Posts tagged ‘Mom’

Soft Whole Wheat Peanut Butter Cookies (vegan)

Mmmm...

My dad picked me up at the Seattle airport when I flew home for winter break. Throughout the semester I’d grown used to the unfamiliar – a different hostel every weekend, foreign customs, menus I couldn’t read. Seeing my dad’s face and falling into a bear hug made everything else disappear, like I’d never left home at all.

I breathed in the chilly air and looked out at the silhouettes of pine trees. Dad unlocked the car and I threw in my bags, a little white carry-on and the replacement backpack I bought in Rome. He raised his eyebrows as I slammed the trunk shut.

“Only two bags?”

“Dad, I’m only home for a month,” I said, rolling my eyes.

I didn’t understand the strange look that passed over his face. He’d later tell me that was the moment he knew I’d come back different, even though I didn’t see it then. How much can a person change in three months, anyway?

Baking sheet

But now that I’m back on campus in Boston, little things are different. Last year I didn’t just love living in the freshman dorm with a roommate – I needed that sense of community so I wouldn’t feel lonely, so I’d feel a connection with people. But I think I left Europe with something else entirely. These days I’m living in a single, and I’ve finally learned that living alone isn’t the same thing as being alone.

My parents are living alone. I worried about my mom when I saw her over winter break – she was eating really simple meals and bundling up instead of turning on the heat. For the first time in my life, I wanted to take care of my family, instead of just relying on them to take care of me. And I found that the littlest things in the world made her happy.

Like grocery shopping. My mom and I opened our eating horizons this winter. No more instant noodles and steamed spinach. And while I can’t wait for summer produce – delicate asparagus and heavy, thirst-quenching peaches – the winter has a lot to offer. We discovered cara oranges, faint pink and tangy. Pomegranates cracked into a thousand faceted rubies and acorn squash caramelized in the oven, its skin curling like parchment.

Chilled dough

By January, my mom was back in the kitchen. She baked bread for the first time in months. The juicer returned to our kitchen counter (my favorite is apple-carrot, heavy on the carrot.) One afternoon she bought a strange fungus from a Chinese grocery store, learned how to cook it, and introduced it to our table for the first time.

Then she said, “I want a signature dessert so I can bake when you’re not here.” This coming from the woman who once told me my buttercream frosting tasted like cavities.

Then I remembered these amazing peanut butter cookies. They’re naturally vegan – no eggs, butter, or milk – and use whole wheat flour. Plus, the recipe swaps canola oil for olive oil and refined white sugar for maple syrup. The dough comes together in one bowl, and the cookies are as simple as preheating the oven and owning a teaspoon.

The first time I made them, I brought an oven-fresh cookie to my mom. She examined it from top to bottom, took a hearty sniff, and finally tried the tiniest bite. Fifteen minutes later, we’d consumed nearly half of the cooling cookies, and agreed that they were far too dangerous for their own good.

Soft Whole Wheat PB Cookies

We made these cookies together. I showed her my favorite way to scoop flour (fluffed with a spoon, leveled with a knife) and the best way to avoid over-mixing. She rolled teaspoons of dough into balls, flattened them with a fork, and sprinkled salt and sugar over each batch. All I did was taste test.

My mom makes these cookies for holidays, for dinner parties, for friends. She even baked six dozen of these gems for a cookie swap at work. When people asked if I’d made them, she got to smile and say, “These ones are actually mine.”

When winter break ended and I flew back to Boston, there were still four jars of peanut butter and three pitchers of maple syrup chilling in the fridge. And by the time I’m home again, asparagus and peaches and all my favorite summer produce will be in season, but there won’t be anything I look forward to more than a peanut butter cookie.

[Also - if you're reading this before 1/22/12, I'm going to be a guest tonight on Olivia Wilder Talk Radio! Click here for more info and the number to talk to me on air.]

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January 22, 2012 at 4:34 pm 87 comments

Crackly Crackers

cracker1

I spent my last day in Seattle with my parents. We woke up early and got pancakes at one of our favorite dives, a run-down little restaurant near the airport. I spent the afternoon at home with Dad and the dogs, looking through old photo albums. We shared some good sushi for an early lunch, and ice cream sundaes for dessert. Even though sleet fell and dirty puddles collected, damp leaves sticking to our soles, I couldn’t have felt happier about my last afternoon.

At home after dinner, I watched my mom boil water for tea, facing away from me. I sat at the table and checked my email as she talked, only half listening. She stopped mid-sentence, and I finally noticed that she’d been crying – so quiet I hadn’t heard from three feet away.

She left the kitchen and I heard the closet open down the hall. She came back with a white cloth napkin with sky blue trim. “Recognize this?”

The last time I saw my parents before winter break was in Boston, a few days before classes started. We had dinner at a fancy seafood restaurant in the North End, a light meal before I left in near tears and caught the next train to my dorms. We didn’t say goodbye for very long because I didn’t want my parents to see I was upset.

cracker3

“After you walked out, I started crying,” my mom said. I unfolded the napkin and turned it around in my hands. It was so neatly folded and wrinkle-free that it looked new.

“Your father and I left soon after you. We walked down the street and he gave me the napkin – he stole it from the restaurant. He said he thought I might need it.”

And here it was now, a seeming lifetime later, in our chipped little kitchen.

“We walked a little further and went into some of the stores. Your dad, he picked up this jar of something and said ‘Oh – Elissa would really like this.’ He just kept looking at it and finally he bought it. He said, ‘We should give it to her.’”

“The fig spread?”

cracker5

I remembered this. I thought I’d said goodbye to my parents for the last time, but later that night, my dad stopped by the lobby of my dorm. He had a box of water crackers, a thick wedge of creamy brie, and a small glass jar of an incredible fig jam. It was the last real quality food I had before I settled into my routine of café sandwiches and dining hall chicken fingers. It was the last little bit that felt like Seattle as I settled into Boston.

The first week of school, I passed it around the common room and shared it with my floor. Nobody had eaten anything like that fig spread before, and I saw people right, left and center falling in love. Between my roommate E- and I, the jam lasted a few weeks. When it was gone, I washed out the jar and set it on the windowsill. That’s where it is now, catching the fleeting light that filters into my room.

When it was gone, I craved more, but I wasn’t about to buy more on my college student budget. One afternoon E- came into the room with a grocery bag. She pulled out a package of crackers. “I keep thinking about that fig spread,” she admitted. With or without it, the crackers satisfied us, and now our room is always stocked with a box or two.

cracker2 (Left to right: Parmesan Cheese Crackers, Orange Sugar & Spice Crackers, Lime Thyme Crackers)

Mom was smiling now. “After the hard time your dad gave me about being upset, he was the one buying stuff for you half an hour later. He said we should go to Whole Foods and get something to go with the jam. I thought he was being ridiculous but he was so stubborn about the idea.”

They didn’t know where Whole Foods was, but they took a train and managed to find it. I can picture Dad walking up and down the cheese aisle, like he used to when we shopped together, looking for the particular brie I’m so smitten with. I imagine him looking at shelves and shelves of crackers, deciding which box would go best with the spread.

As I thought about all the work behind that simple gesture, a paper bag with a last-minute snack, I started to feel sad for the first time about winter break ending. I gave my mom a long hug and told her not to cry. I folded up the napkin, following the creases, and handed it to her.

“Hang onto this. I’m serious. Keep this forever, okay?”

“Okay.” She paused, and then smiled. “I’ll use it at your graduation.”

cracker4

She put the napkin back in the linen closet, Dad came and sat down, and the two of them talked at the dinner table as I finished packing.

Boston, here I come.

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January 16, 2011 at 1:23 am 64 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 51 comments

Smoked Grape and Rosemary Focaccia

Smoked Grape and Rosemary Focaccia

When I arrived at school, I came with every intention of getting super involved. I wanted to be that person – the person who squeezes in a few too many clubs and activities, the person who comes home exhausted. I honestly love being busy, and I wanted to wholeheartedly accept new experiences.

It was a valiant effort. In the activity fair my first week, I scrawled my email address onto dozens of sign-up sheets and mailing lists – social justice, poetry, photography club, the college newspaper, book publishing, even freshman government. I walked between the elms and brick buildings back to my dorm, consumed with anticipation, wondering which clubs I’d get into and which ones I’d fall in love with.

More than anything else, though, I wanted to be accepted to my school’s radio station. It’s prestigious around here, difficult to get into and fully student-run. Even though my passion is in print, in the weight of an inked word on paper, I’m smitten with This American Life and 107.7 The End (which I stream online here across the country.) I missed listening to NPR  every morning in the carpool to high school. I missed radio in general.

I’d seen the students involved with the college station, and found everything about it appealing. I wanted to carry heavy headphones in my bag and hear my voice, weirdly foreign, emerge from the radio. I picked up an application.

Smoked Grape and Rosemary Focaccia

Four weeks later, I’m even busier than I’d hoped to be, even though I slowly withdrew from most of the clubs I’d signed up for. Instead, I got a job at a bakery, which I’m so excited to start. I clung to photography club, which is one of the highlights of my week – photos will come soon, promise. Add homework, classes, a few minutes for meals and – oh, did I mention? Lots and lots of radio.

I’m a reporter for the news department. I make contacts and conduct interviews, which I edit into sound clips and adjust until the levels are right. I research. I’m learning to project my voice and breathe properly on-air. I now search for potential stories everywhere, breathing in information and exhaling headlines. I rewrite press releases and post stories to the web. And at least several nights a week, I’m underground at the station past midnight, rerecording my script over and over and over… trying to pronounce all the words correctly.

I had no idea it would be this hard, or this demanding. I didn’t realize it would take me two hours to produce a 45 second clip, and… well… a lot longer to create an eight minute one. And I couldn’t have anticipated how much I’d adore it.

Smoked Grape and Rosemary Focaccia

To be sure, it has its downs. We were expected to hit the ground running, and my first week was rough. I’m starting to learn the terrain, but that doesn’t make it easy. I’ve had afternoons where nobody answers my calls, where I say, “Hi, I’m Elissa Bernstein and I’m a reporter with–” only to be cut off and dismissed. There have been nights where I spent more than twice as much time editing and writing than sleeping. (Which is easier than it sounds when you’re running on 4 hours of sleep.)

I remember the shift where I couldn’t figure out how to work the dashboard, with all its dials and buttons. Once, I accidentally bumped the microphone off its stand. Another afternoon, I hung up the phone after a great interview, only to realize I’d improperly recorded the conversation (in other words, hadn’t recorded the conversation) and had to start from scratch.

As a new staff member with no previous experience, everything is trial and error.

Even though I’m only seriously involved with a couple activities, they’re full of so many unfamiliar skills and unexplored subjects, my education extends far beyond the classroom itself. This radio position is more than an extracurricular, it’s a part time job and the wholehearted acceptance of new experiences that I craved. Who knows what I’ll be able to do in the future after this? Every time you acquire new knowledge, you can funnel it into the creation of something incredible.

Like smoked grape and rosemary focaccia.

Smoked Grape and Rosemary Focaccia

My parents and I discovered smoked grapes one summer night a few months ago. We used to spend hours sitting in lawn chairs around our home-built fire pit, roasting hot dogs and watching marshmallows molt. One evening, long past sundown, when the whole world was crackling logs and faraway pinpoint stars, my mother brought out a bowl of grapes.

I think it was my dad’s idea. He skewered a grape onto a thin branch still sticky with marshmallow sugar, set it over the fire. It was smoking when he pulled it away from the flames. He popped it into his mouth, and a look of surprise took over his face. He made one for Mom, and I tried the next one. The grape was warm, but not hot, with a smokiness that caught you off guard. It was so strange, so good, so full of possibility.

We tried to brainstorm how best to showcase this miracle. I thought they would be good with anything and everything. Baked into a tart. Tossed with mixed greens in a salad. Or maybe sliced with bright, fresh jimaca and mango, served over fish? That’s when it came to me – I knew what I wanted to make first.

“Focaccia,” I said.

Smoked Grape and Rosemary Focaccia

Last Mother’s Day I gave my mother a gorgeous book on tomatoes. The book is filled cover to cover with some of the loveliest food photography I’ve seen, and descriptions of dozens and dozens of tomato varieties. In the back, a recipe for cherry tomato focaccia, which I had mentally bookmarked from the first time I saw it. The page swam hazily to mind as I blew smoke away from another fireside grape.

I forgot that I’m not confident with bread-making. I was too excited. Instead I found a recipe for focaccia and bought a bag of grapes. I wanted to find another smoking technique, just in case not everyone has access to a firepit, or the time to individually skewer each grape. My dad said it could be done on the grill. He snipped bundles of sturdy, fragrant rosemary and burned them under the grill’s cover with a big bowl of the grapes. Soft grey smoke streamed steadily from the grill’s sides, like bubbles rising in a fish tank.

I can’t get enough of these grapes. After smoking, their color changed from deep red-purple to burnished gold, as if you could literally see the fragrant rosemary smoke swirling under the skins. My dad had to stop me and my mother from snacking on them as the bread dough rose. I spread the focaccia into a sheet pan, brushed it with olive oil, dimpled it with my fingertips and gently pressed in halved grapes.

Smoked Grape and Rosemary Focaccia

It was an experiment, since I wasn’t sure if the loaf would be too watery, if the grapes would keep their flavor, if it would need a touch less rosemary. We pulled the sheet out of the oven. I cut the first slice, and oh, my gosh – that crackle as I broke the crust, the lightness of the center, one or two grapes nestled in with wrinkled tops… That bread was perfection. We ate it so, so quickly we almost felt sick. And it’s one of my favorite memories from this summer, keeping me warm as the temperature drops.

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October 19, 2010 at 6:52 pm 51 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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