Posts filed under ‘Cake/Cupcakes’
There are some things in life I’ve learned I just can’t resist.
Crisp, chewy, savory bacon (and I say this after not one, but several attempts to go vegetarian.) My dog, Tilly, when she’s sad: her eyes are big and brown as chocolate covered cherries, rimmed with black like kohl eyeliner, with eyelashes that make me jealous. Filtered kitchen sunlight at 11 AM. Cinnamon rolls – fresh from the oven, speckled with fragrant spices and swirled with cream cheese glaze, melting into the swirl… how can you pass one up?
And farmer’s markets. There’s something about those white tents that makes me want to spend all day beneath them. There’s serenity in the rich displays of fruits and vegetables, handmade bracelets and jewel-like jars of amber honey.
My favorite farmer’s market – my favorite place in Seattle, even – is the famous Pike Place Market. I wrote an essay about it as my favorite place when I was in 2nd grade. I’d never seen anything so eclectic and teeming with creativity and fragrant with spices and flowers and fruit. Between the bundles of rainbow chard and displays of stained glass kaleidoscopes, I honestly thought the place was magic.
I loved the spice shop, stacked from floor to ceiling with glass jars of every tea, coffee, and spice you could think of. I’d carefully pull down a heavy jar with two hands, lift the lid with a little clink. Then I’d inhale the fragrant air blooming above it, utterly at peace.
And the gorgeous jelly and jam stand, which set out popsicle sticks to taste test all of their varieties. Among my favorites were blackberry lavender, raspberry chipotle, and rose – flavors which seemed to me so exotic and breathtaking, flowers blossoming on my tongue.
And the fish vendors around the market. Many people have heard about the famous stall that throws your order across the shop, but my dad and I prefer a smaller, quieter seafood vendor tucked near the heart of the market. I loved the brilliant rainbow sheen of fish scales, the long, fleshy tongues of geoduck clams, and especially the oily, smoky, irresistible smoked salmon samples I could never turn down.
Despite all the years, not much has changed, and Pike Place Market is still woven with an intangible magic. One morning, I had some thank you gifts I needed to deliver around Seattle. Dad and I left the house early, so we stopped at the market to kill some time. For one of the first times, we quickly found parking on the cobblestone street between tents. We drank coffee and people-watched, then we strolled between stalls.
The market was quieter than I’d ever seen it, still sleepy in the new day light. I could see shopkeepers and artisans arranging their products, setting up their stands, chatting easily with their neighbors. Street musicians warmed up and stretched, a vendor sipped tea as she arranged a bouquet of lilies just so.
“I really like this,” I breathed to my father, nearly whispering so I wouldn’t break the magic.
“What about it?”
“It’s more than the produce and the products. They’re all people.”
It’s yet another aspect of the market that I adore. It’s easy to strike up conversation with the woman who grew the tomato you’re sampling. I know exactly where these flowers once breathed, where they were picked and pressed, how far they traveled to get here. One man tells me about his technique and his tools as I try on the silver rose ring he forged with his fingertips.
Somehow I always end up striking conversation with the farmers and stall vendors, discussing everything from this season’s plums to journalism in Boston to 17 and Baking. It’s truly what makes the place special – the human connection there. It’s really the one thing I can’t resist.
Well… that, and samples. How can anyone stand in the midst of such rosy apples, beautifully crooked carrots, clusters of champagne grapes and not accept an offer to taste? My dad was amused at all the stops I made to try everything available, even the things that weren’t ready. We both sampled sunset-hued Rainier cherries before we returned to the car.
“What do you think?” I asked.
“Oh, it’s a little too early in cherry season. They aren’t quite ready yet,” Dad answered.
“That’s what cherry cornmeal upside down cake is for.”
The cherries are simmered in butter, brown sugar, and balsamic vinegar. The simple, thick cornmeal cake batter is spread right over them in the skillet and baked until golden brown. Flavorful, moist and coarse-crumbed, topped with glistening dark cherries like a jewelry box. Perhaps early cherries aren’t so bad.
Where to begin the story of this chocolate-mint ice cream cake? Sure, it technically begins with a cool carton of cream and a stack of cracked egg shells. But I think it really starts two years ago, when my mother decided she wanted to remodel our backyard.
Our yard is L shaped, wrapping around our house. One of the strips is nice, just cool green grass and evergreen trees. But the other strip of yard, the one visible from the kitchen window and the dining room, was once utterly unimpressive. It was brimming with uneven grass, moss that squished under each footstep, and unappealing patches of yellow. My mother began sketching out designs, writing down ideas, until she’d come up with an ambitious blueprint.
She wanted to remove all the grass in that section and fertilize it. Then she wanted to transform it into something stunning, a rainbow of growing, breathing plants. Lime-green creeping bugleweed, black stemmed rhododendrons, pink-throated lilies, pure white bleeding hearts in the shade… And a natural stone path weaving through it all. Maybe a birdbath in the corner.
I thought it was wishful thinking, but my dad told her, “Let’s do it.”
We did it all ourselves that summer, and it was more work than any of us expected it to be. I imagined the process of removing grass to be a very simple, straightforward one. I didn’t realize that we’d have to lift up the sod, like heavy strips of carpet. We sifted through all of the rocks and roots by hand, which is every bit as laborious as it sounds, and turned the soil with fertilizer.
Forming the stone path felt like the bane of my existence. It needed to be nine inches deep, three feet wide, curving like a snake from one end of the yard to the other. After that, we had to smooth it out, fill it with gravel (wheelbarrowful by wheelbarrowful) and then with dirt (shovelful by shovelful.) By the time we began to fit in the rocks, I had complained enough for the whole summer.
We went to the nursery every week and drove home with a lush jungle spilling out of the car trunk; I’d sit in the back seat with silvery leaves and purple flowers brushing my cheek. We planted hummingbird-friendly flowers near the kitchen window and spindly ferns in the shade. We carried in an old stone bird bath. We even dug out a fire pit at the end of the path and built it with leftover slabs of stone.
We’d turned our backyard into something so much more than an offhand glance out the window.
The next spring, despite an unusually freezing winter, my mother’s garden grew back like some kind of miracle. It’s even fuller, even greener, and there’s a palpable buzz, a pulse. It’s bursting with life. I remember the thrill of our first hummingbird, hovering in the air like a jewel. The first time we saw a blue jay sipping cautiously from the birdbath. The first baby green leaf in a vine we though had been choked by the cold.
We have already gotten so much from our yard, it’s easy to forget how much work went into it. We cuddle up in lawn chairs around the fire pit, setting pumpkin spice marshmallows on fire and running out for hot dogs. We look up between sips of coffee at breakfast to see the flowers shaking off dew and waking up with us. Oh, and the herb garden…
It might be my favorite spot in the whole yard now. I squat down and just rub my fingers over everything: pebbly sage leaves, then the gold-edged leaves of lemon thyme, then the thick, soft stalks of rosemary. The fragrance of fresh herbs is so comforting. It smells like handwritten recipes and golden midafternoon sunlight and “Let’s eat on the patio tonight.”
And ever since the chocolate-mint plant has taken root, it has clung to life vivaciously. It’s spread faster than any of our other herbs, growing rounder and rounder, so that we’re forced to pick leaves and pull roots to keep it in check. It’s no surprise that ever since last summer, I’ve wanted to make mint ice cream.
I finally got the chance a couple weeks ago. One of my best friends, M-, has a thing for chocolate mint ice cream cake. What kind of friend would I be if I didn’t make one for his 18th birthday, using the freshest, sun-kissed mint I could find?
I brought it to school and we devoured it in the cafeteria. I stole a slice and a plate from the teacher’s lounge and took these photos in the courtyard. When I came back, only half of the cake was left, and by the end of the day the only evidence that it had ever existed was my camera full of photos and the lingering grin on M-’s face.
[PS: My camera is finally fixed! I got it in the mail today and went a little crazy. It's been three weeks and I've missed it like a picked peach misses the sunshine. And I finally hit 1,000 fans on Facebook, thank you all!
PPS: Dad, I know I didn't get your permission to publish a photo with you in it, but mom said it was okay.]
Last week, I spent more time in the airport than in school. I was visiting colleges I’d been accepted to, hoping to find the one that spoke to me. I only applied to schools in the east coast, so there was a lot of flying in store.
My dad went with me. We took eight flights in total, and unfortunately, we weren’t lucky when it came to the Russian roulette of flight-booking. Nearly all of our flights were red-eye. I was in the middle seat almost every time, and not always next to my dad. I sat next to a baby – twice. And none of the flights came with food, though that might have been a good thing.
But for me, the worst part about it was the boredom. The amusement of my iPod faded quickly, especially without internet access: no Facebook, no Twitter, no email or WordPress for six hours. I wasn’t able to make calls or send texts. Without my phone, my iPod, and my camera, I didn’t know what to do.
I remember my impatience on our last flight home. The plane half landed, bouncing gently up and down and still moving fast enough to make my head spin. I had my phone turned on before the plane had come to a slow roll, before our pilot could say “Welcome to Seattle” and remind us to keep our seatbelts on. I texted my best girlfriend E- (and also checked to see if airport wifi went out this far. It didn’t.)
E- wasn’t texting back quickly enough, so I impatiently slapped the cell phone screen a few times. I glanced up to see the man in the aisle seat staring at me. We both laughed a little and I told him, “Sometimes she texts like she’s only got one hand.” He didn’t get it, so I added, “Super slowly.”
His expression told me that he was seeing something completely foreign, and I felt embarrassed. I pushed my cell phone into my pocket and worked on lifting out my bags. I didn’t check my phone again until my dad and I were reunited and standing outside, waiting for the car to pick us up.
I think it’s safe to say that people my age truly compose the generation of instant gratification. We say we just like to feel connected and make our voices heard, but that isn’t entirely true. We like the power of feeling up to speed, of knowing everything as it happens. When we decide we want something, we can’t get it out of our heads. We want it now, and if we have to wait, our moods sour.
I’m guilty of it. When the bus runs a few minutes off schedule, I turn up my iPod and pout a little, already impatient at my wasted time. When the mood suddenly strikes to watch a certain movie, I immediately drive out to the local Blockbuster, unable to wait for tomorrow. I hate lines, traffic, and even the amount of time it takes for a soda to fall out of the vending machine.
E-, the friend who I texted after my flight, approached me before class a month or two ago. She handed me a slice of buttermilk pound cake in a Tupperware container. It was as simple as pound cake gets, no frills or distractions – no hints of lavender, no chocolate marble swirl, no vanilla bean glaze or berry puree. Not even a dusting of powdered sugar. As the bell rang and we all found our seats, I tried a little piece.
I shouldn’t have been fooled by its humble appearances. This cake was something extraordinary.
E- told me the secret ingredient was time. She’d discovered that if she waited a day or two before cutting into it, everything about this pound cake improved – the flavor, the texture of the crumb, its dynamics. The slightly sugary crust that formed along the edges, giving it a bit of a crunch? The sweet, gentle tang of buttermilk? All side effects of her patience.
I got the recipe, determined to bake the thing and let it sit. But the trouble started even before the oven preheated. I love the taste of batter, and this batter tasted amazing. After two little dips into it I told myself I had to stop or there wouldn’t be any cake to age. I showed some uncharacteristic restraint and slid the pan into the oven.
An hour later, the house smelled incredible. Like sugar and butter and cream and home. When I opened the oven door, the kitchen filled up with warm, fragrant air. I turned the cake out onto a rack and breathed in the sugary steam rising up from it. I really, really wanted to try it. I thought about taking a little crumb from the bottom where nobody was sure to miss it. But I let the cake cool and then packed it up so I wouldn’t be tempted.
I didn’t think I could do it, but two days later, I cut the first piece of pound cake. I could feel how richly dense it was as the knife sank through. I broke off a piece the way I had a couple months ago. Completely and utterly worth waiting for.
17 and Baking turns one year old today.
Can you believe it? I’ve been thinking about 17 and Baking and my passion for food and everything I’ve learned in one year, and I’ll be honest. It’s ridiculous. I never believed for an instant this blog would go anywhere. In fact, I even want to link you all to the first real post I wrote exactly one year ago, where I lament my lack of talent, following, photography skills, and experience. Honestly. It sounds like me, but… it really makes me consider what can happen in one year.
But today, I wanted to do something special. If I really think about it, all of this doesn’t start with that morning in early spring when I decided I wanted to blog about food. Really, it started when I baked my very first cake from scratch at fourteen. For today, I knew I wanted to make that exact cake again – a real full circle.
I remember buying my first cookbook from Costco, somewhat ludicrously, since I’d never had any interest in baking before. I just liked the pretty pictures. And I remember nearly a month later, suddenly being seized in the middle of the night with a desire to do something. I didn’t know it at the time because it was so very new, but it’s a feeling I’m very familiar with now – it’s the urgency to be in my little yellow kitchen with a whisk in one hand and a spoonful of sugar in the other.
I dug up the untouched cookbook and scanned the pages with an inexplicable hunger, bookmarking everything that looked good – German Chocolate Cake, light-as-air Raspberry Dream Cake, kid-friendly Peppermint Chocolate Cake. I threw open cabinets, trying to centralize all of the random baking supplies in the house. We only had a few pans, and not many baking tools. As it turned out, the only recipe I had all the ingredients for was a rather unglamorous iced sponge cake.
I decided to make it anyway. I remember very clearly trying to measure out the flour, awkward and clumsy and fumbling until I had a soft dusting of flour all over my front. I didn’t know what it meant to cream butter, so I stopped the mixer (not the KitchenAid, but a cheap plastic one) once the butter had sort of formed chunks. I didn’t have much confidence for success when I slid the pan into the oven, but I couldn’t help but feel a satisfying accomplishment either way.
All in all, it was undoubtedly a failure. The cake was supposed to be light and delicate, but it was significantly heavy. The frosting was a total flop, tasting like egg whites. But when I cut that first slice and looked back at the photo in the book, my smile was uncontainable. When I took that first bite, the small triangular tip of that perfect slice, I knew in my heart that it had truly been a complete success.
I’ve never thought of myself as a particularly skilled baker, not now or then. I’m just a girl who happens to love all things sweet and homemade. Even more than that, I’m just a girl who wants to share her zest for life and make you forget your troubles, even if only for five minutes. Through 9th and 10th grade, I had just as many baking failures as successes, forced to learn as I went. So many times I was discouraged, screaming tantrums at my sunken cupcakes, and I might have given up if it weren’t for the unbelievable gratification of sharing.
I’ll be 18 next month, and no matter how much things have changed since then, that satisfaction from handing out cookies or watching my parents clear their plates is what propels my passion. I can’t help but want to lift weary spirits on a bad day with a lemon bar or light up a neighbor’s face with a slice of pear tart. Isn’t that the whole sense of the blog too, to share a dozen cookies with even more than 12 people? Maybe even with hundreds of people around the world? If I can inspire at least one of those people one morning, then everything is worth it.
So here we are today, everything is different and somehow nothing is different. It’s been one year since I began 17 and Baking, but it’s been four years since I baked that first cake, unquestionably beautiful in my eyes. I decided I would dig up that old cookbook for the second time, now a senior in high school and so much surer than I was back then, and bake that cake again.
The recipe came together very quickly and very easily, letting me focus more on my nostalgia than on my product. The finished cake smelled delicious, like vanilla and sugar and flour, and I just put my face next to it and inhaled while it cooled. I patiently waited until I could try the first slice. Just like before, I carefully broke off that first perfect bite.
I can’t kid anyone. It wasn’t a very good cookbook, it wasn’t a very good recipe, and frankly, the cake was disgusting. The flavor was strange, the texture was off, and I couldn’t eat more than that one bite.
I wasn’t completely surprised, but definitely disappointed. Somehow, baking the cake that started it all seemed like the perfect way to celebrate my first blogoversary. Finally, I decided I would bake another cake, similar to the first, but something actually in line with my taste today. I whipped up a simple hazelnut and mixed berry cake, and when it came out of the oven I knew I’d made the right choice.
Unfortunately, some things seem destined to stay unchanged, and I tried to turn out the cake before it was done. While it was delicious, I was left with a pile of crumbled cake, certainly nothing presentable on the blog. I wondered if it would maybe be funny to blog a failure – but on my one year anniversary?
I started laughing as I considered the fact that four years later, I was still screwing up. But I couldn’t be in a bad mood. In a way, this seemed like a better representation of 17 and Baking than anything else: the ability to laugh at your mistakes, learn from them, and persevere. I didn’t have any more hazelnuts or berries, so I shrugged and started again with almonds and lemon. I’d learned from my previous mistakes and the cake came out beautifully. I made a quick mascarpone frosting (no recipe!) and spread it over the cooled cake just like I did before. And that first bite?
Thank you guys… all of you for being here to celebrate with me. :)