Posts tagged ‘holiday’

Gingerbread Igloo

As most college deadlines draw near (January 1st), the flurry of college applications is drawing to a close. One of the coolest things about this entire process has been watching my friends go through it – not because I like to watch them agonize over their essays or anxiously stress over early decision emails. No, I like seeing my friends pick out the colleges that are right for them based on their unique interests.

In middle school, we were generally the same. Some of us were more inclined towards English and social studies, whereas others were more talented in math and science (I knew right away that I was not a math or science person). But when it came down to it, we were interested in the same classes, depending on how cool or funny the teacher was.

But now, after four years of high school, we aren’t so similar anymore. Slowly, quietly, I’ve watched my friends develop their real joys and callings in life. I’ve seen their passions burst forth like the cherry blossoms in spring, and I’ve seen the unfiltered pleasure on their faces when they are doing something they love. And even though I don’t share their interests, I know exactly how they feel.

One of my friends, M-, is an amazing artist. She loves the beautiful, the romantic, the optimistic, and her art is visual poetry. She uses soft, bright colors and gentle swirls of paint to compose half-opened flowers, graceful ballerinas, and sweeping landscapes reminiscent of Thomas Kinkade.

When I look at her work I can’t turn away. Her paintings seem to fill me with liquid sunshine from my shoes up, they’re so light and dreamy. The beauty and inspiration on her canvas reflects what a beautiful and inspiring person she herself is. Every work of art is a confession, and every confession is exhilarating to see.

Another one of my good friends, C-, has found that he was meant to play the cello. Although he was technically “late” to the music scene, not starting when he was very young, his gift is undeniable. C-’s dedication is astounding – some days he goes to orchestra during school, attends two cello lessons outside of class, plays at a symphony in the evenings, and then practices again upon arriving home.

As I don’t play an instrument myself, my ear is untrained and naive. But when I hear him play, even if I cannot recognize the composer or identify any incorrect notes, I can feel the emotion. It runs up my spine in slow, deliberate waves, totally at the command of his bow. He closes his eyes when he plays, and I have a feeling the music envelopes him completely – mind, body, and spirit. [It was he I made the Cello Birthday Cake for.]

I could go on and on. The talents of my friends would fill up not one, but many long winded posts. My friend M- is a skilled badminton player, A- makes gorgeous dresses out of trash bags (as well as art of all mediums), K- is passionate about math (MIT, congratulations!), and E- finds peace when she runs.

I guess it’s not hard to conclude what I’ve found my greatest enjoyment to be too – baking, of course. While I could never work on a piece of art for hours, or play a musical piece over and over until callouses formed on my fingertips, I can spend an entire afternoon in the kitchen. As a matter of fact, it took days and hours of work even with help (thanks, E-!) to complete this Gingerbread Igloo for the Daring Bakers.

But it was a labor of love – from cutting out every one of the individual gingerbread bricks, to making 3 pourable fondants because they all failed, to piping out the pine trees. And I don’t know how many of my friends could stand doing that.

But for me, the best things about these passions my friends and I have developed is this: they do not solely define us. I don’t want to walk around school being called “The Baker” without any more dimension to me. I have dreams and ambitions that go beyond the kitchen, even though a piece of my heart will always rest between the KitchenAid and the sugar bin. I am a writer, a poet, a photographer, a thinker.

M- is not simply the artist. She is considering a career in medicine, she leads the school through student government, and she likes working with the school district. And C-, though he plans to go to music school, plays frisbee and can’t deny his interest in chess and cross country.

I love that we have found something that helps us discover and understand who we are, something that brings happiness and relaxation. But I am also grateful for how rounded and open-minded my friends are. They are multifaceted and flexible, and I can’t wait to see how far they all go in college and in life.

The December 2009 Daring Bakers’ challenge was brought to you by Anna of Very Small Anna and Y of Lemonpi. They chose to challenge Daring Bakers’ everywhere to bake and assemble a gingerbread house from scratch. They chose recipes from Good Housekeeping and from The Great Scandinavian Baking Book as the challenge recipes.

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December 23, 2009 at 12:00 am 48 comments

Striped Peppermint Meringues with Chocolate Ganache

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.

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December 3, 2009 at 8:53 pm 172 comments

A Little Taste of Independence

Hey everyone – happy 4th of July!

I know most everyone has a special Independence Day tradition. Most people spend the day with their family and friends, others go to neighborhood potlucks and barbeques, and still others go to the park to watch the fireworks burst beneath the stars. My personal tradition?

When we first moved into this house, I was so happy to discover that the neighborhood was full of kids. Boys, it turned out. We had only been settled in the house for a few months before it was July, and I discovered something else – those boys were ridiculous pyromaniacs. The entire day they shot off the loudest fireworks they possibly could, and not even stopping there. They would drop fireworks into hollowed out tennis balls, empty coke cans, even buckets of water, just to see what would happen. When I first opened my door, there was a half melted army man on our driveway. I don’t even want to imagine what they did to the poor guy.

We’re not little kids, and unfortunately I don’t go out and play with those boys anymore. It seems as we got older it was weirder for a girl to hang around the group, and I haven’t created a fort in their backyards or explored the neighborhood with them in years. I’m too scared to light off any fireworks (Roman Candle fireworks are about as intense as I can handle), and I hardly ever see them now. But every year for the 4th of July, the whole neighborhood comes out as soon as dusk falls to enjoy their show together, and I laugh with them like we’ve stayed friends all along.

While I wish I could claim credit for it, the idea of a flag cake was completely my father’s. It was all a bit of an experiment and when I finally cut the cake open, revealing the familiar red white and blue, I was so surprised to see that it worked. Besides that, I was floored by how beautifully colored all the layers were, and how much it really resembled a flag! It might be one of the coolest cakes I’ve ever made!

I used a white cake flavored with coconut milk. I wrapped the cakes and left them overnight and in the morning, was disappointed because they had dried out. I made a simple syrup with lime and tried to revive the layers, but the cake was still dry and I’m not sharing the recipe. However, the cake came together well and you can use any recipe for a three layer white cake.

I wanted the cake to be completely white on the outside, keeping the richly colored layers hidden. I also didn’t want to mess around with blueberries and strawberries on the top, which I think are generally pretty common around the 4th. I made my favorite cream cheese frosting and flavored it with lime zest. While the cake was nothing special, I do love this cream cheese frosting, and it’s the easiest to make – no room temperature cream cheese needed!

So, want to know how it’s made? :)

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July 1, 2009 at 11:03 pm 280 comments

Mother’s Day Lemon Chiffon Cake

Generally, every baked good I make goes through the same life cycle. I make it because baking is my ultimate form of escape. I focus so hard when I’m baking that all my stresses just melt into the background, and as the pan goes into the oven and I wash the dishes by myself, I just think. And it’s utterly relaxing.

I don’t give too much thought to what happens after I’ve finished. So I’ve got an entire cake, or five dozen cookies. Now what?

Usually my mom and I eat a little of what I make. She doesn’t have a huge sweet tooth, so she’ll try a small slice or one cookie. I’ll try it too, and if I like it, I might keep some and eat it throughout the week.

More than half of what I make, however, is always shared instead of kept at home. My mom sends plates of pretty stacked cookies over to our neighbors, who never bake themselves. I carry treats to school in my plastic cake carrier, stored in my locker until lunch time. And sometimes my mom brings it to work, so that whenever I’m in her office I inevitably get the question, “When are you baking again?”

But this cake. Oh, this innocent looking cake is a completely different story.

The first time I made it, my mother was actually shocked to like it. I had only just gotten into baking, and most everything was too rich or too sweet for her taste. But this chiffon cake, light as air and served without frosting, did it for her. Granted, it’s a small cake, but the two of us ate it all by ourselves.

I’ve made the cake countless times since, for her birthday and other special occasions. Once, over the course of 5 hours, my mom, dad, and I finished the entire thing. We started by cutting equal slices and carefully plating them, passing around forks. By the end, we tore off pieces of cake and brought them directly to our mouths. No utensils required.

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May 10, 2009 at 2:50 pm 37 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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