Posts filed under ‘Cookies’

Sugar Cookies

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Sometimes, I really don’t feel like blogging.

I’ll be curled up in bed with a mug of warm cocoa, reading a magazine when I’ll realize it’s been a week. And that means it’s time for a new post. I won’t have any idea what to write about, won’t even feel like carefully crafting a sentence together in my head, but I’ll sit there and force my way through until I’ve produced a post. I tell myself it’s a commitment.

These days I can tell my parents get a little concerned about the stress the blog might be putting on me. My mom tells me that I should just blog as long as it makes me happy, and my dad inquires about the pressure I feel every week to maintain the blog. Sure, there is a bit of responsibility involved with 17 and Baking that wasn’t there back when I felt certain of its anonymity, but there definitely isn’t anxiety.

17 and Baking truly makes me happier than anything else, and it’s a commitment, but it’s one I struggle through with pleasure.

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So on those days when I’m not in the mood to be productive, I brainstorm. I look at the photographs I’ve taken and try to transport myself there, think about what made me smile and what made me pensive while I was baking. I think about what kind of message I want to be sending, what sort of ties this week’s adventures in the kitchen have with my life.

In the end I always pull through. I manage to come up with an idea, even if I’ve been sitting before an empty page for hours. Despite my longing to be lazy, I edit photographs until I’m satisfied. When the post finally comes together, the fulfillment that steeps through me makes the entire process so, so worth it.

At this point, knowing that I’m not alone and that 17 and Baking has become more than just an afterthought, it’s become a responsibility which I genuinely look forward to every week. These days I have so many more ridiculous, spontaneous bursts of happiness that can’t be properly explained, where I smile at everyone and feel in love with everything. Every post, no matter how much of a challenge it might be to get down, is so worth it in the end.

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A few weeks ago, I was approached to make 100 sugar cookies for a local art walk. The walk was meant to be a charity and most of the supplies and materials would be donated. Feeling generous, I agreed to make the cookies for 25% of what I would normally charge. I had no idea what I was getting into.

I made one batch of cookies, and was horrified to discover a couple things. The recipe only made 20 sugar cookies, so I would have to make it four more times, and I knew already that the cost of butter and sugar would far surpass the price I’d set. But even more frustrating was the fact that those 20 cookies had taken me forever to roll out. The dough oscillated between soft and sticky and frozen stiff.

I was going to lose money, I didn’t have time to do my homework, and I was angry at myself for offering the discount and agreeing to do the project in general. I wanted to quit, but of course, I couldn’t. I dreaded the next 80 cookies.

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The next day, I was in the kitchen longer than I was in school. I made batch after batch after batch and worked so smoothly I felt like a production line. Despite my annoyance, by the third batch I couldn’t help but notice that I was getting faster. I was starting to understand the way the dough worked, picking up tricks.

I discovered the perfect dusting of flour to keep the cookies soft without being sticky, and I learned the perfect temperature of butter to begin with. I’d roll out the cookies, put them in the freezer, and put them in just as another tray left the oven. It was the kind of efficiency that only time could arouse, and while the first few cookies hadn’t impressed me so much in the taste department, I found that each sheet produced more and more delicious cookies.

My mood couldn’t help but lighten a little. Even when I finished the fifth batch, only to discover I was 3 cookies short of the full 100, I didn’t grumble too much as I began the recipe for the sixth time. And when I was finally done, I packed them up and declared that I never wanted to make another sugar cookie again in my life. There was still a nearly-full batch of dough leftover, but I stuffed it into the freezer and forcibly ignored it.

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Sunday night, a week after the sugar cookie nightmare project, my parents and I were slowly ending dinner. I left and went to check on the blog, refreshing the page to read any new comments. That’s when I squealed so loudly that I halted the clink of spoons and dinner conversation from the dining room.

I had been so convinced that I didn’t stand a chance in this year’s Weblog Awards that I hadn’t bothered to learn when the winners would be announced. So in that unguarded moment, I found out through a scattering of congratulatory comments that left me overwhelmed. Best weblog written by a teen? I was so startled and caught off guard that all I could do was shriek incoherently.

The feeling was sort of like an intense magnification of what I feel after publishing a new blog post – accomplishment, cheeriness, and awestruck wonder at how lucky I’ve been. And the first thing I did, after my dad rushed in to drink in the moment with me, giving me a big hug and dabbing my burning eyes with his sweater, was go into the kitchen and bake up that last batch of wonderful, beautiful, fantastic sugar cookies.

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[PS: The second thing I did was send out emails thanking all the people I knew who had voted for me and spread the word - that includes you! Thank you so much for reading and for voting, I couldn't have done it without you!]

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March 5, 2010 at 11:53 pm 66 comments

Chocolate Crinkle Cookies

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Today was my first day back at school after our mid-winter break. Some of my friends flew to China, spending the week amongst hazy neon billboards and frigid vendor’s markets. Another friend passed the time in a bitter whirl of snow that could not dampen his thrill to be in New York. One of my best friends, promising to send a postcard, vacationed in Hawaii. Even without a letter, I could imagine her snorkeling through murky waters that cleared into brilliant clouds of fish.

But me? I stayed home alone most afternoons, not even reaching out to the friends who were still in the area. I watched an embarrassing amount of The Office (my new obsession) and refreshed my Facebook page until, with a pang, I realized that I was the only person online.

This happens to me all too frequently when I am left to my own ways at home – I slip into inevitable boredom. It seeps from the dim lighting and wheezy exhalations of my laptop into my very bones. I feel burdened with the monotony. It feels heavy, like overripe fruit, stifling my motivation. I just don’t feel like doing anything.

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After my second consecutive day spent in teddy bear print pajamas, I stopped even using my laptop. I had headaches that throbbed too much when I tried to fix my eyes on a screen, but I couldn’t find anything else to do. I didn’t even want to bake.

My dad urged me to go out on my own, even if my friends were out of town. “Where’s your sense of adventure?” he kept asking, like he couldn’t quite believe it had come to this. “Take the car. Venture down roads you’ve never explored. Look around downtown Seattle. Bring your camera. Get out.”

Despite all my general bravado about leaving the west coast, experiencing new things on the other side of the world, exploring everything there is to see – I resisted. I wasn’t in the mood to get lost or sing along with the radio. But finally, sick of stagnation, I swept my hair up and pulled on some boots. I cradled my camera and locked the empty house behind me, head still pressured by migraines.

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Despite my mood, I was out of the house, wearing real clothes with texture and color and substance instead of shapeless sweats. The moment the door closed, I felt the brittle February air break into my lungs. It was more invigorating than any Tylenol or television show.

At first I drove aimlessly with the sole purpose of burning gas. I discovered a new way to drive downtown. I made wide, comfortable loops that took me towards and away from my house with little thought. That’s when I saw the blueberry farm and reacted before my mind had caught up. I heard the dull crunch of my car pulling onto the gravel driveway, the slam of the door and the sound of the breeze picking up before I’d fully registered. I didn’t even bring my camera.

It wasn’t anywhere near blueberry season. The blueberry plants were trimmed down and leafless, kept in neat rows that stretched out as far as I could see. The trees along the horizon were velvety dark at this distance, and the sun shone through their peaks in solid, separate rays. As I walked, the footprints in the dirt behind me slowly filled with water. I shivered a little at first, my hair whipped across my cheeks, and a smile emerged like a midwinter sunbreak.

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Sometimes, I think the simplest things can be the best medicine. A walk through an icy, empty blueberry farm without a trace of technology or a thought in my mind. A creased postcard with sea turtles and butterfly fish on the front. Or a genuine “Thank You” and a plate stacked high with sugar-shelled chocolate crinkle cookies, baked with love and devoured quickly.

[PS: Still collecting questions for a future FAQ post, so leave a question for me if you'd like!]

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February 23, 2010 at 12:49 am 80 comments

Striped Peppermint Meringues with Chocolate Ganache

Lately it seems like I’ve had a lot of bad days. More like a lot of bad weeks. Everyone has those days where nothing goes right, where it seems like the flowers close when you walk by and the clouds begin to leak rain. But when those “once in a while” days turn into every other day, you start to feel discouraged.

I don’t know what it’s been. It started with an unpleasant day in school a few weeks ago, when one of my teachers gave everyone low marks on the final. We all protested but she stayed firm and unyielding. I heard the harshness in her voice and I felt in that moment that her only joy in life came from punishing us.

The following period only made matters worse. It’s a “bird class” – the kind that’s so easy, you fly through with a free A, but that day we had a substitute teacher and everyone acted up. I didn’t find it amusing, but found myself powerless and unmotivated to stand up and help her as she slowly lost control of the class. As the day drew to a close, I realized with dread I’d left some important paperwork at home, and that was the last straw as the sky opened up and began to pour.

A week later, I was spending my weekend afternoon on my bed, trying to sort out a college application. It was a particularly frustrating application, with all sorts of strange requirements and vague instructions that were testing my temper. I must have called twenty people for help on filling it out, but all I got was twenty different opinions, all conflicting. I sat there the whole day, just building up more and more tension until I had to stop looking at the unfinished page.

My friend chose that low, hopeless moment to call me with a complaint and a desire to fight, but I didn’t have any fight in me. As she yelled and I felt our friendship ending, I couldn’t take any more. My heart felt as tender as a badly bruised peach. I quietly hung up, feeling the worst I’d felt all week, and trying not to let it break me.

Usually at moments like that, I turn to the kitchen. But because of all my commitments, I haven’t had as much time to bake as I’d like. I’ve missed three of my friend’s birthdays to date, even though I’ve had their special birthday cakes planned out since the summer. There’s also baked goods I want to make for many people in my life I’m thankful for – teachers, college advisers, my SAT prep tutors. But those have to stay on hold a little while longer.

I decided to make these Striped Peppermint Meringues with Dark Chocolate Ganache as an escape from my stress. They looked beautiful, festive (hello, December) and delicious. Plus, I knew this was a recipe I could do in my sleep. I’ve made this meringue countless times as part of my favorite Swiss meringue buttercream, and I’ve never had difficulties with chocolate ganache. As I cracked the eggs, I felt calmness rise in me from my toes up, like a paper towel touched to water.

The meringue whipped into stiff peaks without trouble. I pulled out the whisk and examined the thick, glossy swirl of meringue and couldn’t help but feel peace. I pulled out my camera and took a photo of the meringue, thinking about this post. The last step before piping was to beat in a little peppermint extract. I measured out the half teaspoon and poured it into the meringue, and switched the mixer on.

I knew right away something was wrong.

The mixer began to churn and the meringue deflated in about two seconds right before my eyes. What had once been stiff, shiny meringue was now a soft, pepperminty mess, and I suddenly felt betrayed even by my KitchenAid. It felt like too much to handle.

My dad calls days like this “deviled egg days.” He told me the story as he drove me home on a particularly bad day. I was keeping my head turned and looking at the raindrops trail down the window so he couldn’t see my face, but he didn’t get discouraged.

He described a dinner party he was serving, where deviled eggs were on the menu. He threw dozens of eggs into the boiling water, only to look down and see that the eggs had broken. He went to the store and bought dozens more. On his second try, the eggs were impossible to peel, and he was forced to toss them as well. At his limit, he bought more eggs and tried a third time. He made them just right this time, and arranged them on a platter. He turned around to move the platter out of the kitchen and accidentally banged it on the counter. All the eggs slid onto the floor, unsalvageable.

I turned to look at him for the first time. “What did you do?”

He smiled and said, “I realized there weren’t going to be any deviled eggs. I just moved on, and as it turned out, nobody missed them.”

I was thinking about his words as I looked back down at the meringue. I’d whipped it another 10 minutes, hoping it would increase in volume again, but it stayed resolutely flat. But the oven was preheated, the sheets were lined with parchment, and I decided to go ahead and try them. I prepared the bag and piped them in neat stars, which drooped and failed to keep their lines. I pushed them into the oven anyway.

When they came out, they weren’t as tall or pointy as they should have been. But they tasted nice, like the holidays and after-dinner mints, so I made the ganache too. I decided they looked very cute, and the meringues were really complemented by the chocolate. In the end, I guess my kitchen wasn’t betraying me – maybe it was trying to teach me something.

I haven’t had any bad days since December began, and I’m glad to see the end of them. This morning was stunning. At dawn, I stepped outside with my camera to photograph the frigid beauty around me: a pale white sun in a cotton-candy sky and the frost-kissed Japanese maple leaves. I breathed in the fresh air and felt my fingers grow numb, and I smiled the whole way to school.

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December 3, 2009 at 8:53 pm 233 comments

Autumn S’mores – Homemade Graham Crackers and Pumpkin Spice Marshmallows

Hey all! I hope you guys had a wonderful and relaxing Thanksgiving!

Up until a few years ago, Halloween was my favorite holiday. It was nice to have a Thanksgiving break and some good food, but I wasn’t really involved in the whole process. My grandpa, who was a great cook, always made the meal. My dad would watch the football game while my mom and grandma talked. And me? I didn’t really have any Thanksgiving traditions at all, besides always having a second helping of mashed potatoes and gravy.

This year, though, marks the second year where I’ve helped prepare the meal. Last year, newly interested in cooking, I wanted to be a part of the entire dinner. With some help from my dad, I basted the turkey, simmered the cranberry sauce, mashed the sweet potatoes and wilted the spinach. I also made dessert, a pumpkin pie that survived everything, including the death of my oven halfway through baking. This year, in spite of college applications and a time-consuming internship, I knew I wanted to do it all over again.

A couple of things made it back to the menu. Last year’s turkey came out so perfectly I swore it was beginner’s luck, but I still reached for Martha Stewart’s recipe again. I also made these Vanilla Mashed Sweet Potatoes from 101 Cookbooks, which were popular across the entire table a year ago. I also searched half an hour to find last year’s cranberry sauce, made with ruby port and tangerine juice. But for dessert, I decided to tackle something completely new. I envisioned an Autumn S’more – made with cinnamon-sweetened graham crackers and springy pumpkin marshmallows.

We spent Thanksgiving at a friend’s house, equipped with a bigger kitchen, a bigger dining area, and prettier dining ware. The table was beautifully set, and there was so much color that every plate seemed a mini feast. Mom’s three-leaf-clover rolls were passed around the table first, followed by dark green and maroon Swiss chard. Sparkling cranberry apple cider glimmered like garnets in the glasses, matching the ruby-red cranberry sauce. The sweet potatoes were a creamy pale yellow, and the glazed carrots brought bright orange to the table. With the fancy plates and faceted cups of wine, it felt like Thanksgiving dinner from a magazine.

Not everyone could stomach dessert, and the night ended soon after dinner. We packed all our equipment, ingredients, and leftovers into our car and drove back home, drowsy and stuffed.

As can be expected from a family of foodies, we talked about the meal afterward. We discussed the merits of the Swiss chard and described how tender, juicy, and succulent the turkey came out. Dad explained why he didn’t care for the sweet potato dish that I adored, and Mom praised how beautifully the cranberry sauce came out. We like food, and we wanted to share it with each other.

Tonight, my parents started up a campfire in the fire pit we built two years ago. Remembering the mostly-forgotten dessert, I grabbed the graham crackers and marshmallows. Dad found a perfect stick, sturdy and straight, and roasted a marshmallow across the flames. He pulled it off the stick with his teeth and chewed. “It tastes awesome, right?” I was mostly kidding. He opened his mouth a few times, trying to pull out the proper words to describe the taste and texture. Finally, a smile on his face, he agreed: “They’re just awesome.”

For all my descriptive words, these marshmallows escape description. I can’t properly convey how fantastic they were. On their own they were lighter than air, with a bouncier, fresher texture than store-bought marshmallows. The pumpkin was subtle and the flavor was prominently spiced. I cooked a few with the flames from my stove, and they toasted and oozed beautifully, but there is no comparison to roasting them on a branch over a flickering fire. The outside crisps and bubbles burnt gold, while the inside becomes creamy, gooey, and pumpkin-y. With chocolate and a crisp graham cracker, they were irresistable.

As it turns out, I’ll remember one of the nicest Thanksgivings I had not by the fancy meal and the pretty decorations. Instead, I’ll remember my mom, dad, and I sitting around the fire in lawn chairs in the pitch black. I’ll remember my mother’s stunned face as she tried the first marshmallow tentatively, then practically lunged for another one, ending up with molten pumpkin marshmallow all over her chin. I’ll remember my dad trying to describe how awesome the marshmallows were, how the pumpkin flavor was really elevated after roasting, and how the texture could only be described as perfect.

I’ll remember jumping into the car on a whim to rush and buy hot dogs, just so we could stay outside a little longer. We kept adding logs to the fire, each thick piece of wood sending up sparks that swirled up like fireflies. And we stuffed ourselves with so many marshmallows that our fingers grew sticky, and each of us had developed a unique toasting style over the course of the evening.

And after everything, I think I may have created a new family tradition after all. :)

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November 28, 2009 at 10:27 pm 34 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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