I have been completely taken over with blueberry fever!

Long gone are the days of pale shriveled up Driscol blueberries, that I gladly passed by in those sad looking grocery store displays. I’ve just gotten back from a weekend in Pennsylvania where I sat in the sunshine, ate sweet peaches for breakfast, drank strong italian wine for dinner, cooked up a small feast, indulged myself by doing my all time favorite activity – making a birthday cake for someone I love – and bought these juicy blueberries at a market stand where my mother and I chatted with the owner, drove home, and did nothing but play cards and drink Nespressos all afternoon.

Here, in the City, I find myself strolling through the vibrant market scene in Union Square, and although I tell myself I’ll just steal of few shots on my camera, I never manage to leave empty handed. For the past few weeks those impulse purchases have been pounds of juicy blueberries. Most of the time I eat them by the half pint, straight from the little green or plastic containers they came in, sometimes I even finish them before I even make it back to my apartment, but a few times I’ve actually managed to whip up some summery treats and the results have been very pleasing.

Blueberry Walnut Streusel Bars

Blueberry Crisp

Here I must stop be completely honest and admit that one of these desserts – the berry crisp right above this – was made with TWO beaters as opposed to one. Oh dear, my second post and I’m already cheating. But in my defense I could have easily done it with just one, but given the small amount of time I have in my parents spacious, well stocked kitchen, I can’t resist giving all that fine equipment some loving use.

Summer Berry Cake (Coconut Pound Cake soaked with Rum, Topped with Vanilla Brown Sugar Whipped Cream, and Farmer's Market Berries)

And while I’ve surely eaten enough blueberries this summer to be blue as a Smurf, I see no need to slow down now, as there are only a few weeks of ripe berries ahead of me. Yes, I assure you the blueberry recipes have just begun!


Blueberry Walnut Streusel Bars

(Recipe thrown lazily together by me on a hot summer day)

For the Crust

  • 6 oz            Butter, unsalted cold and cut into cubes
  • 1 cup          Brown Sugar
  • 2 cups        All-purpose Flour
  • 1/2 tsp.     Kosher Salt
  • 1 cup          Walnuts, coarsely chopped
For the Filling
  • 16 oz         Cream Cheese, at room temperature
  • 1 cup         Granulated Sugar
  • 1/4 tsp     Kosher Salt
  • 2                Large Eggs
  • 1 tsp          Vanilla Extract
  • 1/2 tsp      Lemon Zest
  • 1.5 TB       Lemon Juice
  • 1/4 cup     Milk
  • 1 pint of ripe juicy blueberries
  1. Preheat oven to 325 F.
  2. Make the streusel: combine all of the ingredients in a large bowl and mix with an electric mixer with one or two beaters, until the mixture just starts to come together and looks like sand.
  3. Fill half of the mixture into a 9×13 baking pan and press it down, coming up on the sides a bit to create a small rim all the way around. Bake this crust for 15 minutes at 325 F.
  4. Meanwhile make the filling: cream together the cream cheese, salt, and sugar with an electric mixer for about 5 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, then the vanilla. Mix in the lemon juice and zest. Finally add the milk. Scrape the sides of the bowl and mix until homogenous.
  5. Pour the mixture evenly on top of the partially baked crust. Sprinkle on the blueberries, then crumble the rest of the topping over it. Bake for about 35 minutes until the filling has set.
  6. Cool completely in the refrigerator before slicing into bars. I find it easier to remove the baked goods from the pan as one sheet and cutting it on a cutting board.

Every time my mother mentions to a friend or acquaintance oh my daughter is a “Pastry Chef” I am quick to correct her that “NO, I am certainly not a Pastry Chef.” Chefs spend years working 17 hour days in hot kitchens, creating dishes, ordering underlings to do all the little tedious things they can’t be bothered to do (whisk four gallons of pastry cream, peel twenty pounds of apples, etc.) and while I did slave away some long hot hours in restaurant kitchens for a few years, I was never fully in charge of any kitchen but my own in whatever tiny apartment (from San Francisco, California, to Strassbourg, France) I was living in at the time.

To my mother I’m a “Pastry Chef”, not only because I bake for her and my father almost everytime I come to visit, but also because I attended culinary school and worked in kitchens in Pennsylvania, California, New York, and France. I can’t exactly blame her for giving me that false title. I’ve literally been baking my whole life. Before I could even walk or talk she would sit me on the counter and I would play with pieces of bread and cookie dough, and I would eagerly wait for the oven to work its magic on my misshapen creations, only to devore them within seconds after they were done. When I search my memory food is the one thing that has been a constant, a connector of the dots. Food has been there among most of my best memories but also among the worst and most heart-breaking ones. But we’ll get to that later…

What I do on a daily basis is certainly not pastry chef work. I work a day job that pays the bills and most of the time I keep my baking to little at-home experiments. But sometimes the rare opportunity presents itself to do pastry work in a professional context, in which the product is less experiment and requires more control and confidence as the result is not just meant for my friends and family, and for myself (which you will see is usually the case), but will be paid for at the end. Money adds a terrifying edge to things. I second guess myself quite often. Everything always seems like a great idea until I’m mid project, when I almost always start sweating and mentally reprimanding myself for having taken on such an impossible task, that I will NEVER EVER be able to finish. But that’s were the greatest of baking really comes out. Because even with my worst kitchen disasters, the best part is that you can always pick up another stick of butter, a fresh bag of flour, your one beater, and you can start over.

Which brings me to this wedding cake…

A few weeks ago my boss came to me with a very odd request. He had an idea for a window display, and that idea involved weddings and subsequently a wedding cake. Is this something I could design and create? he wondered. At first I found the idea thrilling. I once made one in culinary school, and I still look at pictures of it every so often on a bad day for a confidence boost. Sure, I thought, a wedding cake? No problem! So the styrofoam was ordered, the fondant and dragees purchased and the plan was set in motion. Only when I had lugged the twenty pounds of fondant and other supplies back to my tiny Soho apartment did I start to second guess the whole thing. I began to roll the fondant out and in the sweltering summer heat, I was soaked with sweat and exhausted in about five minutes. Slowly the thrill began to wear off and the fear started to set in. Did I really think I could do this? I rolled the first circle as large as I could and tried to cover the second smallest styrofoam round. Of course the fondant cracked and then tore. Time to start over. Ok, I told myself, take a deep breath and begin a new.

Fast forward two days until the night before the cake was supposed to be finished and the scene was far less calm. Picture a frazzled girl, silver dragees crunching under her feet, with fondant petals sticking to her bright pink tinted hands. Oh yes friends, I made the rookie mistake of not wearing latex gloves while coloring my fondant a deep purple burgundy and looked – as my boss so excellently described it – as though I had been “trying to strangle a care-bear”. Each flower took over ten minutes, as each petal had to be created separately before being delicately added to the base in a life-like formation. And I made dozens of them! (Which is not easy in 90 degree weather when each petal likes to stick to your hot sticky hands). Some went on top of the cake to create a floral bouquet and others helped to accent the six cake tiers stacked high up to the ceiling. For three days I lived and breath cake. I even slept with it in my tiny bedroom in an effort to keep it away from my roommate’s evil cat Sally (who claws away at anything that’s near and dear to your heart.)

Next time I'll remember to wear gloves

And in the end I’m so happy that I had the opportunity to create this cake. Even though I was terrified that I would mess it up, be unable to conquer the fondant, make petals that looked unrealistic, or run out of time, it turned out great! I just let go of the fear and tackled it very calmly and slowly, and every time something went wrong I told myself that “its not as though the best pastry chefs in the world don’t make mistakes, just that they’re better at covering them up than the rest of us”. So, a tear in the cake? Strategically position a rose over it and no one will ever know. Brush a dirty hand accidently on the white surface, turning it black? Spread white icing over it. Layers not meeting up at a perfect 90 degree angle? Create a piped icing border and the gaps become hidden. I’m really proud of the end product, and I feel so creatively expressed and free for the first time in a long time, which is definitely progress in trying to find my path in a forest of uncertainty.

What is very clear to me is that I am certainly NOT a pastry chef. But what exactly does that make me? Its the age old question: what do you want to do when you grow up? Most people never end up having a definitive answer, so for right now I’m perfectly fine being a girl who loves to eat, travel all over the world, take pictures of every day life, and bake with one beater.

Baking with One Beater