By: Megan Roche
For Donna Scarano-Ilutzi of East Hanover, being in the kitchen is just a natural part of who she is. The Italian mom prides herself on being able to make all types of food and desserts that please her friends and family. However, her baking and cooking abilities have recently taken her to a national level.
According to Scarano-Ilutzi, her earliest memories of being in the kitchen remind her of her mother. “My fondest memories are being in our little house in the Ironbound section of Newark, and watching my mom cook and helping her with the holiday baking. She was so good at it, and I was happy to learn from her.”
One of those recipes that still brings back those fond and warm memories is that of Anisette Knots. It is a big hit in the Scarano-Ilutzi house around the holiday season. “I am always amazed at how many family stories people start sharing when we eat them,” Scarano-Ilutzi shared.
Who would have thought that cooking as a way to relax would bring Scarano-Ilutzi on the journey she’s been on? Since 2010, Scarano-Ilutzi finds herself constantly entering cooking and baking contests. Her first cooking contest was a local one, a gelato shop opening on Route 10 in the Whippany/Morristown area was looking for a new flavor. “I created Donna’s Italian Delight, which was a coffee flavored brandy gelato. They conducted a taste testing for everyone who came to that celebratory event and I won.” Scarano-Ilutzi proudly shares.
Her accomplishments go far beyond the Whippany area however. After creating a recipe for the 47th Annual Pillsbury Bakeoff, Scarano-Ilutzi’s Cinnamon Crunch Cookies were chosen as a top 100 finalist out of 50,000 applicants. Pillsbury flew all 100 recipe creators to Nashville where all contest finalists baked their recipes, were treated to entertainment, and were even given professional headshots and a state-of-the-art GE Microwave.
“One of our colleagues accepted the $1 million dollar prize from Carla Hall (The Chew) on a live taping. In addition, our recipes were compiled and sold at supermarket checkouts as part of the Pillsbury Classic Cookbook series.”
Other contests that Scarano-Ilutzi has placed in include the Minnesota Cultivated Wild Rice Council’s Go Wild with Wild Rice contest, Safeway Foods: The Fresh Grocer Fresh Ideas contest, Tyson’s Big Deli Recipe contest, Taste of Home Healthy Cooking Magazine’s One Dish Healthy Cooking recipe contest. Her eggplant parmesan also won her a wheel of cheese from the Parrano Cheese Company.
While her proudest competitive experience was the Pillsbury contest, she knows that her baking and cooking have brought a lot more than competitive wins to her life. Scarano-Ilutzi’s daughter, Liana, has been an inspiration for her baking and cooking. “The proudest memories I have are forever associated with the difference I made in the life of my daughter and the young people with whom she associated starting at 6 years old. I baked cookies for most every class event and sporting team in which she ever participated.” Scarano-Ilutzi shared.
Liana recently graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and you better believe that her teammates on the MIT Basketball team also got to enjoy some of Donna’s treats.
“The MIT student body consists of young people from every country on the planet and some never get to go home for four years. I felt there was a bigger purpose for baking then. Students need to be connected and not feel alone. Sharing my cookies, although a tiny gesture, helped to encourage camaraderie, a sense of belonging, and to let them know that someone cared. That warmth then grew organically.” Scarano-Ilutzi shares proudly.
Scarano-Ilutzi prides her cooking and baking on her use of common everyday items. She always tries to buy what’s on sale, rework recipes to cut down on salt and calories, and she is a big fan of using what is already in her pantry. When asked about her tips for cooking and baking, she couldn’t just list one.
“People eat with their eyes so present your food in an appealing way. Use a pretty plate or decorate the dish with a bit of color. Keep it simple and don’t waste food.”
“I have been told that I have been a great cook forever. I enjoy being smart around creating amazing food and being innovative with what I already have in my pantry. I really like to see people just enjoy my food. One of my friends said that my hobby is feeding people. I have never thought of it like that.”