A personal gift from sugar and spice
When I look through a cookbook, I see beyond the ingredients. Food is entwined with family and friends, and I find familiar faces in every recipe.
DESPITE THE stagnant chill cloaking Seattle, there's always one warm place in my house — the kitchen. In early spring, something about the stillness outside makes me crave a ceiling full of sugary heat. I enjoy mornings at the counter, shaping cookies even as temperatures dip and frost twinkles in the ridges of our gutters.
I prefer to bake alone. I keep the room dark, allowing the natural light outside to filter in, and I work soundlessly. For inspiration, I sit cross-legged on the checkerboard-tile floor and thumb through stacks of cookbooks, ready to preheat the oven on a whim. Lemony loaves spread with white icing, rhubarb tarts, mint ganache brownies . . .
When I look through a cookbook, I see beyond the ingredients. Food is entwined with family and friends, and I find familiar faces in every recipe. Chocolate is my father, a dessert purist who wants his chocolate ice cream deep and sinfully rich. Nuts remind me of my old co-worker, David, who likes a restaurant's little almond cookies. For some reason, I might never forget that my good friend Andy was crazy about hibiscus and raspberry in our senior year of high school.
Lavender makes me think of my mother — of our visit to a farm with hills of swaying purple, and her futile attempts to make the herb take root in our shady yard.
Around this time of year, I frequently bake with a specific person in mind. Whatever it is, whoever it is, the anticipation of sharing dessert floods my heart with light.
I pick out a recipe I know they'll enjoy. I scour my mind for specific memories, trying to recall which dessert they picked out at the buffet, or what they themselves pack for lunch. More than anything, the goal is to figure out what will make them happiest.
I made these Chrysanthemum Cupcakes for my friend Mary. She's a leader, a volunteer and a passionate artist who appreciates the beauty in everyday life. Before I could decide what to bake, I thought about what truly characterized her — her paintings, her collection of inspirational quotes and her closet full of lace and polka dots. Flowers sprung to mind, and these cupcakes came together.
They're as simple as they are lovely. I divided the frosting into batches and used food coloring to create pastel shades. The chrysanthemums took mere seconds to pipe, layers and layers of delicate petals budding from the metal tip. Arranged on a plate, the cupcakes become an entire garden, a bouquet of buttercream.
I delivered the cupcakes to Mary's house. When she answered the door, her face warmed like clouds parting. I walked back to the car with an empty plate and a full heart, knowing I'd brought a little sunshine to someone else's home.
Elissa Bernstein is a college student, baker and writer. Check out her blog at 17andbaking.com. Steve Ringman is a Seattle Times staff photographer.
Pistachio Chrysanthemum Cupcakes
½ cup sugar
2 teaspoons lemon zest
½ cup (one 4-ounce stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
¾ cup shelled, unsalted, roasted pistachios
1 cup flour
1 ¾ teaspoon baking powder
Pinch of salt
¼ cup milk, at room temperature
3 large egg whites, at room temperature
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
To make the cupcakes
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and place a rack in the center. Line 12 cupcake tins with paper liners.
2. In the bowl of an electric mixer, rub the sugar and lemon zest together with your fingers until the sugar is moist, sandy-textured and fragrant. Add the butter and cream with the lemon-sugar at medium speed until light and fluffy.
3. In a food processor, grind the pistachios into a fine powder. Press through a sieve into a medium bowl (should yield about ½ cup pistachio powder) and discard the larger pieces of pistachio. Whisk with the flour, baking powder and salt and set aside.
4. In a small bowl, use a fork to lightly beat the milk, egg whites and vanilla together.
With the mixer on low speed, alternately beat in the flour mixture in 3 additions and the milk in 2 additions, starting and ending with the flour mixture. Scrape down the sides between additions and beat until just combined. Divide into 12 cupcake tins, filling each 2/3 full.
Bake in the preheated oven for 18 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of a cupcake comes out clean.
1. Using your favorite buttercream, set aside a small amount and dye it green with food coloring. Smooth a thin layer of green frosting on the top of the cupcakes, spreading it all the way to the edges.
2. Divide the remaining buttercream and dye any color for the petals. Fill a piping bag fitted with a coupler to easily change tips. Start with a No. 12 round tip and pipe a 1/2-inch round dot on the center of the cupcake. Switch to a No. 80 or No. 81 U-shaped tip. Hold the tip at a 45-degree angle next to the dot. Squeeze and pull out in a quick stroke. Continue piping petals around the dot, then make a second, third and fourth layer of petals on top of the first, making the petals shorter each time.
3. Switch to a No. 3 small round tip and pipe three little dots on top of each cake.
— Piping technique from Martha Stewart Living magazine, March 2004
Seattle Times transportation reporter Mike Lindblom describes some of the factors that may have led to the collapse of the I-5 bridge over the Skagit River in Mount Vernon on Thursday, May 23.