Posts tagged ‘Christmas cookies’
Yesterday, for the briefest moments, it started to feel like June for the first time.
It’s the last weekend before I’m done with high school classes forever, but rain has drizzled coolly for the past week. The temperature has dipped into the fifties, the wind has blown pine needles all over our damp cement patio, and the moss is drenched with icy water that seeps into your socks. It’s June, and I’ve worn my red rubber rain boots to school twice.
But yesterday the sun was bright enough to warm up our garden bench, nestled between the spindly apple tree and the velvet plum-purple irises. The sky was the kind of blue that makes you crazy – “turn up the radio” blue, “now pull over and dance” blue. Thin clouds stretched out like ferns, and it made you see the sky’s overwhelming vastness, a rarity in hilly Seattle.
On paper, my Saturday certainly wasn’t memorable. I woke up and drove to a friend’s house to work on our environmental science project. Then I drove home, had lunch, took some photos, and lounged outside all day. Somehow, though, it was one of the most perfect days I’ve had in a long time.
I drove home with music swirling inside the car like a snow globe of sound. I even honked at a cute boy on the sidewalk, and he winked at me as the light turned green. At home, my parents were working on the yard. My dad was up on the ladder, trimming the trees that tower throughout our backyard. My mom brushed up leaves and debris – under her watch, the yard is cleaner than my bedroom. I settled onto the bench and tried to write this post.
But it was so hard to be with a computer screen. I thought about everything but the checkerboard cookies. Like the lunch we’d had. Mom had made avocado and sundried tomato egg rolls, creamy and chewy and crisp. Dad came up with a cool Sriracha dipping sauce. I made a strawberry salad with home-grown chocolate-mint, lemon, and dark chocolate shavings. It’s a meal I’ll remember someday in college when I’m longing for home, with nothing to eat but a bruised apple.
I almost began to write something for 17 and Baking, but then the laptop died. And I could have moved inside, plugged it in, and typed it up at the dinner room table. But I closed the screen and pulled out my macro lens instead. I photographed the spidery veins of leaves, the peachy curve of a lily, and the tattoo of woodpecker drills circling up a tree. I stayed outside with my skin as sun-warmed as our garden bench until twilight fell.
This morning I woke up to the sound of splashing raindrops on our roof. I poured myself some cereal and looked outside – our stone path was dark mahogany and black, in the way that wet rock always looks richer. All of our plants were slick and alive. They stood up taller, leaves fanned out and saturated with color, quenched. When I opened the door and took a quick walk outside, it smelled green. Somehow, the rain didn’t seem so bad.
Now I’m bundled in a fleece blanket, curled on the rocking chair, typing this. It’s been too long since my last post, I know. But there is too much beauty in my life right now, in my family, in the garden, even in the moments of silence. These are the times I don’t want to forget, down to the last drop. Even now, though the sky is like white paint and the house is cold as a carton of milk, life is perfect. I didn’t do much this weekend, but the little things are making it extraordinary. The little things are essential to remember.
I’ve made these checkerboard cookies a total of four times – they’re that good. The first time I made them, the checkerboard pattern wasn’t quite even, but the taste! Buttery, a little crisp, a little chewy, and an indescribable flavor that came together like magic. I photographed the cookies, but I didn’t like them. I made them again a month later, but the texture wasn’t right. I’d somehow messed up. A third time, and they were still off. I’d messed up somewhere, and the wheels didn’t all align.
But today, all the little things came together. My butter was at just the right temperature, soft enough to yield to a fingertip but cold enough to keep its shape. I used a ruler to form the checkerboard pattern and though it isn’t perfect, I almost like the imperfection. And the photographs? The lighting was off the first three times. Yesterday I used the dragonfly-wing light on our kitchen counter and it was just right.
It’s rare for me to make a recipe multiple times, but I know I’ll make these cookies again before summer finishes. As simple as they are, they’re unforgettable.
[PS: I know it's been a while since my last post. The last week of school, and it's catching up to me with finals and projects. Won't happen again over the summer!
Also, since I'm getting a lot of questions about it, I wanted to talk about college. Unfortunately, I can't reveal which school I'm going to (at least at this time.) It's simply an issue of privacy. Here's what I can say, though - it's a great school for communications in BOSTON! and I'll study to become a print journalist and writer, just like I always dreamed. In August, I'll move into my dorm and 17 and Baking will continue like always, from the City on a Hill. I'm starting to miss Seattle already, but I can barely contain my excitement about this next big step in my life. Thanks for sticking with me!]
Today was my first day back at school after our mid-winter break. Some of my friends flew to China, spending the week amongst hazy neon billboards and frigid vendor’s markets. Another friend passed the time in a bitter whirl of snow that could not dampen his thrill to be in New York. One of my best friends, promising to send a postcard, vacationed in Hawaii. Even without a letter, I could imagine her snorkeling through murky waters that cleared into brilliant clouds of fish.
But me? I stayed home alone most afternoons, not even reaching out to the friends who were still in the area. I watched an embarrassing amount of The Office (my new obsession) and refreshed my Facebook page until, with a pang, I realized that I was the only person online.
This happens to me all too frequently when I am left to my own ways at home – I slip into inevitable boredom. It seeps from the dim lighting and wheezy exhalations of my laptop into my very bones. I feel burdened with the monotony. It feels heavy, like overripe fruit, stifling my motivation. I just don’t feel like doing anything.
After my second consecutive day spent in teddy bear print pajamas, I stopped even using my laptop. I had headaches that throbbed too much when I tried to fix my eyes on a screen, but I couldn’t find anything else to do. I didn’t even want to bake.
My dad urged me to go out on my own, even if my friends were out of town. “Where’s your sense of adventure?” he kept asking, like he couldn’t quite believe it had come to this. “Take the car. Venture down roads you’ve never explored. Look around downtown Seattle. Bring your camera. Get out.”
Despite all my general bravado about leaving the west coast, experiencing new things on the other side of the world, exploring everything there is to see – I resisted. I wasn’t in the mood to get lost or sing along with the radio. But finally, sick of stagnation, I swept my hair up and pulled on some boots. I cradled my camera and locked the empty house behind me, head still pressured by migraines.
Despite my mood, I was out of the house, wearing real clothes with texture and color and substance instead of shapeless sweats. The moment the door closed, I felt the brittle February air break into my lungs. It was more invigorating than any Tylenol or television show.
At first I drove aimlessly with the sole purpose of burning gas. I discovered a new way to drive downtown. I made wide, comfortable loops that took me towards and away from my house with little thought. That’s when I saw the blueberry farm and reacted before my mind had caught up. I heard the dull crunch of my car pulling onto the gravel driveway, the slam of the door and the sound of the breeze picking up before I’d fully registered. I didn’t even bring my camera.
It wasn’t anywhere near blueberry season. The blueberry plants were trimmed down and leafless, kept in neat rows that stretched out as far as I could see. The trees along the horizon were velvety dark at this distance, and the sun shone through their peaks in solid, separate rays. As I walked, the footprints in the dirt behind me slowly filled with water. I shivered a little at first, my hair whipped across my cheeks, and a smile emerged like a midwinter sunbreak.
Sometimes, I think the simplest things can be the best medicine. A walk through an icy, empty blueberry farm without a trace of technology or a thought in my mind. A creased postcard with sea turtles and butterfly fish on the front. Or a genuine “Thank You” and a plate stacked high with sugar-shelled chocolate crinkle cookies, baked with love and devoured quickly.
[PS: Still collecting questions for a future FAQ post, so leave a question for me if you'd like!]
Lately it seems like I’ve had a lot of bad days. More like a lot of bad weeks. Everyone has those days where nothing goes right, where it seems like the flowers close when you walk by and the clouds begin to leak rain. But when those “once in a while” days turn into every other day, you start to feel discouraged.
I don’t know what it’s been. It started with an unpleasant day in school a few weeks ago, when one of my teachers gave everyone low marks on the final. We all protested but she stayed firm and unyielding. I heard the harshness in her voice and I felt in that moment that her only joy in life came from punishing us.
The following period only made matters worse. It’s a “bird class” – the kind that’s so easy, you fly through with a free A, but that day we had a substitute teacher and everyone acted up. I didn’t find it amusing, but found myself powerless and unmotivated to stand up and help her as she slowly lost control of the class. As the day drew to a close, I realized with dread I’d left some important paperwork at home, and that was the last straw as the sky opened up and began to pour.
A week later, I was spending my weekend afternoon on my bed, trying to sort out a college application. It was a particularly frustrating application, with all sorts of strange requirements and vague instructions that were testing my temper. I must have called twenty people for help on filling it out, but all I got was twenty different opinions, all conflicting. I sat there the whole day, just building up more and more tension until I had to stop looking at the unfinished page.
My friend chose that low, hopeless moment to call me with a complaint and a desire to fight, but I didn’t have any fight in me. As she yelled and I felt our friendship ending, I couldn’t take any more. My heart felt as tender as a badly bruised peach. I quietly hung up, feeling the worst I’d felt all week, and trying not to let it break me.
Usually at moments like that, I turn to the kitchen. But because of all my commitments, I haven’t had as much time to bake as I’d like. I’ve missed three of my friend’s birthdays to date, even though I’ve had their special birthday cakes planned out since the summer. There’s also baked goods I want to make for many people in my life I’m thankful for – teachers, college advisers, my SAT prep tutors. But those have to stay on hold a little while longer.
I decided to make these Striped Peppermint Meringues with Dark Chocolate Ganache as an escape from my stress. They looked beautiful, festive (hello, December) and delicious. Plus, I knew this was a recipe I could do in my sleep. I’ve made this meringue countless times as part of my favorite Swiss meringue buttercream, and I’ve never had difficulties with chocolate ganache. As I cracked the eggs, I felt calmness rise in me from my toes up, like a paper towel touched to water.
The meringue whipped into stiff peaks without trouble. I pulled out the whisk and examined the thick, glossy swirl of meringue and couldn’t help but feel peace. I pulled out my camera and took a photo of the meringue, thinking about this post. The last step before piping was to beat in a little peppermint extract. I measured out the half teaspoon and poured it into the meringue, and switched the mixer on.
I knew right away something was wrong.
The mixer began to churn and the meringue deflated in about two seconds right before my eyes. What had once been stiff, shiny meringue was now a soft, pepperminty mess, and I suddenly felt betrayed even by my KitchenAid. It felt like too much to handle.
My dad calls days like this “deviled egg days.” He told me the story as he drove me home on a particularly bad day. I was keeping my head turned and looking at the raindrops trail down the window so he couldn’t see my face, but he didn’t get discouraged.
He described a dinner party he was serving, where deviled eggs were on the menu. He threw dozens of eggs into the boiling water, only to look down and see that the eggs had broken. He went to the store and bought dozens more. On his second try, the eggs were impossible to peel, and he was forced to toss them as well. At his limit, he bought more eggs and tried a third time. He made them just right this time, and arranged them on a platter. He turned around to move the platter out of the kitchen and accidentally banged it on the counter. All the eggs slid onto the floor, unsalvageable.
I turned to look at him for the first time. “What did you do?”
He smiled and said, “I realized there weren’t going to be any deviled eggs. I just moved on, and as it turned out, nobody missed them.”
I was thinking about his words as I looked back down at the meringue. I’d whipped it another 10 minutes, hoping it would increase in volume again, but it stayed resolutely flat. But the oven was preheated, the sheets were lined with parchment, and I decided to go ahead and try them. I prepared the bag and piped them in neat stars, which drooped and failed to keep their lines. I pushed them into the oven anyway.
When they came out, they weren’t as tall or pointy as they should have been. But they tasted nice, like the holidays and after-dinner mints, so I made the ganache too. I decided they looked very cute, and the meringues were really complemented by the chocolate. In the end, I guess my kitchen wasn’t betraying me – maybe it was trying to teach me something.
I haven’t had any bad days since December began, and I’m glad to see the end of them. This morning was stunning. At dawn, I stepped outside with my camera to photograph the frigid beauty around me: a pale white sun in a cotton-candy sky and the frost-kissed Japanese maple leaves. I breathed in the fresh air and felt my fingers grow numb, and I smiled the whole way to school.
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.]