If you’re a food-lover who loves to read about food, chances are you’re familiar with Molly Wizenberg, whose blog Orangette launched the memoir “A Homemade Life” (and whose husband launched the Ballard pizzeria Delancey). Perhaps you’ve heard of Shauna James Ahern, the Gluten-Free Girl whose blog and book co-stars her husband, “the Chef.” And Matthew Amster-Burton, whose Roots and Grubs blog birthed “Hungry Monkey,” the story of a Seattle dad’s quest to raise an adventurous eater. Now allow me to introduce you to the Bellevue high school senior who gets my vote for “most likely to succeed.” Her name is Elissa Bernstein and she shares her love for baking — and lust for life — as the vibrant voice behind “17 and Baking.”
Bernstein takes the cake — and shared her recipe and photo for this beaut last July.
Elissa was 14, perusing the cookbooks at Costco when she spotted a book whose recipe for spongecake with meringue frosting would become the catalyst for her sweet obsession. “I convinced my mother to buy it,” she told me, and when her earliest effort “ended up looking exactly like the picture in the book,” her interest in baking snowballed.
At 15 she got a KitchenAid stand mixer for Christmas. Turning Sweet 16, she added to her arsenal a food processor and an ice cream machine. Her father — a terrific home cook and his only child’s No. 1 fan — bragged, “You’d have thought we got her a convertible!” Elissa celebrated the occasion by inviting friends to dinner. But not before they had a party in the kitchen, preparing three kinds of handmade pasta.
Today the Interlake High School senior is an intern at John Howie’s Seastar Restaurant and Raw Bar in Bellevue. There she works two days each week gaining school credit by prepping salads and desserts, torching creme brulees and baking cookies that impress the Seastar pros, who’ve begun to call her “the cookie intern.”
Elissa has an eye for detail, a keyboard for storytelling and a Seastar chef’s coat.
Once her middle school “obsession” took on a life of its own, the young baker recalls, she regularly devoured 40 food blogs, collected cookbooks, treated her classmates to homebaked cookies and spent her money on kitchenwares the way other teens spend it on fast-food and iTunes. Eventually it dawned on her that she could be blogging herself, indulging her other passions — writing and photography.
Competitive in nature, she was disappointed when her earliest efforts failed to attract eyeballs or comments. “I wasn’t expecting to get a following or anything,” she says, but with exception to her dad, “literally no one was looking at it.” That changed last year, when she revived her flagging interest in blogging, designed a new logo and gave her culinary musings a new name.
With “17 and Baking” she employs the vocal narrative of a natural storyteller, photographs her creations with an artist’s eye and sparks readers’ interests with recipes as colorful as her prose. And at 17, she’s found herself embraced by a community of on-line bakers and culinary voyeurs, with a devoted readership that extends to all ages and every continent but Antarctica. While sharing her recipes, her successes and her failures, we’re introduced to a family that shows its love with a comfortable proximity to the oven.
The teen’s readers cried with her when her dog Tilly was lost overnight, and celebrated with homemade dog biscuits when she was found. They’re introduced to her dad through his homemade bagels and lox, and find that he’s “the kind of person who cooks salmon and mushroom roulade without a recipe and gets asked to do dinner parties.”
Elissa’s Taiwan-born mother shares a recipe for carrot-flecked dinner rolls, and her daughter insists “her pot stickers are so perfect that when one of my friends said she loved Dragon Wok’s dumplings, I forced her to come to dinner so she could see what she was missing.” Her mom “ate like a bird as a child. She loathed meat, hated most vegetables, and didn’t care for fruit,” writes Elissa. “Instead, she bought freshly baked bread on the way home from school and ate the whole loaf herself.”
I practically felt the wind in my hair as Elissa riffed on the freedom that comes with one’s first driver’s license and the unaccustomed joy of running errands alone in the car with the radio on — before she segues into the details of baking a cello-shaped cake, tweaking her buttercream recipe to honor a cellist-pal’s 18th birthday.
When her friend arrived to pick up his well-orchestrated cake, we find out that among their crowd, “J- was one of the first to get his license and car, but despite the experience he’s a bit of a reckless driver. He isn’t dangerous, but he resents stop signs and considers speed limits more like suggestions. He has a tendency to make sharp, unexpected turns and step on the brakes without warning. I wasn’t worried about getting into an accident, but I couldn’t help but picture the cello cake splattered all over my shirt, or a thick coat of frosting on the glove compartment.”
My favorite post is “Love and Pastry Cream” — an ode to her father that begins with a lament: “I probably endure more angst and heartbreak in the kitchen than in my high school. Sure there’s homecoming coming up and some share of senior year drama, but really, it’s all minor compared to some of the disasters that come out of my oven.” Spoken like a true kitchen convert. Her dad, she writes, “checks my blog more often than I do; he has always supported me in baking. Even when I break 18 eggs or serve him gross blueberry pancakes (which, by the way, he ate) he supports me. He was the only person I told when I got my very first comment on this blog, and he kept me going even when I thought I was going no where.”
Elissa’s favorite post celebrates her Crayola-hued Rainbow Pride Party Cake. “I’m using it as my college essay,” she says of that post, describing the construction of her second — and largest — commissioned cake for which she was paid $50 (her first was shaped like underwear). “All of my posts are like college essays. They’re all about the word count and they’re all about me.”
Like high school seniors everywhere, she’s excited when considering what the future may hold. “In a dream world, I’m a freelance writer for National Geographic, doing the photography, meeting people from other cultures, traveling. Then, on the side, I’d be writing a novel — while owning a bakery.” Here on Earth she’s applying to nine colleges and will be holding her breath for acceptance letters from Brown or Columbia. She’s looking forward to studying in a big city and has a strong interest in journalism.
Envisioning the movement from home life to dorm life, “I’m pretty scared about what’s going to happen to my blog,” she says. Worse, “I don’t know whether I’m going to have the tools, or the time, for baking” — let alone access to a kitchen or space to store a stand mixer and an ice cream maker. As it is, “if I get more pans I’m going to have to start storing them under the bed.”
Between her high school workload, internship at Seastar and looming college application deadlines, she still finds time to hang out with friends and relax in the kitchen. “Thanksgiving is going to be really busy for me because I’m making it,” she says. She’s yet to set the menu, but plans to roast a turkey (a Martha Stewart recipe) and make Vanilla Mashed Sweet Potatoes, culled from the food blog 101 Cookbooks.
For dessert, there will be pumpkin pie, and she’ll be tweaking a recipe for Autumn S’mores, baking thin spiced graham crackers and topping them with homemade pumpkin-flavored marshmallows. I, for one, am looking forward to reading that post, and to the day when Elissa Bernstein’s signing her (sure to be published) recipe-filled memoir. Who knows? Maybe we’ll see this photo on the dust-jacket, at which point, I’ll try not to say “I told you so!”
Dust jacket-worthy photo of Elissa by Michelle Moore