Posts filed under ‘Cake/Cupcakes’
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. :)
When I was younger and the family went shopping, I always drifted over to the best part of the grocery store – the bakery. Nothing was more attractive than the brightly decorated sugar cookies, the two-bite little brownies, and the cupcakes topped with a swirly heap of rainbow frosting. I would slowly walk around the tables, lusting over all the baked goods set out, and then I would stand in front of the glass-shielded cake display and simply stare.
I truly thought nothing in the world was more attractive. There was a magic in the perfectly round chocolate chip cookies and trays of brownies with fudge frosting. I could almost taste the light and creamy frosting on the chocolate cake, the soft dusting of powdered sugar on the donuts, the buttery crumble of their cinnamon scones. But on the few occasions where I bought something, I was almost always disappointed.
Looking back, it’s hard to see the same appeal. I simply don’t have much interest in store bought baked treats anymore.
These days I still wander over to the bakery section – I just can’t help myself. But instead of examining the products with an appreciative eye and a rumbling stomach, I want to be inspired. As I observe the cake counter, I can’t help but visualize which piping tips the decorator used. I find that four words inevitably flicker across my mind like an unexpected gale: “I could do that.”
Since I’ve begun to bake, my tastes have really changed. I was a child who would have preferred a pristine sugar cube to a cup of coffee, and a peppermint patty over a good bagel. Today, raw sugar doesn’t conquer all (whew!) and I now hold homemade treats over store-bought desserts. I think you can taste the love in a homemade buttercream and the tradition and passion in a homemade crust.
I no longer want to spend savings on baked goods that are likely to disappoint, especially when I could make them at home for a fraction of the cost. And though I rarely find myself longing for a name brand dessert, once in a while I am swayed by the urge to make something… undeniably sugary and comforting.
Enter these Caffeine-Spiked Mini Hostess Cupcakes. Chocolate-coffee cupcakes filled with a simple espresso frosting and topped with a bittersweet ganache. Made with ground coffee and instant espresso powder, they really do contain caffeine (I learned the hard way by eating a few before bed and not sleeping for a long time.)
First, I have to make a confession. No matter how young and how sugar-craved I was, I have never tried a hostess cupcake (or had any desire to.) But I know the hostess cupcake sits on a beloved pedestal in the American palate, and I thought a homemade version would be delicious.
I am currently in a baking frenzy where I am playing catch-up. During the months when I worked on applications, I had to miss five birthdays. Now that I have free time, I’m slowly baking my way through them, and I’m also baking to thank the teachers, counselors, and adults who helped me during the college process. These cupcakes are for my physics teacher, who wrote me a letter of recommendation and likes all things coffee.
When it comes to subjects that interest me, like writing and photography, I have a strong sense of perseverance. If I’m lacking creativity, my mind like a cloudless sky, I’ll sit there until an idea forms. I’ll look around my room for inspiration for an essay, or do whatever it takes to capture a certain photo – whether that means laying in the soil and ruining my clothes, or snapping shots the whole afternoon. But when it comes to manual labor? It’s not natural for me to be motivated, and I have to concentrate hard on being dedicated.
It’s not that I can’t contribute, or don’t want to help. It’s just hard to convince myself to tough it out, especially if it’s cold or I’m feeling tired. Two years ago we decided to remodel our backyard, all on our own. We lifted up all the sod, carried in large slabs of stone, and sifted through the gravel and dirt like human colanders. I helped, but not very enthusiastically. I complained more than I should have, and my motivation wore out far before my physical strength.
Still, in spite of all that, I do like to try new things, and I am always excited for exposure to new experiences. So when I had the opportunity to visit Jubilee Farm with my classmates, I agreed, even though it would mean waking up early and completing farm chores in the morning. I left my house that day at 8 AM, wearing four layers and some rubber boots.
Frost seemed to form on my eyelashes on the drive to the farm, it was so cold. I traveled further and further from the city, and soon gray office complexes and fast food joints were replaced by stripped, leafless trees barely discernible through the fog. I passed grazing cows in icy pastures, small houses trimmed with Christmas lights, and a steely-blue river. There was a beautiful simplicity about the small town I passed through, and I drank in the country scenery as the car warmed up. When I pulled up next to a large white barn with the words “Jubilee Farm” cheerily painted in green, I felt ready to be a farmer for an afternoon.
But the moment I stepped out of the car, the blustery wind swept through my jacket and under my sweater. My nose started to run and my fingers blushed blue. As my classmates and I shivered in our boots, waiting for the tour to begin, any desire I had to do some physical labor flickered like a candle, and then blew out completely. I just wanted to be warm again.
It took an effort to walk towards the barn, and I had no idea what kind of work I’d be asked to do. I told myself, resolutely, that I would do my best to be a good-spirited and helpful guest at the farm, even though I wanted nothing more than a cup of cocoa and a blanket.
We met the man who runs Jubilee Farm, E-. He had an easy smile and a youthful attitude, and I was surprised to learn that he’d been farming for over 20 years. Jubilee Farm is organic and nearly 100% sustainable, a rarity in many places these days. E- described Jubilee Farm’s “this much, not more” policy, rather than the “more, more, more” motto of some agricultural businesses.
His voice made his love for his work tangible, and his excitement gripped me as strongly as the cold. I could see that he farms not for financial gain, but for a satisfaction that money simply cannot provide. E- was passionate and well-spoken, citing quotes from philosophers, farmers, and social activists from memory to explain his outlooks.
After a quick tour of Jubilee Farm’s cropland and cow pen, it was time for us to get to work. I joined a group that walked down to Jubilee’s vegetable patch, located right next to E’s own home and underneath a vast gray sky. We pulled on work gloves and were asked to help harvest and prepare rutabagas. The leafy green tops of the rutabagas stuck out of the ground in neat rows, and E’s wife showed us how to pull the stems up like a mandrake, revealing a round white vegetable underneath. Though I wore gloves, my hands felt numb as I reached for the first one.
The biggest rutabaga we harvested that day. Photo credit: Rosaline Zhang, my friend/classmate. (Check out her cool “go green” blog! She just published a great post about Jubilee Farm that goes more in-depth on E’s sustainable farming and the farming lifestyle we learned about.)
Rutabaga – even the word itself has a roundness to it, a heaviness. I closed my fingers around a plant, and ice seeped through my gloves. With a surprisingly strong grasp, I yanked the rutabaga up with a pop. I was filled with a curious satisfaction as I held it in my hand, knowing that I had pulled it from the earth – beautiful, delicious, organic nourishment. I set it down and returned where I left off, eager to unearth another.
Before I knew it, the hour was up. I had grown so warm that I’d shed my outermost rain coat and fleece zip-up. I uprooted the last rutabaga and breathed deeply, exhaling little warm wisps of air. The sun had finally come through, and though my cheeks were rosy and my gloves soaked through with freezing icewater, I hadn’t stopped working.
Although I think I’m ultimately a city person, there is such a charm about the country. At Jubilee Farm, I felt like I could keep going on for hours. It wasn’t just that I had warmed up and moved easily, or that my friends were there working alongside me. Instead, using my muscles and the land effectively provided a sense of contentment. For once, it felt good to use my hands. My head seemed clearer, my mood lighter. I felt like I’d accomplished something in the past hour, and with new eyes I swiveled my head to gaze at the postcard-scenery all around me.
I thought about the farm again while I pulled up photographs of these cupcakes I made for my friend T-. The swine flu is going around my school, and I made these for her when she got better. It wasn’t the swine flu that reminded me of the farm, but the pigs. Jubilee has animals in addition to rutabagas, as part of their completely sustainable vision. I piped out each pig the night before T-’s return to school. Baking, after all, is the type of “hard work” that I always have patience for. :)