Archive for November, 2009

Autumn S’mores – Homemade Graham Crackers and Pumpkin Spice Marshmallows

Hey all! I hope you guys had a wonderful and relaxing Thanksgiving!

Up until a few years ago, Halloween was my favorite holiday. It was nice to have a Thanksgiving break and some good food, but I wasn’t really involved in the whole process. My grandpa, who was a great cook, always made the meal. My dad would watch the football game while my mom and grandma talked. And me? I didn’t really have any Thanksgiving traditions at all, besides always having a second helping of mashed potatoes and gravy.

This year, though, marks the second year where I’ve helped prepare the meal. Last year, newly interested in cooking, I wanted to be a part of the entire dinner. With some help from my dad, I basted the turkey, simmered the cranberry sauce, mashed the sweet potatoes and wilted the spinach. I also made dessert, a pumpkin pie that survived everything, including the death of my oven halfway through baking. This year, in spite of college applications and a time-consuming internship, I knew I wanted to do it all over again.

A couple of things made it back to the menu. Last year’s turkey came out so perfectly I swore it was beginner’s luck, but I still reached for Martha Stewart’s recipe again. I also made these Vanilla Mashed Sweet Potatoes from 101 Cookbooks, which were popular across the entire table a year ago. I also searched half an hour to find last year’s cranberry sauce, made with ruby port and tangerine juice. But for dessert, I decided to tackle something completely new. I envisioned an Autumn S’more – made with cinnamon-sweetened graham crackers and springy pumpkin marshmallows.

We spent Thanksgiving at a friend’s house, equipped with a bigger kitchen, a bigger dining area, and prettier dining ware. The table was beautifully set, and there was so much color that every plate seemed a mini feast. Mom’s three-leaf-clover rolls were passed around the table first, followed by dark green and maroon Swiss chard. Sparkling cranberry apple cider glimmered like garnets in the glasses, matching the ruby-red cranberry sauce. The sweet potatoes were a creamy pale yellow, and the glazed carrots brought bright orange to the table. With the fancy plates and faceted cups of wine, it felt like Thanksgiving dinner from a magazine.

Not everyone could stomach dessert, and the night ended soon after dinner. We packed all our equipment, ingredients, and leftovers into our car and drove back home, drowsy and stuffed.

As can be expected from a family of foodies, we talked about the meal afterward. We discussed the merits of the Swiss chard and described how tender, juicy, and succulent the turkey came out. Dad explained why he didn’t care for the sweet potato dish that I adored, and Mom praised how beautifully the cranberry sauce came out. We like food, and we wanted to share it with each other.

Tonight, my parents started up a campfire in the fire pit we built two years ago. Remembering the mostly-forgotten dessert, I grabbed the graham crackers and marshmallows. Dad found a perfect stick, sturdy and straight, and roasted a marshmallow across the flames. He pulled it off the stick with his teeth and chewed. “It tastes awesome, right?” I was mostly kidding. He opened his mouth a few times, trying to pull out the proper words to describe the taste and texture. Finally, a smile on his face, he agreed: “They’re just awesome.”

For all my descriptive words, these marshmallows escape description. I can’t properly convey how fantastic they were. On their own they were lighter than air, with a bouncier, fresher texture than store-bought marshmallows. The pumpkin was subtle and the flavor was prominently spiced. I cooked a few with the flames from my stove, and they toasted and oozed beautifully, but there is no comparison to roasting them on a branch over a flickering fire. The outside crisps and bubbles burnt gold, while the inside becomes creamy, gooey, and pumpkin-y. With chocolate and a crisp graham cracker, they were irresistable.

As it turns out, I’ll remember one of the nicest Thanksgivings I had not by the fancy meal and the pretty decorations. Instead, I’ll remember my mom, dad, and I sitting around the fire in lawn chairs in the pitch black. I’ll remember my mother’s stunned face as she tried the first marshmallow tentatively, then practically lunged for another one, ending up with molten pumpkin marshmallow all over her chin. I’ll remember my dad trying to describe how awesome the marshmallows were, how the pumpkin flavor was really elevated after roasting, and how the texture could only be described as perfect.

I’ll remember jumping into the car on a whim to rush and buy hot dogs, just so we could stay outside a little longer. We kept adding logs to the fire, each thick piece of wood sending up sparks that swirled up like fireflies. And we stuffed ourselves with so many marshmallows that our fingers grew sticky, and each of us had developed a unique toasting style over the course of the evening.

And after everything, I think I may have created a new family tradition after all. :)


November 28, 2009 at 10:27 pm 35 comments

For Mom, Dad, and Grandma

My mom tells a funny story from my childhood. Her best friend’s brother was babysitting me in his office. When my mother returned two and half hours later, I was sitting at his typewriter – though I’d never used one before – typing out a story, using one chubby finger to press the stiff keys. She tells me that everyone who saw it was shocked – what kind of four year old patiently sits for two and half hours to write a story, letter by letter?

My blog is physically fueled with flour, eggs, and several tons of sugar, but what really drives me to maintain it is my passion for writing. I’ve only recently begun to bake, but my love for the written word has been nurtured throughout the years by everyone close to me.

The other day I discovered an old photo album. I looked through it with my mom and we sat on the bed, both trying not to get overly sentimental as we turned the plastic pages with delicate fingers. Memories surfaced of birthday parties, old friends, our life in California, my loved ones in Texas whom I haven’t seen in years… I looked at my beaming face in every picture, my mother’s beautiful smile, my dad’s goofy grin and my grandmother’s affectionate winks, my grandfather’s crinkled laugh.

My best friend D- (left) and me (right) in 2nd grade

I can’t even write this post without tearing up a little. I had a beautiful, wonderful childhood. As I looked at our faces in the photos, I felt sad for any distress I ever caused my family in my rocky pre-teen years, or during my outbursts of stress as a teenager in high school. I almost wish I could be their sweet six year old again.

While I can’t be that child anymore, I appreciate everything they’ve done for me, and I have an overwhelming desire to make them proud as I grow into an adult. The evidence of their love is displayed for the whole world to see here on this very blog, reflecting in your eyes as you read these words.

Some of my oldest memories involve snuggling into a pillow at my grandparents’ house, listening to my grandmother tell bedtime stories. She is a fantastic storyteller. I’d give her the first subject that popped into my head, and she would craft the story on the spot, spinning tales of silk ribbons, fat lovable penguins, and clever mice who lived in museums. I always closed my eyes and fell asleep with her gentle, patient voice in my ears, like the sound of the ocean in a seashell.

Besides leaving me with pleasant dreams and a lingering smile, her stories sparked my own creativity and passion for storytelling. I spent my childhood writing poetry and half-finished stories, filled with characters I still cherish today. Even more importantly, her stories all concealed values and morals, subtle enough to escape my knowledge but influence me all the same. One night she described a town which rained rainbow paint, changing the skin colors of the townspeople with each passing storm. I was enchanted by the story, unaware of its themes of acceptance and diversity. Her stories helped me be a better person.

Grandma and I on a road trip – I think we caught a tadpole. :)

My mother introduced me to a new kind of writing. As soon as I was old enough to write the letters, she bought me my first diary and made sure I wrote something every night. In all honesty, I didn’t enjoy it. Some evenings I would get away with writing a couple sentences about dinner or school before running out to play – “Today I had broccoli. It was disgusting.”

But even an entry about something as simple as that night’s vegetables forced me to think about my actions and translate them into words. That little bit of writing every night built up my vocabulary and improved my grammar, and by the time I was in grade school, I was writing entries on my own free will. I wrote about my best friends, the ups and downs of the fourth grade, and what my parents were making for dinner. I wrote to remember, but I also wrote to write. I still keep a journal today, and although I write every few months instead of every day, it isn’t a chore.

By the time I got to high school, writing essays and homework assignments was never difficult, and I know my mother’s influence is there. Creativity and imagination isn’t all it takes to be a writer – it takes perseverance, dedication, and practice too. It’s not just writing, though – in every aspect of my life my mom pushes me to be the best I can be, and she couldn’t have loved me better, or given me any more of herself than she has over the years.

With my mom in front of our old apartment. She is a beautiful person inside and out.

It won’t surprise my regular readers to hear that my dad has also played a huge role in the process. In elementary school, he encouraged me to participate in creative writing programs. I entered the Reflections contest in 4th grade with my short story, “What’s for Dinner?” When I moved through the school, district, and state levels with my story, he was there every step of the way. He held my hand when I was finally out of the running and stood, crying, in the hallway of the awards ceremony. He helped me get up, move on, and submit another written piece the next year.

In middle school, he showed me authors who used words in ways I’d never considered, inspiring me to branch out. After reading a collection of Kafka stories in 7th grade, I wrote my first short story without a happy ending, attempting to imitate Kafka’s voice. I felt a little unsure about its ominous tone and dark ending, but he praised it until I couldn’t stop smiling. While that story doesn’t reflect my own personal writing style, it’s remained one of my favorite pieces over the years.

When I began to show an interest in journalism, it was my father who truly made it happen. Without his encouragement and research on my behalf, I would have never become an intern for the local paper, or been able to work with journalists from the Seattle Times. I’d originally loved to write because of the creativity and reflection involved, but after the opportunities I’ve been given, now I can see a new purpose in writing. I dream of pursuing the truth and justice, of stirring the sleeping compassion in every person, of making a difference in the lives around me.

I’m in my prettiest dress and headband with my dad. He’s my coach and my #1 fan all at once.

And after everything my family has done for me, I’ve done something for myself, completely on my own: 17 and Baking. Blogging is even another type of writing, unlike anything I’ve tried before. And all of you – for reading, for commenting, for making me smile – all of you have also inspired me to write. Your support keeps this blog going, something that brings me endless joy, and something I hope makes my family proud every day.

So here I am today, with roots in creative fiction and an appreciation for the written word’s ability to persuade, explain, and explore. I have newspaper print inked onto my fingertips and silly limericks stamped on my soles. When I look back at my life, I feel like a walking pinball machine, filled with balls of light that bounce around my ribs and brighten me from within. It hasn’t been an easy journey to grow up, but I know I always have a place to call home. I don’t know what the future holds, but I know I am a writer at heart… and I truly can’t wait for my life ahead of me.

The recipe for this old-fashioned apple cake is handwritten by my Great-Aunt Ethel. It was the perfect excuse to use some old apples, and the fact that it was a family recipe made it all the better… it made me feel closer to my roots, and it made me feel like home.


November 20, 2009 at 9:52 pm 47 comments

Cream Cheese Rippled Pumpkin Bread

Last week I turned in my senior quote. I did a slight twist on Harriet van Horne’s quote and submitted, “Baking is like love. It should be entered into with abandon, or not at all.” Every aspect of my life, baking no exception, intertwines with heartfelt emotion, passion, and optimism. I have always been, and will always be, a girl who wears her heart on her sleeve.

I’m the kind of person who is confident about true love, believes that all people deep down are born good, and can’t help but suspect that karma really exists. I have never been someone who places priorities on logic and cold hard facts, but instead intuition and what your heart is telling you.

English, history, and topics involving different cultures and philosophies are predictably my favorite classes. I despise science and math. To me, those subjects emphasize a detachment that I can’t get past. I don’t see the beauty in numbers and unchanging, unemotional laws.

It seems that I would see baking the way that I see everything else – throw my soul into it, use feel instead of precise measurement, and consider recipes more like suggestions. There’s such a romance to imagine being in the kitchen without notes, just using your heart to produce something beautiful, and yet, it’s just not how I work.

On Halloween, my friends D- and M- came over to bake. If they were expecting me to approach baking the way I see the rest of the world, with a carefree attitude and sentimental lightheartedness, they were surprised. They did all the measuring and mixing themselves, but they had to be as precise as my standards. As M- measured out the flour, I showed him how to fluff it up in the bin, fill the cup using a spoon, and level it off with a knife. I showed D- how to use the scale when portioning the cream cheese.

M- began to use the wrong side of the knife to level the sugar, using the curved edge and measuring out less than the full cup. When I pointed this out, he rolled his eyes and said, “Jeez, Elissa, baking isn’t a science.”

Without even thinking, acting on pure instinct, I told him, “Yes it is.”

Yes, there is a romance to imagine someone working without recipes, knowing the exact feel of the dough. But I’m not experienced enough to know everything by feel and create recipes in my head. And while I’ll frequently swap ingredients in recipes to match my preferences, I am as exact and scientific about measuring as possible. While it doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of my outlook on the world, it works for me.

In science especially, I find the need for precision exhausting. I’m not patient enough to pipette liquid into a beaker drop by drop to get exactly 30 ml. I just get bored repeating the same experiment five times to get enough trials for an accurate average. But weirdly enough, this is one of my favorite parts of baking.

When I chop and measure out exactly 4 ounces of chocolate, using my little scale, I focus so intently that I don’t think about anything else. Classes, college apps, my social life – none of it even makes an appearance when I bake. It’s not possible for my mind to totally clear while I have so many responsibilities, but there isn’t much room left over to think about my grades while I’m weighing 100 grams of sugar.

It was weird to realize that I see baking as a science, but I stand by it. I love knowing how the ingredients work together, seeing how a slight change in ingredient or technique can drastically change a dessert. Even though I love the idea of an Italian grandmother making gnocchi by memory, or a patient baker kneading dough entirely on feel, I also love the way I feel when the scale reads exactly three ounces. Somehow, I can see a beauty in that too.

The pumpkin bread that I made with D- and M- was devoured in minutes that night at a Halloween party. When I arrived with the warm loaf, only one person was hungry enough to cut a small slice. But when he went back to practically inhale another, everyone followed, and the loaf was cut into huge square chunks until every last crumb was gone.


November 12, 2009 at 2:41 am 187 comments

The Confidence Cookie

A few weeks ago, my friend T- brought a container of homemade cookies to school. As people got up from around me to try them, I figured I should grab one before they all ran out. My fingers were inches from the box when T- covered the cookies with both hands and moved the whole container closer to her. “You can’t have one!” she said. I looked around and gestured at the cookies being devoured by half the table. She just looked at me, and I heard someone say, “Well, duh! Elissa bakes.”

While I wish I could have tried one (they looked great,) I understand where T- was coming from. I don’t have any reservations about bringing baked goods to school, to my volunteering sites, even to my SAT prep class – but there was one place I couldn’t touch, and that was Seastar, the restaurant where I intern. Somehow, I couldn’t make myself bring cookies to a professional kitchen full of chefs making excellent food. I didn’t want to disappoint, and I didn’t want to be embarrassed.

But a month or so into my internship, my boss J- uttered a few of the most frightening words I’d ever heard: “Why don’t you bake for us next week? I’d love to see your skills.” I nervously agreed, and spent the next few days agonizing over which cookies to make. I finally decided on two cookies I’ve made many times before, that are simple and always taste good… My Perfect Gingersnaps and my Tiny Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Buttons.

Baking in the Seastar kitchen was nothing like baking at home. One of the things I dislike about baking with other people is that they don’t know my kitchen inside and out, but here, it took me forever to find anything. Although I was working with familiar recipes, being in a new kitchen completely threw me off my game.

The Seastar pantry is amazing. It has every ingredient, even ones that don’t show up on their menu (like peanut butter!) Even though the pantry is small, it’s compact, and it took me as much time to find my ingredients as it did to bake the cookies. I stood there without moving my feet once, eyes scanning every shelf and still managing to overlook everything I needed.

I spent a good five minutes searching for the canola oil, looking in vain at the oversized plastic jugs, before I realized that the box I was standing next to on the floor was a giant container of it. The eggs came in packs of fifteen dozen but still took me a long time to find, hiding on the very top shelf in the walk-in. The butter came in huge, 32 ounce blocks that softened in mere minutes in the hazy heat of the Seastar kitchen.

After collecting my ingredients, I started looking for tools but even found those to be unfamiliar territory. I found a standard sized KitchenAid mixer and didn’t need to use the huge Hobart, but nearly everything else was oversize. I opened every drawer looking for a spatula until I realized that the giant rubber one I was holding was the only size on hand. I tried to find a whisk, but the smallest whisk at Seastar was the size of my largest at home.

When I bake in my own kitchen, it’s utter relaxation. I am usually alone, I always open the curtains and dim the artificial lights, and the kitchen starts out cool and slowly warms as the oven heats up. At Seastar, with the heat and the bright lights, and servers and chefs constantly walking behind me, it was hard to conjure up those feelings of serenity. Even if the kitchen hadn’t been so busy, the pressure to perform would have caused anxiety.

The one change that I fully welcomed was the dishes. At home I stop every few minutes to put tools away and hand wash bowls no longer in use. Here, I simply stacked my dirty dishes high and dropped them off in the dishwashing room. I’d go grab a few more ingredients, and on my way back I’d pick up the perfectly cleaned and dried dishes again. It’s the one thing I wish I could bring home!

The peanut butter dough came together without trouble, but the gingersnaps were more temperamental. Since Seastar doesn’t have small measuring cups, I had to use 4-cup liquid measuring pitchers and eyeball the proper amounts. My proportions were slightly off, and factoring in the humidity, my dough was much sticker than usual. I chilled it until it was workable, then returned to the prep kitchen and began rolling it into balls. After about five minutes, my hands were coated with gingery batter and the dough had begun to melt.

Frustrated, I grabbed all of my work and went to the walk-in fridge. I began to shape the cookies there, between the chilled chanterelle cream and the king crab legs. There were five dozen cookies to roll into even balls and toss in sugar. I usually do this slowly at home, listening to music or daydreaming as my hands work. Today, shivering in my shoes, I just wanted to be quick.

After only two dozen in, my cheeks reddened, goosebumps rose on my arms, and I could see my breath every time I exhaled. I try to dress light under my chef’s jacket because of the warmth on the line, but here in the fridge, I was shivering – hard. My fingers began to stiffen, but I was determined to get it done. Fifteen minutes later I walked out with the tray of ready-to-bake cookies, flushed but defiant and proud of my adaptability.

I knew the gingersnap batter was irregular and wasn’t sure how they would taste. I pulled out the first batch and noted how thin and flat they were, unlike my usual gingersnaps, but they were still sparkly with sugar and perfectly round. A waitress walked by and lifted one right off the warm sheet. I waited with my breath held as she chewed with a thoughtful look on her face. She looked me dead in the eye and said, “This is the best gingersnap I’ve ever had.”

I left the kitchen with a familiar feeling, for the first time that night – downright glowy with happiness at sharing my baked goods.

After the success of my first baking day, I was asked to bake again a few weeks later. Having baked in the Seastar kitchen before, I was much quicker to assemble ingredients and tools. With my new confidence I decided to attempt a much more difficult cookie (I’ll be sharing the recipe once I make it again at home!) Unlike last time, when S- preheated the oven for me, I had to set up the oven myself. I adjusted the temperature and noticed a switch for the fan. Since I don’t bake convection at home, I turned the fan off.

When 25 minutes passed and the cookies were mostly baked, but undercooked in the centers, I knew something was up. The cooking time was only supposed to be 10 minutes. I removed those cookies to cool, put the rest of the batches in, and was about to leave when I noticed the fan switch. Curious, I switched it on, then left to go find somebody to explain this unfamiliar oven to me.

When I returned ten minutes later, I saw to my horror that the fan had most certainly done the job. The cookies were dark brown, burned to an absolute crisp, not a single one salvageable. When J- walked by and I explained the situation, he smiled and said, “The fan helps everything bake evenly. Without it, the oven turns itself off.” Oh, boy, did I feel dumb. Half the cookies were underbaked, and half were overbaked.

More than anything I felt embarrassed as people walked by and asked to try a cookie. After the last successful time, they were calling me “the cookie intern” and praising my skills. I didn’t want to say no, but I didn’t want these cookies to represent me.

I can’t remember the last time in my life I’ve burned anything, and I’ve never burned anything that people liked. But people only had nice things to say about my awful cookies. One waiter told me that they didn’t only taste good, they were “texturally profound!”

I managed to walk to my car feeling just as glowy as last time. After all, mistakes happen, some failure is inevitable, and I am sure to embarrass myself more than a few times. But it doesn’t say anything about me as a person, or even as a baker. If anything, it’s good for me.

This week, I made shortbread cookies. They’re buttery yellow, melt-in-your-mouth, and ridiculously quick to make. I piped them with a large star tip and dipped them in melted dark chocolate. I brought them into work feeling nothing but happy to be there. I set them down and got to work, and when I came back, not a single one was left. It’s good to stand back up and be fearless, and this much is true – no matter what your skill level is and who you’re baking for, a cookie is always appreciated.

[On a totally unrelated note, happy November! And if you tweet, check out Chef John Howie’s twitter – he’s the owner of Seastar, along with some other great restaurants, and just made an account.]

November 2, 2009 at 5:23 pm 45 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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