Archive for August, 2009

Baking with an Honorary Daring Baker – Mini Dobos Torte

It’s a strange thing. I absolutely adore being in the kitchen, baking, fueling this blog with sugar and creativity. And it’s without a doubt that I’m a social person. I like being with other people and spending time with my friends. But put them together? It doesn’t always ensure a good time. The honest truth is, I rarely enjoy baking with other people.

I’m not sure why. I guess it’s a bunch of little things… other people don’t know where the pans are, the tools, the ingredients. I know, silly. And they don’t really get the baking techniques. While I don’t mind teaching people, you can only do it to a point before you feel condescending. I would rather do it alone than give people the clearly “easy and boring” jobs like stirring, making them feel useless.

My explanation sounds sort of unreasonable written out like that, but I’m happy to say I am proved wrong sometimes. Take earlier this week, when my friend T- came over for dinner and to work on my top secret Daring Baker’s challenge.

Maybe it worked because T- is such a great friend. This is the girl who bought me a vanilla bean for my birthday and was one of the first people to start reading 17 and Baking. She brought green plums her family picked and a really delicious orange-water flan. Even though this month’s challenge was pretty difficult, she was up for the challenge and we had a really great time!

The August 2009 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Angela of A Spoonful of Sugar and Lorraine of Not Quite Nigella. They chose the spectacular Dobos Torte based on a recipe from Rick Rodgers’ cookbook Kaffeehaus: Exquisite Desserts from the Classic Caffés of Vienna, Budapest, and Prague.

The Dobos Torte is really quite stunning. Five layers of super-thin sponge cake, dark chocolate buttercream, chopped hazelnuts, and a caramel-coated layer of cake. I was so intimidated by it that I waited until the last possible minute. When T- came over, we had the baking possibilities narrowed down to cake or breakfast pastry when T- said she was willing to tackle the Dobos Torte.

We pored over size, height, shape… T- saw firsthand just how crazy and stressed (the good kind) I get about my DB challenges. Finally we decided on 6″ rounds. We made the buttercream first, and it wasn’t as tricky as I was worried it would be. The result was smooth, rich, velvety chocolate frosting. After that we tacked the cake. It definitely wasn’t as easy. We cracked the eggs and weighed out the sugar, but without experience, we couldn’t get the batter just right. After baking, the rounds of cake were really eggy and did not want to come off the pan.

But we had a great dinner that night, sitting outside and talking until the mosquitos and flying ants/beetles showed up. After tackling the massive mountain of dishes, I took one look at our cake rounds and decided I’d just have to redo it.

As I started baking late on the 25th, I told myself I’d never wait this long to complete a challenge again. It’s incredible how the 27th of each month creeps up on you. My summer felt even shorter as I looked back on the milanos of the July challenge. I recracked the eggs and weighed out the sugar again, but this time the batter seemed better. I chose to make teeny 2″ cakes and ended up with a towering stack of matchstick-thin layers.

Using the successful buttercream that T- and I made, I assembled and frosted two tiny 10 layer cakes and topped them with whole hazelnuts. In my defense I did attempt the caramel topping (twice.) Since I read that nearly every Daring Baker had not liked the caramel-cake topping, I decided to make the caramel and pour it into designs instead. The first time I burned the caramel so badly, it poured out like blackest chocolate. The second time I didn’t heat the sugar hot enough and while it was a beautiful amber color, it was too flexible and stuck to the paper. I tried!

In the end, after so much trial and error, the cakes did taste good. It reminded me of a ferrero rocher candy. As I ate it I got the impression that a Dobos Torte baked by someone who really knew what they were doing would taste amazing. Mine tasted good, but not necessarily worth the effort. I think the buttercream is something I would make again because it was so simple.  As for the caramel, it’s something I know I’ll be trying again.

The final thing I’ll be sure to try again… baking with company. It was just too fun this time to write off!

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August 27, 2009 at 12:01 am 29 comments

In the Kitchen with Dad

This morning I woke up to Tilly and Otis. They were both sitting on top of me. Otis was staring at my bedroom window, eyes locked on a fly buzzing on the glass, and Tilly was lying on my stomach and gazing intently at me. Ever since we got Tilly back, I appreciate every moment with her more than ever and she seems to appreciate it too.

Although it’s been a week since Tilly came home, Dad still gets calls from people who think they saw her. While most are mistaken, a few have been right, and we’ve been able to piece together a bit more about what happened to her that night. Once again, I’m utterly amazed by how compassionate people are. Tilly was smack in the middle of a four lane 40 mph road, at night in the rain. A woman saw her and actually parked her car at an angle across multiple lanes to block traffic. Then she jumped out of her car to get Tilly.

Tilly ran, but this woman chased her between houses and through neighborhoods before finally realizing she couldn’t grab Tilly. She walked back, sopping wet, where a police car was parked, lights flashing, and an officer was directing traffic around her car. I honestly can’t believe it! Knowing people like that exist make me feel all warm and soft inside. Warm and soft as… a fresh bagel.

By the time I got out of bed, the house was warm and smelled like flour and yeast – one of my all time favorite smells. Dad was in pajamas too. He had already made the dough and it was rising in the microwave, one of my mom’s tricks. The kitchen counter isn’t warm enough in Seattle, so she microwaves a small cup of water for 3-4 minutes. This makes the microwave warm and humid, a great place for the bread to rise.

“Bagels?” I asked, seeing the open cookbook. “Can I help?”

The first thing I helped do was punch down the dough. As some of you might know, I have no bread experience at all and get a little nervous about it. But I’ve always wanted to make bagels, and I love the feeling of the dough. It’s soft and firm and elastic all at once.

Even though I mostly bake cakes, cookies, and sweets, there’s something about baking breakfast that brings me unique happiness. It’s something about the soft natural light, streaming in through the windows, and the birds making their first rounds around the yard. It’s the warmth of the kitchen in comparison to the cool wood floors of the rest of the house… And the fact that I’m in pajamas still and there is no stress whatsoever.

I watched Dad separate the dough into 8 and then we started forming the bagels. He formed each 1/8th of the dough into a ball by cupping the bottom between his palms and squeezing together. He rotated the ball and kept cupping and pressing together, so that it formed a smooth sphere. Then he floured a finger and made a hole in it, pressing straight through. Then he worked the entire thing, using more fingers, to expand the hole and smooth the sides.

The bagels rise a bit longer, then you boil them and bake them. And wow… there’s really something about pulling a rack of perfect, golden, puffy bagels out of the oven. It makes your heart flutter a little bit. It makes you wonder why you even bother with cinnamon raisin or chocolate chip or blueberry when you can make these simple, delicious ones all by yourself.

Of course, I have yet to make them all by myself. But my Dad is a good teacher. He mostly cooks dinner, which may or may not interest me depending on my mood. He bakes a little… not as well as me :) But his eclairs are always delicious and he will always make me a birthday cake if I want one, even though it’s admittedly not his thing. But the one thing I always like to see him make is bread. Challah, parker house rolls, Italian flatbread, spinach rolls, it always fascinates me and makes me suddenly forget all about chocolate and vanilla beans.

We ate our bagels outside with the dogs, and it was perfect. I went pretty simple. I spread some slightly cold cream cheese, which softened right away on the warm bagel. Then I topped it with some homemade blackberry jam that our friend A- made for us. The bagel was chewy and soft and puffy, and the jam and cream cheese was perfectly sweet and tangy. I think I ate the whole thing in record speed.

But Dad is a bit more sophisticated. He went for cream cheese too, but added some capers. Then he grabbed a Mr. Stripey tomato that he grew himself in his own garden and sliced it into thick, juicy rounds.

I was starting to wonder whether I should have forgone the jam.

He topped the bagels with the tomato and pulled out some of his very own homemade lox. If there’s one type of fish I can’t resist, it’s salmon, and his lox is the best.

How can any day go wrong when it starts like this?

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August 22, 2009 at 2:47 pm 67 comments

Happily Ever After

Has your heart ever dropped so fast, you were too shocked and jolted to even cry?

This is Tilly. She is… indescribable. She is solid sunshine. She is warm, real comfort… friendship, beauty, and unfiltered goodness. She is the neediest, sweetest, most skittery dog I have ever met. She is family and I have loved her like family from the moment my dad brought her home, a pound puppy of unidentifiable breed, ten years ago.

I found out at work, a few hours before my lunch break. The heat wave in Seattle has been replaced by a pouring of rain, real rain – dark skies and fat drops that fall like bullets. We think something must have happened to Tilly as a puppy, something awful, because she is frightened by the strangest things… the sound of ripping paper, fireplaces, motionless soccer balls… Rain is one of her more ordinary fears. And in the torrent of rain on Wednesday night, Tilly vanished.

At first, I was so worried I could hardly keep working. But deep down, I felt certain that Tilly would come back. Dad was looking for her, and she was smart enough to know her way around the neighborhood. But the whole day passed. Dad spent hours calling her name, not even eating. He put up hundreds of posters and received two calls, both false alarms, not Tilly but unfamiliar dogs roaming the neighborhood. His calls and texts grew more and more hopeless, and as his outlook deteriorated, so did mine.

I’ve seen lost dog posters before. Everyone has. You look into the dog’s eyes a moment, read the phone number, tell yourself that you’ll keep an eye out. “Poor thing,” I always think. “His owners must be so worried.” But unless your own dog has ever gone missing, without a collar or chip or source of identification, it’s impossible to understand how worried you really can become. How guilty and pessimistic.

I imagined Tilly slinking, still frightened, in dark alleys and shady neighborhoods. I imagined her streaking through the rain between speeding grey cars, barely avoiding them. I couldn’t bear to imagine her hit by a car. I thought about Tilly injured, scared more horribly than she’d ever been in her entire life and never so alone. It was physical pain to want to hold her and I tried to remember the last time I’d hugged her, whispered to her.

Suddenly, for no reason at all, I thought about an image that I’d always wanted to photograph. After dinner, we always clear the table and mom washes the dishes, humming. Tilly stands at her side, ears perked, tail wagging like a metronome, waiting for the moment when a scrap might accidentally fall. I love the way Tilly looks at that moment and every time I think to myself, “I ought to get a photo.” But I never do. Driving back home, as I realized I might never get that photo, I started to cry for the first time.

It was late, maybe 9 PM, when I felt my phone vibrate. It was a text from my dad – “I have Tilly!!!!!” And the relief was so overwhelming that I sat down and nearly cried again because I was so happy.

When I saw Tilly again, I just wanted to hold her and never, ever let go, to make sure she was really there and really just fine. Tilly seemed to know too that she was the luckiest dog in the world, because she had been rescued by the nicest people.

We don’t know what happened to Tilly the whole night, but at one point she was seen by a family driving by in the rain. They said Tilly looked terrified (understatement) and “out of place.” Amazingly, they decided to turn around, go back, pull over and pick her up. I mean, I am a compassionate dog person, and I wouldn’t have done that for a strange dog.

Tilly was so freaked out and distrusting that she turned and ran. They chased her into an open garage, where she tried to claw through cement to escape. They scooped her up and took her home. They even gave her a bath, so that when I hugged her for the first time, she smelled good. They were planning to take her to the shelter the next day when they saw one of my dad’s posters. And just like that, it was a happily ever after, after all.

I’d wanted to make dog treats for a while. In fact, I’d thought about blogging them so I’d have an excuse to show you  my dogs Tilly and Otis. But I never did, and it might have never happened. But with Tilly in my lap, I knew today would be the end of stalling. The first thing I’d do was make some yummy dog biscuits and the second thing I’d do was bake a killer cake for the family who took care of Tilly.

And tonight, after we polished off the bread and meatballs and cucumber salad, as mom began to tackle the mountain of dirty plates by the sink, Tilly took her place by the dishwasher. And me? I took out my camera.

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August 15, 2009 at 11:08 pm 48 comments

Georgetown Chocolate Cupcakes and 7 Things

One of the nicest things I did this weekend (which included a two hour shop inside a great Seattle baking store, Julie & Julia, and take out hot wings) was go to a friend’s goodbye party. He’s leaving for D.C., where he’ll be going to Georgetown University in the fall. As much as I love to buy gifts, I decided to make him some Georgetown cupcakes. The letters, hearts, and “13″ (representing his new class of 2013) are made of fondant.

It was my first time working with fondant! It was easier than I expected and tasted a lot better than I thought it would. It was also a lot of fun and I’m starting to picture the infinite possibilities once I master it.

But before I get to that, I’d like to show off my new award, the Kreativ Blogger award. I actually received it from two different bloggers, Cookin’ Canuck and Rachelle of Mommy? I’m Hungry! Thanks to both of you and sorry for not getting around to it sooner.

I’m supposed to give the award to 7 other bloggers, so here we go:

1. Marta of Just Call Me Marta
2. Erin of Erin Cooks
3. Valerie of The Chocolate Bunny
4. Alana of The Good Girl Gone Blog
5. Jesse of Fig Noir
6. Wendy of My Buttery Fingers
7. Marian of Sweetopia

I’m also supposed to tell 7 interesting things about myself.

1. I don’t subscribe to any blogs. I read about 60 different blogs, but I don’t subscribe to any feeds. I can’t quite say why. Firstly, there’s a lot of blogs and I don’t have a lot of time. But also, it would become an obligation. I like to think that I’m reading your blog because I remembered it and want to see what’s new, not because you’ve updated. So I do end up reading every post at one time or another, but this is why I might not comment right away!

2. I love to volunteer. I’ve done a lot of volunteering since I began high school, and I continue to do it because I like it, not just for the hours. I’ve volunteered long term at a therapeutic center, a children’s museum, and a cancer support organization, where I help teach a pre-teen cooking class once a month.

3. I’m half Asian. My mom is Chinese and my dad is a couple European mixes. I think I’ve gotten the best of both worlds: really good Chinese food, holidays, teachings, and at the same time, American cooking and culture.

4. I think I want to be a journalist. I’m still undecided about my future career, although it won’t be one in baking. I really love to write, photograph, and talk to different people. I also love to travel, and at least move around. I don’t think I could stand being in an office all day. Finally, I’d love to believe that whatever my career is, it’ll be something that can really make a difference for people who need help. So journalism is a career I’m considering.

5. 17 and Baking wasn’t the original name. This blog has actually gone through a ton of changes. The first name was The Rosy Chef, which I changed because it really makes no sense. I’m not a chef, I’m a baker, and I have no idea where the rosy part came from. After that, I was Floured Apron for a while until I realized another blog with that name exists. For a short while, I was All Roads Lead to Cake. But it wasn’t until I decided on 17 and Baking that I was satisfied. As far as I’m concerned it’s the perfect name for me, and I plan on keeping it even after I turn 18 and beyond.

6. I am a huge, huge fan of the TV show Lost. Everyone who knows me knows how utterly obsessed I am. Both of my parents watch it too, and we love talking about theories and mysteries. I’ve got every season on DVD  and recommend the show to everyone! The coming season is the last one, which makes me feel very bittersweet. :(

7. 17 and Baking is actually a year old. Sort of. I started this blog way back in August 08, under a different name. After only a few posts, though, I figured no one would ever read me and I just stopped. I don’t know why, but for some reason in March 09 I decided to start blogging again, and I haven’t stopped since (I’m so glad I didn’t quit for good.) Since I wasn’t serious the first time, I’m going to consider March 19th to be my 1 year anniversary, not August 20th.

I have mixed feelings about fondant. On the one hand, it’s beautiful. It really makes cakes look flawless and professional, and it allows so much creativity and possibility. But on the other hand, it doesn’t taste good. And somehow that defeats the purpose for me. Isn’t the whole point of baking to make something delicious? And fondant is just there for the appearance… I don’t like the idea that it has to be admired, but then peeled off before the cake is enjoyable.

Consider the show Ace of Cakes. I respect their talent and creativity, but have you noticed none of their clients ever talk about taste? They ooh and ahh over how fantastic the cake looks, and then the show abruptly ends.

Well, despite all that, I felt fondant was a skill I should learn. Working with the fondant was a lot like working with play doh. Really sweet, soft, beautifully colored play doh. I used cookie cutters for the letters, numbers, and hearts, and the whole thing was reasonably easy. Next time I’ll probably roll the fondant out thinner. But anyway, I was left with a few small balls of fondant and I decided to play around.

Yup, I played with my food!

As for the cupcakes themselves, they were the quintessential American chocolate cake. Moist, soft, and not overwhelmingly rich. The frosting was very chocolate-y and thick, and complemented the lightness of the cake perfectly! Both were definitely keepers, and so easy they might be my new go-to chocolate cupcakes.

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August 11, 2009 at 10:43 am 41 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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