Posts tagged ‘Christmas cookies’
I just finished my junior year of college. Which seems impossible, and exciting. I’ve signed the paperwork on my first two apartments—one in New York, where I’m interning this summer, and another in Cambridge for my senior year. On top of everything else, I’m finally 21. But for some reason I can’t stop thinking about 17.
I haven’t posted in a long time. I didn’t forget or stop trying to. But my life has gone through a lot of changes in the last four years. I moved to the opposite coast, took classes, interned, worked, met new people, studied abroad, and lived on my own for the first time. I was in college and there was so much to do! So much to figure out about myself! And there were so many reasons why I wasn’t blogging.
Occasionally I tried to bake, but it felt like going through the motions. I couldn’t explain why it no longer made me happy, it just didn’t, even before my blogging hiatus began. The last thing I wanted was for 17 and Baking to feel like homework, so I didn’t force it. I wanted to want to write. I just didn’t expect it to take this long.
For months, I could explain to everyone—especially myself—why I “couldn’t” blog. My freshman year dorm didn’t have an oven, ingredients were expensive, I didn’t have the free time I did in high school. But my explanations were starting to sound like excuses. For what, I wasn’t sure.
I began noticing I felt unmotivated about other things too. I’d stopped taking out my camera, even though I loved photography. I kept writing for classes, but the joy and creativity had noticeably packed up and gone a long time ago. I didn’t feel like hanging out with friends or going out on the weekends. I didn’t want to waitress. I just wanted to cozy up at home and watch TV.
At first I thought feeling like this was a natural part of growing up. In addition to all the changes in my life, I stressed about my career, my future, and my “potential,” which I worried wasn’t turning into “reality” fast enough. I convinced myself I no longer enjoyed baking to avoid facing a much more unpleasant truth—that I didn’t really enjoy anything anymore.
I didn’t feel sad exactly, but I felt empty a lot of the time, and for no real reason. Boredom and anxiety pushed out positivity and ambition. Sometimes I realized I didn’t even know why I was upset. The bewilderment and frustration was just as bad as the unhappiness itself. I felt like I was living in my own empty exoskeleton.
Depression is terrifying. There’s no denying that. But I’m learning it touches a lot of people and is nothing to be embarrassed about. It’s also not necessarily a life sentence. Though I can’t explain why, I’ve been feeling better these days. The fog is still there, but I can see beyond it, and I’m excited by the hazy future I can make out.
A few weeks ago, I felt like baking, so I made these blueberry thumbprint cookies. There isn’t a cute memory or anecdote to recall. I couldn’t even tell you why I rolled them in cornflakes (for texture? I don’t know. I didn’t question it.) But I did feel a little better, watching them cool on the counter. I didn’t get my hopes up, but I smiled a little when none of the cookies made it to Day 2.
And today, I found the motivation to publish this post, which I’ve been writing in my head and second-guessing for months. I’m not going to question that either, just keep looking forward.
I don’t know if it was a mistake to let the blogging slow down for so long. Ultimately, I try not to blame myself. I’ve realized it wasn’t something I could just chin up and power through. But it is something I can start again, if I want.
I don’t feel 17 anymore and I won’t pretend to. But that doesn’t mean I’ve outgrown 17 and Baking. Instead, I’d like to think it can grow with me. There are so many things I have yet to do, places to visit, people to meet. There are more wonderful things to look forward to than ever before. I’m going to start with 21.
It takes exactly two minutes to walk from my dorm building to the restaurant where I work.
I know this because I usually tumble out of bed, still sluggish from my afternoon nap, and throw my work clothes into a bag. I half-jog, looking down at my watch at every intersection. In the basement I twist my hair into a side ponytail and tuck a bundle of pens in my apron. I step onto the floor, barely on time.
You’d think I’d learn, but I frequently forget to eat before realizing my shift is in five minutes. Most days I arrive at the restaurant on an empty stomach, thoroughly unprepared for the physical and perhaps emotional stress a nine-hour waitressing shift demands. I’m not really supposed to snack while working, and I don’t have time anyway between running plates and dropping checks.
It takes me six minutes to walk back from the restaurant. I’m considerably slower on my feet by the time I’m through. Eight months experience and I’m still unused to the soreness that seeps into my body at the end of the night. Sometimes the rumbling in my stomach distracts from the tenderness of each step home.
One night, after a particularly taxing shift, I walked straight to my boyfriend I-’s room and pounded on the door, still in chocolate stained work clothes. “I really need to eat,” I said. It was 1:15 am on a Thursday but he shook off the sleep and grabbed his keys. “Wherever you want to go,” he replied, and then we were back outside.
I picked a dumpling house in Chinatown, one of my favorites. I like it because the food is steamy and succulent, I find the Korean pop music they play hilarious, and best of all, it’s open until 2 am. He wasn’t really hungry, and I over-ordered: fried rice, beef kabobs, eggrolls and dumplings. But just before the waiter grabbed our menus, I- added, “And an ice cream sundae too.”
For whatever reason, the sundae came out before the meal. Just a few scoops of store-bought vanilla ice cream, with a quick drizzle of chocolate syrup and a ruffled dome of spray-can whipped cream. For a second, I considered not eating it. But then my hand automatically reached for a spoon and dug in, beyond caring. I don’t know if it was hunger, exhaustion, or the happiness that overcame me sitting with I- in that empty restaurant, but the first bite comforted like cool watermelon juice in August. I scraped the spoon against the bottom of the bowl.
The food that followed was predictably satisfying, but when I look back on that night, what I remember is the sundae we demolished.
Since then, I- texts me throughout my shifts – “Do you want Chinese, pizza, or Mexican when you get back?” Whenever I can, I try to bring him something back from the restaurant in return. Usually, it’s a cookie. The cookies at our restaurant are tangible temptation beneath a glass cake dome. They don’t often last, but if any remain at the end of the night, I snag a peanut butter cookie for myself, a sugar cookie for I-, and triple chocolate for I-’s roommate D-. Mine usually disappears in the six-minute walk back.
I’m a quiet fan of the cookie. They’re irrefutably a childhood staple, considering that at 19 years old, I experience nostalgia when I eat them. I think of the butter cookies my grandma and I made for holidays. The coconut sugar biscuits my Chinese teacher offered during recess. Gingersnaps return me to the 8th grade, sitting Indian-style on the kitchen floor with my nose against the oven’s glass window, watching the tops crack.
As much as I like them, I don’t bake many. I get bored scooping mound after mound, or I get frustrated with the capriciousness of roll-out cookie dough (it’s too soft! Too cold! Too sticky!) With that kind of time, I’d prefer to pipe buttercream onto cupcakes or delve into yeast-risen territory.
This rugelach, though? Worth it, worth it a million times.
As cookies go, these ones are a considerable amount of work. The dough needs to be chilled, requiring some forethought. Then you have to roll out, sprinkle toppings, slice, and bundle into crescent-shaped pillows of brown sugar and apricot preserves. An egg wash coat and dash of cinnamon before the rugelach bakes.
But the resulting cookie is pure heaven. The apricot preserves bubble and transform into a sticky sweet filling, alluring as honey and perfect with milk. The walnuts add just the right textural crunch. Throw in the moist chew of dried cranberries and the soft flakiness cream cheese introduces? An all around winner. Even better than those peanut butter cookies.
Maybe, when I get my hands on a real kitchen and kiss finals week goodbye, I’ll make these cookies for I- and D-. They might not know how much effort goes into them, or how long I spent with floured palms. All they’ll know is that it only takes two minutes to polish off an entire plate, and an afternoon to shake off the smile.
Inspiration has hit me again. Pretty hard. And this time I think it’ll be harder to shake.
I had some free time between classes, so I went to the store. For the first time in my life, I bought myself basic ingredients, starting with absolutely nothing. I tried to balance quality and price as I grabbed flour, sugar (white, brown, and powdered), vanilla, salt, butter, cream, and eggs… At the very last minute, standing in the check out line, I ran back to get baking powder and soda. Almost forgot.
When the total came up and I took out my wallet, I mentally calculated how many tables I’d have to wait to gain it back. Since when was baking such an expensive hobby?
This being-an-adult, shopping-for-your-own-groceries thing is tough. But I smiled the whole ride home.
As the week went on, the anticipation grew. I think this is what I discovered. When the only times you bake are for dinner with the neighbors, birthdays, holidays and paid orders, something is wrong. When you’re baking just because? Because you want to, because it’s Thursday, because there are four pounds of sugar under your bed? These reasons are happiness-generators, like fresh batches of Play Doh and abandoned fields of dandelions.
Faced with the freedom of no guidelines, I couldn’t decide whether to go crunchy or chewy, warm or chilled, chocolate-glazed or baked with fruit. On Saturday I was sure I would make a citrusy pound cake. Sunday I’d switched to some kind of breakfast scone, easy to share with the common room… By Tuesday I found myself wanting a few secret pots de creme in my mini-fridge, a midnight snack just for me.
Then, considering the mediocre fruit selection in the dining hall at lunchtime, it hit me. I took three ripe pears and looked up a recipe for clafouti. I packed all the ingredients and tools, plus a book and my camera. I lugged the ridiculously heavy bag down the street to the dorm building that has kitchens.
The kitchen was a bit of a letdown. There was no soap by the sink for dishes. The windows were blocked by buildings and didn’t let in any natural light, so no photographs. But I figured out how to work the oven, mixed the clafouti batter as best I could, and hoped for success. I sat down to read and discovered that, somewhere in Chapter 2, I could smell sugar.
I pulled the puffed, golden-brown custard out of the oven and experienced a more real satisfaction than I could have possibly imagined. My bones felt solid, my lungs felt full, and would you believe it, I felt starved. I washed the dishes and repacked the bag in a dream, and as I turned to leave, I grabbed the still-hot pan without thinking. My hand automatically opened and the clafouti splattered like vanilla-infused ink. The metal pan clattered against the linoleum and I thought it would never stop ringing in my ears and in the corners of the empty kitchen.
Empty-handed, without photos or a taste. Bitterness started to settle like steeping tea.
But then, in spite of myself, I laughed. No regrets, no tears. Because, let’s be real, it was a pretty stupid move on my part, but it didn’t take away any of the pleasure I got from the baking process. Blog post or not, for one afternoon, I felt unfiltered elation. Maybe there was a lesson in the unsalvageable clafouti – the joy comes from the process, not from being recognized as the “baking blogger” or from eating a lot of cream.
Instead, I’m sharing these Peanut Butter Pretzel bites with you. They’re easy enough to make from a dorm. Creamy peanut butter, sugar, and vanilla combine in a rich and addictive filling. Sandwiched between two crisp, salty pretzels and dunked in bittersweet chocolate, you end up with an incredible party snack that vanishes fast.
No mixer required. No fiddling with foreign ovens. You can even melt the chocolate in the microwave (which I did.) The result is a delicious, one bite contradiction of creamy and crunchy, sweet and salty, peanutty and chocolatey.
I knew right away they wouldn’t survive the weekend, but that’s okay. I’ve still got 3 ½ pounds of sugar under my bed. That’s reason enough for me.
This morning I woke up with an inexplicable craving for bubble tea.
Instead I ate a bowl of cereal and made it to class barely on time. I took notes, asked questions, and when I walked out the door, it felt like October instead of mid February. The temperature flirted with the low 40s. Cause for celebration! I wore a flowery skirt, smiled at strangers, and I still wanted bubble tea.
I didn’t even drop off my bags. I walked straight from the classroom, down the street into Boston’s Chinatown, knowing exactly what I was looking for.
A few weeks before Halloween, when I was still in the process of making friends in a big new world, my floormate M- and I decided to get lunch. We’re both half Asian, and we both missed Chinese food, so we headed into Chinatown together.
Chinatown is squeezed between Downtown Crossing and the South End. It’s small, but dense, stuffed with grocery stores, jewelry shops, and narrow brick alleyways. Heaps of snow stay frozen solid in the shadows of tall buildings pressed close together. Cars honk. The edges of sidewalks are congested with scraps of packaging and cigarette butts, and you can’t see what’s around the corner until you actually turn, but what can I say? I love Chinatowns. They’ve got a character you can’t quite capture anywhere else.
M- and I didn’t know where to get good food, so we explored until we found a tiny but promising café. There were no tables, just a laminated menu taped to a counter and a long line. We ordered rice, barbeque chicken, pork buns, and why not – two coconut bubble teas.
The food was good, but the bubble tea was the star of the meal. Thick and fragrant, it used coconut cream, not powder. Every sip tasted tropical and real – like a spoon scraped against the white walls of a split coconut – as opposed to the suntan lotion taste of most imitations. It was good enough to remember months later.
I could recall the bubble tea fairly well, but I had no idea how to get there. I wandered into Chinatown and made lefts and rights at random, ending up on crooked side streets lined with shops like uneven teeth. Just when I was about to give up, I recognized the sign, innocently tucked between a row of restaurant windows. I ran through a puddle of melted snow and across the empty street, yanked open the door and bought myself a bubble tea.
It didn’t even survive the trip home. Not a big surprise, considering I got lost on the way back. I’ll have to adventure into Chinatown walkabout-style every time I want to rediscover this bubble tea, but I think it’s a worthwhile experience.
Back when I worked at Seastar Restaurant, with chefs all around me baking chocolate molten cakes and slow-cooking cedar plank salmon, coconut was my favorite smell in the entire restaurant. We’d spread flakes of coconut on a baking sheet and toast them, later to be sprinkled over the white chocolate coconut cream pie. After mere minutes in the oven, the most seductive smell wafted down the line. No matter what I was doing, I’d start to work in a daze, dreaming of paradise.
I can’t understand when people say they hate coconut. I can, however, see why some people don’t like coconut macaroons. Too often they’re over-the-top sweet and gluey.
But when you find a good macaroon you get something special. The cookie is light and chewy, with toasty crisp edges. The coconut flavor is pure, not masked by sugar. A dip in dark chocolate adds richness without cloying sweetness. It’s dynamite. How could you not want more?
[Writing, baking, photographing. Blogging. Waitressing. Radio-ing. A second job with the admissions office at my school. Homework. …Sleep? I don’t know how I managed to make second semester even busier than my first, but I’m really trying. Thanks for sticking through with me!]