Posts tagged ‘frosting’

17 and Baking Bad

Breaking Bad Cake - Above

They call it cooking meth, but really, it’s a lot more like baking.

My dad’s a cook. He’s the kind of person who makes Indian food without a recipe, who can guess every ingredient in a sauce from one taste. The kind of person who opens the fridge, laughs a deep belly laugh, and assures you “there’s a meal in there somewhere.”

He approaches food intuitively, which is why he’s never liked baking—it’s too precise. You can’t throw in a pinch of this, a pinch of that, eyeball a teaspoon of baking powder, and leave it in the oven until it looks done.

Walter White would be an incredible baker.

Breaking Bad Cake - Cut

Baking relies on precision. Four ounces of flour is always four ounces of flour. At the right temperature, butter and sugar become light and fluffy perfection in three minutes. I can make a sheet of cookies and recreate them a year later, at a friend’s house, on the other side of the country.

I love that different ratios of the same basic ingredients—butter, flour, sugar, eggs—result in a million different desserts. I think it’s incredible that a touch of salt makes chocolate sing, but a spoonful ruins ganache. Everything from the humidity of a kitchen to the size of the eggs to the style of whisk makes a difference. Who knew the art of pastry was such an exact science?

For some cooks, the exactitude of baking stifles their creativity. I like it. The chemistry excites me, challenges me. I think it’s sort of cool.

Breaking Bad Cake - Unswirled
Breaking Bad Cake - Swirled

Maybe that’s why I look forward to the meth cook montages on Breaking Bad. Walt and Jesse might be making a questionable product, but I can’t help admiring their process. Plus, the visuals are stunning: glittering aluminum strips rain like confetti, gas bubbles through clear hose, yellow smoke puffs out a vent. Even the finished drug is pretty, big and opaque as blue raspberry rock candy.

Actually, it’s exactly like rock candy—that’s literally what they use for meth on the show.

The first time I saw it, I thought to myself, that’d look neat incorporated into a dessert. I pictured a cake, frosted pure white and topped with lots of sparkly blue crystals, marbled navy and white inside. But it wasn’t until now, as the second half of the last season is about to start, that I went for it.

Breaking Bad Cake - Slice

My boyfriend took the first bite. I could hear the rock candy crunching between his teeth as he slowly nodded, eyes widening. He didn’t say anything, just took another bite, and I knew he was hooked.

The finished cake isn’t as chemically sound as Heisenberg’s Blue Sky. Maybe because I mixed it by hand, the white cake got a few air bubbles, and in the summer heat the cream cheese frosting stayed soft. My marbling didn’t come out perfectly, more blotchy than swirled. But the cake’s still beautiful. It grabs your attention. And above all, it’s definitely addictive.

Consider yourself warned.

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August 11, 2013 at 12:37 am 88 comments

Coconut-Grapefruit Cupcakes with Matcha Frosting

Coconut-Grapefruit Cupcakes with Matcha Frosting

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.

But… nothing.

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.

Coconut-Grapefruit Cupcakes with Matcha Frosting

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.

Coconut-Grapefruit Cupcakes with Matcha Frosting

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.

Coconut-Grapefruit Cupcakes with Matcha Frosting

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!]

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December 28, 2010 at 11:40 pm 73 comments

Pumpkin Whoopie Pies with Chocolate Cream Cheese Filling

Pumpkin Whoopie Pies with Chocolate Cream Cheese Filling

I’ve missed this. I’m sitting on a Greyhound bus, long after sundown, and all I can hear is the quiet murmurings of other passengers and the soft clicks as I tap my keys. For the holidays, I’m heading to New York City, and then Pennsylvania, where my uncle and aunt and cousin live. It’s the first time in weeks I’ve had some quiet time to myself, without an assignment or shift or appointment. I’ve missed being able to sit alone with my thoughts and write.

Classes ended this afternoon, and it was unusually quiet on the floor today. Everyone was packing up, unplugging their lamps and emptying their fridges, stopping at every room down the hallway to say goodbye. We’re spreading out from California to Maine, retreating back to where we came from. It’s Thanksgiving break, and even though I’m not flying back to Seattle, it’s got me thinking about home.

I haven’t been in a bus or car in a long time. Back home I used to love, love, love driving alone at night – the way every turn of the car feels smooth and controlled, the open silence on the road, and the glittering pairs of lights in every direction, like cat eyes. Right now, in the dark, it’s easy to imagine I’m in Seattle. I look out the window and realize we’re on I-90, and that if we just kept driving west on this freeway until we hit the opposite coast, I’d be back.

Pumpkin Whoopie Pies with Chocolate Cream Cheese Filling

It’s not that I’m homesick, because I’m truly not. There’s a soft spot in my heart for Seattle, but at the same time, home is in people, not places. Home is my mom, drinking jasmine tea on our patio. It’s my dad, who’s flying to Pennsylvania for Thanksgiving. And it’s the people on my floor. I can feel myself falling for the incredible people I’ve met here, and as everyone moves out, I can feel bits of my home scattering across the country. I’m reluctant to leave them, even for a week.

But I see the details of my old life everywhere. It’s begun to rain in Boston, a damp downpour that feels like hot breath on your neck. It makes me think of how green the air smelled and how dark the pavement became in Seattle. Sometimes, in line at Starbucks, I forget where I am. Then I step outside and suddenly realize I’m far away… watching the trees exhale burnt orange and crimson, the kind of seasonal change I always said I wanted to experience.

The other night at the restaurant, I decided to make small talk with one of my tables. They said they were just visiting Boston, and that they’d flown in from – Seattle. We talked a little longer and discovered that we live in the same region. In fact, their daughter goes to my old middle school, is in my gifted program, and is learning from my old teachers. I’d have never known, if they hadn’t sat at this restaurant, at this time, in my section.

Pumpkin Whoopie Pies with Chocolate Cream Cheese Filling

I’m excited to spend time with my family, especially since I don’t frequently see my relatives on the east coast. I can’t begin to describe how excited I am to eat some real food. My college has been hosting Thanksgiving themed dinners, and somehow their canned cranberry jelly and paper-dry turkeys don’t do my favorite holiday justice.

And I’m ecstatic about getting some baking done.

Even though I have all my tools and supplies, and even an oven if I walk to another dorm, I haven’t had time to buy ingredients or spend time in a kitchen. It’s strange that people here are getting to know me without baking being a huge factor in my life. Maybe at the end of this weekend, I can bring a box of sweets back to my floor.

I’m thinking whoopie pies. I’ve met plenty of New Englanders here who are dead serious about the whoopie pie. Every time I hear someone get defensive about the dessert’s origin or characteristics, I can’t help but smile.

Pumpkin Whoopie Pies with Chocolate Cream Cheese Filling

There aren’t a lot of whoopie pies on the west coast. Plenty of people don’t know what they are – just two soft cake-like cookies with some sort of filling sandwiched in between. While I’ve never had a “real” whoopie pie, I can tell you that these ones taste pretty incredible. Especially after a chill in the fridge, with a tall glass of cool milk, a scattering of crisp leaves at your feet and a friend at your side.

I made these pumpkin whoopie pies with chocolate cream cheese filling before I left for college, and they strike such a great balance of richness and spice. The pumpkin cookies are soft and tender, dense, dark with spices, like autumn in your mouth. As for the chocolate, I just can’t get enough, and the cream cheese filling adds a bittersweet tang to complement the cookie.

If I make these again this week, it’ll probably remind me like crazy of Seattle. I’m not sure yet if that’s a good or bad thing. Whatever the case, it’ll cheer up my floormates, and bring a little bit of one home to another.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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November 24, 2010 at 3:31 am 51 comments

Chocolate-Mint Ice Cream Cake

cake1wm

Where to begin the story of this chocolate-mint ice cream cake? Sure, it technically begins with a cool carton of cream and a stack of cracked egg shells. But I think it really starts two years ago, when my mother decided she wanted to remodel our backyard.

Our yard is L shaped, wrapping around our house. One of the strips is nice, just cool green grass and evergreen trees. But the other strip of yard, the one visible from the kitchen window and the dining room, was once utterly unimpressive. It was brimming with uneven grass, moss that squished under each footstep, and unappealing patches of yellow. My mother began sketching out designs, writing down ideas, until she’d come up with an ambitious blueprint.

She wanted to remove all the grass in that section and fertilize it. Then she wanted to transform it into something stunning, a rainbow of growing, breathing plants. Lime-green creeping bugleweed, black stemmed rhododendrons, pink-throated lilies, pure white bleeding hearts in the shade… And a natural stone path weaving through it all. Maybe a birdbath in the corner.

I thought it was wishful thinking, but my dad told her, “Let’s do it.”

cake4wm

We did it all ourselves that summer, and it was more work than any of us expected it to be. I imagined the process of removing grass to be a very simple, straightforward one. I didn’t realize that we’d have to lift up the sod, like heavy strips of carpet. We sifted through all of the rocks and roots by hand, which is every bit as laborious as it sounds, and turned the soil with fertilizer.

Forming the stone path felt like the bane of my existence. It needed to be nine inches deep, three feet wide, curving like a snake from one end of the yard to the other. After that, we had to smooth it out, fill it with gravel (wheelbarrowful by wheelbarrowful) and then with dirt (shovelful by shovelful.) By the time we began to fit in the rocks, I had complained enough for the whole summer.

We went to the nursery every week and drove home with a lush jungle spilling out of the car trunk; I’d sit in the back seat with silvery leaves and purple flowers brushing my cheek. We planted hummingbird-friendly flowers near the kitchen window and spindly ferns in the shade. We carried in an old stone bird bath. We even dug out a fire pit at the end of the path and built it with leftover slabs of stone.

We’d turned our backyard into something so much more than an offhand glance out the window.

cake6wm

The next spring, despite an unusually freezing winter, my mother’s garden grew back like some kind of miracle. It’s even fuller, even greener, and there’s a palpable buzz, a pulse. It’s bursting with life. I remember the thrill of our first hummingbird, hovering in the air like a jewel. The first time we saw a blue jay sipping cautiously from the birdbath. The first baby green leaf in a vine we though had been choked by the cold.

We have already gotten so much from our yard, it’s easy to forget how much work went into it. We cuddle up in lawn chairs around the fire pit, setting pumpkin spice marshmallows on fire and running out for hot dogs. We look up between sips of coffee at breakfast to see the flowers shaking off dew and waking up with us. Oh, and the herb garden…

It might be my favorite spot in the whole yard now. I squat down and just rub my fingers over everything: pebbly sage leaves, then the gold-edged leaves of lemon thyme, then the thick, soft stalks of rosemary. The fragrance of fresh herbs is so comforting. It smells like handwritten recipes and golden midafternoon sunlight and “Let’s eat on the patio tonight.”

cake5wm

And ever since the chocolate-mint plant has taken root, it has clung to life vivaciously. It’s spread faster than any of our other herbs, growing rounder and rounder, so that we’re forced to pick leaves and pull roots to keep it in check. It’s no surprise that ever since last summer, I’ve wanted to make mint ice cream.

I finally got the chance a couple weeks ago. One of my best friends, M-, has a thing for chocolate mint ice cream cake. What kind of friend would I be if I didn’t make one for his 18th birthday, using the freshest, sun-kissed mint I could find?

I brought it to school and we devoured it in the cafeteria. I stole a slice and a plate from the teacher’s lounge and took these photos in the courtyard. When I came back, only half of the cake was left, and by the end of the day the only evidence that it had ever existed was my camera full of photos and the lingering grin on M-’s face.

RelaxingMom and Dad two years ago, taking a break from an afternoon of yard work

Mom in the garden Mom last year, drinking tea into the twilight on the patio. Someday, you won’t even be able to see the ground – all of those green plants will spread out to the stone path winding through them.

[PS: My camera is finally fixed! I got it in the mail today and went a little crazy. It's been three weeks and I've missed it like a picked peach misses the sunshine. And I finally hit 1,000 fans on Facebook, thank you all!

PPS: Dad, I know I didn't get your permission to publish a photo with you in it, but mom said it was okay.]

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May 6, 2010 at 7:58 pm 42 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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