Posts tagged ‘icing’

Lemon-Scented Pull-Apart Coffee Cake

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We bought our first real house when I was in 4th grade. Up until then, we’d been calling a suburban condo home, but it wasn’t working for my mother. She wanted a yard to weed and nurture, walls she could paint palest lavender or creamy sage. As for me, I didn’t care much about having a patch of grass or a room painted blue. I just thought that our house was our home and I didn’t really want to leave it.

I remember the first night we spent at the new house. It was March, still cold, and we hadn’t fully moved over. The house was still half-empty, like a partially created stage set. In the dark the rooms were ominous and alien, as if the previous family had vanished into the walls. The stacks of boxes and unfamiliar furniture arrangement cast weird shadows, and I was too scared to close my eyes.

For weeks, whenever I heard the word “home,” I didn’t think of our freshly painted door or the roses outside my new bedroom window. I pictured our beige condo and its curved, carpeted staircase instead.

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Eight years later, our little green house feels achingly like home. It’s in the details that I’ll remember years from now. The dusky blue drinking glass that I use solely for trapping and freeing spiders when my mother’s asleep. The arthritic creak of the French doors to our backyard. The flood of light that drenches our living room in liquid gold on Sunday mornings.

Oh, and… my kitchen. The slick black and white checkered floor that we’ve wanted to get rid of since the beginning (we never will), the marigold walls, the flaking white cabinets that don’t all shut properly. It isn’t even truly “my kitchen.” For all my baking passion and “heart in the kitchenaid” talk, it belongs to this family much more than any one of us.

I think more than anything, home will always sound like the grating whirr of my father peeling potatoes. Taste like umami beef noodle soup that makes your whole body tingle, it’s so intensely beautiful. Feel like crouching outside in a cool drizzle, herbs bundled in my fingers as in, “I could use a handful of chives – Elissa?” And maybe most of all, the warm, yeasty smell of rising bread when the sunlight through my window wakes me up.

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I woke up Sunday morning really, really aching to be in the kitchen.

Maybe it was because I’d gone to Dianne Jacob’s food writing workshop on Saturday, and since then my mind was shrouded in hunger and taste related adjectives. Maybe it was because I hadn’t baked anything in a week. But I felt like doing something a little more ambitious, and I chose to tackle my yeast anxiety with Flo Braker’s Lemon-Scented Pull-Apart Coffee Cake.

Predictably, my mother had woken long before me. She was outside, watering the irises that have simultaneously burgeoned forth. But she’d been in the kitchen first. I could smell the proofing dough before I even entered the hallway. And her fingerprints were all over the kitchen – a cleaner than clean countertop, a dishwasher full of drying bowls, and finally, a Rapunzel-esque braid of challah draped with a clean cloth.

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We juggled the kitchen after she came inside and peeled off her gardening gloves. She brushed the pillowy loaf with an egg wash while I kneaded, flour on both our noses. She showed me how to make bread rise properly in our cool house (she heats a cup of water in the microwave for 4-5 minutes to create steam, then leaves the covered loaf there to rise.)

While the challah browned on the outside and fluffed up inside like cotton, I spread my dough with lemon sugar and cut it into rectangles. The whole house seemed to be rising like bread itself. The warm air from the oven circulated up and back down until every room was rosy. The couch, the bathroom towels, my sweatshirt… everything smelled like my favorite smell, yeast and flour and home.

Mom’s challah was breathtaking, the way that homemade bread kneaded and shaped in your hands is always breathtaking. And to my surprise, the Lemon-Scented Pull-Apart Coffee Loaf lived up to its mouthful of a name. The loaf baked up sumptuous and golden, envelopes of lemon zest and fluff, slathered with a cream cheese frosting.

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We gorged ourselves on bread: chunks of challah, sheets of lemony loaf. My mom would taste my bread, praise it, give me a slice of hers. “Isn’t it good? Yours came out so well,” we’d both say. As long as my mother is filling the kitchen ceiling with sweet, oven-hot air, I have a place to call home.

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May 25, 2010 at 12:25 pm 126 comments

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Sugar Cookies

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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[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

Rising Confidence and Yeast-Raised Doughnuts

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As boring as it might sound, I’m comfortable with the ordinary. I like routines.

I hit the snooze button twice every morning before crossing the cool carpet to get my fuzzy socks. I have the same cereal in my favorite breakfast bowl, the marbled blue and white one that says “Good Morning” in wavy print along the rim.

When school is finally over, I head to the same patch of parking lot, leaning from the weight of my backpack onto the bumper of my friend C-‘s car. As we carpool home, I look out the window and remark how much brighter each day is getting, and he smiles and turns up the radio.

I like routines, because I like the comfort of knowing what to do – it keeps me focused and organized, and I feel like I’m on target.

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Sometimes, though, you’re forced to adapt, to step out of your comfort zone even if you haven’t put on your shoes or accumulated enough experience. Lately at Seastar, the restaurant where I intern, I’ve been working on banquets, which are uncharted waters for me.

Banquets are different from normally working on the pantry line. Instead of plating orders of food for tables, the Seastar chefs make enough food to feed a private business or organization. While the biggest ticket I’ll probably tackle on the pantry line is for 8 people, banquets can go up in the hundreds. And banquets, unlike salads or desserts on their own, are composed of multiple courses.

If you ask me, banquets are much more stressful. There’s a palpable intensity in the kitchen that I can’t quite handle. There’s a rush to cook and plate the food, and though I wish I could help, I just haven’t learned enough yet. For starters, I’ve never seen most of the entrees and appetizers, and for another, I haven’t picked up the skills to execute what my mentors are doing.

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I tried to be helpful, running to plate hundreds of cheese-filled fingerling potatoes. I used only my fingertips, the way I saw the chef before me, to move each potato half from the sweltering pan to the platter. But as hard as I tried, I couldn’t imitate the nimble way the other chefs worked. The blistering heat from the bubbling cheese seemed to burn holes in my palms, and I was slow and clumsy. I ended up stepping back because I felt like a burden.

It’s not like me to get flustered, to feel incompetent and to cast my eyes down in atypical introversion. So even though I didn’t like working on banquets, and could have said so – I think that ultimately this new experience will be good for me, it’ll help me acquire new skills and tougher fingertips.

I had the chance to go back to the pantry line, and I will sometime. But at the moment, it would seem like giving up, and determination is one of my stronger qualities when I put my mind to something. So I’ll keep working through the banquets, despite my frustration and the lack of coordination between my ambition and my ability.

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I know someday the turnaround will come. I’ll be wiping down the counters after a night spent on my feet when I’ll realize I was helpful that day; that my presence made things run a little more smoothly. And everything will be worth it. Right now, I want to try new things in every area of my life, from the stainless steel kitchens at work to my quiet, sunlit kitchen at home.

I’m making a greater and greater variety of things now. In the past, unsure of myself or “realistic” as I called it, I stuck to simple cakes and cookies. Now I’ve made so many things I never thought I could tackle, from French macarons to bagels. I want to cross everything off my wishlist. Every success and every failure makes me a little more daring, and suddenly I forget the appeal of the routine.

When people ask me if I cook, I laugh and shrug a little, and when they ask about bread I deflect by describing my mother’s talents. I’ve said many times before that I’m scared of making bread because I’ve never worked with yeast. But now, I can finally proudly say that I’ve made a yeast-raised baked good – and it wasn’t any scarier than jumping off a diving board.

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I don’t know what gave me the push to make doughnuts. I’ve been eying them for a while, longingly. But the thought of working with yeast, and the “probable failure” I expected overpowered my desire. Who knows what gave me the final push? Maybe 17 and Baking, a browse through Tastespotting, or simply a craving for something homey.

In an effort to avoid the plunge, I considered making cake doughnuts or baked doughnuts. But in my heart I wanted to make yeast-raised doughnuts, fluffy and tall and pillowy, and no talk of “healthier baked doughnuts” or “cakey rings of goodness” could really sway me. My refrigerator was stocked with homemade blackberry jam and leftover meyer lemon curd, and I rejected my reservations like a deep exhalation.

It seemed simple enough to let the yeast bloom in the water like a dusty ripple, and when I peeked underneath the warm towel I saw that the dough had doubled in size. From there it I felt like I was on stable ground, easily cutting the doughnut rings like they were sugar cookies, and chasing them in the bubbling oil with my slotted spoon.

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And the first bite? Anything but ordinary.

[PS: The comments on last week’s post were better than a hug from my mom or falling asleep with my dog Tilly (well, maybe.) It was unexpected and so uplifting. Thank you for being supportive, and I want to add that since the exposure has died down, I haven’t had experienced any more negativity.]
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February 2, 2010 at 7:19 pm 82 comments


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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