Archive for July, 2009

Lavender Fields Forever! Milano Cookies – Daring Bakers

I don’t like a lot of store-bought, commercial cookies. I’ve never really liked Oreos, Chips Ahoy, or Mother’s cookies, preferring instead to make my own sandwich cookies and chocolate chip studded sweets. But when I saw July’s Daring Bakers challenge – a version of the Pepperidge Farm milano cookie – I knew right away I would like it.

The July Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Nicole at Sweet Tooth. She chose Chocolate Covered Marshmallow Cookies and Milan Cookies from pastry chef Gale Gand of the Food Network.

The original plan was a lemon and basil milano – lemon cookies and a basil ganache.  At first I decided to use a shell shaped cookie mold, but it was too deep and the milanos came out more like madeleines. I realized that the cookies did indeed have to be very thin to be crispy enough. I tried to follow the instructions exactly and used the remaining batter to pipe out milanos.

Oh man. They looked like amoebas. Seriously. Not two the same size and shape.

So I tried again. I decided to make ginger milano cookies. Instead of piping, I decided to trace outlines on parchment paper and spoon the batter on top. I thought this might help make more uniform cookies, especially since I could be sure to use the same amount of batter for each one. This sort of worked, but not really. They were still coming out like special and unique snowflakes… that is to say, quite unappealing.

I got more and more frustrated as my dad came up behind me and handed me something he’d made – a stencil. He’d cut it out of a paper plate, leaving part of the rim attached, so it was like a little handle. I tried this out, using a teaspoon to get the same amount of batter each time. I had such high hopes as I slid the pan into the oven.

But they came out still oddly shaped. I tried again, and this time I chilled the stenciled milanos. And then, what the heck, it couldn’t hurt, I decided to bake the tray on the highest oven rack possible. I pulled out the pan, and to my surprise, I had a batch of perfectly shaped cookies, barely golden brown around the edges. The only complaint? No ginger flavor. So much for ginger milanos.

They did taste lemony (I would think so considering the amount of extract,) and I pondered the flavor of the ganache. I didn’t feel like chopping basil, which had been the original plan. I stood in the kitchen with the eggs in one hand and the butter in the other, feeling blank. I’d never waited this long to do a challenge before, and I was not feeling much of a creative spark. Suddenly, I remembered the lavender.

My grandma had read about a lavender farm, Mountain Meadow Lavender, in the News Tribune. So my mother and I took a day off work and drove to Roy, Washington. It’s a beautiful drive through dark green trees and grassy fields full of grazing cows, who lift their heads lazily as the cars go by, long stalks bobbing between their lips. When we got there, we met one of the owners, Barbara Hulscher.

Barbara owns 600 lavender plants, a big barn for drying lavender, and a little gift shop. She lives right next to the garden – or, I suppose it would be more accurate to say, the lavender farm is her home. And really, it’s a beautiful home. The lavender is in neat rows, every stem long and waving slightly in the breeze. You can smell the lavender from a distance. Even for someone like me, terrified of bees, it was easy to forget about all that as I took a tour of the farm.

Inside the gift shop, Barbara showed us all the different lavender products she offered. Lavender sachets, lavender soap and lotion, lavender pillows… When I came across lavender tea, lavender jam, and lavender baking mixes – for lavender chocolate chip cookies and lavender poppy seed muffins – my interest was stirred. We began to talk about lavender in baking, and I told her I’d made Lavender Ice Cream and it was delicious. She went inside and came back with recipes in her hand for lavender cakes, muffins, and crumbles. I thanked her and mentally made a note to get cracking on some lavender recipes.

We left with some lavender plants for our garden and this – a jar of ground culinary lavender.

It couldn’t have been easier. I added a tablespoon to the cream and didn’t even bother to strain it out before combining it with the chocolate. I grabbed the prettiest milanos from the last two batches and spread half of them with the ganache.

Wow. The lavender pairs so, so nicely with the chocolate, and the cookies were crisp and the whole thing just worked. I couldn’t have been more surprised considering how many mistakes and failures I’d had throughout this challenge, which I had expected to be simple.

The verdict? It was not a pleasant recipe for me to make, especially not twice. But the cookies were delicious. And the lavender… Fragrant, flowery, and prepared to slip into more baked goods in the future.

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July 27, 2009 at 8:45 am 59 comments

Rainbow Pride Party Cake

I think all little kids, at least at one point, have unrealistic ideas about what they’ll become when they grow up. I know I did. For a while I wanted to be an actress, then a singer, then a vet, and I went through an inevitable, short-lived pokemon master phase. I also remember once announcing that when I grew up, I wanted to be a duckling.

Yeah, I don’t know where that came from either.

But there was always something I wanted to be that I never told anyone about. I wanted to be a creative product namer – it would be the most fun job in the world! As a child I’d walk through the candle aisle of a store and think to myself, “This would be Golden Raspberry Dream and this one could be named Velvet Plum.” My favorite was to think of cute crayon colors, like Pink Lemonade Paradise and Safety Patrol Yellow.

Turns out I still can’t help but do it!

I can’t look at this vivid rainbow cake without feeling a bit of that creative spark all over again – Cherry-Red Hard Candy, Greenest Grass Green, Princess Eyes Blue. And even though I’ve seen the rainbow a million times, I still experienced an unexpected feeling when the cake was cut open. It was as if someone had waved a magic wand and restored all of the childish wonder and curiosity that I thought I’d outgrown years ago.

This cake was commissioned for a local company’s Pride celebration. I knew right away that rather than make a regular cake decorated with rainbow frosting, I wanted to make every layer a different color. This suggestion was met with a lot of enthusiasm, and I didn’t realize the difficulties of it until later.

First of all, I’d never made a cake of this size – six layers, 9″x13″ – and secondly I haven’t had a lot of success with white cakes. They usually end up dry or flavorless. Yet here I was, making six layers. I was also worried about height. Six layers is surprisingly tall, even taller after you add frosting, and I didn’t want the cake to lean or fall apart. I settled on Dorie Greenspan’s Perfect Party cake… after all, I trust Dorie whole-heartedly and it seemed like a moist, flavorful white cake that would also be sturdy.

I made two layers in advance, just to test things out. Unfortunately, I found the cake to be dry and much too sweet. I cut each layer into three, stacked them, and moaned a little when I saw how tall the finished cake would be. I tested freezing the layers, but they came out even drier the next day. I started to wonder what I’d gotten myself into.

I pushed forward, and the morning of the party I woke up at 6:30 to be absolutely sure I’d have enough time to do the whole cake. Dorie’s recipe makes two 9″ round layers, so I was using one recipe to make two thin 9″x13″ layers – basically I would have to repeat the recipe three times. I measured, sifted, and set out all my ingredients beforehand. Then I made two layers at a time, did dishes, and repeated, working like clockwork.

I do kind of go into “baking mode” when I work, especially when I’m alone. I concentrate completely on the task at hand, and it feels good. I have a friend who loves running because it clears his mind and lets him focus, and this happens when I’m in the kitchen. Even though I was doing the same recipe over and over, it didn’t feel repetitive, and I even enjoy the feeling of being busy.

When all the layers were baked, I decided not to go with Dorie’s buttercream frosting, since it could be too rich in a 6 layer cake. I was going to go with whipped cream, but felt frosting would better hold the cake. Finally, I wanted the cakes to be moistened with jam but not too sweet. I ended up thinly spreading every layer with apricot jelly, then alternating whipped cream and cream cheese frosting. I frosted the outside with cream cheese frosting and then pressed shredded coconut into the cake.

Driving the cake to the office was a little nerve wracking. I was so worried about the cake leaning! A few hours ago, I had chilled the cake between layers. I had checked on it and realized, with horror, the cake was leaning to the right. I had turned the pan around and when I returned twenty minutes layer, the cake had straightened out. But every time we came to a sudden stop or made a sharp turn, I thought I could feel the cake moving like the leaning tower of pisa.

We made it to the office in one piece. Everyone who saw the cake was impressed by how big it was (and it was heavy!) It sort of looked like a giant coconut candy. But nothing can compare to the reactions I got when the cake was cut. The inside was a surprise, and it elicited gasps and outbursts of surprise all around. It was a room of adults, and yet there was still a wisp – no, a spark – of that innocent, fleeting joy at seeing something colorful. At that moment, I was reminded why I love to bake so much. This is what it’s for. I love to make people happy, and here was an entire room full of happy people – but I don’t think anyone was happier than me.

I was nervous about taste, but I’d learned a lot from my test run. Even though the cake was served in tiny, teetering slices, it was almost completely devoured as people came back for seconds.

It’s almost indecent that I was paid to do this. Creative product namer? No, what I am doing right now must be the most fun job in the world.

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July 16, 2009 at 12:36 pm 115 comments

Taro Ice Cream

Here is the ideal summer day.

It would begin with waking up at 9:30 feeling refreshed and glowing. I would curl up on the couch by the window, with the Seattle Times, a warm cinnamon roll (prepared the night before, of course,) and a warm cup of jasmine tea. This leisurely breakfast would be followed by a quick shower, before heading  to the park with The Canon.

At the park, I would sit on the sunniest bench and watch the cute kids and the cute dogs go by, photographing every leaf and swing and discarded soccer ball that strikes inspiration. I’d stop at the frozen yogurt place and eat it slowly with the little tester spoon as I walked back home. Mom would come home, we’d make and eat a lovely dinner, and watch Iron Chef before bed.

Well, okay. Here’s how my actual summer days have been going.

I am currently working at my mom’s office, which means I am waking up at 5 in the morning. Breakfast is a bowl of cereal (pretty much inhaled, not eaten) and a record-speed shower before driving to her office. This is followed by a full 8 hour work day of office work, before driving back home and collapsing in a tired heap on the bed. But everything is better at 10 PM, watching Iron Chef and eating homemade taro ice cream.

Taro roots are sometimes called the potatoes of the tropics. Steamed, they’re creamy and starchy and similar to a baked yam. My mom and her brothers used to eat taro as a treat when they were growing up – steamed and then dipped in sugar. My mom requested this ice cream out of the blue. When she came home with taro and steamed it herself, I knew she was serious. I tried to find a recipe online but couldn’t, so I improvised. It’s one of my first experimental recipes and I think it was a success.

On another note, I’d like to announce the winner of the Mojito Jelly Giveaway… Comment #3, Nutmeg Nanny. (Sorry Dad, no luck.) Congratulations, I’ll be sending you a jar shortly!

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July 10, 2009 at 10:23 am 31 comments

A Little Taste of Independence

Hey everyone – happy 4th of July!

I know most everyone has a special Independence Day tradition. Most people spend the day with their family and friends, others go to neighborhood potlucks and barbeques, and still others go to the park to watch the fireworks burst beneath the stars. My personal tradition?

When we first moved into this house, I was so happy to discover that the neighborhood was full of kids. Boys, it turned out. We had only been settled in the house for a few months before it was July, and I discovered something else – those boys were ridiculous pyromaniacs. The entire day they shot off the loudest fireworks they possibly could, and not even stopping there. They would drop fireworks into hollowed out tennis balls, empty coke cans, even buckets of water, just to see what would happen. When I first opened my door, there was a half melted army man on our driveway. I don’t even want to imagine what they did to the poor guy.

We’re not little kids, and unfortunately I don’t go out and play with those boys anymore. It seems as we got older it was weirder for a girl to hang around the group, and I haven’t created a fort in their backyards or explored the neighborhood with them in years. I’m too scared to light off any fireworks (Roman Candle fireworks are about as intense as I can handle), and I hardly ever see them now. But every year for the 4th of July, the whole neighborhood comes out as soon as dusk falls to enjoy their show together, and I laugh with them like we’ve stayed friends all along.

While I wish I could claim credit for it, the idea of a flag cake was completely my father’s. It was all a bit of an experiment and when I finally cut the cake open, revealing the familiar red white and blue, I was so surprised to see that it worked. Besides that, I was floored by how beautifully colored all the layers were, and how much it really resembled a flag! It might be one of the coolest cakes I’ve ever made!

I used a white cake flavored with coconut milk. I wrapped the cakes and left them overnight and in the morning, was disappointed because they had dried out. I made a simple syrup with lime and tried to revive the layers, but the cake was still dry and I’m not sharing the recipe. However, the cake came together well and you can use any recipe for a three layer white cake.

I wanted the cake to be completely white on the outside, keeping the richly colored layers hidden. I also didn’t want to mess around with blueberries and strawberries on the top, which I think are generally pretty common around the 4th. I made my favorite cream cheese frosting and flavored it with lime zest. While the cake was nothing special, I do love this cream cheese frosting, and it’s the easiest to make – no room temperature cream cheese needed!

So, want to know how it’s made? :)

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July 1, 2009 at 11:03 pm 269 comments


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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