It could be the words “Apple Cider Mini Cakes” and “Roasted Yams with Egg, Chorizo & Mushrooms” that lure you in. Or it could be her gorgeous photos of those dishes. But Dena Testa Bray, the food-lover and DailyUV blogger behind Gathering Flavors, keeps you there with her stories.
Dena shows us that a recipe is not just a recipe; it’s a bridge connecting flavors, textures, and aromas to memories and experiences that make us who we are. And she shares the one ingredient in all of cooking that’s never written down but must come from within.
What brought you to the Upper Valley?
I moved to the Upper Valley in 1997. My son was 4 years old at the time and we wanted a change since we were living in a gated community in downtown Chicago. We’d visited Hanover several times over the years and always thought it would be a good place to raise a family. We were enamored with the school system here and the safety. We wanted our son to be somewhere he could run and play. My husband was transitioning his career then to become an author, so he was drawn to the quiet for his work. I grew up on the east coast. New England felt a bit like coming home for me. It all came together for us. We continue to enjoy living here. Our son is grown and living in Montreal, but our 16-year-old daughter goes to Hanover High.
I love that an ingredient can evoke a whole story in your posts. To what do you owe this unique affinity for food?
My affinity for food began with my grandmothers. Both were Sephardic Jews who came to the US from southern Europe soon after WWI. While they were both amazing cooks coming from the same historical and cultural background, their style of cooking was extremely different. One, my Grandma Molly, worked out of a tiny kitchen but was able to make homemade phyllo dough and stuffed pastries. We literally ate her pastries—filled with spinach and feta or ground meat—the moment they came out of the oven.
My other Grandma, Rachel, had a vast kitchen with all the modern appliances of the time. Her meals—typically Arroz con Pollo with fresh fruit for dessert—were always served in a formal dining room with her best dishes and cutlery. Though their style was different, their food always served to bring people together. Their foods were filled with a bit of their soul and their love.
I spent years trying to recreate their recipes but I never got close. It finally hit me that the missing ingredient was them. I could have the flavors and textures they created embedded in my memory, but I could not be them. I had to find my own style.
What’s your advice for being a more creative, less tentative cook?
I think creativity comes both out of knowledge and bringing joy to what you do. Most recipes start the same way. European-style soups, for example, typically begin with basic vegetables and broth and are stylized from there. Sauces build on the basics of soup recipes. Learn a few basic recipes for foods you love—by taking a class, watching a video, or using a cookbook—learn how to handle the ingredients properly, then build from there.
And ENJOY IT. One of the things that stood out for me when I ran my cooking school was that many students viewed cooking as a task or a performance for others. The desire to get it right the first time so as not to disappoint their family or friends, hindered their ability to focus on the process. We all make mistakes in the kitchen. It’s part of the learning process. Learn the basics, practice, enjoy, and the creativity will come.
What’s your favorite tool in the kitchen?
My professional chef's knife. A sharp knife that is fitted to my hand and grasp, is something I find invaluable in the kitchen. When kept sharpened and paired with the appropriate cutting board—I like maple for vegetables and hard plastic that can be sanitized for meats and cheeses—this knife (which I’ve now owned for close to 20 years) is a time-saver and the best tool for getting everything prepped properly for a recipe in an efficient manner.