Posts filed under ‘Cake/Cupcakes’
August makes me think of peach skin against my lips, of yellowing grass, and inevitably of the coming school year.
I remember exactly where I was last August – the kitchen. There were only a few weeks before I moved to Boston for college, and I went into a baking frenzy. In the mornings, I preheated the oven before I brushed my teeth, and I photographed enough desserts to keep the blog alive across the country.
This summer, though, I haven’t spent much time baking. I don’t leaf through cookbooks when I’m bored or brainstorm flavor combinations in the car. I’ve lost something I can’t place. Whenever I think about it, unease seeps through me like melting ice. I don’t know why I’ve fallen into a baking rut or how to fix it.
A year ago, I remember standing with my dad in the kitchen. I’d spent the week baking, and I handed him fork after fork of desserts to sample. He’d just tried the Oat, Pear, and Raspberry Loaf when he said, “You’re really going to do this. Keep the blog going.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant. I hadn’t even considered ending the blog, giving up on the baking, moving on with life as I moved into college. “Yeah.”
He shrugged a little and said, “You never know. After a while, you might not want to be 17 and Baking anymore. You might lose interest.”
“Never going to happen.” I wrapped up the loaf, started on the dishes, and the conversation faded from memory.
Now I can’t get it out of my mind.
I didn’t spend as much time with my parents this summer as I expected, or as I would have liked. I think the ritual of family dinners would have helped me rediscover that “feeling.” I think tossing ideas back and forth with my dad would have inspired me. Now, it’s too late. Here I am a year later, nine days from my flight, with almost nothing saved up.
This semester I’m going to Europe, where baking opportunities will be even scarcer than they were in Boston. I’m so afraid. I didn’t realize it until I typed the words a moment ago, and now it’s more real than ever. I’m afraid of wasting the opportunities I’ve been given. I’m scared of failing. I’m scared that I have burnt out, and that I can’t recover.
But I am more than my insecurities. I know that when I put my mind to something, I can make it happen. I have the strength to pull through baking ruts, to breathe life into my writing, and to conquer fear. I’m afraid, but I’m also more passionate and determined than ever.
D- is a new friend, but already a good one, and his first visit to Seattle is wrapping up in a few days. I wanted to make something really special to celebrate his 19th birthday and last night in the Emerald City.
This week I rediscovered the process of finding The One. You know, The Recipe that is everything Your Friend would want, their sweet tooth soulmate. I remembered that his favorite cake is red velvet, but his favorite dessert is cheesecake. I immediately wanted to combine them. I’d seen red velvets split by cheesecake on several other sites, but that didn’t make it less special.
The excitement mounted as I bought ingredients at the store, while I creamed butter, when I scattered sprinkles across the frosting. But everything became clear when I eased the first slice onto a plate and passed it to D-, drank in his expression of surprise and joy.
The thrill! It lit me up like a sparkler – burning slowly, but unbelievably brightly. I almost forgot that feeling, but now, all I want to do is relive it. I’m an addict.
The cream cheese frosting is thick, tangy, and sweet, just like I like it. The cheesecake is dense and creamy. But the star is the red velvet. Heartbreakingly red, soft as satin, fine-crumbed and fluffy… As I watched him scrape the fork across the plate, I couldn’t wait to come home and share the recipe with you.
I never lost the passion. I just had to stop taking it for granted.
I’ll probably be on the east coast when the next post is up – thanks for staying with me. See you on the other side.
[Too hot to bake? Check out my Chocolate Raspberry Icebox Cake in the Boston Globe! It's a heat free, ridiculously easy recipe that comes together in half an hour.]
Ten days in LA weren’t enough.
As the plane lifted, I caught my last looks at California through the gauzy clouds. I was already thinking about the restaurants I couldn’t try, the neighborhoods I hadn’t seen, and the gems I didn’t discover. The state was simply too big to experience in a mere week and a half. When we’d parted, my friend and host C- said, “But you’ll get to see Seattle!” I rolled my eyes and told him, “I live in Seattle.”
During this summer, I’ve lived up north by the bluest water in Maine. In Atlanta, I embraced the heat in sundresses, the warm air dampening my skin in minutes. And in California, I rummaged through antique cast iron skillets and pearl rings at farmer’s markets and artisan festivals. I’ve visited more places in the past year than ever before. But the few days I spent at home? I sat around, spinning the dusty globe in our office.
By the time I unpacked my suitcase and fell onto my bed, I’d decided to make things different. I needed to change my perspective. What would I do if I only had ten days in Seattle?
We live slightly outside the big city, enough distance that it can feel foreign or familiar depending on my mood. I tackled Seattle with a fearlessness I’d never shown.
Downtown, I drove in circles trying to find parking before giving up and walking a good distance to reach any kind of store. I explored the U District alone, the little boutiques and second hand shops. I ducked into the independent theaters, painted seafoam green and dusty pink, outlined in bulbous lights, signs cracked with age… Somehow, the same movies come alive in a new way inside a theater with character.
My favorite sweets come from Seattle. In Boston I craved bullseye donuts from Top Pot, sticky with sugar glaze and raspberry jam, and Molly Moon’s Theo chocolate ice cream, so thick it’ll snap your spoon. I’m realizing just how much is still undiscovered. Last week I walked into a Middle Eastern restaurant the size of a closet and ordered something I couldn’t pronounce. I still don’t know what it was, but it was tangy and spiced, followed by a slice of cake drenched in honey.
If I approach summer in Seattle as an extended trip, the potential is incredible.
When I exit I-90 after an afternoon in the city, I’m filled with a strange appreciation for home. I pass my favorite old school diner, the one with the dumpy sign and the bad coffee. I like to drive slowly around the gentle, winding curves of my neighborhood.
Inevitably my eyes are drawn up to the unbelievable trees. Until I spent time out of Washington, I never knew how special our evergreens are. They tower, so tall and old, so richly green you can smell the color. In other cities the trees feel planted for decoration – but here, the houses have been nestled where the trees allow space. And when the sun is at the right angle, the light filters through in hazy planks, and suddenly my life is breathtaking.
My house is green, from the soft moss carpeting our cement patio (Mom hates this, I sort of like it) to the homegrown lettuce patch beyond my bedroom window. Our family doesn’t have the greenest thumb, but plants line our living room window, stems bowing towards the glass. My favorite of the bunch is the fragrant pot of basil.
Basil is my favorite herb. I like it sautéd with pasta, baked onto pizza, layered in sandwiches and churned into ice cream. With bunches of fresh basil at my fingertips, it’s hard to resist experimentation. When it results in something as lovely as basil olive oil, can you blame me?
We had a bag of bright lemons, so olive oil cake was necessary. I love the way this cake gently rises and falls, the way the sugar-sprinkled crust cracks, the way it perfumes the mouth. Each bite tastes like sunlight and comfort and dare I say it… green.
[Unsure about the 4th? Why not tackle my 4th of July Flag Cake? People have been making it ever since its creation 2 years ago. It's deceptively simple and always impressive. Check out the post for instructions, plus a video of me making it. Have a great weekend!]
Even as a little kid, I liked flying home. Not the chaos of the security checks, the trip itself, or even the weary drive back to our house. But I love that first step outside SeaTac Airport. When I exit the airport after hours of flight and days of vacation – I breathe in the Pacific Northwest air as slowly and deliberately as I can. No matter where I’ve been or how much I enjoyed myself, that first breath always tastes like the freshest, cleanest air I’ve ever known.
My flight back from Boston was forgettable. I took a taxi from my school at 5 am, spent a two hour layover in Chicago, and finally made it to Seattle after 12 hours. As tired as I was, I anticipated the step outside. I usually get this incredible emotion, a mix of contentment and familiarity, a rush of glassy lakes and painted mountains. I dragged my suitcase outside with me, looked out at the flat grey sky, and inhaled.
Instead, there was something else – a strange feeling I couldn’t place. It sat in my chest, somewhat uncomfortably, even as the Toyota pulled up and I saw my mother for the first time since summer.
When we came home, the first thing I did was walk to the kitchen. I expected fireworks to burst in my heart, rainbows to pump through my veins and surge out my fingertips when we reunited. Nothing had changed in my absence. The walls were the same marigold yellow, the same checkerboard tile covered the floor, but somehow it wasn’t the kitchen I’d remembered and missed. It looked cramped and dim, hardly big enough for three people and two dogs.
I wheeled my bag into my old room, pulled out my Boston sweatshirt, and fell asleep without unpacking.
Over the next few days, I saw Grandma and my parents, which made me feel like daybreak inside. Almost at once I caught up with old friends, a both strange and easy experience. But during the afternoon, with no classes or job to distract me, I got bored. If I wasn’t asleep, I suffered from bad headaches all day. And that uncomfortable feeling lodged in my chest hadn’t vanished.
By now, I’ve figured out what the feeling is… homesickness. I know it’s ridiculous to feel homesick for school when I’m home. I also see how pointless it is to wallow in sadness, pining for Boston, while I have three weeks left in this beautiful place. If I don’t appreciate the rain, family, and happiness I can only find in Seattle, I’ll regret it a month later when I’m gone.
The solution for the headaches didn’t come in Tylenol. It’s a healthy combination of Mom’s noodle soup, Dad’s sweater hugs, damp dog paws all over my bed and the tug of a camera strap. It’s a sifting of flour on my apron and cinnamon dust on my palms. It’s not exactly a bitter pill to swallow.
One of the best things about being home is the food. Predictable, but it isn’t even the food as much as the ingredients. There are the luxury items I haven’t bought in college – all natural creamy peanut butter, the kind you have to stir up before spreading. Soft handmade tortillas, brown rice, even almonds! It’s a joyful thing to appreciate a quick handful of almonds before dinner. And produce! Even in winter, at home I’m eating crisp spinach and sweet Asian pears.
The school menu never changes, and most of the fruit comes out of a can, soaked in sugary syrup. At home, every flavor is amplified. The grapefruit I sliced with my first breakfast back was so clean and fresh, the sharpest thing I’d tasted in ages. After I devoured it, I thought about citrus the rest of the day. I’ve been drinking grapefruits the way parched survivors reach for water.
Reacquainting myself with our kitchen is like slipping into a familiar song. Every measuring cup is where I know it’ll be. Pans still clink and clatter in our cupboard, and that old bag of shredded coconut still has some life in it. The microplane zester, still my favorite tool in the room, is just as sharp as ever. The result? Coconut-Grapefruit Cupcakes with Matcha Frosting.
Even baked into a cupcake, the grapefruit manages to refresh. It’s light and zingy, pairing beautifully with the sweetness of coconut. And the frosting? I wanted something mellow and subtle, and the green tea powder I bought from Pike Place Market over the summer was just the right touch.
When I opened that oven door, the warm air that surged up was so fragrant and sweet. I was caught off guard by how hot it was, and how good it felt against the oven mitt. Later, in bed, I rolled over and pressed my nose into my hair – it smelled like sugar. It was one of the best smells I’d almost forgotten.
I think I’ll bake again tomorrow.
[It's good to be back. See you in 2011!]
I’m sitting in the dining hall, eating breakfast in the same black collared button-up and black slacks that I wore to work yesterday. Last night, long after midnight, after I finally staggered out of the elevator and fumbled with the key to my door, I was too tired to change out of my server’s clothes before I crashed into bed. This morning, up bright and early, I was too tired to change into anything else.
I’ve had a little experience in the restaurant industry, but working front of the house is an entirely different animal. It’s exhausting. I remember orientation, trying to remember how all the buttons on the computer worked and the numbering of the tables. They gave me two weeks of shadowing to get used to the lay of the land, and I couldn’t like the people I work with more.
My first non-training day was earlier this week. For the first time, I’d have my own section. “Elissa” would be printed on top of all of my receipts. And I’d take home any tips I made. I tied my apron straps into a bow and stepped through the kitchen doors onto the floor.
The first thing I noticed was that my shoes weren’t broken in yet. It takes a little adjustment to get used to being on your feet a whole shift. As a server, you don’t have much time to sit around and lounge. If you aren’t running plates, bussing tables or putting in orders, there is always side work to do – scoop ice into the water pitchers, refill the coffee thermos, work the bakery, restock napkins. You learn not to sit down. And on that first day, I felt it in my soles.
I needed to keep everything in place. This is a skill that doesn’t come naturally to me, the ability to juggle five tables which all expect you to make them your first priority. I began to forget which table came in first, who ordered what, whether Table 5 wanted the decaf refill or the check. As the rush set in and my tables filled up, my mind became more and more jumbled, until everything was one overwhelming noise that never quieted.
You get used to smiling. Even though your shoes are slowly killing you. Even though you messed up 12’s order and you know they aren’t happy, even though the kids at 8 will ask a million questions and probably order nothing but hot chocolate. As a server, you need to be upbeat. You can’t let a bad afternoon show in your face, because it’s not about you – it’s about making every guest feel welcome and at ease, and when it really comes down to it, that’s so much more important than a tip.
I did the best I could my first day, and it wasn’t perfect. Or even close. I sent one table a free crème brûlée because I’d made a mistake with their order, and they’d waited patiently forever. At another table, the couple ordered a full out meal – drinks, soup, salad, dinner, and dessert – ringing up an enormous bill and leaving me with a tip of zero dollars, zero cents. A four-top of teenaged boys left me under 10%.
I pushed through the swinging door with a plate of dirty glasses to bus. At the dish pit, with three servers all working around each other, somebody stumbled, and a stream of dirty dishwater splashed through my collared shirt and down my leg, pressing the cloth against my skin in a cool drench. I didn’t have a change of clothes, or the time anyway. I walked back onto the floor to bring in another tray, and on the way to the kitchen, my wrist gave out and I dropped a towering stack of plates.
Every fork stilled, every face turned, and even though the background music continued to play, for a moment the restaurant stopped. I didn’t know the room could go silent.
It was rough. Nearing the end of the night I was so frustrated; I was trying with everything I had but I couldn’t make excuses. On top of everything, I would leave almost empty handed, with little more than a few callouses. I couldn’t bring myself to think about the homework I had left.
Closing drew near. The restaurant slowed to a trickle and we tackled the side work and remaining tables. One of my bosses, C-, called me over to the bar. I didn’t know what else could have gone wrong.
I almost couldn’t handle it. An ice cream sundae, filled to burst and topped with a ridiculous amount of brightly-lit rainbow candles.
“Blow out the bad juju,” she said. I blew out the candles.
In the back room, I dipped a spoon into the ice cream sundae and almost wanted to cry. The pastry chef, M-, had made it exactly the way I liked – with scoops of vanilla, coffee, and chocolate ice cream, chocolate and caramel sauce, almonds, brownie bits, a beehive swirl of whipped cream and a clown red cherry. I could only eat a couple bites before I had to go back to work, but nothing could have tasted better.
I tried to thank M- as I walked by, but nothing came out. She had a ridiculous smile on her face. And I pulled myself up and finished out my tables with a smile, and walked home with a pocketful of blown-out candles.
Next week, those callouses will have made me stronger. My shoes will feel a little softer. But until then, I’ll throw myself into my essay and wrap up my radio package, trying unsuccessfully to get my mind off of chocolate and ice cream.
[PS I'm falling behind, I know, but I'm doing my best. It's a struggle to find time to eat and sleep, but blogging is like breathing, and I'll continue to work it in whenever I have a minute.]