Posts tagged ‘brunch’

Tall, Soft Biscuits

Tall, Soft Biscuits

I first heard my favorite book, To Kill a Mockingbird, as an impressionable 5th grader. My teacher read a few chapters every day after lunch. Her soft, steady voice was like sunlight as she spoke, and while some of my classmates drooped over their desks in boredom, I sat straighter and tilted my face upward.

I’ve lived in the Pacific Northwest just about my whole life, and I was enchanted by the Maycomb women’s powdered faces and slow drawls. I easily forgot who and where I was as I listened. Although I knew nothing about the South, I could tangibly feel the stifling Alabama heat and the tangled overgrowth of leaves against my skin as I staked out Boo Radley’s house with Scout, Dill, and Jem.

Even at 10 years old, I recognized that I was experiencing something special. Now at 18 (yeah, 18), I love the way my understanding of the book deepens with each reread. I’m floored by how eloquently and beautifully the story unfolds. But most of all, I never forget how utterly transported I felt the first time I read it – and that’s why it’ll always be my favorite book.

Tall, Soft Biscuits

That was only the first time I can remember being completely immersed in emotion.

I vividly recall conducting research for a historical investigation on the Holocaust. I read books cross-legged with my back against the wall. Hours later, I hadn’t moved or taken notes. I didn’t think about how I must have looked, sniffling into the pages. I wandered the silent, towering shelves aimlessly, feeling filled with history, until the library closed.

Another day, I listened to Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Hell-Heaven.” I was riding the bus home, but I couldn’t have told you the time or the year or what kind of shoes I wore. I fell so deeply into the story that I missed my stop. I had to walk an extra half-mile through the hail but I didn’t even care, so long as the words kept flowing through the headphone wires.

I admit that I like being overwhelmed by books, music, articles and movies. I want to be swept away into a strange world made familiar, and I want to experience all the emotions and senses that come with the journey.

Tall, Soft Biscuits

Even though there are no words, speeches, or lyrics in the kitchen, it happens with food. Just picture fruit salad, chicken cooked on the grill and dripping ice cream – don’t you feel intensely summery? A slice of almond-pear tart evokes the cobblestone of Paris. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich brings me back to simpler days in the lunch room.

It’s hard to write something that will touch people. I get caught up in word choice, diction, the details that will make the piece surprising and truthful. But ingredients and photographs speak for themselves. Across the country, anyone can slice open an avocado or knead pretzel dough and really feel something. When it comes to cuisine, the story is in you. You use your memories and experiences to create the feeling all on your own.

It’s just one of the many things I find beautiful about baking. Food really is the common thread for people everywhere. Even if you can’t compose a symphony or publish a novel, everyone around you can taste the love, the life and the heritage in your cooking.

Tall, Soft Biscuits

These biscuits. I didn’t feel anything unusual when I patted out the dough, cut out the rounds with a glass or brushed the tops with cream. I thought about homework and a couple emails I needed to send while they baked. We had a beautiful breakfast that morning – all fresh-squeezed tangerine juice and tender eggs – but it was nothing special, just a regular weekend morning.

Monday morning, I was at my grumpiest.  The shower wouldn’t get hot and I was annoyed. I was irritated by how long it took the biscuit to heat up. But one bite was all it took. Spread with jam, it brought me back to that moment when Dad gave me a good morning hug, and Mom slid potatoes onto my plate, and I thought that nobody could ever ask for anything more.

And possibly, maybe if you make these – you can bring that moment to your kitchen too.

Tall, Soft Biscuits

[PS: It was my birthday this week, so I am technically no longer "17 and baking." But don't worry! The blog name, URL, and all the links are staying the same. "18 and Baking" just doesn't have the same ring to it. :) Also, the Canon is broken. I can't take photos while it's getting fixed, but hopefully I can be on time with my next post. Thanks for sticking with me!]

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April 20, 2010 at 3:14 pm 69 comments

Rising Confidence and Yeast-Raised Doughnuts

donut8wm

As boring as it might sound, I’m comfortable with the ordinary. I like routines.

I hit the snooze button twice every morning before crossing the cool carpet to get my fuzzy socks. I have the same cereal in my favorite breakfast bowl, the marbled blue and white one that says “Good Morning” in wavy print along the rim.

When school is finally over, I head to the same patch of parking lot, leaning from the weight of my backpack onto the bumper of my friend C-‘s car. As we carpool home, I look out the window and remark how much brighter each day is getting, and he smiles and turns up the radio.

I like routines, because I like the comfort of knowing what to do – it keeps me focused and organized, and I feel like I’m on target.

donut7wm

Sometimes, though, you’re forced to adapt, to step out of your comfort zone even if you haven’t put on your shoes or accumulated enough experience. Lately at Seastar, the restaurant where I intern, I’ve been working on banquets, which are uncharted waters for me.

Banquets are different from normally working on the pantry line. Instead of plating orders of food for tables, the Seastar chefs make enough food to feed a private business or organization. While the biggest ticket I’ll probably tackle on the pantry line is for 8 people, banquets can go up in the hundreds. And banquets, unlike salads or desserts on their own, are composed of multiple courses.

If you ask me, banquets are much more stressful. There’s a palpable intensity in the kitchen that I can’t quite handle. There’s a rush to cook and plate the food, and though I wish I could help, I just haven’t learned enough yet. For starters, I’ve never seen most of the entrees and appetizers, and for another, I haven’t picked up the skills to execute what my mentors are doing.

donut5wm

I tried to be helpful, running to plate hundreds of cheese-filled fingerling potatoes. I used only my fingertips, the way I saw the chef before me, to move each potato half from the sweltering pan to the platter. But as hard as I tried, I couldn’t imitate the nimble way the other chefs worked. The blistering heat from the bubbling cheese seemed to burn holes in my palms, and I was slow and clumsy. I ended up stepping back because I felt like a burden.

It’s not like me to get flustered, to feel incompetent and to cast my eyes down in atypical introversion. So even though I didn’t like working on banquets, and could have said so – I think that ultimately this new experience will be good for me, it’ll help me acquire new skills and tougher fingertips.

I had the chance to go back to the pantry line, and I will sometime. But at the moment, it would seem like giving up, and determination is one of my stronger qualities when I put my mind to something. So I’ll keep working through the banquets, despite my frustration and the lack of coordination between my ambition and my ability.

donut10wm

I know someday the turnaround will come. I’ll be wiping down the counters after a night spent on my feet when I’ll realize I was helpful that day; that my presence made things run a little more smoothly. And everything will be worth it. Right now, I want to try new things in every area of my life, from the stainless steel kitchens at work to my quiet, sunlit kitchen at home.

I’m making a greater and greater variety of things now. In the past, unsure of myself or “realistic” as I called it, I stuck to simple cakes and cookies. Now I’ve made so many things I never thought I could tackle, from French macarons to bagels. I want to cross everything off my wishlist. Every success and every failure makes me a little more daring, and suddenly I forget the appeal of the routine.

When people ask me if I cook, I laugh and shrug a little, and when they ask about bread I deflect by describing my mother’s talents. I’ve said many times before that I’m scared of making bread because I’ve never worked with yeast. But now, I can finally proudly say that I’ve made a yeast-raised baked good – and it wasn’t any scarier than jumping off a diving board.

donut1wm

I don’t know what gave me the push to make doughnuts. I’ve been eying them for a while, longingly. But the thought of working with yeast, and the “probable failure” I expected overpowered my desire. Who knows what gave me the final push? Maybe 17 and Baking, a browse through Tastespotting, or simply a craving for something homey.

In an effort to avoid the plunge, I considered making cake doughnuts or baked doughnuts. But in my heart I wanted to make yeast-raised doughnuts, fluffy and tall and pillowy, and no talk of “healthier baked doughnuts” or “cakey rings of goodness” could really sway me. My refrigerator was stocked with homemade blackberry jam and leftover meyer lemon curd, and I rejected my reservations like a deep exhalation.

It seemed simple enough to let the yeast bloom in the water like a dusty ripple, and when I peeked underneath the warm towel I saw that the dough had doubled in size. From there it I felt like I was on stable ground, easily cutting the doughnut rings like they were sugar cookies, and chasing them in the bubbling oil with my slotted spoon.

donut4wm

And the first bite? Anything but ordinary.

[PS: The comments on last week's post were better than a hug from my mom or falling asleep with my dog Tilly (well, maybe.) It was unexpected and so uplifting. Thank you for being supportive, and I want to add that since the exposure has died down, I haven't had experienced any more negativity.]
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February 2, 2010 at 7:19 pm 81 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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