Get to Know Mary Elizabeth Plovanich
We sat down with Mary Elizabeth to talk about her whimsical desserts, low-on-sweets upbringing, and her love of Baltimore architecture.
What do you like about Baltimore?
MP: I like it because just like Chicago, where I’m from, or any big city, you find the neighborhoods you love. Baltimore is a city made out of neighborhoods. I like Federal Hill a lot, Fell’s Point, Mount Vernon. I’m a huge history buff, and I also love architecture. It’s been great to walk around to discover the older parts of the city. It’s fun to see the Basilica, because I went to Catholic school and it’s the first cathedral in the U.S. Another beautiful historic building I enjoy is the Engineers Club. The history of Baltimore goes beyond Edgar Allan Poe and Babe Ruth, and I’m having fun discovering more facets of the city.
How would you describe the food scene in Baltimore, especially compared to Chicago, where you previously worked as a pastry chef?
MP: It’s very up-and-coming. In Chicago, it’s extremely competitive. When someone new comes on the scene, everyone tries to feel them out. Whereas here, it seems more like the city embraces them to see what they have to offer instead of going automatically into competition.
How did you develop your popular “Ding Dong” pastry?
MP: I got to ask people what’s a staple to Baltimore, and then I mixed my style to the foods people love here. I learned that you have to let the city accept you. Baltimore seems like the type of place where when you come in and you’re not from Baltimore, you kind of want to set your ego aside so you can get to know the city and what Baltimoreans want and what they like. Then you add your style. That’s kind of how I came up with the “Ding Dong”-inspired pastry. I wanted a chocolate dessert, and I went through all of these different types of chocolate desserts, but nothing was really sticking. So, the “Ding Dong” started out as a joke, because I had all of these elaborate, decadent desserts, and then I thought I’d come up with the most basic chocolate dessert that I could. I put it in the case, and it ended up becoming a huge seller. It’s one of those things that when people see it, they recognize it. I think it appeals to the kid in everyone, because it reminds you of your after-school snack. Then you taste it and realize it’s elevated because of the quality of ingredients and how they’re put together.
Can you describe your approach to creating your approachable, yet whimsical desserts?
MP: Being a pastry chef is similar to being a plumber. Once you learn how to unclog a sink, you don’t want to keep unclogging sinks. I really like to be challenged technically, and I really like classic flavors. For me, I think a misconception about chefs is that if you make something difficult, that’s how you eat and that you have a snotty palette. But, if you ask any chef what they like to cook when they get off of work, it’s always family recipes and comfort food. I like to take recipes people know or have certain emotions associated with and just kind of twist them and make them new or different. Like with the green tea tiramisu, everyone likes tiramisu and green tea is really popular, so I wanted to twist it and make it fun. The carrot cake is my mom’s favorite recipe, but it’s presented differently. The strawberry rhubarb is a classic country flavor combination, but you do something a little fancier. I like to challenge myself technically and with the presentation, but keep the flavors familiar and approachable.
Were desserts big for you growing up?
MP: We’re not a big cake family. Whenever we were asked if we wanted cake for our birthdays, we’d say we wanted birthday pie. We always liked carrot cake, though. It’s almost like a muffin. I grew up with a lot of simple foods and not a lot of sweets. When I was growing up, my mom would keep a box of Ritz crackers in the cabinet, and called them “cookies.” When we got to grade school and saw what the other kids were bringing in their lunches, we discovered what cookies really were. I always had a curiosity for sweets, but not necessarily a craving for them. My mom always cooked traditional Eastern European desserts, so when I got to grade school and saw a chocolate chip cookie, I thought, “What is that?!”
What are some things you like to do or are looking forward to doing in Baltimore?
MP: My boyfriend and I like to walk around and find hole-in-the-wall places. We met because we both lived in the same building. From our apartment building, you can see the Bromo Seltzer Arts Tower. We decided to go see it, which was kind of our first date, and then we started exploring the city together. There are so many pretty buildings. I don’t care where the bars are, I care about the buildings they’re in. We both like Mount Vernon because it’s so pretty and it reminds us of a European city. We walked by the Engineers Club, and they were setting up a baby shower, but the door was open. We asked if we could look inside and a woman at the club not only welcomed us in, but gave us a mini tour. The Walters Art Museum is wonderful, too. We really want to do one of the ghost tours in Fell’s Point. We’re convinced our apartment building [at 10 Light Street] is probably haunted. It opened up as a bank originally. It was open two months to the day before the stock market crashed in 1929, and something like 2,000 people came to see it the day it opened. It’s this huge hallmark of Baltimore banking and two months later the stock market crashes. I mean, people’s lives got destroyed in that building. It was never fully occupied after that. When the current owners started turning it into apartments, they found a few office spaces that hadn’t been touched since the building was built. They said they kept finding weird things throughout the building from people who couldn’t pay off their debts with money. They said they found a room with a massive clock collection.