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HOSPITAL LOVES HER TASTY TOUCH

Antoinette Kroll's breads, cakes and other creations are a treat at Florida Hospital.

Antoinette Kroll has a joke about her first name.

"It's like the woman who got her head chopped off," said Kroll, referring to Marie Antoinette, the beheaded French queen who was quoted as saying let the bread-starved peasants eat cake.

But that's where the similarities end.

Kroll not only lets them eat cake, she bakes it. She also lets them eat bread. And cookies. And seven kinds of pie.

"I love the sweets and sample everything," said the 66-year-old baker for Florida Hospital Zephyrhills, who is a one-woman Perkins Restaurant for the cafeteria.

For 22 years, Kroll has shown up at 5:30 a.m. to make the desserts that bring smiles to those waiting in the cafeteria line and recuperating in hospital beds.

"I do whatever I want to do," said Kroll, who decides what goes on the dessert line on any given day.

Like many children, Kroll became interested in cooking while watching her mother in the kitchen. Mom never shooed her away and let her help out.

But practical desires crowded out any dreams of becoming a chef.

"I wanted to be a bookkeeper," she recalled, an idea that she now finds incredulous.

But when she got married, her husband had other ideas.

"He didn't want me to work," she said. So she focused on being a wife and mother, until their son started school.

Then she got bored. At that point, her husband suggested that she get a job. Kroll looked for an opportunity that allowed her to work while her son was at school.

She checked out openings at the Hillsborough school he attended. The only opening was in the cafeteria.

"I said, 'I'll take it,'" she said.

That was the beginning of a 40-year culinary career.

Works in big batches

Along the way, Kroll has worked alongside some highly skilled master chefs, including some at Marriott and Saddlebrook Resort. But Kroll said she likes the faith-based, nonprofit hospital the best.

"It's quiet and peaceful," said Kroll, who gets to work in her own kitchen apart from those who cook the main dishes.

Kroll keeps her recipes handwritten in a yellowed notebook, which she really doesn't need because she created most of them and pretty much has them all memorized.

Ingredients are measured on a scale because of the number of items she bakes. A cookie recipe calls for more than 20 pounds of chips. She once made a cake that served 400.

That's why it's tough for Kroll to swap recipes. And forget about getting her chocolate chip cookie recipe. That one she'll never surrender.

"She won't even give that to (our sister) hospital in Orlando," said Jerry Sterner, community relations director at Florida Hospital Zephyrhills. So staffers send along some of Kroll's already baked cookies when they have joint meetings.

Summers are slower, with Kroll cutting back to three days a week from her usual four.

But come fall, things crank up. Kroll bakes nonstop for Thanksgiving and Christmas and for special events the hospital sponsors.

During the holiday season, her pies and breads can be special ordered by the public, with pickups a day or so before the holiday. Proceeds go to the hospital's nutritional services department.

The freezer then is so full of baked goods, she said, "you can't walk in."

Kroll also makes specialty cakes for staffers and patients. She made a wedding cake decorated with sanitized seashells for a nurse who loved the beach. A couple who celebrated their 59th wedding anniversary in the hospital got a decorated cake, along with cupcakes for the nurses.

Staffers also love her baskets filled with goodies that go to new parents and are used as door prizes at charity fundraisers.

"Antoinette's cakes and pies are absolutely delicious and she makes the most beautiful gift baskets," said rehabilitation director Natasha Ford-Thorne. "I order all of my gift baskets from her."

Don't think you can get Kroll to cater just anyone's party, though. One thing she won't do is private work on the side.

"If it's not through the hospital," she said, "I won't do it. I don't have the time."

Besides, Kroll said, she doesn't bake at her Dade City home.

She spends her spare time swimming and doing other exercises to keep trim despite her sweet tooth.

She admits to one guilty pleasure: the reality television show Hell's Kitchen, where wannabes get berated by famous chef Gordon Ramsay.

"He's trying to weed out people," she said.

"When a chef gets to be famous, they are going to be demanding in certain things. These people get half a million a year to work in a high-class restaurant. In real life, he's probably very quiet, very pleasant."

Lisa Buie can be reached at buie@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4604.

Fast facts

Order for the holidays

To order pie or bread for the holiday season, pick up an order form at Florida Hospital Zephyrhills, 7050 Gall Blvd. Prices vary based on items. For information, call (813) 788-0411.

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Antoinette Kroll's bread pudding

3 lbs. 8 oz. of bread 2 qts. eggs

3/4 gal milk 2 lbs. sugar

8 oz. butter 2 lbs. raisins

vanilla flavoring to taste

Mix all ingredients and bake in a large foil-covered pan at 325 degrees for 1 to 11/2 hours. Remove the foil during the last half hour. Tip: Put baking pan inside a larger pan with water covering the bottom to prevent burning on the bottom.

Note: Make sure you have a big pan. This recipe will yield a lot of bread pudding.

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