Posts tagged ‘frosting’

Blackberry Jam Almond Bars

Blackberry Jam Almond Bars

I was almost fooled by the week of sunny weather Seattle’s seen, but the rain has finally begun to pour.

Just last week, the cherry blossom trees stretched over my head in airy, arching bloom, but these days I have to duck to avoid the low branches laden with water. Rain streaks down the windows, bathing everything in a steely blue glow. Umbrellas pop open like strange flowers when I walk outside. In the mornings I wear red rain boots to class, and in the evenings I fall asleep with the sound of rain in my hair.

I usually like this kind of weather, but right now, I can’t stand it. I’m impatient for summer. Impatient for dusty sidewalk chalk and melting Creamsicles, but mostly for everything summer represents – freedom, relaxation. No stress. There are only two months to go, but I don’t think I can make myself wait.

I am tired of being patient.

Blackberry Jam Almond Bars

I was patient all through Christmas break, through the slush of February and the bitter chill of March. Four months to go until college letters… now two months… one month to go… Every day I switched between cheery confidence and desperate doubt. It was like picking petals off a daisy – they’ll accept me, they’ll accept me not

After months of waiting, I finally received the last of my college decisions yesterday. Of the eight schools I applied to, I was accepted at five. I was waitlisted at two very good universities. But the only school I really wanted to go to, the only school that could stir any passion in me at all, was the last one to send out decisions.

The whole day was simply killing time. I came home early and found that I had nothing to do. I ate a banana. I checked the mailbox (it was empty.) I read a book of short stories without understanding any of them. When the decision was available online, my brain staggered. I fumbled my way to the website and watched the page load with agonizing slowness.

Blackberry Jam Almond Bars

I skimmed the first line and immediately knew. The letter was brief, polite, encouraging. It was brutal.

I read it, read it again, read it a third time with burning eyes. Emotions passed through me like images on a strip of film – horror, confusion, anger, pain, exhaustion, heartache, sorrow – until I couldn’t feel anything and laid face down on my bed, overwhelmed. Then I cried until my skin was as taut and my body was as hollow as a drum.

Have you ever felt like you’ve been waiting patiently your whole life for something? Something to validate all the work you’ve done? That’s how I felt. I’m just so disappointed in myself and I can’t help but feel wounded and unsure. I curse the thought that my only outright rejection is the only one I can’t take. I keep thinking about what I could have done, how I could have been better. I know it’s useless, but you aren’t rational when your heart is breaking.

Blackberry Jam Almond Bars

I wish I could tell you that I’ve moved on, that the rain has cleared and I can smell summer around the bend and life is good. Not yet. It hasn’t hit me, but I know it will.

I didn’t break down today, as miserable as I felt every time I had to answer with that sad little smile, “Yep… rejected.” When I came home I wanted to be in the kitchen. And more than anything, I wanted to write. Typing out this post has been as good as Tylenol so far.

So much of my future is a mystery, but there are some things I can be certain of. Family, good food, and good company. I can be sure of ice cold lemonade in the summer to come and spiced pumpkin pie in the autumn to follow. I can be sure that luck will be with me wherever I go, though it may not always seem like luck at first, and that I will always have the patience to weather the wait.

Blackberry Jam Almond Bars

These bars come together and bake in no time at all. Instant gratification, no patience required. For now, I can be grateful for that.

[PS: Happy birthday Grandma. Love you.]

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April 2, 2010 at 3:41 pm 110 comments

17 and Baking Turns One

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17 and Baking turns one year old today.

Can you believe it? I’ve been thinking about 17 and Baking and my passion for food and everything I’ve learned in one year, and I’ll be honest. It’s ridiculous. I never believed for an instant this blog would go anywhere. In fact, I even want to link you all to the first real post I wrote exactly one year ago, where I lament my lack of talent, following, photography skills, and experience. Honestly. It sounds like me, but… it really makes me consider what can happen in one year.

But today, I wanted to do something special. If I really think about it, all of this doesn’t start with that morning in early spring when I decided I wanted to blog about food. Really, it started when I baked my very first cake from scratch at fourteen. For today, I knew I wanted to make that exact cake again – a real full circle.

I remember buying my first cookbook from Costco, somewhat ludicrously, since I’d never had any interest in baking before. I just liked the pretty pictures. And I remember nearly a month later, suddenly being seized in the middle of the night with a desire to do something. I didn’t know it at the time because it was so very new, but it’s a feeling I’m very familiar with now – it’s the urgency to be in my little yellow kitchen with a whisk in one hand and a spoonful of sugar in the other.

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I dug up the untouched cookbook and scanned the pages with an inexplicable hunger, bookmarking everything that looked good – German Chocolate Cake, light-as-air Raspberry Dream Cake, kid-friendly Peppermint Chocolate Cake. I threw open cabinets, trying to centralize all of the random baking supplies in the house. We only had a few pans, and not many baking tools. As it turned out, the only recipe I had all the ingredients for was a rather unglamorous iced sponge cake.

I decided to make it anyway. I remember very clearly trying to measure out the flour, awkward and clumsy and fumbling until I had a soft dusting of flour all over my front. I didn’t know what it meant to cream butter, so I stopped the mixer (not the KitchenAid, but a cheap plastic one) once the butter had sort of formed chunks. I didn’t have much confidence for success when I slid the pan into the oven, but I couldn’t help but feel a satisfying accomplishment either way.

All in all, it was undoubtedly a failure. The cake was supposed to be light and delicate, but it was significantly heavy. The frosting was a total flop, tasting like egg whites. But when I cut that first slice and looked back at the photo in the book, my smile was uncontainable. When I took that first bite, the small triangular tip of that perfect slice, I knew in my heart that it had truly been a complete success.

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I’ve never thought of myself as a particularly skilled baker, not now or then. I’m just a girl who happens to love all things sweet and homemade. Even more than that, I’m just a girl who wants to share her zest for life and make you forget your troubles, even if only for five minutes. Through 9th and 10th grade, I had just as many baking failures as successes, forced to learn as I went. So many times I was discouraged, screaming tantrums at my sunken cupcakes, and I might have given up if it weren’t for the unbelievable gratification of sharing.

I’ll be 18 next month, and no matter how much things have changed since then, that satisfaction from handing out cookies or watching my parents clear their plates is what propels my passion. I can’t help but want to lift weary spirits on a bad day with a lemon bar or light up a neighbor’s face with a slice of pear tart. Isn’t that the whole sense of the blog too, to share a dozen cookies with even more than 12 people? Maybe even with hundreds of people around the world? If I can inspire at least one of those people one morning, then everything is worth it.

So here we are today, everything is different and somehow nothing is different. It’s been one year since I began 17 and Baking, but it’s been four years since I baked that first cake, unquestionably beautiful in my eyes. I decided I would dig up that old cookbook for the second time, now a senior in high school and so much surer than I was back then, and bake that cake again.

cakewm

The recipe came together very quickly and very easily, letting me focus more on my nostalgia than on my product. The finished cake smelled delicious, like vanilla and sugar and flour, and I just put my face next to it and inhaled while it cooled. I patiently waited until I could try the first slice. Just like before, I carefully broke off that first perfect bite.

I can’t kid anyone. It wasn’t a very good cookbook, it wasn’t a very good recipe, and frankly, the cake was disgusting. The flavor was strange, the texture was off, and I couldn’t eat more than that one bite.

I wasn’t completely surprised, but definitely disappointed. Somehow, baking the cake that started it all seemed like the perfect way to celebrate my first blogoversary. Finally, I decided I would bake another cake, similar to the first, but something actually in line with my taste today. I whipped up a simple hazelnut and mixed berry cake, and when it came out of the oven I knew I’d made the right choice.

Unfortunately, some things seem destined to stay unchanged, and I tried to turn out the cake before it was done. While it was delicious, I was left with a pile of crumbled cake, certainly nothing presentable on the blog. I wondered if it would maybe be funny to blog a failure – but on my one year anniversary?

cake6wm One salvageable piece of the hazelnut berry cake – delicious despite its humble (and crumbled) appearance

I started laughing as I considered the fact that four years later, I was still screwing up. But I couldn’t be in a bad mood. In a way, this seemed like a better representation of 17 and Baking than anything else: the ability to laugh at your mistakes, learn from them, and persevere. I didn’t have any more hazelnuts or berries, so I shrugged and started again with almonds and lemon. I’d learned from my previous mistakes and the cake came out beautifully. I made a quick mascarpone frosting (no recipe!) and spread it over the cooled cake just like I did before. And that first bite?

Utterly perfect.

Thank you guys… all of you for being here to celebrate with me. :)

cake9wm The recipe for the first cake I baked from scratch, with a slice of one year anniversary cake!

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March 19, 2010 at 11:01 pm 79 comments

Sugar Cookies

sugar5

Sometimes, I really don’t feel like blogging.

I’ll be curled up in bed with a mug of warm cocoa, reading a magazine when I’ll realize it’s been a week. And that means it’s time for a new post. I won’t have any idea what to write about, won’t even feel like carefully crafting a sentence together in my head, but I’ll sit there and force my way through until I’ve produced a post. I tell myself it’s a commitment.

These days I can tell my parents get a little concerned about the stress the blog might be putting on me. My mom tells me that I should just blog as long as it makes me happy, and my dad inquires about the pressure I feel every week to maintain the blog. Sure, there is a bit of responsibility involved with 17 and Baking that wasn’t there back when I felt certain of its anonymity, but there definitely isn’t anxiety.

17 and Baking truly makes me happier than anything else, and it’s a commitment, but it’s one I struggle through with pleasure.

sugar1

So on those days when I’m not in the mood to be productive, I brainstorm. I look at the photographs I’ve taken and try to transport myself there, think about what made me smile and what made me pensive while I was baking. I think about what kind of message I want to be sending, what sort of ties this week’s adventures in the kitchen have with my life.

In the end I always pull through. I manage to come up with an idea, even if I’ve been sitting before an empty page for hours. Despite my longing to be lazy, I edit photographs until I’m satisfied. When the post finally comes together, the fulfillment that steeps through me makes the entire process so, so worth it.

At this point, knowing that I’m not alone and that 17 and Baking has become more than just an afterthought, it’s become a responsibility which I genuinely look forward to every week. These days I have so many more ridiculous, spontaneous bursts of happiness that can’t be properly explained, where I smile at everyone and feel in love with everything. Every post, no matter how much of a challenge it might be to get down, is so worth it in the end.

sugar7

A few weeks ago, I was approached to make 100 sugar cookies for a local art walk. The walk was meant to be a charity and most of the supplies and materials would be donated. Feeling generous, I agreed to make the cookies for 25% of what I would normally charge. I had no idea what I was getting into.

I made one batch of cookies, and was horrified to discover a couple things. The recipe only made 20 sugar cookies, so I would have to make it four more times, and I knew already that the cost of butter and sugar would far surpass the price I’d set. But even more frustrating was the fact that those 20 cookies had taken me forever to roll out. The dough oscillated between soft and sticky and frozen stiff.

I was going to lose money, I didn’t have time to do my homework, and I was angry at myself for offering the discount and agreeing to do the project in general. I wanted to quit, but of course, I couldn’t. I dreaded the next 80 cookies.

sugar6

The next day, I was in the kitchen longer than I was in school. I made batch after batch after batch and worked so smoothly I felt like a production line. Despite my annoyance, by the third batch I couldn’t help but notice that I was getting faster. I was starting to understand the way the dough worked, picking up tricks.

I discovered the perfect dusting of flour to keep the cookies soft without being sticky, and I learned the perfect temperature of butter to begin with. I’d roll out the cookies, put them in the freezer, and put them in just as another tray left the oven. It was the kind of efficiency that only time could arouse, and while the first few cookies hadn’t impressed me so much in the taste department, I found that each sheet produced more and more delicious cookies.

My mood couldn’t help but lighten a little. Even when I finished the fifth batch, only to discover I was 3 cookies short of the full 100, I didn’t grumble too much as I began the recipe for the sixth time. And when I was finally done, I packed them up and declared that I never wanted to make another sugar cookie again in my life. There was still a nearly-full batch of dough leftover, but I stuffed it into the freezer and forcibly ignored it.

sugar2

Sunday night, a week after the sugar cookie nightmare project, my parents and I were slowly ending dinner. I left and went to check on the blog, refreshing the page to read any new comments. That’s when I squealed so loudly that I halted the clink of spoons and dinner conversation from the dining room.

I had been so convinced that I didn’t stand a chance in this year’s Weblog Awards that I hadn’t bothered to learn when the winners would be announced. So in that unguarded moment, I found out through a scattering of congratulatory comments that left me overwhelmed. Best weblog written by a teen? I was so startled and caught off guard that all I could do was shriek incoherently.

The feeling was sort of like an intense magnification of what I feel after publishing a new blog post – accomplishment, cheeriness, and awestruck wonder at how lucky I’ve been. And the first thing I did, after my dad rushed in to drink in the moment with me, giving me a big hug and dabbing my burning eyes with his sweater, was go into the kitchen and bake up that last batch of wonderful, beautiful, fantastic sugar cookies.

sugar4

[PS: The second thing I did was send out emails thanking all the people I knew who had voted for me and spread the word - that includes you! Thank you so much for reading and for voting, I couldn't have done it without you!]

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March 5, 2010 at 11:53 pm 66 comments

Buttercream in Bloom

Ever since I’ve begun blogging, I’ve noticed that 17 and Baking does have an effect on what I make. I still daydream about unusual flavor combinations and sketch out cupcakes in class, but I’m also influenced by what I’ve already done.

I realized that I also try not to repeat myself, despite the clear trends in my preferences. I can’t resist pumpkin, basil, and blood oranges, but their appearances on my blog have been limited since I always try to keep things different. I find myself aiming for new recipes instead – I can’t blog about something I’ve already made!

But I’ve found that some of my favorite desserts, the creations I’ll ultimately keep closest to my heart, have been the ones created not for my blog, but for my own life.

From Boston Cream Pie to Lemon Chiffon Cake, the treats I bake for my family inevitably turn out well and become favorites. And I only make things that I myself like (which is why the chocolate tag on my blog is nearly visible from space, but I keep making chocolate desserts.)

Maybe it’s because I like the creativity and the challenge of it all, or maybe it’s because I just love to see how people light up when they’re happy… Whatever the reason, I think birthday cakes are the most fun to make. I love designing and baking birthday treats especially for my friends based on what they like. I think about whether they’re a chocolate or vanilla person, and whether they’d like buttercream or ganache.

Beyond taste, the best part is deciding how to decorate whatever I make. I try to really think about what my friends are like, what makes them the happiest, and what would really make their day a little sunnier.

So when I set out to make these these Chrysanthemum Cupcakes for my artist friend M-, I already knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to make something as beautiful and light as her art, something that was really “too pretty to eat.” I also wanted to make something as delicious as attractive, so I made chocolate cupcakes filled with meyer lemon curd. Then I used my favorite swiss meringue buttercream to pipe each petal on top.

One of the most frustrating things is when the vision in your head doesn’t match the dessert you produce. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started out with a gorgeous picture in my head… and then four hours later, my counter is covered in granulated sugar and I’ve got food coloring on my nose and a temper.

But these cupcakes came together without trouble. Nobody was more surprised than me when the flowers emerged from the piping tip petal by petal, delicate and smooth.

The bouquet of cupcakes on the table put a smile on everyone’s face when they walked by… I hope they brightened M-‘s birthday too!

Update – recently I wrote this article for the Seattle Times. The recipe at the end features the piping technique from this post. A few days after publication, I got an email from Lisa of West Seattle. She and her daughter made the cupcakes, shared them with friends and family, and emailed me this lovely poem about them. I got her permission to share it here.

THIS IS NOT A CUPCAKE

This is spring
on a bone china saucer
rimmed in gold.

Lemon zest–that’s the sharp snap of a twig
as you brush past fairy chandeliers of indian plum
blooming along the creek.

There’s pistachios–earthy and green, like lilac buds
or the tip of a tulip;
bulb-bursting and shooting for the clouds.

And the flour–‘flower’.   Ha!

Are you smiling yet?
Because this is not a plate of cupcakes.

It’s my affection,
her crush,
our love
spread with buttercream and set with camellia petals–
crinkled, pink, perfect.

So go ahead.   Indulge.

Take a taste
of spring
of the promise of sunshine
of my heart–

there’s more where that came from.

- Lisa K., West Seattle

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January 20, 2010 at 9:38 pm 98 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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