Posts tagged ‘yeast’

Soft Pretzels

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It’s hard to believe that only one week ago, I was between homes.

My parents and I flew red eye. As we made our way to the airport, I kept my face turned towards the car window. In the struggle to pack every suitcase into the trunk and leave nothing behind, I’d forgotten to take one final glimpse of my house, the garden, or my room. I felt uprooted and uneasy. I spent my last hour in Seattle trying to drink in the mountains, the water, the evergreens made silhouette-black by the twilight.

By the time we boarded the airplane, the sun had set completely. I spent the flight between sips of ginger ale and bouts of restless sleep. But when I awoke five hours later to the pilot’s voice, crackly as crepe paper over the speaker, the aisle was flooded with light. Boston woke up that morning to a lavender sky and a molten orange sun, one of the most beautiful sunrises I’ve ever seen.

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I can’t pretend that my first days in Boston were without fault. It was uncomfortably hot and humid upon our arrival. On our first day we walked and walked and walked, until finally I nearly threw up in the sweltering subway station. And I was terrified. One of the first to move into the dorms, as soon as my parents left me alone to run some errands, I sat on my new bed and cried. It was just an accumulation of all the stresses, and you know I’ve never been good with change.

But I unpacked, and everything found its place. I fitted the bed with my old sheets and blankets, so it felt familiar. By the time my roommate E- arrived, I was ready to meet her, and that night I slept easily in my new room.

My parents left a couple days later. I met them at Neptune Oyster on their last night, where we had some really excellent calamari, smoked tuna, and raw oysters. I went through the motions of dinner like some weird dream, and fought tears when I hugged my mother and walked out. I slipped onto the T, rode home, and smiled at E- when I got back to my room.

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I’m sure that my school is the best school in Boston, maybe even the best school in America. (Half kidding.) The energy and passion here is honestly infectious. The people here are spirited, talented, and friendly to a fault. I’ve been to so many orientation events and activities that I can’t keep them all straight. I’ve met so many people that when I recognize a face, I don’t know whether it’s from an icebreaker game or the dining hall. And I love it.

Even though it’s only been a few days, I’m already in love with this dorm building. I love the creaky elevators and the beautifully detailed ceilings. I love my roommate, who is funny and outgoing and open as a book. I love my 7th floor – where to even start? On the first night, when we played a 30 person game of musical mafia? Two nights ago, when we sat beneath the purple sky in the Boston Common? Maybe yesterday, when we went to the Quincy Market together and sang “Stand by Me” with one of the street performers.

There’s P-, who is all too humble about his guitar and singing talents and wears funny shoes. There’s J-, who sounds EXACTLY like Michael Cera if you close your eyes. H-, who I shared an impromptu hug with in the elevator, S-, who looks like Mark Ruffalo, and C-, who has posters of Elvis around her bed. Is it possible that they already feel like family?

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I love the city of Boston. The way the squirrels in the Boston Common come right up to your feet. I love that everything is within walking distance, from the seedy grocery store in Chinatown to the fresh produce in Haymarket Square. My favorite place so far is the North End, where I like to walk alone through the winding cobblestone streets and carry a twine-wrapped box of cannoli.

Although I’ve tried plenty of good food here, the one thing I haven’t done yet is bake. This dorm building doesn’t have a real kitchen, and anyway, I don’t have any ingredients or supplies at this moment. My schedule’s been so hectic that I haven’t craved it yet, but I will. I can’t picture my life without mornings at the kitchen counter. I don’t know yet what will happen, but I know I can make it work.

These pretzels were the last thing I baked. It was the weekend before Boston, and my mother and I kneaded and twisted in the soft Seattle light I already miss. Neither of us had ever made pretzels before, and it was a bit of an experiment. We fumbled with the boiling water and had no idea how to form the shapes. But when the pretzels finally came out of the oven, soft and golden-brown, we couldn’t wait to take the first bite.

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My life right now is anticipation. I can’t wait to bake again, and to start classes this week. I can’t wait for the leaves to turn crimson and gold in the October breeze. I can’t wait for snow in December, by which time I’ll probably be missing the August heat, and planning my first flight back to Seattle – a trip from one home to another.

[PS: If you’re interested in hearing more about my day-to-day college experiences in Boston, follow me on Twitter!]

[PPS: Would anyone be interested in a no-recipe, no-food post with just photos of Boston? Remember, though, I have enough food photos and recipes stocked up to last the year!]

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September 5, 2010 at 1:07 pm 111 comments

Orange-Cinnamon Honey Sticky Buns and The Newlywed Kitchen

Orange-Cinnamon Honey Sticky Buns

In 8th grade, my middle school French class took a trip to Paris. Back then I wasn’t interested in food the way I am now, so I didn’t take advantage of the streetside crepes and Fouchon bakery. Instead I remember how the cobblestone streets felt through the thin soles of my sneakers. The Eiffel Tower electric with lights. The fear I felt in the damp, windless corridors of the skull-lined Catacombs. And the grey parchment paper sky, wisps of clouds and the promise of rain.

Even as the trip unfolded, I knew I was making memories I wouldn’t want to forget. Every evening we’d return to our rickety two-star hotel, with bars on the windows and a spiral staircase that went up and up and up. I’d collapse onto the bed, shoes still laced. Then my friend K- and I would pull out our journals. Neither of us enjoyed updating them, but we both wanted to remember every moment of this adventure. The magic was in the details.

On our last night, we thought it would be fun to exchange journals and see what the other person had written. After all, we’d done all the same things – wouldn’t it be cool to see what each person had taken from the experience?

Orange-Cinnamon Honey Sticky Buns

I giggled when I read K-’s entries – they were as practical and logical as she was. She’d dutifully recorded all the sights we’d seen and places we’d visited. She listed out every meal, every souvenir (including how much she paid) and the method we traveled. When I handed her journal back, I saw bafflement on her face.

“You wrote about such weird stuff,” she admitted. “How is this going to help you remember anything important?”

Suddenly self conscious, I flipped through the pages. No, I hadn’t listed all the monuments and souvenirs, but the information was in there if you read through it all… I’d written about my failed attempts at conversation with a cheerful woman on the subway (I later found out I’d been talking about fishbones and stars, to her amusement.) The French perception of America I’d observed, from strange fashion posters to chit chat in the park. And most importantly, every emotion, whether good or bad, I’d experienced on our trip.

I simply wrote about what I always notice – the people and the emotional connection around me. It felt more like Paris to me than any arch or shopping complex. To me, that’s what’s important – that’s what I want to remember. To me, everything is personal.

Orange-Cinnamon Honey Sticky Buns

Like always, food is no exception. When I visit a farmer’s market, I am as interested in the growers themselves as I am in the produce. I always like to strike up conversation with the artisan bread bakers and chocolatiers I meet – doesn’t learning about their hard work and passion make their food taste even better?

Writing these blog posts often feels a lot like writing in a personal journal. And while food is a thread that weaves through everything, I find that I’m often not writing about baked goods at all. It’s about my mother’s smile when the ciabatta sounds hollow inside, and my father holding his fork just so, right before I snap the photo. It’s about the serenity of sprinkling dough with cinnamon sugar, the way everything has quietly become clear. Food is personal, and there’s no separating it from the rest of your life.

The recipe for these Orange-Cinnamon Sticky Buns came from Lorna Yee’s The Newlywed Kitchen. Lorna’s a friend, a fellow blogger, and a Seattle Magazine food writer. I usually don’t accept free products to blog about, but when Lorna asked me to review a copy, I couldn’t resist. I knew I was glad to have accepted when the book arrived at my door, glossy and making me hungry already.

Orange-Cinnamon Honey Sticky Buns

What I really liked about this book, besides the recipes and vivid photography, was how personal it felt. Every few recipes, the book interviewed famous foodies, describing the story of how they fell in love. Where she met him, what he cooked for her, the role that food plays in their marriage. Besides being incredibly sweet and chock-full of cooking tips, every story made the distant chef feel a little more approachable and the recipe a little more familiar.

Isn’t that the ultimate purpose of food, to tell a story and bring us closer?

The story behind these sticky buns is simple. I remember the fragrance of orange oil left on the zester, and the painted texture of melted butter brushed on dough. My mother coming home and gasping, “Oh, what did you make?” and timing the buns to come out of the oven just as Dad was home. I remember telling him about the sticky glaze: “Walnuts, orange juice, honey, brown sugar, cream, and butter… It’s good stuff.” And his response: a hearty laugh that pushed up his cheeks, and “No, it isn’t!” as he took another bite.

I don’t think I’ve forgotten anything essential.

4th of July Flag Cake

[PS: As we near the 4th of July, I thought I’d remind you guys of the flag cake I made last year! You might have seen this cake floating around the internet or even watched me make it on tv (you don’t even know how nervous I was filming that. You don’t even know.) This one’s the original!]

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June 29, 2010 at 11:56 pm 67 comments

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

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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