17 and Baking Bad

Breaking Bad Cake - Above

They call it cooking meth, but really, it’s a lot more like baking.

My dad’s a cook. He’s the kind of person who makes Indian food without a recipe, who can guess every ingredient in a sauce from one taste. The kind of person who opens the fridge, laughs a deep belly laugh, and assures you “there’s a meal in there somewhere.”

He approaches food intuitively, which is why he’s never liked baking—it’s too precise. You can’t throw in a pinch of this, a pinch of that, eyeball a teaspoon of baking powder, and leave it in the oven until it looks done.

Walter White would be an incredible baker.

Breaking Bad Cake - Cut

Baking relies on precision. Four ounces of flour is always four ounces of flour. At the right temperature, butter and sugar become light and fluffy perfection in three minutes. I can make a sheet of cookies and recreate them a year later, at a friend’s house, on the other side of the country.

I love that different ratios of the same basic ingredients—butter, flour, sugar, eggs—result in a million different desserts. I think it’s incredible that a touch of salt makes chocolate sing, but a spoonful ruins ganache. Everything from the humidity of a kitchen to the size of the eggs to the style of whisk makes a difference. Who knew the art of pastry was such an exact science?

For some cooks, the exactitude of baking stifles their creativity. I like it. The chemistry excites me, challenges me. I think it’s sort of cool.

Breaking Bad Cake - Unswirled
Breaking Bad Cake - Swirled

Maybe that’s why I look forward to the meth cook montages on Breaking Bad. Walt and Jesse might be making a questionable product, but I can’t help admiring their process. Plus, the visuals are stunning: glittering aluminum strips rain like confetti, gas bubbles through clear hose, yellow smoke puffs out a vent. Even the finished drug is pretty, big and opaque as blue raspberry rock candy.

Actually, it’s exactly like rock candy—that’s literally what they use for meth on the show.

The first time I saw it, I thought to myself, that’d look neat incorporated into a dessert. I pictured a cake, frosted pure white and topped with lots of sparkly blue crystals, marbled navy and white inside. But it wasn’t until now, as the second half of the last season is about to start, that I went for it.

Breaking Bad Cake - Slice

My boyfriend took the first bite. I could hear the rock candy crunching between his teeth as he slowly nodded, eyes widening. He didn’t say anything, just took another bite, and I knew he was hooked.

The finished cake isn’t as chemically sound as Heisenberg’s Blue Sky. Maybe because I mixed it by hand, the white cake got a few air bubbles, and in the summer heat the cream cheese frosting stayed soft. My marbling didn’t come out perfectly, more blotchy than swirled. But the cake’s still beautiful. It grabs your attention. And above all, it’s definitely addictive.

Consider yourself warned.

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August 11, 2013 at 12:37 am 93 comments

Cocoa Meringues

Cocoa Meringues - Hand

I never thought I was the kind of person who would be fired.

I’d been waitressing since my freshman year. The restaurant hired me my first month in Boston, even though I’d never taken an order or carried more than two plates across a room. I think what ultimately sold them was my interview–I walked in with a firm handshake and no doubt I’d find a job, so I did.

I liked waitressing right away. My first day of training, I wanted to be the fastest learner my boss had ever seen, to earn solid 20% tips from every table and have fun doing it. Two years later, I felt pretty good. I was not only the server who’d worked there the longest, but also the server with top sales. I always planned to work at that restaurant until I finished school.

I can’t pinpoint exactly where things started to go bad, or which Bad Thing was the last yanked thread that made the whole thing unravel. One by one, most of the staff had either quit or been fired. My three favorite managers left, one after another. Turnover had never been so high, business so slow, or my earnings so meager. I didn’t look forward to work, but I kept coming in.

Cocoa Meringues - Box

Then one morning last October, I had bad stomachaches and a forehead that could melt butter.

When I called in sick for my shift that evening, the manager said I needed to find my own replacement. Determined, I called all of my co-workers, even the ones who worked at different locations, but nobody wanted to come in. Trying to stay calm, I called my manager again, and told him I honestly couldn’t do it tonight.

“People don’t get sick on a Saturday night, a few hours before their shift.” He continued that if I didn’t come in, things would be “very bad for my future there.”

If I’d been feeling sick before, it was nothing compared to the worry his words sent pinwheeling through my stomach. Just like that, I knew it was over.

I’d never been fired from anything before. I prided myself in being a great employee, a great intern, a great student, a great whatever. I actually liked learning. I always wanted to be the best I could be. Now, to be unceremoniously fired from the first real job I’d ever had? After two solid years? What was wrong with me?

Cocoa Meringues - Raw

It was around that fall I first realized something was different. Looking back I know it was depression settling in, but at the time, it was happening so slowly I hadn’t really noticed.

I was bored with my classes, which weren’t challenging enough. I was so comfortable with my friends, I never went out and looked for more. There was a time I could juggle two jobs, four classes, an internship, and all the relationships I wanted to maintain. But as I sat on my bed that afternoon, phone on my lap and tears welling in my eyes, I felt like I couldn’t do anything.

I was going to be fired. Fired. I felt like such a failure.

I didn’t know what else to do, so I called my dad. We hadn’t talked in a while, partly because I didn’t have anything positive to tell him, and I didn’t want him to know how I’d been feeling. When I heard his enthusiastic “Hey little girl!” I was ashamed to have this conversation. He heard it.

“What’s wrong?”

“Dad,” I said. “It’s not good.”

Cocoa Meringues - Baked

He let me explain what had happened without saying a word. At the end, I finished with a horrible, nasally “So I think they’re going to fire me.” I stared at my toes and hoped he wouldn’t be as disheartened with me as I was with myself. The dead air rang in my ears a few moments, and then he finally spoke.

“Screw them,” he said. Except he didn’t put it quite so nicely.

I was so shocked and so relieved I started crying, more emotional than I would’ve been if he’d yelled. “You’re not mad? You’re not disappointed?”

“Honey,” he said, “you work hard. You gave them all you have. And if that isn’t enough, you don’t need to take this. If you aren’t happy, by all means, get outta there.” He paused. “Mom says, ‘Tell her you’re right.’ So there you go. We’re with you.”

Cocoa Meringues - Bitten

We talked until my tears were dry and a reluctant smile crept in. After hanging up I drank a cup of tea, watched some TV, and went to bed early, glad I hadn’t been too scared or too proud to call. I got better. And two days later, I went into work for my next shift, head held high, ready to face whatever happened.

Fragility is natural. It’s what makes porcelain and lace and new flowers so beautiful. It’s what makes a good meringue cookie so addictive. And it’s what makes us human.

In the end, I wasn’t fired. But I did quit. And when I finally left that job, I learned something else—it’s okay to feel breakable sometimes. It’s okay to let other people see that vulnerability. Because the people who care will always be there to support you, to comfort you, and to believe in you, even when you can’t do those things for yourself. Especially when you can’t do those things for yourself.

And they’ll be there for you when you can.

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July 18, 2013 at 6:37 pm 41 comments

Coconut Take-Out Rice Pudding

Coconut Take-Out Rice Pudding

I made this coconut rice pudding planning to eat it cold.

I was warned about the heat before I moved east for the summer, but growing up in the Pacific Northwest left me helpless. I thought it’d be a little warmer than Seattle, where July is sunny with a breeze. I figured I should probably pack a tank top or two.

I found out summers in New York laugh at summers in Seattle.

It’s hot here, but then again, it’s hot everywhere. I’m not used to this kind of weather, where the heat firms up against your shoulders like wax, and the humidity settles heavy as wool. My apartment is a fourth floor walk-up, which means I always come home out of breath and embarrassingly sweaty. We haven’t figured out how to install the AC yet.

Coconut Take-Out Rice Pudding Above

Last weekend, I woke up before the heat crept in. I knew it wouldn’t last long, though, so I decided to cook while I could. I poked around my cabinets and found a can of coconut milk.

I’m surprised by how many people don’t like coconut. I’ve always loved the stuff—so smooth, sweet, and rich. I admire its versatility, delicious whether stirred into curry or scooped straight from the husk, and the smell of toasting coconut is one of my all-time favorites. I especially like it in desserts. Usually, when it’s not too overpowering, the coconut adds an elusive balminess. It shouldn’t taste like sunscreen, but add a special oomph.

I also found some white rice, leftovers from a Chinese take-out night, and that’s when I decided to transform the two into coconut rice pudding.

Coconut Take-Out Rice Pudding Tupperware

I like rice pudding because it’s so unfussy. This version is especially convenient. You use pre-cooked rice, which means you don’t need to make any beforehand, and you can throw in whatever you have. You can add any sized can of coconut milk, and make up the rest with skim milk (no heavy cream, half and half, or egg yolks needed!)

I whipped this batch up in thirty minutes flat. But I wasn’t fast enough. As the milk simmered and the rice grew fat with coconut and sugar, the temperature rose in that little kitchen. It was scorching by the time the pudding was thick enough to give a spoon trouble. I thought I’d let it chill completely and eat some after lunch, but ultimately I couldn’t resist a taste.

Wholesome, comforting, creamy, decadent. The coconut was mild—-maybe not even strong enough for a coconut fanatic-—but gorgeously buttery. It was sweet, but not sugary, and luxurious enough to make me feel guilty.

Coconut Take-Out Rice Pudding Close Up

In the end, I ate a piping hot bowl right then and there for breakfast. And that night, I tried a spoonful cold, and it was respectable. But this dessert comes alive when it’s warm. All the flavors breathe, the pudding melts into utter goodness, and your belly heats up like you might boil over with happiness, even if it couldn’t get hotter outside.

Maybe it’s time to install that AC.

[Happy 4th of July!]

flagcake

[It's the anniversary of my most popular post ever, my 4th of July Flag Cake from 2009.]

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July 3, 2013 at 6:09 pm 28 comments

Black Pepper Panna Cotta & Red Wine Strawberries

Black Pepper Panna Cotta (main)

I bought a carton of strawberries.

I did it against my better judgment—the berries were suspiciously big and still a little out of season, not to mention overpriced. They were so red I couldn’t help but feel suspicious.

But I bought them anyway because I wanted to make panna cotta, and I thought berries would make the plate prettier. Plus, I’d found a half-cup of cheap cabernet in the fridge, forgotten by the apartment’s previous tenants, and I figured that would be enough to make mediocre berries taste good.

I went home and got to work, chilling the panna cottas and reducing the wine to a slow-bubbling glaze. After all that, I popped open the box of strawberries. I was surprised—they actually looked really good. Well, I thought, I’m glad they’ll photograph nice. I scooped up a handful, ran them under water, and let them tumble onto a cutting board, which slowly pinkened with juice. Before slicing, I picked up one of the smaller berries, pinched off the green, and popped the whole thing in my mouth.

Wow.

Black Pepper Panna Cotta (strawberry)

Black Pepper Panna Cotta (spoon)

With one bite I was transported home to Seattle, to our front yard, to my mom’s strawberry patch.

She planted the seeds when I was a senior in high school. They’ve grown prolifically since then, the leaves a dense carpet. The berries are tiny, thimble-sized, and redder than roses. They’re profusely floral, like perfume in your palms, so fragrant you taste them before you’ve parted your lips. Each bite melts on your tongue and the sweetness probably causes cavities.

They’re the best strawberries I’ve ever had.

One year, I infused some into a jar of bourbon. Another time, I made shortcakes with thick dollops of real cream. But they’re always best as-is, still warm from the sun, by the bowl-full. My dad likes to dip them in black pepper, a preference I found off-putting until I tried it. You can’t actually taste the pepper—like salt on chocolate, it simply enhances the berry itself.

Once I’d settled on red wine strawberries, I added pepper to the panna cottas, without hesitation.

Black Pepper Panna Cotta (closeup)

The grocery store strawberries weren’t as good as my mom’s. Not even close. But they were outrageously better than I expected. The panna cottas were, too.

I was nervous they would stick to their molds, but each panna cotta wobbled right onto the plate. The texture was perfect—-firm enough to hold a shape, yet soft and creamy as pudding. The edges were smooth as marble. I’d originally imagined the pepper sprinkled throughout, and I was disappointed they had settled down instead. But on second glance, I liked the way it looked—-pure white with black flecks crowning the top, like caviar, gently trickling down.

And the berries. Glossy, sweet, and superbly robust. The color contrast was gorgeous. I didn’t regret stirring them into the red wine reduction, even though I usually like to eat delicious fruit as-is.

I’ll save that simple happiness for the next time I’m home.

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June 21, 2013 at 3:46 pm 15 comments

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Elissa Bernstein



I'm Elissa: a 17 (now 21) year old baker in Seattle Boston juggling creative nonfiction workshops, subway maps, and my passions for writing, baking, and photography. Photo above © Michelle Moore

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