Posts tagged ‘coconut’
17 and Baking turns two years old this week. I almost missed it.
In the past, I spent afternoons alone in the kitchen, flour dusting my palms and lots of quiet thoughts in my head. Afterwards I wrote about the baking process, my love for fresh ingredients, the joy of brainstorming desserts and sharing them with my family. I had more ideas than photographs.
I went a record-breakingly long time without posting as of today. Looking at my life it’s clear why I’m struggling to blog. Though I’m happier than ever, I’m living between sips of coffee and half hour power-naps. The biggest issue is that I haven’t been baking. At all. I use photographs of desserts I baked last summer to keep this blog running. While there’s a trunk of baking supplies beneath my bed and a working oven in the dorm building down the street, I haven’t used it once this year.
Over Thanksgiving and winter break, reunited with family, I obligingly creamed butter and whipped cream, but frankly, much of the magic was gone. I’ve never lost my passions for writing, photography and baking, but my weariness shows. I’m scared that 17 and Baking is in decline, that I’m losing something I consider such an important part of myself.
My boyfriend I-’s birthday was a few Fridays ago. He wanted to go up to Maine and spend several days with his family, and at the last minute I went along too.
“You’ll be able to bake,” he said, convincing me to come.
I was nervous to meet his parents and sister and his friends, more nervous than I wanted to let on. But for the first time in a long time, I was excited to make something for his birthday. That outburst of butterflies in my chest was so comfortingly familiar, so nearly forgotten, it was almost painful.
The next afternoon we drove to the local grocery store. I’m not used to buying staples at once – usually I have all the basic ingredients on hand, though I might need more chocolate slabs or an unusual spice. We picked up flour, sugar, heavy cream, local homemade butter. But I couldn’t decide what to make. I hadn’t flipped through a cookbook or wanted to make something in so long, and I actually felt out of my element in the baking aisle.
I- kept making suggestions, and I kept shooting them down. The possibilities were overwhelming. “You have to pick something,” he said finally as we wheeled the cart around the entire store for the third or fourth time. “Make a pecan pie.”
We threw pecans into the cart. “Maybe some walnuts?” I- was holding another bag. “Those might be good with the pecans.” Into the cart. “Milk chocolate toffee bits? In the pie? Yes?” Yes. He kept smiling whenever he saw me start to smile back.
I don’t always like getting a million suggestions from someone else when it comes to baking, but I didn’t mind. Even when he paused at the end of the aisle and added, “You should put in some coconut.” I know my dad will picture my usual eye-roll and heavy sigh but instead I said, “Why not?”
I watched every bag, carton, box pass across the scanner and pack into shopping bags. I helped carry them to the car trunk. At the house, I arranged them on the counter and stared for a good minute. It felt unreal.
I winged a good deal of the recipe, just throwing things in. I-’s mom and sister popped in a few times to see how I was making the pie totally from scratch. There was a moment when the crust was in the freezer and the nuts were all chopped in a bowl and suddenly I felt like I was breathing for the first time in months.
I-’s family and I ate dinner together as the pie cooled in the kitchen. When the plates were cleared, I’-s dad went next door to borrow a bit of bourbon so I could make bourbon whipped cream. I beat the cream to stiff peaks, folded in the bourbon, and cut the pie. I could feel my heart thumping and the heat rising to my cheeks as the first slices made it to the table, so nervous. What if it wasn’t good? What if I was really, really out of practice?
“Oh my gosh,” somebody said, and round 2 of pie became a reality.
Later I- and I brought a wedge of pie over to the neighbors, along with some whipped cream. It turned out the bourbon was decades old, saved from a wedding. I couldn’t believe something so special had been opened and shared. When I- and I headed back to his house, I kept hoping the pie would be delicious, wanting them to get as much happiness from it as possible.
None of the whipped cream survived the night, but in the morning, I pulled out the Canon and shot some food photography for the first time in too long.
An out-of-the-blue pecan pie, dropped into my life weeks before 17 and Baking turns two. There are a lot of things I love about this pie – it’s sophisticated and rustic, unfussy with complex flavors. It isn’t overly sweet or sticky and there’s no light corn syrup involved. I love that my boyfriend came up with most of it. I love that it was shared and gobbled up embarrassingly fast. In so many ways, this pie reminded me of why I love to bake and why I’ll continue to blog.
Happy birthday, 17 and Baking. Eat some pie.
Even as a little kid, I liked flying home. Not the chaos of the security checks, the trip itself, or even the weary drive back to our house. But I love that first step outside SeaTac Airport. When I exit the airport after hours of flight and days of vacation – I breathe in the Pacific Northwest air as slowly and deliberately as I can. No matter where I’ve been or how much I enjoyed myself, that first breath always tastes like the freshest, cleanest air I’ve ever known.
My flight back from Boston was forgettable. I took a taxi from my school at 5 am, spent a two hour layover in Chicago, and finally made it to Seattle after 12 hours. As tired as I was, I anticipated the step outside. I usually get this incredible emotion, a mix of contentment and familiarity, a rush of glassy lakes and painted mountains. I dragged my suitcase outside with me, looked out at the flat grey sky, and inhaled.
Instead, there was something else – a strange feeling I couldn’t place. It sat in my chest, somewhat uncomfortably, even as the Toyota pulled up and I saw my mother for the first time since summer.
When we came home, the first thing I did was walk to the kitchen. I expected fireworks to burst in my heart, rainbows to pump through my veins and surge out my fingertips when we reunited. Nothing had changed in my absence. The walls were the same marigold yellow, the same checkerboard tile covered the floor, but somehow it wasn’t the kitchen I’d remembered and missed. It looked cramped and dim, hardly big enough for three people and two dogs.
I wheeled my bag into my old room, pulled out my Boston sweatshirt, and fell asleep without unpacking.
Over the next few days, I saw Grandma and my parents, which made me feel like daybreak inside. Almost at once I caught up with old friends, a both strange and easy experience. But during the afternoon, with no classes or job to distract me, I got bored. If I wasn’t asleep, I suffered from bad headaches all day. And that uncomfortable feeling lodged in my chest hadn’t vanished.
By now, I’ve figured out what the feeling is… homesickness. I know it’s ridiculous to feel homesick for school when I’m home. I also see how pointless it is to wallow in sadness, pining for Boston, while I have three weeks left in this beautiful place. If I don’t appreciate the rain, family, and happiness I can only find in Seattle, I’ll regret it a month later when I’m gone.
The solution for the headaches didn’t come in Tylenol. It’s a healthy combination of Mom’s noodle soup, Dad’s sweater hugs, damp dog paws all over my bed and the tug of a camera strap. It’s a sifting of flour on my apron and cinnamon dust on my palms. It’s not exactly a bitter pill to swallow.
One of the best things about being home is the food. Predictable, but it isn’t even the food as much as the ingredients. There are the luxury items I haven’t bought in college – all natural creamy peanut butter, the kind you have to stir up before spreading. Soft handmade tortillas, brown rice, even almonds! It’s a joyful thing to appreciate a quick handful of almonds before dinner. And produce! Even in winter, at home I’m eating crisp spinach and sweet Asian pears.
The school menu never changes, and most of the fruit comes out of a can, soaked in sugary syrup. At home, every flavor is amplified. The grapefruit I sliced with my first breakfast back was so clean and fresh, the sharpest thing I’d tasted in ages. After I devoured it, I thought about citrus the rest of the day. I’ve been drinking grapefruits the way parched survivors reach for water.
Reacquainting myself with our kitchen is like slipping into a familiar song. Every measuring cup is where I know it’ll be. Pans still clink and clatter in our cupboard, and that old bag of shredded coconut still has some life in it. The microplane zester, still my favorite tool in the room, is just as sharp as ever. The result? Coconut-Grapefruit Cupcakes with Matcha Frosting.
Even baked into a cupcake, the grapefruit manages to refresh. It’s light and zingy, pairing beautifully with the sweetness of coconut. And the frosting? I wanted something mellow and subtle, and the green tea powder I bought from Pike Place Market over the summer was just the right touch.
When I opened that oven door, the warm air that surged up was so fragrant and sweet. I was caught off guard by how hot it was, and how good it felt against the oven mitt. Later, in bed, I rolled over and pressed my nose into my hair – it smelled like sugar. It was one of the best smells I’d almost forgotten.
I think I’ll bake again tomorrow.
[It's good to be back. See you in 2011!]
I’m sitting in the dining hall, eating breakfast in the same black collared button-up and black slacks that I wore to work yesterday. Last night, long after midnight, after I finally staggered out of the elevator and fumbled with the key to my door, I was too tired to change out of my server’s clothes before I crashed into bed. This morning, up bright and early, I was too tired to change into anything else.
I’ve had a little experience in the restaurant industry, but working front of the house is an entirely different animal. It’s exhausting. I remember orientation, trying to remember how all the buttons on the computer worked and the numbering of the tables. They gave me two weeks of shadowing to get used to the lay of the land, and I couldn’t like the people I work with more.
My first non-training day was earlier this week. For the first time, I’d have my own section. “Elissa” would be printed on top of all of my receipts. And I’d take home any tips I made. I tied my apron straps into a bow and stepped through the kitchen doors onto the floor.
The first thing I noticed was that my shoes weren’t broken in yet. It takes a little adjustment to get used to being on your feet a whole shift. As a server, you don’t have much time to sit around and lounge. If you aren’t running plates, bussing tables or putting in orders, there is always side work to do – scoop ice into the water pitchers, refill the coffee thermos, work the bakery, restock napkins. You learn not to sit down. And on that first day, I felt it in my soles.
I needed to keep everything in place. This is a skill that doesn’t come naturally to me, the ability to juggle five tables which all expect you to make them your first priority. I began to forget which table came in first, who ordered what, whether Table 5 wanted the decaf refill or the check. As the rush set in and my tables filled up, my mind became more and more jumbled, until everything was one overwhelming noise that never quieted.
You get used to smiling. Even though your shoes are slowly killing you. Even though you messed up 12’s order and you know they aren’t happy, even though the kids at 8 will ask a million questions and probably order nothing but hot chocolate. As a server, you need to be upbeat. You can’t let a bad afternoon show in your face, because it’s not about you – it’s about making every guest feel welcome and at ease, and when it really comes down to it, that’s so much more important than a tip.
I did the best I could my first day, and it wasn’t perfect. Or even close. I sent one table a free crème brûlée because I’d made a mistake with their order, and they’d waited patiently forever. At another table, the couple ordered a full out meal – drinks, soup, salad, dinner, and dessert – ringing up an enormous bill and leaving me with a tip of zero dollars, zero cents. A four-top of teenaged boys left me under 10%.
I pushed through the swinging door with a plate of dirty glasses to bus. At the dish pit, with three servers all working around each other, somebody stumbled, and a stream of dirty dishwater splashed through my collared shirt and down my leg, pressing the cloth against my skin in a cool drench. I didn’t have a change of clothes, or the time anyway. I walked back onto the floor to bring in another tray, and on the way to the kitchen, my wrist gave out and I dropped a towering stack of plates.
Every fork stilled, every face turned, and even though the background music continued to play, for a moment the restaurant stopped. I didn’t know the room could go silent.
It was rough. Nearing the end of the night I was so frustrated; I was trying with everything I had but I couldn’t make excuses. On top of everything, I would leave almost empty handed, with little more than a few callouses. I couldn’t bring myself to think about the homework I had left.
Closing drew near. The restaurant slowed to a trickle and we tackled the side work and remaining tables. One of my bosses, C-, called me over to the bar. I didn’t know what else could have gone wrong.
I almost couldn’t handle it. An ice cream sundae, filled to burst and topped with a ridiculous amount of brightly-lit rainbow candles.
“Blow out the bad juju,” she said. I blew out the candles.
In the back room, I dipped a spoon into the ice cream sundae and almost wanted to cry. The pastry chef, M-, had made it exactly the way I liked – with scoops of vanilla, coffee, and chocolate ice cream, chocolate and caramel sauce, almonds, brownie bits, a beehive swirl of whipped cream and a clown red cherry. I could only eat a couple bites before I had to go back to work, but nothing could have tasted better.
I tried to thank M- as I walked by, but nothing came out. She had a ridiculous smile on her face. And I pulled myself up and finished out my tables with a smile, and walked home with a pocketful of blown-out candles.
Next week, those callouses will have made me stronger. My shoes will feel a little softer. But until then, I’ll throw myself into my essay and wrap up my radio package, trying unsuccessfully to get my mind off of chocolate and ice cream.
[PS I'm falling behind, I know, but I'm doing my best. It's a struggle to find time to eat and sleep, but blogging is like breathing, and I'll continue to work it in whenever I have a minute.]