Posts tagged ‘autumn’

For Mom, Dad, and Grandma

My mom tells a funny story from my childhood. Her best friend’s brother was babysitting me in his office. When my mother returned two and half hours later, I was sitting at his typewriter – though I’d never used one before – typing out a story, using one chubby finger to press the stiff keys. She tells me that everyone who saw it was shocked – what kind of four year old patiently sits for two and half hours to write a story, letter by letter?

My blog is physically fueled with flour, eggs, and several tons of sugar, but what really drives me to maintain it is my passion for writing. I’ve only recently begun to bake, but my love for the written word has been nurtured throughout the years by everyone close to me.

The other day I discovered an old photo album. I looked through it with my mom and we sat on the bed, both trying not to get overly sentimental as we turned the plastic pages with delicate fingers. Memories surfaced of birthday parties, old friends, our life in California, my loved ones in Texas whom I haven’t seen in years… I looked at my beaming face in every picture, my mother’s beautiful smile, my dad’s goofy grin and my grandmother’s affectionate winks, my grandfather’s crinkled laugh.

My best friend D- (left) and me (right) in 2nd grade

I can’t even write this post without tearing up a little. I had a beautiful, wonderful childhood. As I looked at our faces in the photos, I felt sad for any distress I ever caused my family in my rocky pre-teen years, or during my outbursts of stress as a teenager in high school. I almost wish I could be their sweet six year old again.

While I can’t be that child anymore, I appreciate everything they’ve done for me, and I have an overwhelming desire to make them proud as I grow into an adult. The evidence of their love is displayed for the whole world to see here on this very blog, reflecting in your eyes as you read these words.

Some of my oldest memories involve snuggling into a pillow at my grandparents’ house, listening to my grandmother tell bedtime stories. She is a fantastic storyteller. I’d give her the first subject that popped into my head, and she would craft the story on the spot, spinning tales of silk ribbons, fat lovable penguins, and clever mice who lived in museums. I always closed my eyes and fell asleep with her gentle, patient voice in my ears, like the sound of the ocean in a seashell.

Besides leaving me with pleasant dreams and a lingering smile, her stories sparked my own creativity and passion for storytelling. I spent my childhood writing poetry and half-finished stories, filled with characters I still cherish today. Even more importantly, her stories all concealed values and morals, subtle enough to escape my knowledge but influence me all the same. One night she described a town which rained rainbow paint, changing the skin colors of the townspeople with each passing storm. I was enchanted by the story, unaware of its themes of acceptance and diversity. Her stories helped me be a better person.

Grandma and I on a road trip – I think we caught a tadpole. :)

My mother introduced me to a new kind of writing. As soon as I was old enough to write the letters, she bought me my first diary and made sure I wrote something every night. In all honesty, I didn’t enjoy it. Some evenings I would get away with writing a couple sentences about dinner or school before running out to play – “Today I had broccoli. It was disgusting.”

But even an entry about something as simple as that night’s vegetables forced me to think about my actions and translate them into words. That little bit of writing every night built up my vocabulary and improved my grammar, and by the time I was in grade school, I was writing entries on my own free will. I wrote about my best friends, the ups and downs of the fourth grade, and what my parents were making for dinner. I wrote to remember, but I also wrote to write. I still keep a journal today, and although I write every few months instead of every day, it isn’t a chore.

By the time I got to high school, writing essays and homework assignments was never difficult, and I know my mother’s influence is there. Creativity and imagination isn’t all it takes to be a writer – it takes perseverance, dedication, and practice too. It’s not just writing, though – in every aspect of my life my mom pushes me to be the best I can be, and she couldn’t have loved me better, or given me any more of herself than she has over the years.

With my mom in front of our old apartment. She is a beautiful person inside and out.

It won’t surprise my regular readers to hear that my dad has also played a huge role in the process. In elementary school, he encouraged me to participate in creative writing programs. I entered the Reflections contest in 4th grade with my short story, “What’s for Dinner?” When I moved through the school, district, and state levels with my story, he was there every step of the way. He held my hand when I was finally out of the running and stood, crying, in the hallway of the awards ceremony. He helped me get up, move on, and submit another written piece the next year.

In middle school, he showed me authors who used words in ways I’d never considered, inspiring me to branch out. After reading a collection of Kafka stories in 7th grade, I wrote my first short story without a happy ending, attempting to imitate Kafka’s voice. I felt a little unsure about its ominous tone and dark ending, but he praised it until I couldn’t stop smiling. While that story doesn’t reflect my own personal writing style, it’s remained one of my favorite pieces over the years.

When I began to show an interest in journalism, it was my father who truly made it happen. Without his encouragement and research on my behalf, I would have never become an intern for the local paper, or been able to work with journalists from the Seattle Times. I’d originally loved to write because of the creativity and reflection involved, but after the opportunities I’ve been given, now I can see a new purpose in writing. I dream of pursuing the truth and justice, of stirring the sleeping compassion in every person, of making a difference in the lives around me.

I’m in my prettiest dress and headband with my dad. He’s my coach and my #1 fan all at once.

And after everything my family has done for me, I’ve done something for myself, completely on my own: 17 and Baking. Blogging is even another type of writing, unlike anything I’ve tried before. And all of you – for reading, for commenting, for making me smile – all of you have also inspired me to write. Your support keeps this blog going, something that brings me endless joy, and something I hope makes my family proud every day.

So here I am today, with roots in creative fiction and an appreciation for the written word’s ability to persuade, explain, and explore. I have newspaper print inked onto my fingertips and silly limericks stamped on my soles. When I look back at my life, I feel like a walking pinball machine, filled with balls of light that bounce around my ribs and brighten me from within. It hasn’t been an easy journey to grow up, but I know I always have a place to call home. I don’t know what the future holds, but I know I am a writer at heart… and I truly can’t wait for my life ahead of me.

The recipe for this old-fashioned apple cake is handwritten by my Great-Aunt Ethel. It was the perfect excuse to use some old apples, and the fact that it was a family recipe made it all the better… it made me feel closer to my roots, and it made me feel like home.

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November 20, 2009 at 9:52 pm 47 comments

Cream Cheese Rippled Pumpkin Bread

Last week I turned in my senior quote. I did a slight twist on Harriet van Horne’s quote and submitted, “Baking is like love. It should be entered into with abandon, or not at all.” Every aspect of my life, baking no exception, intertwines with heartfelt emotion, passion, and optimism. I have always been, and will always be, a girl who wears her heart on her sleeve.

I’m the kind of person who is confident about true love, believes that all people deep down are born good, and can’t help but suspect that karma really exists. I have never been someone who places priorities on logic and cold hard facts, but instead intuition and what your heart is telling you.

English, history, and topics involving different cultures and philosophies are predictably my favorite classes. I despise science and math. To me, those subjects emphasize a detachment that I can’t get past. I don’t see the beauty in numbers and unchanging, unemotional laws.

It seems that I would see baking the way that I see everything else – throw my soul into it, use feel instead of precise measurement, and consider recipes more like suggestions. There’s such a romance to imagine being in the kitchen without notes, just using your heart to produce something beautiful, and yet, it’s just not how I work.

On Halloween, my friends D- and M- came over to bake. If they were expecting me to approach baking the way I see the rest of the world, with a carefree attitude and sentimental lightheartedness, they were surprised. They did all the measuring and mixing themselves, but they had to be as precise as my standards. As M- measured out the flour, I showed him how to fluff it up in the bin, fill the cup using a spoon, and level it off with a knife. I showed D- how to use the scale when portioning the cream cheese.

M- began to use the wrong side of the knife to level the sugar, using the curved edge and measuring out less than the full cup. When I pointed this out, he rolled his eyes and said, “Jeez, Elissa, baking isn’t a science.”

Without even thinking, acting on pure instinct, I told him, “Yes it is.”

Yes, there is a romance to imagine someone working without recipes, knowing the exact feel of the dough. But I’m not experienced enough to know everything by feel and create recipes in my head. And while I’ll frequently swap ingredients in recipes to match my preferences, I am as exact and scientific about measuring as possible. While it doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of my outlook on the world, it works for me.

In science especially, I find the need for precision exhausting. I’m not patient enough to pipette liquid into a beaker drop by drop to get exactly 30 ml. I just get bored repeating the same experiment five times to get enough trials for an accurate average. But weirdly enough, this is one of my favorite parts of baking.

When I chop and measure out exactly 4 ounces of chocolate, using my little scale, I focus so intently that I don’t think about anything else. Classes, college apps, my social life – none of it even makes an appearance when I bake. It’s not possible for my mind to totally clear while I have so many responsibilities, but there isn’t much room left over to think about my grades while I’m weighing 100 grams of sugar.

It was weird to realize that I see baking as a science, but I stand by it. I love knowing how the ingredients work together, seeing how a slight change in ingredient or technique can drastically change a dessert. Even though I love the idea of an Italian grandmother making gnocchi by memory, or a patient baker kneading dough entirely on feel, I also love the way I feel when the scale reads exactly three ounces. Somehow, I can see a beauty in that too.

The pumpkin bread that I made with D- and M- was devoured in minutes that night at a Halloween party. When I arrived with the warm loaf, only one person was hungry enough to cut a small slice. But when he went back to practically inhale another, everyone followed, and the loaf was cut into huge square chunks until every last crumb was gone.

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November 12, 2009 at 2:41 am 79 comments

The Daring Bakers Practice Their French Kissing – Cinnamon and Cream Cheese Macarons

When I was in elementary school, I had a neighbor who I always played with, N-. I looked up to her for most everything – she was smart, pretty, and just older than me to have unquestionable authority. Whenever we played, whether it was pretend school or board games, she set the rules and stage of everything we did.

One day a new bike appeared on N-’s front lawn. At nine years old I thought it was utterly, undeniably the most perfect and beautiful bicycle I’d ever seen. The body was a seamless silver not yet smudged by fingerprints, with a shiny white seat and handles. Little blue glittery flowers adorned the spokes of the wheels, blurring into a pretty aqua streak when the bike smoothly accelerated. My own bike, which I’d cherished for years, suddenly seemed babyish in comparison with sparkles on its handlebars and a pink vinyl basket perfect for stuffed animals. But worst of all, my childish pink bike had training wheels – more shameful proof of my inability to match up to N-.

I waited for N- to come back from middle school that day, sitting on my front step. When she waved hello, I took a deep breath, and visualized the words I’d been reciting and editing and reciting again over and over in my head. What came out was simply, “Can I ride it?”

N-’s smile faded and she looked back at the bike, back at me. There is something so irresistible about ownership, something that’s yours, something still new and shiny. Even as children we appreciated possession of something beautiful. Unfortunately, this meant N- was less inclined to share her new toy with an untrustworthy neighbor still in the single digits.

“No,” was all she had to say about that. When she saw my face crumple, she added hastily, “But only because you don’t know how to ride a two wheeler. That’s all. You’d crash it and break it and I just got it new.”

Naturally, then, there was only one thing to do – learn to ride a bike without training wheels.

I had only tried to ride a two wheeler once before. I owned a dark purple bike without training wheels that my mother’s co-worker had given us, but I had never been enchanted by it. With its unattractive black stripes, lack of sparkles, and too-tall seat, I had been more than happy to stick to my pink baby bicycle. Not only did it feel safer, I found it a much more beautiful way to get around.

When my mother initially brought the purple bike home, we did try to use it in the park. Mom held the back of the bicycle seat as I pedaled, but no matter how strongly she tried to convince me that she was holding on, I couldn’t help but constantly look back to make sure she was still there. I never gained the confidence or proper motivation to master the two wheeler. Even though mom bought me a full set of knee and elbow pads, I stubbornly gave up.

Having had a few years to mature and a chance to ride N-’s bike was the perfect push. I immediately went to our garage and lifted out the ugly purple bike I’d never expected to ride again. I wheeled it over to a grassy slope near my house, and snapped on my helmet with a loud click. I was going to be riding this bike by the end of the day, or scrape my knees raw trying.

That day, I spent three hours on that grassy hill. I started by sitting on the bike and simply letting it roll down the slope without pedaling, until I could maintain my balance well enough. Then I repeated the process, this time pedaling the bike as I went. I fell over more times than I could count, staining my jeans green and scraping my palms, but every time I stood back up and got back on. When I could finally ride my bike on the sidewalk all the way back to my house without falling once, I knew I had finally done it.

As it turned out, N- still didn’t want to share, and I never did get the chance to play with her beautiful bike. But I’d learned something valuable in the process, something that I’ve kept with me long after that shiny new bike dulled and N- moved far away. Besides finally graduating to the two wheeled bike, I learned the power of perseverance. When I am truly determined, I can accomplish anything with enough effort, even if it means a few scrapes along the way.

Hugely, this concept has proved true for the Daring Bakers. The lavendar milanos that I made over and over before tasting success come to mind first, and the Dobos Torte that I had to attempt twice. When I saw the Daring Baker’s October challenge, I groaned.

The 2009 October Daring Bakers’ challenge was brought to us by Ami S. She chose macarons from Claudia Fleming’s The Last Course: The Desserts of Gramercy Tavern as the challenge recipe.

Macarons are among the most notorious desserts in the food blogging world, as temperamental and difficult as high school boys. They’ve been on my goal list for months, but to be truthful, I probably would have never been brave enough to attempt them. The Daring Baker’s challenge provided exactly the push I needed. Though I knew I would probably break some eggs, throw a spatula in frustration, and have to make macarons over and over – possibly without success – I felt up to the challenge.

So imagine my surprise when I made the macarons and they came out more beautifully than I would have believed, on my first attempt! I drew the first batch out of the oven and saw to my shock and delight that they had little ruffled feet. While they could have been smoother, taller, and had more perfect feet, I couldn’t have been happier with my results. And the flavor profile I chose evokes warm cinnamon rolls or snickerdoodle cookies.

And now, as a 17 year old in the kitchen, the smell of cinnamon and cream cheese is just as appealing as a gleaming new bike.

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October 27, 2009 at 12:33 am 44 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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