Gelatinas, a floral wonder and growing business

Flowers have long been a fixture at the Montgomery Farm Women's Co-op, but a certain crop has really turned heads since fall. They are impossibly perfect, and edible.

Mother Nature doesn't make them; Rosario Gamboa does. Each Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, the owner of Canela Bakery in Gaithersburg (formerly Cazuela Bakery) sends at least a half-dozen to the stand she rents in the Bethesda market. "They're called gelatinas," she says, proud of each spiky purple chrysanthemum, pink rose and happy sunflower suspended in a compact hemisphere of clear gelatin.

Once shoppers spot them, they tend to react the same way: First, they admire. They ask questions. Then they buy the gelatinas in dinner-party-size lots until they are gone. Customers who arrive at the co-op in late morning never see them.

The fruit-flavored desserts, popular for decades in some parts of Mexico, are dramatic and novel, at the price point of a designer cupcake but with lots of protein, no fat and few calories.

"They can't believe the way we make them," Gamboa says.

The process makes the outcome seem all the more remarkable. Trained hands can create a blossom in less than 10 minutes. (Check out the "gelatina artistica" video on YouTube.) Working in a palm-size hemisphere of freshly set gelatin, Gamboa uses hypodermic needles - some straight, some bent into a U - to inject colored mixtures of gelatin and sweetened condensed milk. It is done while the gelatin is inverted, so it's a little like sculpting a figure from the feet up. Each stab or swath is instantly encapsulated, forming a leaf or petal or stamen. Slight corrections can be made if you're skillful enough; otherwise, it's art without a do-over option.

In Mexico, gelatin desserts are at home on just about every buffet table for quinceaneras and other family celebrations. They're festive and inexpensive, often molded into cake-pan shapes and not as wiggly or translucent as Jell-O. Gamboa, 41, grew up in Mexico City but saw gelatinas for the first time only last year, sold in a pastry shop there.

Canela Bakery is known for its fine selection of sweet and organic breads. Gamboa and her business partner, baker Eloy Resendiz, have owned the business for three years; she looks almost sheepish when she admits she was trained as a nurse, is good at organizing and doesn't bake much herself.

But she was so taken with the thought of gelatinas that she wanted to offer them at Canela. With a little research, she found someone in the States who holds classes across the country. Last September, Gamboa and her cake decorator, Erika Balleza, spent two full days learning how to make four kinds of flowers. Both women took to it right away and have since created a growing demand for gelatinas in the Washington area.

"It's a pleasure to sit and make them," Gamboa says. "I get into a rhythm."

When something is deemed too beautiful to eat, as the gelatinas often are, taste can take a back seat. The ones Gamboa sells seem to be tuned to a Latino palate that likes very sweet desserts. But customers can special-order from Canela Bakery and specify the flavor and level of sugar, or sugar substitute.

Before Christmas, she spent nights seated at her kitchen table in Rockville filling holiday orders with her own gelatina riffs on poinsettias. "Now I feel like I can experiment a bit with the flowers," she says.

That empowerment is built into the course she and Balleza took from Nelly Gail, who's on track to become the premier instructor of so-called artistic gelatins in the United States.

"It's going to be a big thing," Gail says.

The 47-year-old Buellton, Calif., resident grew up in a small town in the Mexican state of Michoacan. She has known about artistic gelatins since she was a girl but was shown how to do the injected-flower technique first by a friend in the States in 2004 and then from her friend's sister in Tecario, Mexico.

Gail contacted Duche, a French concern that makes the special gelatin, flavorings and colored powders and publishes a magazine to promote them. She set her sights on being the U.S. distributor for Duche, and went to the company's plant outside Mexico City to take its gelatina classes in early 2008. Her technique impressed them enough to earn Gail a demo spot at a food exhibition; afterward, they proclaimed her "Chef Nelly."

"If I see any kind of flower, I can do it in gelatin," she says. "I took my orchid gelatinas to friends' parties, and they were wowed. Now I teach in Los Angeles, San Jose, Houston and New York," in addition to television appearances on Univision.

One of the reasons Gail was keen to cement a relationship with Duche is the quality of its gelatin. The almost-pure protein product, made from the hides of pigs or cows, has a density (or "bloom" rating) akin to that of pharmaceutical-grade gelatin, much higher than the sheets of leaf gelatin or unflavored powdered gelatin available to pastry chefs and home cooks.

That means it takes less of Duche's fine powder to produce a neutral medium: a crystal-clear, odorless gelatin that's easy to work with. Gail and her husband, Perry, can furnish students or clients in the States with a $75 start-up kit of sorts - everything except the syringes and needles - to make flower gelatinas. Gamboa figures her per-gelatina cost for materials is about 50 cents.

Of course, passion and artistry are required. Gamboa was pleased to discover that she has the touch. She has written to Chef Nelly to thank her. From the flowers set in gelatin, opportunities grow.

"People send me letters and photos. They make me cry," Gail says. "My students are primarily Latino, but there are Russians and Filipinos and Chinese. A lot of the ones I taught have started their own businesses. That makes me happy."

Individual gelatinas at Canela Bakery cost $3.50 ($7 for Valentine's Day roses in a wineglass); call 240-631-9599 for special orders. Chef Nelly Gail's next classes on the East Coast will be held March 26-30 in New York. Call 877-500-0907, 805-688-3898 or go to www.chefnelly.com.

Bonnie S. Benwick has the job most envied among cocktail-party conversations. If they only knew ... Cook with her each week at Dinner in Minutes: washingtonpost.com/recipes.
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