Culinary Traveler: Scooping on Chelsea Clinton’s Wedding Party and Gluten Free Wedding Cake

Sunday August 22, 2010

“The Hudson River valley has inspired some of the noblest landscapes and the most purely American (art) that the country has ever produced. Let us hope, however, that the spirits of the romance-haunted hills will be too subtle and evasive for any yet invented machine of the chill realist. If ever I should wish for a retreat whither I might steal from the world and its distractions, and dream quietly away the remnant of a troubled life, I know of none more promising than this little valley.”

Geo H Boughton, Illustrator of Rip Van Winkle and the Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving, 1893

cake feeding ritual circa 1950s

People love to read about weddings as much as they like being invited to them. Of course when a wedding is called the wedding of the century for its size, location, elements of decoration, and notoriety of the participants, it gets even more fun. Wedding are so appealing that there are even wedding TV programs and wedding cake shows, which is an entire department of a bakery all to itself. Call it Chelsea Clinton’s extravagant July 31st weekend and you can be sure it took a full year to plan. Of course with parents who are no stranger to hosting large parties that span over a three day weekend (rehearsal dinner, day of the wedding/reception/after party get together, farewell Sunday brunch), and a staff of wedding planners and assistants checking on every detail and roaming with walkie talkies during the party, trust me, this was a piece of cake. The guest rooms at a number of local inns all had gluten-free chocolate chip cookies upon arriving, which is a great detail in a list that had to have thousands of reminders. Remember in the old days how Martha Stewart made the statement: “I can set up and cater an affair for a few hundred knowing only a day in advance.” This is the level of expertise that put on these type parties with multiple sites, caterers, and other set up staff.

Rhinebeck, described as a place “for gracious living in a sophisticated rural setting,” is located on the Hudson River near the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge, about two hours north of New York City. This is the land of the tranquil solitudes of the Sleepy Hollow, a rural valley to the east near the Catskills. Rhinebeck is

Bryan Rafanelli of Rafanelli Events, the wedding planner supervising over two dozen vendors for the wedding, is described as the Chanel of party-planning, as he has an impeccable eye and style style style. He's done fundraing events for Hillary Rodham Clinton and produced the inaugural balls for President Obama

sometimes dubbed “the Hamptons of the North.” The entire town, which grew rich—and Democratic—amid the influx of wealthy Manhattanites over the past 15 years, is straight out of The Great Gatsby—with a heavy dose of liberal consciousness, organic gardening, yoga, and Pilates thrown in. It is also part of the dharmaweb (no wonder there are vegan and vegetarian restaurants) with the center of Zen Buddhist Meditation Master Thich Nhat Hahn and a surprising number of Tibetans since the seat of His Holiness the Gyalwang Karmapa in North America is right across the river in Woodstock (HH the Dalai Lama has his main Western monastery further upstate.).

The Picture Book Village and the Jewel of the Hudson, Rhinebeck consists of over 437 sites listed on the National Historic Register, and easily comprises one of the largest historic districts available to the bed and breakfast traveler in the entire US. Now that is my kind of vacation destination (or else you can rent a 6-bedroom converted barn for $3,000 a month and change your own linen and do your own cooking). The Sixteen Mile Historic District of Rhinebeck is composed of 30 contiguous riverfront estates of the landed aristocracy in the Hudson Valley. The Astor Courts estate, where the Clinton/Mezvinsky event was held, is the former estate of John Jacob Astor IV and is situated about 70 miles away from the Clintons’ family home in Chappaqua, N.Y., the place they moved to after Bill left the White House and Hilary was running for senator. The mansion on the Astor Courts property with the panorama views of the historic Hudson River was designed by American architect Stanford White and completed in 1904 as a sports pavilion with guest bedrooms. (Its original owner, John Jacob Astor IV, died in the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.) So you can take a class in Sanskrit, do some hatha yoga at the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies, then head on off to the Dutchess County Sheep and Wool Festival at the fairgrounds for some weaving supplies, site see American Revolution landmarks, and then winery hop. All in and around Rhinebeck.

view from the helicopter no fly zone/The couple exchanged vows before sunset on the Jewish Sabbath under a canopy of braided willow branches and white roses and hydrangea, evoking a Jewish wedding ceremonial chuppah (upper right corner).

First let’s set the stage. The Clintons widened the gravel road leading up to the estate to accommodate the long parade of arriving limousines and chartered buses. The main house was decorated in large

Jeff Leatham, Floral Designer and Artistic Director of the Four Seasons Hotel George V in Paris and Beverly Hills/with a budget of over $250,000 for flowers/

bouquets of white hydrangeas/roses and over the fireplaces were long displays of white lilies (like they  have in the George V in Paris, where they arc across the room). They set up a marquee in the back behind the tennis courts and it was truly amazing, noted guests when asked if they had a good time. Picture crystal chandeliers/air conditioning and a huge dance floor. The tables were mixed arrangements–some circles, a very long dais (where Chelsea/Marc/Bridal Party/Family were). There were about 450 people, but it didn’t feel that big, said the guests. The tent’s interior was transformed into garden-like wonderland — its ceiling and walls draped in fabric, its support poles festooned with flowers — with tables covered in gray-blue cloths that looked lavender and had a minimum of 3 to 4 different arrangements of pink, blue and lavender hydrangeas and purple/pink roses, with a minimum of 100/150 roses per table. The flowers were arranged mixed, some high, some low, with a variety of candle/water feature arrangements. This multiple centerpieces is Leatham’s design style, which is compared to contemporary art (to get an idea of his achievements, check out the table set up photos in the palace of Versailles on his website–incredible). He is assisted on site for the floral installations by another talent, Mathieu Miljavac. Is there a wonder that there is a hydrangea left in the northeast?

A bottle of Seyval Blanc "Tribute" wine from local Clinton Vineyards (no relation) and a note sent by the wedding planner Rafanelli Events, thanking the neighbors for their "patience and cooperation" during the road closures/also in the gift bag

The Clinton/Mezvinsky’s outdoor sunset wedding had a lot of buzz about the menu featuring a vegetarian option, which is pretty much de rigueur these days. Tell me a family that doesn’t have at least one vegetarian any more. When you have 450 people attending, this is not just about getting the food you like served, but an awareness of your guests and what they will want to eat as well. Guests were seated at each table, with a personalized printed menu for each person (instead of a name card), which is a really great touch I used to do for all my sit down parties since it is so elegantly personal, and guests don’t have to constantly ask what is this or that, or what’s next to be served, distracting the wait staff with the same questions over and over.

The menu, catered by the St. Regis Hotel in New York, had a choice of grass fed Angus beef (steak or short ribs), Atlantic char for fish, and vegetarian risotto entrees with gluten-free dinner rolls, which when freshly made, are darn good in case you are wrinkling your nose. Dinner went on until about 1am serenaded by a full band with string section. The first dance by the new couple was a tango (for which they took lessons to choreograph), then Bill danced with Chelsea and cried the whole time. Then there was a hora, with the moms and dads raised on four chairs and carried around the room (by secret service agents au certainment), which the guests loved.

the pastry baker in his whites and European style chef hat/wouldn't you want this smiling face to make your special day cake

Of course one of the highlights of the wedding was the lovely nine-tired wedding cake created by Dutch pastry chefs Maarten and Frances Steenman, owners of New York bakery La Tulipe Desserts in Westchester, a matter of much speculation in the weeks before the wedding. No one leaked a thing, even to the heavy hitters like Extra and People magazine, who certainly have their means of bribing for a good scoop. Having a wedding cake business for years, of course I had to see what the cake looked like and I was not disappointed. The cake was decorated very simply with a white on white theme with silver accents. Being nine-tiers reminds me of very old-fashioned wedding cakes, which were masterpieces and showpieces for the wedding couple, much less a part of the decorations themselves. It was a big cake, bigger than a normal wedding at 500 pounds total, but not big enough for a person to pop out of. And, according to reports, the cake alone cost somewhere between $10,000 and $12,000, which comes down to about $20 per person (wedding cakes are usually priced according to the number of guests plus a travel/setup fee). With all the extra styling, hand made decorations, and the high profile of the event, this is not over priced.

the nine-man team decorating the cake/you can gauge the size in relation to the people/bigger than a small child/Copyright 2010 Corbis Images

People magazine reported that the sweet treat was four-feet tall and was made with 360 organic eggs, 50 pounds of sugar, 45 pounds of gluten-free flour, and 30 pounds of butter. Plus all the ingredients were local (butter and eggs), which is a no-brainer for a borderline sustainable agricultural community like Rhinebeck, and the cake was mostly organic (the flours, butter, eggs, imported chocolate.). Organic granulated cane sugar is a big deal now instead of granulated beet sugar. While the cake was described as vegan in news reports, it was not a vegan cake. A vegan cake would contain no dairy or eggs. Since this cake had eggs and was made with a non-wheat, gluten-free flour mixture, it was a gluten-free cake. Since it was a sponge cake, the eggs constituted the liquid. Sponge cake is a go-to recipe for wedding cakes. I remember a Hawaii on-the-beach wedding at the Hana Maui hotel with the bride making a choice of passion fruit, guava, papaya, or mango sponge cake from the hotel pastry department.

It was decorated with about 1,000 edible sugar flowers, all crafted by hand by some talented

fondant photo by Wilton

Hudson Valley fairy/elf person (mostly roses, a little bit of hydrangeas, calla lilies, and two types of orchids) that were delicately brushed with pearl accent and which echoed the theme of fresh flowers at the wedding. There were small circular designs on the base of each alternating layer (almost like half-wheels of little silver beads, which can also cover a multitude of uneven edges). The cake was a vanilla sponge cake (pan de spagne), layered with dark bittersweet chocolate mousse. Vanilla and chocolate are always a good safe flavor combination and people go wild for it (some reports say a chocolate cake, but there were red velvet chocolate cupcakes for the after party, so I surmise the vanilla cake won out as the main wedding cake so not to overkill on the chocolate). The cake is quite tender and the filling nice and rich, so a cake this big needs dowels inserted in 3 or 4 places to support the layer on top of it, or else it would squish big time (there are also commercial plastic layer

fondant photo by Wilton

separators with snap-in spacers that are inserted into the layer below it to stablize the cake). The uber-smooth look of the cake is that it is covered in rolled vanilla fondant, which is a very popular way to decorate like on the TV show Ace of Cakes. It is a look that is really in fashion again (see how to cover a cake in fondant:; its not too tasty but looks good. The fondant is secured by a thin layer of buttercream icing underneath it. In a big bakery with a lot of wedding cake orders (there can be half a dozen, even more, in one weekend all through wedding season if the bakery makes tasty cakes), the cake layers are made first and frozen, as it firms up the cake for working with the filling, icing, and stacking procedures.

This cake looks like it was assembled at the bakery, then transported in a refrigerated van to the site. This big of a cake would be a hassle to cut and serve, going layer by layer from the top. Often you can just have your baker make a smaller wedding cake for display and the cut the cake photos, and then serve guests with an undecorated sheet cake from the back. No one ever notices in the bedlam of champagne and dancing.

in-house artistry/the candy floral decorations ready for use/Copyright 2010 Corbis Images

The Dutch-born master baker is a second-generation pastry chef with extensive experience as a patisserie apprentice in Europe (think Lenotre French master pastry chef), as is the traditional way of learning the specialized trade. The bakery already had a relationship with the Clintons supplying cakes and desserts for them. The Hudson valley is populated with the descendants of the original Dutch settlers (New Amsterdam aka New York City), so a Dutch bakery would be tradition in those parts. When an affair is really important, people like to use familiar support services that are trustworthy and who can deliver what they ask for with minimal fuss.

the cake ready for display/the discs give an art nouveau feel/Copyright 2010 Corbis Images

Then there was the after party party. The band wrapped up at 1:30am, and then guests retired to the Tennis Court which was converted into a lounge, with different flowers (this time red hydrangeas/roses everywhere) and a dance floor lined with comfy couches. Then came the comfort food: grilled cheese with truffles, seared tuna, bite-sized red velvet cupcakes, and mini burger sliders. There was a DJ playing, as well as someone playing the electric violin. Sated, sleepy guests headed back on the shuttle buses under the stars to their cars at 3am.

the Lake Poet William Wordsworth, who lived in Grasmere for fourteen years, described it as "the loveliest spot that man hath ever found"/photo courtesy of Grasmere Estate

Now for the next morning brunch in the refurbished Edwardian stone barn. Yes, more food, chat and chew with close friends and family before the ride back to the city. Guests had to drive (ID checked again and again), parking, and then a golf cart shuttled to the barn. The relaxed, elegant brunch (again hosted by Hillary and Bill), took place in this magnificent barn on the secluded Grasmere estate on the edge of town, the owners being personal friends who loan out the space for occasional charity events; it was the site of the Friday night rehearsal dinner as well which was catered by Terrapin Restaurant (horseradish-encrusted ahi tuna with miso aioli anyone?). There were two 20-foot walls covered in gigantic sunflowers and guests sat at communal tables for the catered brunch (again wheat/gluten-free vegetarian options). Even though guests were all tired, it was a great send off.

Last but not least, there was a great gift bag for all the guests to tote away with, again with the same logo/writing as the invitations on the bag, all items sourced in Rhinebeck by local artists/small businesses as a wedding remembrance. Even though the press dished the bags for being filled with such low cost items, I love goodie bags filled with surprise treats no matter what level we are playing at. These were Felix Rey bags designed by company owner and insider pal Lily Band, an ex Morgan-Stanley trader gone entrepreneurial, a friend of Chelsea’s who accessorizes for the smart and stylish girl-about-town (think Sex and The City with a Summer Love Tote, but look for their new line at Target for the rest of us). You will probably see these bags at the beach in the Hamptons all summer stuffed with takeout….

the Paper Trail, a chic local emporium of paper goods, jewelry and gifts, assembled 310 goodie totes designed by Felix Rey/A bottle of local Clinton Vineyards wine, a box of chocolates, fresh peaches, stationary, pastries from the local Wild Hive Farm Store, and Fresh Sugar Lip Treatment/photo courtesy of TMZ

1. What is Gluten?

Gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, barley and oat products, can trigger allergic reactions in people who suffer from celiac disease and gluten intolerance. So gluten-free foods, like quinoa and tapicoa flour, are devoid of wheat, rye, barley, or oat gluten.

2. Is a “gluten intolerance” is the same as Celiac disease.

Both the former President Bill Clinton and Chelsea are both gluten intolerant. When this is the case, it is said to have a gluten allergy/sensitivity, which is why she opted for a gluten-free wedding cake. This is one of the fastest growing allergies to food today along with peanuts, soy, and dairy. This means that if she eats gluten, she will have an adverse food reaction, most likely mild in the digestive tract. Celiac disease is different; it’s an autoimmune disorder that’s triggered by gluten — which is why a gluten-free diet is often used to treat this disease.

3. What is the difference between vegan and gluten-free?

Vegan and gluten-free options can be one and the same, but not necessarily so. Vegan dishes are not simply vegetarian dishes; instead, they do not contain any ingredients derived from animals, including butter, cheese, milk, and other dairy products, and surprisingly, honey. So you have Earth Balance margarine, cashew cheese, soy rice hemp or almond milks.

4. Is there anything good to eat when you can’t eat wheat?

There are countless gluten-free alternatives available, and there are even some grains you can eat including brown rice, potato starch, tapicoa starch, and quinoa. Gluten-free, just like low sugar baked goods, used to be terrible but now are getting incredible tasting. Pasta companies, such Tinkyada rice pasta, have made excellent advances in making pasta that not only tastes excellent and has the tooth feel of wheat, so you can make mac & cheese, lasagna, noodle soup, whatever soothes and nourishes you. I knew there was a lot of wheat intolerance

photo courtesy of La Tulipe bakery

when I saw mainstream companies like Betty Crocker making a line of GF cake mixes. They are excellent and now available as brownie and cookie mixes. At first gluten-free is a pain to adjust to since wheat is in everything but butter, but you adapt and get used to it. Regular baked goods don’t hold the same appeal when you are satisfied. Pamela’s Pancake and Baking Mix and Bob’sa Red Mill GF baking mix are both excellent. Amy’s Rice Crust Pizza (frozen, in most supermarkets)–fix it up with all your favorite toppings. Kinnickinnick frozen blueberry muffins and Cinnamon & Sugar Doughnuts have the wow factor (Slice in half, heat up on a lightly buttered grill and then apply seedless raspberry preserves. Tastes just like a bakery fresh jelly doughnut.). There would be professional bulk GF flour mixtures available to bakeries to make cakes like for Chelsea.

5. Is it healthier to eat a gluten-free diet even if you don’t have a gluten intolerance or Celiac disease?

Currently, there is no evidence that following a gluten-free diet when you don’t have to is any healthier than a regular vegetarian diet, but with the GMO wheat now used in the US (Canada and Europe have outlawed GMO wheat) causing so many sensitivities, it is now advisable not to eat wheat every day—alternate with corn tortillas one day, a gluten-free bread (such as from Udi’s available frozen), rye pumpernichel another day, buckwheat crepes, or go bread-free for the day with rice crackers and potatoes as the main starch.

photo courtesy of TMZ


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