Posts tagged ‘buttery’

The Confidence Cookie

A few weeks ago, my friend T- brought a container of homemade cookies to school. As people got up from around me to try them, I figured I should grab one before they all ran out. My fingers were inches from the box when T- covered the cookies with both hands and moved the whole container closer to her. “You can’t have one!” she said. I looked around and gestured at the cookies being devoured by half the table. She just looked at me, and I heard someone say, “Well, duh! Elissa bakes.”

While I wish I could have tried one (they looked great,) I understand where T- was coming from. I don’t have any reservations about bringing baked goods to school, to my volunteering sites, even to my SAT prep class – but there was one place I couldn’t touch, and that was Seastar, the restaurant where I intern. Somehow, I couldn’t make myself bring cookies to a professional kitchen full of chefs making excellent food. I didn’t want to disappoint, and I didn’t want to be embarrassed.

But a month or so into my internship, my boss J- uttered a few of the most frightening words I’d ever heard: “Why don’t you bake for us next week? I’d love to see your skills.” I nervously agreed, and spent the next few days agonizing over which cookies to make. I finally decided on two cookies I’ve made many times before, that are simple and always taste good… My Perfect Gingersnaps and my Tiny Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Buttons.

Baking in the Seastar kitchen was nothing like baking at home. One of the things I dislike about baking with other people is that they don’t know my kitchen inside and out, but here, it took me forever to find anything. Although I was working with familiar recipes, being in a new kitchen completely threw me off my game.

The Seastar pantry is amazing. It has every ingredient, even ones that don’t show up on their menu (like peanut butter!) Even though the pantry is small, it’s compact, and it took me as much time to find my ingredients as it did to bake the cookies. I stood there without moving my feet once, eyes scanning every shelf and still managing to overlook everything I needed.

I spent a good five minutes searching for the canola oil, looking in vain at the oversized plastic jugs, before I realized that the box I was standing next to on the floor was a giant container of it. The eggs came in packs of fifteen dozen but still took me a long time to find, hiding on the very top shelf in the walk-in. The butter came in huge, 32 ounce blocks that softened in mere minutes in the hazy heat of the Seastar kitchen.

After collecting my ingredients, I started looking for tools but even found those to be unfamiliar territory. I found a standard sized KitchenAid mixer and didn’t need to use the huge Hobart, but nearly everything else was oversize. I opened every drawer looking for a spatula until I realized that the giant rubber one I was holding was the only size on hand. I tried to find a whisk, but the smallest whisk at Seastar was the size of my largest at home.

When I bake in my own kitchen, it’s utter relaxation. I am usually alone, I always open the curtains and dim the artificial lights, and the kitchen starts out cool and slowly warms as the oven heats up. At Seastar, with the heat and the bright lights, and servers and chefs constantly walking behind me, it was hard to conjure up those feelings of serenity. Even if the kitchen hadn’t been so busy, the pressure to perform would have caused anxiety.

The one change that I fully welcomed was the dishes. At home I stop every few minutes to put tools away and hand wash bowls no longer in use. Here, I simply stacked my dirty dishes high and dropped them off in the dishwashing room. I’d go grab a few more ingredients, and on my way back I’d pick up the perfectly cleaned and dried dishes again. It’s the one thing I wish I could bring home!

The peanut butter dough came together without trouble, but the gingersnaps were more temperamental. Since Seastar doesn’t have small measuring cups, I had to use 4-cup liquid measuring pitchers and eyeball the proper amounts. My proportions were slightly off, and factoring in the humidity, my dough was much sticker than usual. I chilled it until it was workable, then returned to the prep kitchen and began rolling it into balls. After about five minutes, my hands were coated with gingery batter and the dough had begun to melt.

Frustrated, I grabbed all of my work and went to the walk-in fridge. I began to shape the cookies there, between the chilled chanterelle cream and the king crab legs. There were five dozen cookies to roll into even balls and toss in sugar. I usually do this slowly at home, listening to music or daydreaming as my hands work. Today, shivering in my shoes, I just wanted to be quick.

After only two dozen in, my cheeks reddened, goosebumps rose on my arms, and I could see my breath every time I exhaled. I try to dress light under my chef’s jacket because of the warmth on the line, but here in the fridge, I was shivering – hard. My fingers began to stiffen, but I was determined to get it done. Fifteen minutes later I walked out with the tray of ready-to-bake cookies, flushed but defiant and proud of my adaptability.

I knew the gingersnap batter was irregular and wasn’t sure how they would taste. I pulled out the first batch and noted how thin and flat they were, unlike my usual gingersnaps, but they were still sparkly with sugar and perfectly round. A waitress walked by and lifted one right off the warm sheet. I waited with my breath held as she chewed with a thoughtful look on her face. She looked me dead in the eye and said, “This is the best gingersnap I’ve ever had.”

I left the kitchen with a familiar feeling, for the first time that night – downright glowy with happiness at sharing my baked goods.

After the success of my first baking day, I was asked to bake again a few weeks later. Having baked in the Seastar kitchen before, I was much quicker to assemble ingredients and tools. With my new confidence I decided to attempt a much more difficult cookie (I’ll be sharing the recipe once I make it again at home!) Unlike last time, when S- preheated the oven for me, I had to set up the oven myself. I adjusted the temperature and noticed a switch for the fan. Since I don’t bake convection at home, I turned the fan off.

When 25 minutes passed and the cookies were mostly baked, but undercooked in the centers, I knew something was up. The cooking time was only supposed to be 10 minutes. I removed those cookies to cool, put the rest of the batches in, and was about to leave when I noticed the fan switch. Curious, I switched it on, then left to go find somebody to explain this unfamiliar oven to me.

When I returned ten minutes later, I saw to my horror that the fan had most certainly done the job. The cookies were dark brown, burned to an absolute crisp, not a single one salvageable. When J- walked by and I explained the situation, he smiled and said, “The fan helps everything bake evenly. Without it, the oven turns itself off.” Oh, boy, did I feel dumb. Half the cookies were underbaked, and half were overbaked.

More than anything I felt embarrassed as people walked by and asked to try a cookie. After the last successful time, they were calling me “the cookie intern” and praising my skills. I didn’t want to say no, but I didn’t want these cookies to represent me.

I can’t remember the last time in my life I’ve burned anything, and I’ve never burned anything that people liked. But people only had nice things to say about my awful cookies. One waiter told me that they didn’t only taste good, they were “texturally profound!”

I managed to walk to my car feeling just as glowy as last time. After all, mistakes happen, some failure is inevitable, and I am sure to embarrass myself more than a few times. But it doesn’t say anything about me as a person, or even as a baker. If anything, it’s good for me.

This week, I made shortbread cookies. They’re buttery yellow, melt-in-your-mouth, and ridiculously quick to make. I piped them with a large star tip and dipped them in melted dark chocolate. I brought them into work feeling nothing but happy to be there. I set them down and got to work, and when I came back, not a single one was left. It’s good to stand back up and be fearless, and this much is true – no matter what your skill level is and who you’re baking for, a cookie is always appreciated.

[On a totally unrelated note, happy November! And if you tweet, check out Chef John Howie’s twitter – he’s the owner of Seastar, along with some other great restaurants, and just made an account.]
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November 2, 2009 at 5:23 pm 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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