautiful, ” she says, going through stacks of cookbooks lining the counter. She forgets if her own cookbook is there, which has the recipe and photo. “Ah, here it is.”
Her mother chimes in. “When my mother passed away, she made us promise to continue the tradition,” she says. “I have and I hope my children will too.”
Casale quit her job in retail to start a cookie business in her apartment. She now owns three bakeries in Brooklyn, with her husband whom she hired as a baker in her first One Girl Cookies, 14 years ago.
“At a point in time which I cannot specifically put my finger on, I reflected on my career choices and decided to return to that which I really knew: food and humanity’s love of it.”
She ran the business in her home kitchen for two years before moving to a professional space. This is where the name came from, she says. “I was one girl. I would get up. I would make dough, bake, finish, fill with jam package, get on subway and deliver them.”
The business has since thrived. They anticipate opening additional locations across Brooklyn and perhaps into Manhattan. Their success, she says, is due largely to the Boerum Hill community — what she calls an “urban Mayberry.”
“It’s like the old world,” she says. “You know the butcher. And the wine guy. And the Cheese guy. It takes you three hours to do your grocery shopping, but why wouldn’t you live in a place where you buy good products from your neighbors, who ask about the new baby or summer camp? We try to offer that at our bakery too.”
She moves a sizzling pan of sautéed broccoli leaves off the stove and places it on a contemporary glass plate. The meal is finished. Seven hungry people eagerly gather around the food in the backyard, sharing grilled shrimp, farro salad, and broccoli leaves. The verbal “mmmm”‘s say it all.
“We are all voyeurs in our way,” she says. “We always are looking for the story behind the food. We love to discover that there was a tangible memory that inspired a chef to re-create or interpret a dish, or that it was his grandmother’s recipe. It’s our way of seeing into people’s lives.” In Casale’s Brownstone kitchen, many guests and family, too, enjoy a savory meal and the many stories behind it.