Posts filed under ‘Other Treats’

Peanut Butter Pretzel Bites (dipped in chocolate!)

Peanut Butter Pretzel Bites (dipped in chocolate)

Inspiration has hit me again. Pretty hard. And this time I think it’ll be harder to shake.

I had some free time between classes, so I went to the store. For the first time in my life, I bought myself basic ingredients, starting with absolutely nothing. I tried to balance quality and price as I grabbed flour, sugar (white, brown, and powdered), vanilla, salt, butter, cream, and eggs… At the very last minute, standing in the check out line, I ran back to get baking powder and soda. Almost forgot.

When the total came up and I took out my wallet, I mentally calculated how many tables I’d have to wait to gain it back. Since when was baking such an expensive hobby?

This being-an-adult, shopping-for-your-own-groceries thing is tough. But I smiled the whole ride home.

Peanut Butter Pretzel Bites

As the week went on, the anticipation grew. I think this is what I discovered. When the only times you bake are for dinner with the neighbors, birthdays, holidays and paid orders, something is wrong. When you’re baking just because? Because you want to, because it’s Thursday, because there are four pounds of sugar under your bed? These reasons are happiness-generators, like fresh batches of Play Doh and abandoned fields of dandelions.

Faced with the freedom of no guidelines, I couldn’t decide whether to go crunchy or chewy, warm or chilled, chocolate-glazed or baked with fruit. On Saturday I was sure I would make a citrusy pound cake. Sunday I’d switched to some kind of breakfast scone, easy to share with the common room… By Tuesday I found myself wanting a few secret pots de creme in my mini-fridge, a midnight snack just for me.

Then, considering the mediocre fruit selection in the dining hall at lunchtime, it hit me. I took three ripe pears and looked up a recipe for clafouti. I packed all the ingredients and tools, plus a book and my camera. I lugged the ridiculously heavy bag down the street to the dorm building that has kitchens.

Peanut Butter

The kitchen was a bit of a letdown. There was no soap by the sink for dishes. The windows were blocked by buildings and didn’t let in any natural light, so no photographs. But I figured out how to work the oven, mixed the clafouti batter as best I could, and hoped for success. I sat down to read and discovered that, somewhere in Chapter 2, I could smell sugar.

I pulled the puffed, golden-brown custard out of the oven and experienced a more real satisfaction than I could have possibly imagined. My bones felt solid, my lungs felt full, and would you believe it, I felt starved. I washed the dishes and repacked the bag in a dream, and as I turned to leave, I grabbed the still-hot pan without thinking. My hand automatically opened and the clafouti splattered like vanilla-infused ink. The metal pan clattered against the linoleum and I thought it would never stop ringing in my ears and in the corners of the empty kitchen.

Empty-handed, without photos or a taste. Bitterness started to settle like steeping tea.

Peanut Butter Pretzel Bites

But then, in spite of myself, I laughed. No regrets, no tears. Because, let’s be real, it was a pretty stupid move on my part, but it didn’t take away any of the pleasure I got from the baking process. Blog post or not, for one afternoon, I felt unfiltered elation. Maybe there was a lesson in the unsalvageable clafouti – the joy comes from the process, not from being recognized as the “baking blogger” or from eating a lot of cream.

Instead, I’m sharing these Peanut Butter Pretzel bites with you. They’re easy enough to make from a dorm. Creamy peanut butter, sugar, and vanilla combine in a rich and addictive filling. Sandwiched between two crisp, salty pretzels and dunked in bittersweet chocolate, you end up with an incredible party snack that vanishes fast.

No mixer required. No fiddling with foreign ovens. You can even melt the chocolate in the microwave (which I did.) The result is a delicious, one bite contradiction of creamy and crunchy, sweet and salty, peanutty and chocolatey.

Peanut Butter Pretzel Bites (dipped in chocolate)

I knew right away they wouldn’t survive the weekend, but that’s okay. I’ve still got 3 ½ pounds of sugar under my bed. That’s reason enough for me.

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March 25, 2011 at 12:07 am 133 comments

Crackly Crackers

cracker1

I spent my last day in Seattle with my parents. We woke up early and got pancakes at one of our favorite dives, a run-down little restaurant near the airport. I spent the afternoon at home with Dad and the dogs, looking through old photo albums. We shared some good sushi for an early lunch, and ice cream sundaes for dessert. Even though sleet fell and dirty puddles collected, damp leaves sticking to our soles, I couldn’t have felt happier about my last afternoon.

At home after dinner, I watched my mom boil water for tea, facing away from me. I sat at the table and checked my email as she talked, only half listening. She stopped mid-sentence, and I finally noticed that she’d been crying – so quiet I hadn’t heard from three feet away.

She left the kitchen and I heard the closet open down the hall. She came back with a white cloth napkin with sky blue trim. “Recognize this?”

The last time I saw my parents before winter break was in Boston, a few days before classes started. We had dinner at a fancy seafood restaurant in the North End, a light meal before I left in near tears and caught the next train to my dorms. We didn’t say goodbye for very long because I didn’t want my parents to see I was upset.

cracker3

“After you walked out, I started crying,” my mom said. I unfolded the napkin and turned it around in my hands. It was so neatly folded and wrinkle-free that it looked new.

“Your father and I left soon after you. We walked down the street and he gave me the napkin – he stole it from the restaurant. He said he thought I might need it.”

And here it was now, a seeming lifetime later, in our chipped little kitchen.

“We walked a little further and went into some of the stores. Your dad, he picked up this jar of something and said ‘Oh – Elissa would really like this.’ He just kept looking at it and finally he bought it. He said, ‘We should give it to her.’”

“The fig spread?”

cracker5

I remembered this. I thought I’d said goodbye to my parents for the last time, but later that night, my dad stopped by the lobby of my dorm. He had a box of water crackers, a thick wedge of creamy brie, and a small glass jar of an incredible fig jam. It was the last real quality food I had before I settled into my routine of café sandwiches and dining hall chicken fingers. It was the last little bit that felt like Seattle as I settled into Boston.

The first week of school, I passed it around the common room and shared it with my floor. Nobody had eaten anything like that fig spread before, and I saw people right, left and center falling in love. Between my roommate E- and I, the jam lasted a few weeks. When it was gone, I washed out the jar and set it on the windowsill. That’s where it is now, catching the fleeting light that filters into my room.

When it was gone, I craved more, but I wasn’t about to buy more on my college student budget. One afternoon E- came into the room with a grocery bag. She pulled out a package of crackers. “I keep thinking about that fig spread,” she admitted. With or without it, the crackers satisfied us, and now our room is always stocked with a box or two.

cracker2 (Left to right: Parmesan Cheese Crackers, Orange Sugar & Spice Crackers, Lime Thyme Crackers)

Mom was smiling now. “After the hard time your dad gave me about being upset, he was the one buying stuff for you half an hour later. He said we should go to Whole Foods and get something to go with the jam. I thought he was being ridiculous but he was so stubborn about the idea.”

They didn’t know where Whole Foods was, but they took a train and managed to find it. I can picture Dad walking up and down the cheese aisle, like he used to when we shopped together, looking for the particular brie I’m so smitten with. I imagine him looking at shelves and shelves of crackers, deciding which box would go best with the spread.

As I thought about all the work behind that simple gesture, a paper bag with a last-minute snack, I started to feel sad for the first time about winter break ending. I gave my mom a long hug and told her not to cry. I folded up the napkin, following the creases, and handed it to her.

“Hang onto this. I’m serious. Keep this forever, okay?”

“Okay.” She paused, and then smiled. “I’ll use it at your graduation.”

cracker4

She put the napkin back in the linen closet, Dad came and sat down, and the two of them talked at the dinner table as I finished packing.

Boston, here I come.

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January 16, 2011 at 1:23 am 64 comments

Maple Pot de Crème

Maple Pot de Crème

I’ve never gone this long without baking.

I realize now that I took everything back home for granted – ingredients, books, supplies. Here, I don’t even own a fork. I miss my glossy black oven and my vials of vanilla beans, but I’m making the best of things. On Sunday I visited a friend who lives in Boston. Her kitchen is all blue, yellow, and white, flooded with light and breathtakingly lovely. I baked a triple lemon yogurt loaf (no photos, but heartfelt thanks to D- and her beautiful family) and brought some home to share with my floor.

The dorm food here is, well, my least favorite aspect of the school. It’s all wilted spinach, dried-out pizza and artificial-cherry Jello. Disappointing, if unsurprising. It’s even more frustrating than the screechy subway or our tiny elevators, which are always hot with the breath of people past. When the longing for good food overwhelms, I look through my collection of photos.

Maple Pot de Crème

I had sixty recipes to choose from for this post, and I am so excited to share this particular one with you. Sixty recipes baked, fried, and frozen over the course of a few weeks, and this is possibly the stand out. Maple Pot de Crème. Would you believe that something so innocent could be so dangerous?

Back in July, I baked four or five desserts every day. The first thing I did when I woke up was preheat the oven, and the last thing I did before bed was wrap up any dessert left to cool on the counter. Every Sunday I gave my dad a bite out of everything, so he could taste test it all. On that particular morning, there were a lot of things to try.

He’d sampled everything by the time I drew the pot de crème from the fridge, the last thing to try in this buffet of sugar. This pot de crème was the creamiest, smoothest, silkiest custard I’ve ever made. I don’t know whether it’s the recipe, since I haven’t made it again, or if I just got lucky, but this particular batch of pot de crème was extraordinary. You could tell, even as the spoon sunk in. I watched him frown, speechless, and reach for another bite.

He scraped the ramekin clean.

Maple Pot de Crème

We waited half an hour, and then I couldn’t help it. I reached for another. We knew it was a bad idea – my dad’s stomach has been in poor health recently – and I even joked about the amount of cream and yolk in every spoonful. It was a mistake, but a delicious one. All we could think was how close to perfection this pot de crème was, and how lucky we were to have it.

Not an hour later, my dad was balled up on the couch, and I was running down the street with my shoes half on. A neighbor drove us to the emergency room. It was rush hour, the car was barely advancing, the slightest bump made my father groan and why were we moving so slowly? Numbly, all I could think from somewhere in the back of my head was, “I shouldn’t have given him all that dessert.”

By the time we got to the hospital, thankfully, his pain was starting to lessen. By the time my mother ran in, he reassured her that he was fine. After a few hours, the pain had subsided, and we knew he was going to be okay.

Maple Pot de Crème

This is the kind of man my dad is: after the attack was over and he was discharged, my mother left to bring the car around. As my father and I stood in front of the hospital, he leaned against a post, exhausted and still weak. Another car pulled up, and a middle-aged lady struggled to open a wheelchair and help her frail mother into it. Despite everything, my father had jogged over before I’d even straightened up, holding the mother’s arm and guiding her into the seat.

Before they walked away, the woman said to him, “The world would be such a beautiful place if there were more people in it like you.”

It’s true.

And when our Toyota pulled up to the curb and we piled in to go back home, he said, “I kind of want another maple pot de crème.” They’re just that good.

My dad finally had the surgery he needed, and while multiple pots de crème still might not be advisable, he’s going to be great. Last week was his birthday, and while I wasn’t there to make something special, I hope this post makes him smile. Happy birthday Dad, I love and miss you. You’re the best father anyone could ask for, even from across the country.

[PS: Many readers have asked where I got the ramekins. They were a gift from my grandma to my dad, who later regifted them to me. After a lot of googling, I managed to find them - they're part of the Andrea by Sadek collection and can be bought at this link.]

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September 18, 2010 at 1:08 pm 90 comments

Blackberry, Peach, and Ginger Crumble

Blackberry, Peach, and Ginger Crumble

It’s August, and that means it’s blackberry season in the pacific northwest.

The blackberry bushes here are inescapable, weeds even. I pass the thorny plants growing along our neighborhood, behind my school, and against the sidewalks. We had some in our backyard when we first bought the house, until my mother hacked the branches away in a fit of determination. Every year, when I spot the fat berries hanging low on their vines, like clusters of black beads, it feels more like summer than anything.

I’ve been seeing them all month, but I haven’t been craving them… Until a few days ago. I was sitting at the dinner table, thumbing through the pile of cookbooks that live there permanently. It’s my habit when I’m bored. I flip back to the dessert section and try to make myself hungry. That day, I saw a marionberry tart, but for some reason it made me want blackberries.

Blackberry, Peach, and Ginger Crumble

Because they’re so expensive, I didn’t eat a lot of berries growing up. Even today, in my mind they’re exotic. Raspberries, blueberries, marionberries – they should be reserved for special occasions, like a birthday or celebration. But blackberries are so plentiful here, and so easy to get.

When I was in elementary school, my mom and I liked to visit a park by our old condo. I’d never seen so many blackberry bushes before. They towered high over my head like a maze, and the air between them seemed to buzz with insects and filtered sunlight and the sweetness of sugar. It all came back to me in a rush as I sat there with the cookbook in my hands.

I couldn’t get blackberries out of my mind. When I decide I want something, I just can’t avoid it. I mentioned the berries over and over to my parents. My mom said she remembered where the park was, so after breakfast we headed out. We were nearly there when my dad pulled the car onto a fence-lined stretch of gravel in a rare patch of shade.

Blackberry, Peach, and Ginger Crumble

“This isn’t the park,” I protested, but he pointed along the side of the road.

“They’re everywhere,” he said, pointing at the blackberry brambles twisting in and out of the barbed wire.

I was doubtful as I opened the trunk and passed out bowls to my parents. This didn’t seem as nostalgic and serene as my memories at the park. Even in the shade we couldn’t escape the hazy swelter of the afternoon sun, like hot breath on our backs. Spiders dangled from leaves and cars sped behind us in a whirr.

We spaced ourselves several meters apart from each other. I reached for the darkest, plumpest berries on the highest vines, straining on my tiptoes and stretching up. As gentle as I tried to be, they burst out of their skins when I dropped them into my bowl. Before long my hands were perfumed with juice, which stained the ridges of my fingerprints purple-red and smelled like August.

The whole way home, I breathed the fragrance in and dreamed of dessert.

Blackberry, Peach, and Ginger Crumble

And I got it. The blackberries are truly the star of this blackberry, peach, and ginger crumble.

The peaches are really delicious too. I like peaches, but I can’t say that I love them. I don’t think I’ve ever had a perfect peach, or even a really good one. The rest of my family has – every year my grandma wistfully describes fresh peach ice cream and lattice peach pie. Or better – fresh and still sun warmed, eaten off the tree. But me? I’m satisfied to cut them into rough chunks and toss them with berries in a crumble.

And the ginger was almost an afterthought, but such a good one. I loved dicing the crystallized ginger into tiny cubes, because it left big sugar crystals and the sharpness of ginger all over my cutting board. You only get a little in each bite, but you know it when you find it.

The original recipe calls this dessert a crisp, but I substituted some cream cheese into the oat topping. I had some leftover to use up, and the result was delicious. I could taste a subtle tang, and it made the topping a little soft and chewy. I’m not sure what makes a crumble a crumble, but somehow “crisp” didn’t seem right. All I know is that I shamelessly dug into whatever-you-call-it straight out of the pan, hot or chilled, for breakfast or for dessert in the warm twilight.

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August 16, 2010 at 6:05 pm 49 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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