With a trunk full of tools, this baking blogger is off to college
Baker-blogger Elissa Bernstein heads to college in Boston carrying a restored trunk packed with her kitchen essentials. She and her parents painted, buffed and outfitted the trunk to function as her portable kitchen, which also reminds her of home and the family's rich culinary traditions.
photographed by Steve Ringman
THE STEAMER trunk appeared on my bedroom floor in March. Black like tar, with worn edges and beat-up hinges, it struck the perfect balance between ruin and possibility. My dad had picked it up for free on Craigslist, and he passed it to me with a proposition: We'd restore it to glory with new paint, a new lining and an inner shelf. Then I could pack it with pans and spatulas and bring it across the country with me.
I hadn't celebrated my 18th birthday yet or collected my high-school diploma, but I was already preparing for my move to Boston for college. The biggest strain on my mind wasn't my declared major, whether or not I'd make friends, or how I'd survive on my own. No, I was worried about what I called "the kitchen situation."
The story of the trunk really begins there — not with sandpaper and a can of primer, but with a cache of cookbooks. My passion for baking emerged when I was 14 years old. I was a culinary late-bloomer, as the Bernstein family goes, but it was as inevitable as eggs on Sunday. Everyone is a foodie in my family.
There's my grandmother, whose cabinets are piled high with charlotte molds and chiffon cake pans. My mother, who is baking her way through the Bread Bible, most relaxed with flour on her nose and braided challah in the oven. My dad, rosemary-roaster of grapes who boils his own bagels and smokes his own lox.
Then there's me, the baker who finds solace in precise measurement and in the sugary rush of success.
I crave the smell of flour spooned into a measuring cup, the quiet thump when I flip it into a bowl. The smell of butter wafting from just-baked cranberry shortbread. I gravitate toward citrus recipes because I love the fragrant zing of oil left on the Microplane zester, perfuming my hands. When I sample a spoonful of Valrhona ice cream, I taste the chocolate I carefully chopped and the eggs I cracked against the counter.
Yet there is so much more to dessert than the ingredients.
When I sink my fork through a dense slice of cheesecake, I don't just notice the bright lemon and the give of graham-cracker crust. I think of my mother, her smile when she comes home to the mixer churning magic. I taste my father's impatience for the oven timer to bleat. And long after the last creamy morsel is consumed, I remember the three of us crowded around the cooling pan, burning our fingertips in hungry anticipation.
Food is family.
College set an expiration date on my time left in Seattle, and with it, on my time left in the kitchen. I knew I could juggle baking, homework, internships and a social life — but there was no evading the fact that my dorm would not be home. I didn't know if I could even feel the same spark in food without my family to share it with.
But with the trunk beside my bedpost, battered and so full of promise, it was worth a try. My dad smiled when I said so.
"Then we'd better get started," he said.
First, we attacked the inside. The yellowing wallpaper lining the interior was saturated with musk; my dad and I stripped it off with paint scrapers and gentle tugs. I propped the trunk's lid open like a butterfly to air out until a whiff inside smelled fresh.
We tackled the metal strips, painted a dull reddish-brown by the previous owners. My mother used a toothbrush and nail polish remover to melt the brown paint into muddy flecks, revealing silver underneath. We buffed the hinges with squares of sandpaper, which grew hot with friction under our palms. Now edged with brushed steel, the trunk shone with unexpected character.
We secured sturdy black handles made from an old leather belt on either side and built a shelf to rest between bottom and top. We lined the interior with soft black felt. We blackened the lid with chalkboard paint, perfect for scribbling down a recipe or a note for my roommate.
At the end of the summer, the trunk rested on our living-room floor utterly transformed, stacked to the brim with cupcake tins and truffle molds. We all stood there in silence, drinking each other in — me, my mother, my dad and the steamer trunk.
"It's beautiful," my mother said.
This trunk is so much more than a storage container for cherished belongings. It's a box of memories in itself. It's the color blue, drying under our fingernails. It's an afternoon at the hardware store, choosing between paint cans the way I used to choose between tubs of ice cream. It's Seattle, it's my kitchen, it's Mom, and it's Dad.
And it's going with me to Boston.
Elissa Bernstein is a college freshman, baker and aspiring writer. Check out her blog at 17andbaking.com.
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.
Furniture & home furnishings
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