It’s the middle of the week and I’m ridiculously happy. I feel like saltwater taffy, like glass beads sitting in sunlight, like rainbows from the garden hose. I’m so excited to FINALLY share a top-secret project with you, after nearly a year of preparation.
I guess I should back up and start with April 2010, when a mutual friend introduced me to Kamran of The Sophisticated Gourmet. We were both 18, we both wore the many hats of a food blogger (photographer, cook, stylist, writer) and we both shared a disproportionate love for dark chocolate. He lived in New York and I lived in Seattle, but what did distance matter?
Less than an hour after Kam and I met, we had connected with three other young food bloggers. There was 17-year-old Lauren of Celiac Teen, 19-year-old Tessa of Handle the Heat, and 20-year-old Hannah of honey & jam. I sent out an email to all four with the subject “Teen baking group??” and the rest is history.
We have our differences. We hail from different parts of North America – Kam in the northeast (New York), Hannah in the southeast (Georgia), Tessa in the southwest (Arizona), Lauren in Canada, and me in the Pacific Northwest (Seattle.)
We have unique perspectives. Kam’s cooking is decidedly upscale and gourmet. Tessa prefers healthy, local ingredients. I focus on writing, Hannah’s photography is breathtaking, and Lauren’s blog is entirely gluten free. But what brought us together – and keeps us together – is our mutual love for food.
From day one, we knew we wanted to create a website. Everything was a group effort, from the concept of The Kitchen Generation to the final launch ten months later. The site will share recipes, stories, photographs, techniques and tips, all from a unique younger perspective.
I’ve never met Kam, Lauren, Tessa or Hannah in person, but they’re some of the best friends I have. We exchange secret santa presents, we talk for hours on Skype. I text them when I’m having a rough day. This project means so much to us, and we’re so excited to share it with the world. I hope you take a look, browse around, and get hungry.
And a new 17 and Baking post this weekend! :)
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned so far second semester? Bundle up. Sometimes when I step outside it hurts to inhale, like the breath freezes in my lungs. Snow packs into the spaces between bricks.
The other morning I took an extra long, extra hot shower and found myself running late to class. I got dressed, swept up my books, and headed for the elevator. I didn’t give my towel-dried hair a second thought until I was on the sidewalk. I couldn’t have been outside longer than a few minutes, but when I got to the classroom, my skull was so cold it burned. My hair had frozen solid, waves of ice brushing against my cheeks.
When the temperature is in the single digits, I try not to leave my building. But between classes and shifts at the restaurant, I’m getting the full New England winter experience.
Way back in September, one of the things I immediately loved about Boston was its color palette. Seattle is splashed grey and green and blue, with chrome and glass and buildings that reflect the clouds. While it’s gorgeous and familiar, Massachusetts was a welcome change. Boston is all brick and gold and off-white, rich with history and equally beautiful. But four months later the cars and streets and trees are burdened with dirty snow, and that’s all I notice.
I walk to work with the same philosophy I have towards other unpleasant things – get it over with quickly. Salt crystals crackle beneath my boots every step of the way. Scarf, gloves, earmuffs, two coats and a pair of tights under my jeans… Every accessory means the longer it’ll take me to change into uniform once I get there.
When my shift ends long after midnight, the sidewalks are quiet and clear. Sometimes a fresh blanket of snow has fallen and untouched white stretches in all directions. The air is just as chilly before, but windless, and the street feels unreal. I’ve caught myself standing in the restaurant’s doorway, breathless, suddenly reminded why I love living here.
The walk home is so dark, it’s like a different set of streets. The blackness swallows up the lampposts, so the bulbous orange lights seem suspended in midair. Taxi headlights cut through the darkness in wide, white sweeps. I watch my breath curl into itself and dissolve up towards the sky, which is either greyed purple or orange thanks to light pollution.
Boston is painted with an entirely different color theme at 1 AM. And as I walked home last night, past leafless trees embossed with snow, I suddenly thought of semifreddo.
When the semifreddo is made, a quick custard folded with whipped cream, it’s marshmallowy and soft. But after an overnight freeze, it becomes an entirely different dessert, with the creamy richness of ice cream. And this semifreddo has a gorgeous color palette, too. The base is flavored with dry white wine and a hint of orange, the color of eggshells. Every slice is studded with vibrant dried cranberries and sharp crystalized ginger, like gems held up to the light.
I realize it’s still the dead of winter, but I’m one of those people who orders iced coffee and eats gelato all year. I can get home from work, clap my snow-packed boots together, and enjoy a cold fruit smoothie straight from the fridge. I’m one of the lucky people who happily makes semifreddo whenever the whim strikes. This dessert is unusual and beautiful, worth a hurried walk through the chill.
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.
“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?”
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.
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.”
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.
Even as a little kid, I liked flying home. Not the chaos of the security checks, the trip itself, or even the weary drive back to our house. But I love that first step outside SeaTac Airport. When I exit the airport after hours of flight and days of vacation – I breathe in the Pacific Northwest air as slowly and deliberately as I can. No matter where I’ve been or how much I enjoyed myself, that first breath always tastes like the freshest, cleanest air I’ve ever known.
My flight back from Boston was forgettable. I took a taxi from my school at 5 am, spent a two hour layover in Chicago, and finally made it to Seattle after 12 hours. As tired as I was, I anticipated the step outside. I usually get this incredible emotion, a mix of contentment and familiarity, a rush of glassy lakes and painted mountains. I dragged my suitcase outside with me, looked out at the flat grey sky, and inhaled.
Instead, there was something else – a strange feeling I couldn’t place. It sat in my chest, somewhat uncomfortably, even as the Toyota pulled up and I saw my mother for the first time since summer.
When we came home, the first thing I did was walk to the kitchen. I expected fireworks to burst in my heart, rainbows to pump through my veins and surge out my fingertips when we reunited. Nothing had changed in my absence. The walls were the same marigold yellow, the same checkerboard tile covered the floor, but somehow it wasn’t the kitchen I’d remembered and missed. It looked cramped and dim, hardly big enough for three people and two dogs.
I wheeled my bag into my old room, pulled out my Boston sweatshirt, and fell asleep without unpacking.
Over the next few days, I saw Grandma and my parents, which made me feel like daybreak inside. Almost at once I caught up with old friends, a both strange and easy experience. But during the afternoon, with no classes or job to distract me, I got bored. If I wasn’t asleep, I suffered from bad headaches all day. And that uncomfortable feeling lodged in my chest hadn’t vanished.
By now, I’ve figured out what the feeling is… homesickness. I know it’s ridiculous to feel homesick for school when I’m home. I also see how pointless it is to wallow in sadness, pining for Boston, while I have three weeks left in this beautiful place. If I don’t appreciate the rain, family, and happiness I can only find in Seattle, I’ll regret it a month later when I’m gone.
The solution for the headaches didn’t come in Tylenol. It’s a healthy combination of Mom’s noodle soup, Dad’s sweater hugs, damp dog paws all over my bed and the tug of a camera strap. It’s a sifting of flour on my apron and cinnamon dust on my palms. It’s not exactly a bitter pill to swallow.
One of the best things about being home is the food. Predictable, but it isn’t even the food as much as the ingredients. There are the luxury items I haven’t bought in college – all natural creamy peanut butter, the kind you have to stir up before spreading. Soft handmade tortillas, brown rice, even almonds! It’s a joyful thing to appreciate a quick handful of almonds before dinner. And produce! Even in winter, at home I’m eating crisp spinach and sweet Asian pears.
The school menu never changes, and most of the fruit comes out of a can, soaked in sugary syrup. At home, every flavor is amplified. The grapefruit I sliced with my first breakfast back was so clean and fresh, the sharpest thing I’d tasted in ages. After I devoured it, I thought about citrus the rest of the day. I’ve been drinking grapefruits the way parched survivors reach for water.
Reacquainting myself with our kitchen is like slipping into a familiar song. Every measuring cup is where I know it’ll be. Pans still clink and clatter in our cupboard, and that old bag of shredded coconut still has some life in it. The microplane zester, still my favorite tool in the room, is just as sharp as ever. The result? Coconut-Grapefruit Cupcakes with Matcha Frosting.
Even baked into a cupcake, the grapefruit manages to refresh. It’s light and zingy, pairing beautifully with the sweetness of coconut. And the frosting? I wanted something mellow and subtle, and the green tea powder I bought from Pike Place Market over the summer was just the right touch.
When I opened that oven door, the warm air that surged up was so fragrant and sweet. I was caught off guard by how hot it was, and how good it felt against the oven mitt. Later, in bed, I rolled over and pressed my nose into my hair – it smelled like sugar. It was one of the best smells I’d almost forgotten.
I think I’ll bake again tomorrow.
[It's good to be back. See you in 2011!]
Dear Mom and Dad,
I know it’s been a while. A long while. I’m sorry that I’ve stopped sending daily photos – it’s because I don’t have any photos to send. And I know I haven’t called in weeks. Every day is a jumble of classes, radio, clubs, essays, work, and somehow the things I used to be so passionate about have been pushed aside in the struggle. But I also know how much I care about you, and more importantly, you know it too. Four days until I fly home.
Dad, it was so good to see you over Thanksgiving. I opened the car door and saw you standing in the garage. You just looked at me like you were seeing sunlight for the first time in months. I had just woken up; I didn’t care that you were in work clothes and covered in dust when I fell into that hug. I love that it didn’t take more than ten minutes for one of your smart aleck comments to get on my nerves. You probably missed the way I roll my eyes.
I missed your cooking. I was glad you remembered I like my spaghetti swimming (drowning) in tomato sauce, even though I knew you wouldn’t forget. Did you see how quickly I shoveled that potato-celery root puree down? Yes, I was hungry, and no, they don’t cook food like that in our dining hall. But what really made it good was the way it tasted like twilight on the patio, too many dishes on the counter, the warmth of a dog under the table. Even though I slept for two days straight that week, it was good to be home.
Also, it was fun kicking your butt in Wii boxing.
Mom. I can’t believe I haven’t seen you since August. When we parted, our red currants were still in season and it was so hot in Boston, I almost passed out that afternoon at the T station. Now, the metal spokes of my umbrella are mangled from wind and my rubber rain boots have split along the sides. We’ve had little flurries of snow, but I still stubbornly wear sundresses to class. You’d throw a fit if you saw me walk out like that. I’d point to my tights, and you’d tell me to put on another coat. (You’d be right.)
I always think about the last time I saw you. We were sitting in Neptune Oyster, having our last dinner together. I had finished eating a while ago, but I kept watching you pick at your calamari. I couldn’t bring myself to get up and leave because I knew I would be gone for good. There was no chance of me saying it aloud, but I was terrified. I remember our last hug, and rushing to leave before it overwhelmed me. The last thing I remember is your face – so conflicted.
I know you stress. I hear it in your voice when we talk on the phone, even though you try not to mention your anxieties. You’re worried I’m not eating right, not sleeping enough, working too hard. Maybe. But I hope you know I’m happy despite everything. I’ve grown up a lot in a semester, in most ways for the better. I can’t wait to make you proud with what I’ve accomplished.
The first half of my freshman year went by in a blink. The other day I got in an elevator with the director of undergraduate admissions. He recognized me, and he was seriously interested: was the school a good fit? Was I finding a good balance between challenge and creativity? I told him I was. When I visited in April, I was uncertain. Today, I am sure.
Dad, when we flew out six months ago to check this place out, you remember how much I liked the radio station and the internship opportunities. I was impressed with the students I met and the professors I spoke with. But sometimes I think the decision really came down to… nougat.
It was spring, and cherry blossoms lined the North End like pale pink bridesmaids. We were walking down the brick streets when we saw a huge group of people standing outside Modern Pastry. We’d never heard of it, but we figured we couldn’t argue with a wait like that. When we finally got into the bakery, we bought a bar of nougat – simple, unassuming, and a little out of our comfort zone.
The first bite. Sticky sugar on our fingers and the way every piece melted in our mouths. I thought I’d never had anything so good before. We fought over the last bite. I can’t remember who let who have it. I don’t go into the North End as often as I’d like, but I never forget that nougat.
I tried to recreate it myself, a version with orange blossom water and pistachios. It was, well, utterly inedible. Recipes involving candy thermometers are my weakness, so the nougat never came together. Even after I stuck it in the fridge, it was a sticky disaster, caught between solid and liquid, and a total waste of nuts. It did make me laugh.
But I still had half a bag of pistachios, so I split their shells and poured whole milk into a saucepan. A good fit for another Italian dessert, gelato. Elegant, subtle, and a buttery green, it captured the spirit of my favorite nut perfectly. I also had a bag of frozen blackberries – remember how we picked them over the summer? – so I thought I’d make a blackberry creamsicle sherbet too. It turns out, blackberry and pistachio go beautifully together, the nuttiness of one balancing the sweetness of the other.
Maybe I’ll try the nougat again when I’m home. But most likely not. I’ll spend every day with you two, Mom and Dad, and with Grandma (I’m studying hard and having fun) and Tilly and Otis. I’ll gorge myself on some real food, catch up on a lot of sleep, and find that new balance between child and adult I’m still discovering.
I know how obsessively you two check 17 and Baking, so you’ll read this before I’m home, probably within hours of its posting. I’m not going to say how much I love you, because that’s the kind of thing you do in person. Four days, Mom and Dad.
I’m sitting in the dining hall, eating breakfast in the same black collared button-up and black slacks that I wore to work yesterday. Last night, long after midnight, after I finally staggered out of the elevator and fumbled with the key to my door, I was too tired to change out of my server’s clothes before I crashed into bed. This morning, up bright and early, I was too tired to change into anything else.
I’ve had a little experience in the restaurant industry, but working front of the house is an entirely different animal. It’s exhausting. I remember orientation, trying to remember how all the buttons on the computer worked and the numbering of the tables. They gave me two weeks of shadowing to get used to the lay of the land, and I couldn’t like the people I work with more.
My first non-training day was earlier this week. For the first time, I’d have my own section. “Elissa” would be printed on top of all of my receipts. And I’d take home any tips I made. I tied my apron straps into a bow and stepped through the kitchen doors onto the floor.
The first thing I noticed was that my shoes weren’t broken in yet. It takes a little adjustment to get used to being on your feet a whole shift. As a server, you don’t have much time to sit around and lounge. If you aren’t running plates, bussing tables or putting in orders, there is always side work to do – scoop ice into the water pitchers, refill the coffee thermos, work the bakery, restock napkins. You learn not to sit down. And on that first day, I felt it in my soles.
I needed to keep everything in place. This is a skill that doesn’t come naturally to me, the ability to juggle five tables which all expect you to make them your first priority. I began to forget which table came in first, who ordered what, whether Table 5 wanted the decaf refill or the check. As the rush set in and my tables filled up, my mind became more and more jumbled, until everything was one overwhelming noise that never quieted.
You get used to smiling. Even though your shoes are slowly killing you. Even though you messed up 12’s order and you know they aren’t happy, even though the kids at 8 will ask a million questions and probably order nothing but hot chocolate. As a server, you need to be upbeat. You can’t let a bad afternoon show in your face, because it’s not about you – it’s about making every guest feel welcome and at ease, and when it really comes down to it, that’s so much more important than a tip.
I did the best I could my first day, and it wasn’t perfect. Or even close. I sent one table a free crème brûlée because I’d made a mistake with their order, and they’d waited patiently forever. At another table, the couple ordered a full out meal – drinks, soup, salad, dinner, and dessert – ringing up an enormous bill and leaving me with a tip of zero dollars, zero cents. A four-top of teenaged boys left me under 10%.
I pushed through the swinging door with a plate of dirty glasses to bus. At the dish pit, with three servers all working around each other, somebody stumbled, and a stream of dirty dishwater splashed through my collared shirt and down my leg, pressing the cloth against my skin in a cool drench. I didn’t have a change of clothes, or the time anyway. I walked back onto the floor to bring in another tray, and on the way to the kitchen, my wrist gave out and I dropped a towering stack of plates.
Every fork stilled, every face turned, and even though the background music continued to play, for a moment the restaurant stopped. I didn’t know the room could go silent.
It was rough. Nearing the end of the night I was so frustrated; I was trying with everything I had but I couldn’t make excuses. On top of everything, I would leave almost empty handed, with little more than a few callouses. I couldn’t bring myself to think about the homework I had left.
Closing drew near. The restaurant slowed to a trickle and we tackled the side work and remaining tables. One of my bosses, C-, called me over to the bar. I didn’t know what else could have gone wrong.
I almost couldn’t handle it. An ice cream sundae, filled to burst and topped with a ridiculous amount of brightly-lit rainbow candles.
“Blow out the bad juju,” she said. I blew out the candles.
In the back room, I dipped a spoon into the ice cream sundae and almost wanted to cry. The pastry chef, M-, had made it exactly the way I liked – with scoops of vanilla, coffee, and chocolate ice cream, chocolate and caramel sauce, almonds, brownie bits, a beehive swirl of whipped cream and a clown red cherry. I could only eat a couple bites before I had to go back to work, but nothing could have tasted better.
I tried to thank M- as I walked by, but nothing came out. She had a ridiculous smile on her face. And I pulled myself up and finished out my tables with a smile, and walked home with a pocketful of blown-out candles.
Next week, those callouses will have made me stronger. My shoes will feel a little softer. But until then, I’ll throw myself into my essay and wrap up my radio package, trying unsuccessfully to get my mind off of chocolate and ice cream.
[PS I'm falling behind, I know, but I'm doing my best. It's a struggle to find time to eat and sleep, but blogging is like breathing, and I'll continue to work it in whenever I have a minute.]