MALDEN — As anthropology graduate students at Brandeis University, Laurie Rothstein and Jacqueline Baum anticipated teaching or research in exotic locations. Instead, they now spend their days in aprons at the Stock Pot Malden, a commercial kitchen, surrounded by tubs of honey and jars of spices for Trillfoods, their specialty sweets business.
While food truck workers saute vegetables at an adjacent work station, Baum melts chocolate and butter for truffle brownies. She and Rothstein will swirl some batches with tahini and sprinkle peppercorns into others. Though their whisks and mixing bowls reflect their current profession, their background in anthropology (both have master’s degrees) informs their approach. They specialize in intensely flavored recipes prepared in small batches, which they describe as “sweets worth savoring.” Says Rothstein, “We look at recipes and flavor profiles from many culture areas.”
The business partners find ingredients from all over the world, such as peppercorns from Cambodia and panela sugar from Central America. Then they experiment with novel ways to put them together with New England ingredients such as honey, dairy products, or Somerville’s Taza chocolate. The word Trill reflects the pairing and harmony of two strong notes meant to be played together.
While many bakers hope a cookie recipe will turn them into the next Mrs. Fields, Rothstein and Baum want to keep their operation focused on artisanal quality goods that can be distributed wholesale and tempt a broad audience to stretch their palates. Their line of eight basic products (many come in more than one flavor) includes BEEZcotti and mini BEEZcottini, which are butter cookies shaped like biscotti; the BEE in the name comes from the caramelized honey-nut topping. They also make chocolate “earthquake” cookies spiked with smoked chile peppers and chocolate-chip cookies with espresso (prices range from $2.50 for a single cookie to $7.50 for a half dozen). A wheat-free chocolate leaf cake can be special ordered.
The women went into business together by accident. One day Rothstein received a frantic phone call from a nonprofit group asking if she could cater for 150 people. She knew how to make Southeast Asian food because of her field work in Indonesia, but she needed help. She called Baum, a home baking enthusiast who frequently brought brownies to anthropology meetings. “We had never done something that large before. We had to figure out how many chickens would fit in one pot by lining up shoeboxes that were the approximate size of the chickens,” Rothstein recalls.
The event, held in 1990, was such a success that the group, Earthwatch Institute, asked the duo to cater dinners for a regular film series cosponsored with Cultural Survival and Documentary Educational Resources. Each film focused on a different country. Their anthropology training came in handy. “It was pre-Internet,” says Baum. “We had to ask around or go to libraries to find food from areas like Papua New Guinea. We interviewed a Tibetan monk at the Harvard Divinity School about how to make momos [Tibetan dumplings].”
Cooking Culture, their catering business, kept them busy full time for 10 years, but they decided to take a break while each raised children. In June 2013, they were ready to relaunch their business with Trillfoods, a brand of Cooking Culture.
They still do a bit of catering, such as custom dessert platters for parties and gallery openings, but are focusing more on Trillfoods. They have financed their business by what Baum calls “bootstrapping,” fronting their own money to start out instead of taking a loan, and relying on sales to bring in cash.
Many of the Trillfoods recipes start with a conversation about possible flavor combinations. The next step is recipe tests at Rothstein’s home in Cambridge or Baum’s home in Brookline.
“Some things work the first time. For the tahini swirl brownies, it took us nine tries until they were exactly what we were looking for,” says Baum.
Their chocolate earthquake cookie, a dense combination of chocolate and spices, came about through testing and refining. They started with the classic Mexican pairing of smoked chipotle chile peppers and mild canela cinnamon. As Rothstein explains, they then added unrefined panela sugar, Aleppo pepper “for a floral note,” and toasted Cassia cinnamon “for more of a cinnamon edge.” Turbinado sugar was the choice for an ultra-crunchy topping.
Though each of the products in the Trillfoods line comes from a lot of experimenting, Rothstein and Baum recommend more forethought in opening a specialty sweets business. They wrote a business plan and approached potential vendors before they went to market. Figuring out packaging and labels took more time. Once they were ready to launch, they rented kitchen space at Stock Pot Malden, which specializes in working with food entrepreneurs.
They also advise being flexible to what customers and vendors request. “Be prepared to change your plan,” says Rothstein.
Trillfoods available at Bee’s Knees Supply Co., 12 Farnsworth St., Boston, 617-292-2337; Darwin’s, 1629 Cambridge St., Cambridge, 617-491-2999; City Feed and Supply, 672 Centre St., Jamaica Plain, 617-524-1700; Fastachi, 598 Mt. Auburn St., Watertown, 617-924-8787; Formaggio Kitchen, 244 Huron Ave., Cambridge, 617-354-4750; South End Formaggio, 268 Shawmut Ave., Boston, 617-350-6996; or go to www.trillfoods.com .Clara Silverstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.