Posts tagged ‘Italian’

Cocoa Meringues

Cocoa Meringues - Hand

I never thought I was the kind of person who would be fired.

I’d been waitressing since my freshman year. The restaurant hired me my first month in Boston, even though I’d never taken an order or carried more than two plates across a room. I think what ultimately sold them was my interview–I walked in with a firm handshake and no doubt I’d find a job, so I did.

I liked waitressing right away. My first day of training, I wanted to be the fastest learner my boss had ever seen, to earn solid 20% tips from every table and have fun doing it. Two years later, I felt pretty good. I was not only the server who’d worked there the longest, but also the server with top sales. I always planned to work at that restaurant until I finished school.

I can’t pinpoint exactly where things started to go bad, or which Bad Thing was the last yanked thread that made the whole thing unravel. One by one, most of the staff had either quit or been fired. My three favorite managers left, one after another. Turnover had never been so high, business so slow, or my earnings so meager. I didn’t look forward to work, but I kept coming in.

Cocoa Meringues - Box

Then one morning last October, I had bad stomachaches and a forehead that could melt butter.

When I called in sick for my shift that evening, the manager said I needed to find my own replacement. Determined, I called all of my co-workers, even the ones who worked at different locations, but nobody wanted to come in. Trying to stay calm, I called my manager again, and told him I honestly couldn’t do it tonight.

“People don’t get sick on a Saturday night, a few hours before their shift.” He continued that if I didn’t come in, things would be “very bad for my future there.”

If I’d been feeling sick before, it was nothing compared to the worry his words sent pinwheeling through my stomach. Just like that, I knew it was over.

I’d never been fired from anything before. I prided myself in being a great employee, a great intern, a great student, a great whatever. I actually liked learning. I always wanted to be the best I could be. Now, to be unceremoniously fired from the first real job I’d ever had? After two solid years? What was wrong with me?

Cocoa Meringues - Raw

It was around that fall I first realized something was different. Looking back I know it was depression settling in, but at the time, it was happening so slowly I hadn’t really noticed.

I was bored with my classes, which weren’t challenging enough. I was so comfortable with my friends, I never went out and looked for more. There was a time I could juggle two jobs, four classes, an internship, and all the relationships I wanted to maintain. But as I sat on my bed that afternoon, phone on my lap and tears welling in my eyes, I felt like I couldn’t do anything.

I was going to be fired. Fired. I felt like such a failure.

I didn’t know what else to do, so I called my dad. We hadn’t talked in a while, partly because I didn’t have anything positive to tell him, and I didn’t want him to know how I’d been feeling. When I heard his enthusiastic “Hey little girl!” I was ashamed to have this conversation. He heard it.

“What’s wrong?”

“Dad,” I said. “It’s not good.”

Cocoa Meringues - Baked

He let me explain what had happened without saying a word. At the end, I finished with a horrible, nasally “So I think they’re going to fire me.” I stared at my toes and hoped he wouldn’t be as disheartened with me as I was with myself. The dead air rang in my ears a few moments, and then he finally spoke.

“Screw them,” he said. Except he didn’t put it quite so nicely.

I was so shocked and so relieved I started crying, more emotional than I would’ve been if he’d yelled. “You’re not mad? You’re not disappointed?”

“Honey,” he said, “you work hard. You gave them all you have. And if that isn’t enough, you don’t need to take this. If you aren’t happy, by all means, get outta there.” He paused. “Mom says, ‘Tell her you’re right.’ So there you go. We’re with you.”

Cocoa Meringues - Bitten

We talked until my tears were dry and a reluctant smile crept in. After hanging up I drank a cup of tea, watched some TV, and went to bed early, glad I hadn’t been too scared or too proud to call. I got better. And two days later, I went into work for my next shift, head held high, ready to face whatever happened.

Fragility is natural. It’s what makes porcelain and lace and new flowers so beautiful. It’s what makes a good meringue cookie so addictive. And it’s what makes us human.

In the end, I wasn’t fired. But I did quit. And when I finally left that job, I learned something else—it’s okay to feel breakable sometimes. It’s okay to let other people see that vulnerability. Because the people who care will always be there to support you, to comfort you, and to believe in you, even when you can’t do those things for yourself. Especially when you can’t do those things for yourself.

And they’ll be there for you when you can.

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July 18, 2013 at 6:37 pm 41 comments

Gelato Withdrawals

Standing before the counter, I meant to order a double scoop of stracciatella for one simple reason – after a week in Italy, the chocolate-flecked gelato remained the only flavor I could pronounce correctly.

The first time I bought gelato, I waited in line behind a panther of a woman, distinctly Italian among the throng of tourists. She radiated confidence in a black leather jacket and sky-high stilettos, balancing effortlessly atop the uneven Roman cobblestone. “Una paletta di stracciatella, per favore,” she trilled, the double C crackling like almond brittle between her teeth, the final syllable sung out rather than spoken, a ringing “LA.”

When the line shuffled forward, my plan to smile and point suddenly lost all appeal, and I blurted out, “Stracciatella!” As parrot-like as the word sounded in my American accent, it seemed less embarassing than blindly butchering anything else.

The gelato culture here isn’t anything like eating ice cream in the states. No matter where you are in Rome, you can probably spot a couple gelaterias from where you’re standing – across the street, inside the bakeries, even next door to one another. Gelato is denser and creamier than ice cream, with fresh flavors and prices cheaper than water.

I ate gelato twice a day while I was in Italy, for dessert and sometimes for dinner. Some shops packed scoops into chocolate-dipped cones, other topped the cup with a thin waffle cookie called a pizelle, and one store smothered the gelato with unsweetened whipped cream. Pretty soon, before lunch and after dinner, my order became a habit, the only flavor I could say with confidence: “Stracciatella.”

I stumbled upon a little gelateria one afternoon in Venice. More of a street-side counter than a shop, tucked in the south end of Campo Santa Margherita, the place didn’t advertise its fame as Venice’s best gelato with banners or framed awards. But the long line of people, all craning over each other’s shoulders to peek at the display case, wordlessly gave me the message.

Unlike some of the shops I’d visited, with counters that wrapped around the room, this place offered fewer than a dozen bins of gelato. But I was struck by the simplicity and intensity of the flavors offered, the effortless swirl of the gelato. Even though I couldn’t understand most of the Italian labels, garnishes translated for me – halved figs sparkling atop the fico, tan-edged wisps of coconut dotting the coco, a scattering of skinned hazelnuts over the nocciola.

I was tempted by the amarena, a cream based gelato swirled with sour cherry sauce, the fruit mixed in whole. In the next bin I discovered pistacchio, a flavor I’d seen almost everywhere. But the natural color, paler than the artificial neon green I sometimes saw, made this one stand out. And of course, there was my go-to stracciatella: white and perfectly smooth, aside from the streaks of rippled chocolate marbling throughout.

Before I could order the stracciatella, I discovered a wholly new flavor. Nearly black, this concoction churned dark chocolate into the creamiest-looking gelato I’d ever seen. In the afternoon sun, bits of candied orange peel studding the chocolate caught the light like jewels.

I found the label and immediately got lost in a string of C’s and vowels, still too proud to silently point. In the past few weeks I’d visited Scotland and England in the UK, English-speaking cities in the Netherlands, and Paris, which revived my high school French. But here in Italy, with no understanding of the language, I felt so invasive, so touristy, unable to blend in.

When I looked up, the man at the counter was smiling.

“Cioccolato all-arancia,” he said, the consonants soft in his deep voice.

“Cho-koh-LAH-toh ahl-ah-RAHN-cha,” I repeated.

He worked a bit of gelato back and forth a few times with a flat paddle until it was soft and creamy, and topped a waffle cone with a generous smear. This gelato had the texture of silk, an elusive airiness. The chocolate melted into a bittersweet custard on my tongue, the candied orange like tiny sunbursts. It was simply the best gelato I’d ever tasted.

When I found myself in line for a scoop the next morning in Florence, I scanned the bins, anticipating the flavor I’d choose next. Gianduja? Castagna? Something mysterious called zabaione, with no garnish whatsoever?

Maybe I couldn’t speak Italian, but by the time I returned to the Netherlands, I planned to be fluent in gelato.

Click for more photos from my travels in Italy…

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November 16, 2011 at 11:42 am 49 comments

Lemon Basil Olive Oil Cake

Lemon Basil Olive Oil Cake

Ten days in LA weren’t enough.

As the plane lifted, I caught my last looks at California through the gauzy clouds. I was already thinking about the restaurants I couldn’t try, the neighborhoods I hadn’t seen, and the gems I didn’t discover. The state was simply too big to experience in a mere week and a half. When we’d parted, my friend and host C- said, “But you’ll get to see Seattle!” I rolled my eyes and told him, “I live in Seattle.”

During this summer, I’ve lived up north by the bluest water in Maine. In Atlanta, I embraced the heat in sundresses, the warm air dampening my skin in minutes. And in California, I rummaged through antique cast iron skillets and pearl rings at farmer’s markets and artisan festivals. I’ve visited more places in the past year than ever before. But the few days I spent at home? I sat around, spinning the dusty globe in our office.

By the time I unpacked my suitcase and fell onto my bed, I’d decided to make things different. I needed to change my perspective. What would I do if I only had ten days in Seattle?

Lemon Basil Olive Oil Cake

We live slightly outside the big city, enough distance that it can feel foreign or familiar depending on my mood. I tackled Seattle with a fearlessness I’d never shown.

Downtown, I drove in circles trying to find parking before giving up and walking a good distance to reach any kind of store. I explored the U District alone, the little boutiques and second hand shops. I ducked into the independent theaters, painted seafoam green and dusty pink, outlined in bulbous lights, signs cracked with age… Somehow, the same movies come alive in a new way inside a theater with character.

My favorite sweets come from Seattle. In Boston I craved bullseye donuts from Top Pot, sticky with sugar glaze and raspberry jam, and Molly Moon’s Theo chocolate ice cream, so thick it’ll snap your spoon. I’m realizing just how much is still undiscovered. Last week I walked into a Middle Eastern restaurant the size of a closet and ordered something I couldn’t pronounce. I still don’t know what it was, but it was tangy and spiced, followed by a slice of cake drenched in honey.

If I approach summer in Seattle as an extended trip, the potential is incredible.

Basil Olive Oil

When I exit I-90 after an afternoon in the city, I’m filled with a strange appreciation for home. I pass my favorite old school diner, the one with the dumpy sign and the bad coffee. I like to drive slowly around the gentle, winding curves of my neighborhood.

Inevitably my eyes are drawn up to the unbelievable trees. Until I spent time out of Washington, I never knew how special our evergreens are. They tower, so tall and old, so richly green you can smell the color. In other cities the trees feel planted for decoration – but here, the houses have been nestled where the trees allow space. And when the sun is at the right angle, the light filters through in hazy planks, and suddenly my life is breathtaking.

My house is green, from the soft moss carpeting our cement patio (Mom hates this, I sort of like it) to the homegrown lettuce patch beyond my bedroom window. Our family doesn’t have the greenest thumb, but plants line our living room window, stems bowing towards the glass. My favorite of the bunch is the fragrant pot of basil.

Last crumb

Basil is my favorite herb. I like it sautéd with pasta, baked onto pizza, layered in sandwiches and churned into ice cream. With bunches of fresh basil at my fingertips, it’s hard to resist experimentation. When it results in something as lovely as basil olive oil, can you blame me?

We had a bag of bright lemons, so olive oil cake was necessary. I love the way this cake gently rises and falls, the way the sugar-sprinkled crust cracks, the way it perfumes the mouth. Each bite tastes like sunlight and comfort and dare I say it… green.

[Unsure about the 4th? Why not tackle my 4th of July Flag Cake? People have been making it ever since its creation 2 years ago. It's deceptively simple and always impressive. Check out the post for instructions, plus a video of me making it. Have a great weekend!]

flagcake

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July 1, 2011 at 3:01 pm 35 comments

Pistachio Gelato & Blackberry Creamsicle Sherbet

gelato1

Dear Mom and Dad,

I know it’s been a while. A long while. I’m sorry that I’ve stopped sending daily photos – it’s because I don’t have any photos to send. And I know I haven’t called in weeks. Every day is a jumble of classes, radio, clubs, essays, work, and somehow the things I used to be so passionate about have been pushed aside in the struggle. But I also know how much I care about you, and more importantly, you know it too. Four days until I fly home.

Dad, it was so good to see you over Thanksgiving. I opened the car door and saw you standing in the garage. You just looked at me like you were seeing sunlight for the first time in months. I had just woken up; I didn’t care that you were in work clothes and covered in dust when I fell into that hug. I love that it didn’t take more than ten minutes for one of your smart aleck comments to get on my nerves. You probably missed the way I roll my eyes.

I missed your cooking. I was glad you remembered I like my spaghetti swimming (drowning) in tomato sauce, even though I knew you wouldn’t forget. Did you see how quickly I shoveled that potato-celery root puree down? Yes, I was hungry, and no, they don’t cook food like that in our dining hall. But what really made it good was the way it tasted like twilight on the patio, too many dishes on the counter, the warmth of a dog under the table. Even though I slept for two days straight that week, it was good to be home.

Also, it was fun kicking your butt in Wii boxing.

gelato3

Mom. I can’t believe I haven’t seen you since August. When we parted, our red currants were still in season and it was so hot in Boston, I almost passed out that afternoon at the T station. Now, the metal spokes of my umbrella are mangled from wind and my rubber rain boots have split along the sides. We’ve had little flurries of snow, but I still stubbornly wear sundresses to class. You’d throw a fit if you saw me walk out like that. I’d point to my tights, and you’d tell me to put on another coat. (You’d be right.)

I always think about the last time I saw you. We were sitting in Neptune Oyster, having our last dinner together. I had finished eating a while ago, but I kept watching you pick at your calamari. I couldn’t bring myself to get up and leave because I knew I would be gone for good. There was no chance of me saying it aloud, but I was terrified. I remember our last hug, and rushing to leave before it overwhelmed me. The last thing I remember is your face – so conflicted.

I know you stress. I hear it in your voice when we talk on the phone, even though you try not to mention your anxieties. You’re worried I’m not eating right, not sleeping enough, working too hard. Maybe. But I hope you know I’m happy despite everything. I’ve grown up a lot in a semester, in most ways for the better. I can’t wait to make you proud with what I’ve accomplished.

gelato5

The first half of my freshman year went by in a blink. The other day I got in an elevator with the director of undergraduate admissions. He recognized me, and he was seriously interested: was the school a good fit? Was I finding a good balance between challenge and creativity? I told him I was. When I visited in April, I was uncertain. Today, I am sure.

Dad, when we flew out six months ago to check this place out, you remember how much I liked the radio station and the internship opportunities. I was impressed with the students I met and the professors I spoke with. But sometimes I think the decision really came down to… nougat.

It was spring, and cherry blossoms lined the North End like pale pink bridesmaids. We were walking down the brick streets when we saw a huge group of people standing outside Modern Pastry. We’d never heard of it, but we figured we couldn’t argue with a wait like that. When we finally got into the bakery, we bought a bar of nougat – simple, unassuming, and a little out of our comfort zone.

The first bite. Sticky sugar on our fingers and the way every piece melted in our mouths. I thought I’d never had anything so good before. We fought over the last bite. I can’t remember who let who have it. I don’t go into the North End as often as I’d like, but I never forget that nougat.

gelato2

I tried to recreate it myself, a version with orange blossom water and pistachios. It was, well, utterly inedible. Recipes involving candy thermometers are my weakness, so the nougat never came together. Even after I stuck it in the fridge, it was a sticky disaster, caught between solid and liquid, and a total waste of nuts. It did make me laugh.

But I still had half a bag of pistachios, so I split their shells and poured whole milk into a saucepan. A good fit for another Italian dessert, gelato. Elegant, subtle, and a buttery green, it captured the spirit of my favorite nut perfectly. I also had a bag of frozen blackberries – remember how we picked them over the summer? – so I thought I’d make a blackberry creamsicle sherbet too. It turns out, blackberry and pistachio go beautifully together, the nuttiness of one balancing the sweetness of the other.

Maybe I’ll try the nougat again when I’m home. But most likely not. I’ll spend every day with you two, Mom and Dad, and with Grandma (I’m studying hard and having fun) and Tilly and Otis. I’ll gorge myself on some real food, catch up on a lot of sleep, and find that new balance between child and adult I’m still discovering.

gelato6

I know how obsessively you two check 17 and Baking, so you’ll read this before I’m home, probably within hours of its posting. I’m not going to say how much I love you, because that’s the kind of thing you do in person. Four days, Mom and Dad.

Elissa

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December 13, 2010 at 7:57 pm 49 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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