Condensed Milk Pound Cake

condensedmilk

Today, after work, after eating lunch in my car and then driving home, I found myself back in bed. Even though it was only three o’clock. For some reason that made me feel old – shouldn’t I be outside, doing something fun? So I compromised by sitting up and writing for the first time in a long time.

What’s new? Still missing the excitement of studying abroad, this semester I got busy. I took a British literature class tougher than leather. I juggled two jobs, maintaining a 50 hour work week. I declared an art history minor and surprised myself, mostly, by taking a solo trip to New Orleans. In April I celebrated my 20th birthday. Best of all, I landed an editorial/social media internship with America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Illustrated Magazine, which I’ll be continuing in the fall (more on that later!)

What I didn’t do was bake. I blamed it on my lack of time, on the fact that my dorm’s mousy kitchen didn’t get any natural light and constantly smelled microwaved, and on the expense of ingredients. But truthfully, there at the midpoint of my college career, many things that seemed everlasting in high school had changed. I found myself drawn to new opportunities. Like finding an apartment – living in the freshman dorms was fun and kind of campy, but it was a drag this year, and moving on felt right.

loaf4

I scoured Craigslist and contacted realtors, explaining our budget and requirements. We’re looking for three equally sized bedrooms, a big living room, and windows. We don’t mind commuting to campus, but proximity to the T is a must. Finally, because I couldn’t help myself, a nice kitchen.

A week later I fell in love with the third apartment we saw, and then nothing else could live up to its standard. A ground floor apartment, we were warned that its upstairs neighbors could be “rowdy” and that mice lived in the walls. The price didn’t include heat or utilities. The apartment looked more like a house than a complex, which I liked, but it was 40 minutes away on the B line, which was notorious for filling up and breaking down. As the last straw, it was a twelve minute walk from the subway stop, and that was enough for my friend S- to reject the place altogether.

“You realize how cold that’ll be in the winter?” she’d later say. “Plus, I don’t want to get mugged at night.”

I overlooked all of that because the apartment had charm. So many places we went on to consider were convenient, sure, and met our requirements on paper. But none of them felt as much like home as this one. I liked the character of the crown molding, the funky bamboo door to the bathroom, the stained glass detail at the top of the windows. But the kitchen sealed my fate.

loaf3

I’d buried my interest in cooking for so long that I was surprised to care. But walking in and seeing the clean countertops, new-enough oven, and ample sunlight stopped me cold. While my friends snapped photos of the other rooms, I opened all the cabinets and stuck my head in the fridge. I saw myself setting out eggs and sifting spices. Making cupcakes for birthdays and cookies for the holidays. The kitchen was big enough for a lot of people to hang out, big enough for a fold up table in the corner (maybe I could sit there and blog?). Big enough to make me miss baking.

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July 24, 2012 at 8:36 pm 67 comments

Raspberry Oat Crumble Bars

I took a bite

I caved the other day and bought a box of raspberries.

When I saw the carton at Trader Joe’s, I remembered Bainbridge Island. Our family friends live there, a tiny island off the coast of Washington state, and my mom and I were lucky enough to visit last summer. I fell in love with the ocean, still icy cold in July, and with the sky, an endless band of blue pressed against the beach. One morning I woke at sunrise to go crab fishing. Another afternoon I walked “downtown,” which referred to two buildings – a general store and the post office.

But my happiest memories are the times I spent grazing in their garden. Fresh artichokes, several potato varieties, the sweetest snap peas I’ve ever tasted. And raspberries. I ate handfuls of raspberries until I just couldn’t. I craved the way each section burst with juice, still warm from the sunshine. Some berries were so tender they broke in my hand, staining my fingertips pink.

Standing there in the grocery store, I thought about all that, and about all the other good things that came with the garden. Sundresses and lolling dog tongues and a boat that smelled like crab bait. And I knew I couldn’t leave without those raspberries.

Crumble bars

I hadn’t had a raspberry since July! I was so excited I didn’t even wait to get back to my dorm, just opened the carton right on the train. These berries definitely looked the part. Big as thimbles, red as lipstick, the tops curved into perfect “O”s. I popped one into my mouth and waited for magic.

I felt the seeds crack between my teeth. The berry barely yielded any juice. Bitter disappointment.

It’s not that I can never eat another raspberry unless it’s just-picked and still breathing. I’m not on Bainbridge Island. I don’t expect that level of fantasy perfection in everyday life. But I think I’ve learned my lesson about buying imported raspberries in the dead of winter.

Raspberry Oat Crumble Bars

Instead, I decided to make some new memories using a jar of raspberry jam. I still have my baking box – a steamer trunk my dad and I refurbished the summer before college – snuggled beneath my dorm bed. Inside, I’ve stashed cake pans, half sheets, piping tips, cookie cutters, ceramic ramekins for baking custards… and one very weathered, very humbled 9×9” pan. I washed the pan twice, piled it high with ingredients, and carried it down the hall to the kitchen.

Raspberry Oat Crumble Bars don’t disappoint. They look good on a picnic table in July, and in a college common room in February. The bars bake up into three layers of shortbread goodness, sweet raspberry, and buttery crumble. They taste like brown sugar and old-fashioned oats, with a healthy smear of jam oozing out the middle.

But what I especially like about these bars is that you can tweak them to make your own memories. Add toasted coconut or fresh fruit. Throw in a handful of pecans, some chocolate chips, or a couple healthy shakes of cinnamon. Use apple butter, blackberry jam, or your neighbor’s homemade peach preserves.

One little square

Here’s what I’ll remember next time I make these bars: the weight of the jar in my hand as I stood in the grocery store and considered the possibilities. Bubbling jam as I scooted the pan out of the oven. The crackle of parchment paper, buttery crumbs all over the table, and the look on my RA’s face when she walked in and blurted, “That smells so good!”

I like to think I’ll remember being a college student who still liked to eat well all year long.

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February 7, 2012 at 2:32 am 91 comments

Soft Whole Wheat Peanut Butter Cookies (vegan)

Mmmm...

My dad picked me up at the Seattle airport when I flew home for winter break. Throughout the semester I’d grown used to the unfamiliar – a different hostel every weekend, foreign customs, menus I couldn’t read. Seeing my dad’s face and falling into a bear hug made everything else disappear, like I’d never left home at all.

I breathed in the chilly air and looked out at the silhouettes of pine trees. Dad unlocked the car and I threw in my bags, a little white carry-on and the replacement backpack I bought in Rome. He raised his eyebrows as I slammed the trunk shut.

“Only two bags?”

“Dad, I’m only home for a month,” I said, rolling my eyes.

I didn’t understand the strange look that passed over his face. He’d later tell me that was the moment he knew I’d come back different, even though I didn’t see it then. How much can a person change in three months, anyway?

Baking sheet

But now that I’m back on campus in Boston, little things are different. Last year I didn’t just love living in the freshman dorm with a roommate – I needed that sense of community so I wouldn’t feel lonely, so I’d feel a connection with people. But I think I left Europe with something else entirely. These days I’m living in a single, and I’ve finally learned that living alone isn’t the same thing as being alone.

My parents are living alone. I worried about my mom when I saw her over winter break – she was eating really simple meals and bundling up instead of turning on the heat. For the first time in my life, I wanted to take care of my family, instead of just relying on them to take care of me. And I found that the littlest things in the world made her happy.

Like grocery shopping. My mom and I opened our eating horizons this winter. No more instant noodles and steamed spinach. And while I can’t wait for summer produce – delicate asparagus and heavy, thirst-quenching peaches – the winter has a lot to offer. We discovered cara oranges, faint pink and tangy. Pomegranates cracked into a thousand faceted rubies and acorn squash caramelized in the oven, its skin curling like parchment.

Chilled dough

By January, my mom was back in the kitchen. She baked bread for the first time in months. The juicer returned to our kitchen counter (my favorite is apple-carrot, heavy on the carrot.) One afternoon she bought a strange fungus from a Chinese grocery store, learned how to cook it, and introduced it to our table for the first time.

Then she said, “I want a signature dessert so I can bake when you’re not here.” This coming from the woman who once told me my buttercream frosting tasted like cavities.

Then I remembered these amazing peanut butter cookies. They’re naturally vegan – no eggs, butter, or milk – and use whole wheat flour. Plus, the recipe swaps canola oil for olive oil and refined white sugar for maple syrup. The dough comes together in one bowl, and the cookies are as simple as preheating the oven and owning a teaspoon.

The first time I made them, I brought an oven-fresh cookie to my mom. She examined it from top to bottom, took a hearty sniff, and finally tried the tiniest bite. Fifteen minutes later, we’d consumed nearly half of the cooling cookies, and agreed that they were far too dangerous for their own good.

Soft Whole Wheat PB Cookies

We made these cookies together. I showed her my favorite way to scoop flour (fluffed with a spoon, leveled with a knife) and the best way to avoid over-mixing. She rolled teaspoons of dough into balls, flattened them with a fork, and sprinkled salt and sugar over each batch. All I did was taste test.

My mom makes these cookies for holidays, for dinner parties, for friends. She even baked six dozen of these gems for a cookie swap at work. When people asked if I’d made them, she got to smile and say, “These ones are actually mine.”

When winter break ended and I flew back to Boston, there were still four jars of peanut butter and three pitchers of maple syrup chilling in the fridge. And by the time I’m home again, asparagus and peaches and all my favorite summer produce will be in season, but there won’t be anything I look forward to more than a peanut butter cookie.

[Also - if you're reading this before 1/22/12, I'm going to be a guest tonight on Olivia Wilder Talk Radio! Click here for more info and the number to talk to me on air.]

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January 22, 2012 at 4:34 pm 86 comments

Marrakech

Souk archway

First, I noticed the doors.

I took a bus from Menara airport to Djemaa El-Fna, a large square in the heart of Marrakech’s old city. The bus swerved through a sea of motorized bikes, past flat stretches of fanned palms and arches marking unlit alleys. On the sidewalk I counted more feral cats than I’ve ever seen, and on the rooftops I caught glimpses of oversized nests and tall, toothpick-legged cranes.

We zigzagged between buildings the colors of rust, orange-pink and off white, with unpainted brick exposed on the sides. Elaborate grates decorated the arched windows. The Arabic tile was all geometric shapes and primary colors: chaos and balance. But the doors.

The doors were painted turquoise, seafoam green, red. Some were patterned with raised studs, others with thin scrolls or contrasting diamonds. As the bus sped towards the center square, the doors become vivid blurs against the burnt orange skyline.

(Click thumbnails for full-sized photos!)

Door1 Door2 Door3 Door4
BlueDoor
Night fell by the time my friends and I arrived at our riad, which was tucked in the maze of side streets of a residential neighborhood. We turned a few corners, walked through a children’s game of football, and found the right alleyway. I saw a door marked 18, just like our directions said, so I pushed it open and the six of us walked inside, backpacks and all.

Inside I saw richly threaded pillows, candles flickering through the cut-outs of metal tins, and… a family of four eating dinner? The woman herded us out of her living room, back into the alley, and pointed further down. Wrong door marked 18. I’d been in Morocco for an hour, and I’d managed to walk into a stranger’s home.

We found the right door, knocked first, and settled into our riad.

We sat in the lounge and planned out our trip over a pot of mint tea – a super sweet drink consumed in tiny, steaming cups. The riad offered a two day excursion into the Sahara desert. We argued amongst ourselves before realizing we couldn’t travel this close to the Sahara without going in. As we came to the decision, I felt a raindrop, and looked up through the open roof as the sky began pouring.

Desert2 Camels at rest Tourisme Desert

I woke up early for the excursion. I showered on the rooftop terrace, under the starlit sky, and listened to the roosters crow just as my hot water ran out.

We loaded into a van – our home for the next two days. We drove out of the city, around crumbling red mountains and over rocky cliffs, past cacti dripping with ruby fruit. We stopped at villages along the way, where I haggled for silver bracelets and drank an Arabic coke.

By sundown we’d reached the edge of the desert, where we mounted our camels and rode into the Sahara. Here’s what I’ve learned about camels: I don’t like them. Mine was too tall, too fat, a little bow-legged, and very fond of spitting. I also managed to get the camel with the sassiest hips, and when I dismounted two hours later, I felt every ounce of that sass in my aching legs. Can a camel look smug? I think so.

My camel

But we set up our tents and ate vegetable tagines for dinner. We danced around the campfire and sang to each other. The sand, cool as the night air and finer than sugar, slipped through my fingers like silk. I stayed outside as long as I could, listening to the camels gossip, looking up at the clearest stars I’ve ever seen, until I woke up to a glorious sunrise edging over the dunes.

(For the record, the camel ride back in the morning is worse.)

Sunrise

Moroccan spices Nightmarket

We drove back through the snow capped Atlas Mountains, and seven hours later, returned to Marrakech. That night I explored Djemaa El-Fna, a square full of snake charmers, henna artists, and monkeys with chains around their necks. The night market offers heaped spices, fresh orange juice, and bin after bin of roasted nuts. I devoured dried apricots, figs, and dates by the handful.

In the morning, Marrakech experienced a torrential downpour. My friends and I picked that morning to visit the Majorelle Gardens, and by the time we walked there, my socks squelched. But thanks to the rain, we were the only visitors to the garden, and the sight of thick palms, lilies in still ponds, and a forest of bamboo moved the rain to the back of my mind.

RainyStreet

With two hours left in the country, I fell in love with the Souks, Marrakech’s mazelike market. The stalls sell everything from slippers and earrings to glazed pottery and gunpowder tea. The market only has a few entrances, and the knot of alleys and streets of stalls were impossible to navigate. For about twenty minutes, thoroughly lost in the heart of the Souks, I thought, “There’s no way I’m making my flight back.”

Now I’m back in Seattle, my semester abroad finished. I’ve seen my old friends and had family dinner, and I’m happy to be home. But a little part of me misses standing ankle deep in sand, scowling at my camel. The weight of lifting the lid of a tagine pot. I probably won’t stop missing the crumbling archways, the brilliant fabrics, the thrill of feeling completely foreign – until my next trip to Marrakech.

Garden Pink Arch

December 27, 2011 at 7:48 pm 192 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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