You must not ever stop being whimsical. And you must not, ever, give anyone else the responsibility for your life. -Mary Oliver (Wild Geese)

A little over a week ago, I turned thirty. When it comes to the “new decade” birthdays, there’s this expectation that one should do something grand, splash out and set the bar high for the next big birthday, but I’m just not (and never have been) this kind of a person. Big parties tend to make me feel lost; I like fairly quiet, intimate gatherings, where you can talk to everybody, hear yourself think and, most importantly, feed people well.

Even though I didn’t set off to do anything grand, somewhere along the way my birthday slipped a little out of my control. Since 30 was the magic number, I started thinking in terms of threes–three decades and three zero suddenly became an idea for three desserts….And, just like that, my birthday mission became clear.

Or I should say, somewhat clear. Deciding you want three desserts and knowing what those desserts will be are two entirely different things. I carefully looked through a few of my many baking books, debating the merits of yellow cake with chocolate frosting and recipes like “Perfect Vanilla Cake,” but, truth be told, I was more than a little uninspired. And then I remembered a question that I once read on a blog that I consider to be informative, provocative and gorgeously styled: “if you were a recipe, what would you be?” I thought the answer that this particular blogger came up with–Plum Wine Tiramisu Masquerading as a Pavlova (she’s of Japanese and Australian origin, in love with all things Italian and also currently lives in Australia, where the national dessert is the Pavlova)–was both brilliant and beautiful to look at. Taking a cue from her, I tried to envision my own identity as a recipe and all I could see was numerous flavors, influences and traditions colliding…and also ice cream. It’s safe to say that ice cream represents my gold standard, as well as a staple in my diet. I am nothing short of giddy when it comes to anything associated with the world of ice cream. But I couldn’t quite figure out my flavor and I was soon swept away by other more pressing tasks. My me-as-dessert reverie would have to wait for another day.

With my birthday, this reverie came back in full force. But try as I might, I still couldn’t see the one recipe that was or could be me; instead, I started to see my life divided into three obvious periods (call this my homage to Tolstoy’s trilogy, if you will): childhood, the teenage years and the Berkeley years. If I were to name what I’m doing here, I would call this “dessert mapping”–symbolically mapping my life onto certain dishes.

For childhood, there was only one dessert that would do: pizzelle, or crisp Italian waffle cookies (the word comes from the Italian word “pizze“: round and flat. Yes, it’s the same root for pizza). Growing up, I both loved and hated these things. They would sit stacked on a dessert plate come every Christmas and I loved them because there was rarely anything as intricate on the table; the patterns on the cookies, as well as their delicate texture, always reminded me of the finest lace–the kind that you can’t help but reach out to touch. But whenever I would give into the impulse to grab one, the experience would end badly since my grandma, going the traditional Italian route, would always put anise extract in the cookies. One bite and an unpleasant taste would fill my mouth. Only after much questioning of her traditional practice–“why do you put anise in them, Grandma? Nobody likes the bitter taste!”–did my grandma completely revamp her pizzelle style. She stopped putting anise in them and started rolling the cookies into mini-ladyfingers/mini-cannoli and stuffing them with cream. Needless to say, the whole family, especially my younger self, was delighted.

Thinking about these traditions, I pulled my (my great-grandmother’s and namesake’s) neglected pizzelle iron out of the cupboard and called my grandma for her recipe. I was surprised to discover that the pizzelle recipe of my childhood called for cardamom, which my grandma never added. Being the cardamom fan that I am, I decided to add some for flavor, in addition to some vanilla; there would be no anise for me! Also, feeling inspired by my current Persian cooking craze and the class I had attended with the lovely Louisa Shafia at 18 Reasons a few days before my birthday, I decided to make a saffron whipped cream to fill them with. I guess you could say that my childhood received a bit of a facelift; you could also say that, given the expense of saffron, I was being more than a little careless and decadent. Call this my way of splashing out–a whole 1/4 teaspoon of saffron for a very small gathering of friends. Cookies are always popular and these cookies, both light and pretty to look at because of the design of the pizzelle and the soft yellow of the saffron-scented whipped cream, confirmed my faith in the simplicity of childhood delights.

Then again, my teenage years, which I experienced at the height of Clintonian prosperity, were, in a way, my gluttonous “fat cat” years. Summers spent working at the Dairy Queen proved too much for my sweet tooth and, truth be told, I was a bit of a chubby teenager (are these kind years to anybody, though?).

I loved most things about working at the Dairy Queen–Blizzards with Cookie Dough, frozen bits of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups that you would munch on when you went into the industrial freezers to stock up on sugary supplies, twist (chocolate and vanilla) ice cream cones. Most of all, however, I loved the ice cream cakes, i.e. my two favorite things in the world combined. The cookie crunch in the center, a mix of chocolate shell and crushed chocolate wafers, was the thing that really made it for me, though. You can’t go wrong with flavor and texture.

When I was thinking of ways to make this cake at home, hot fudge seemed a fine substitute for the chocolate shell, which often made the cake nearly impossible to cut into. I was also really hoping for a combination of chocolate and pistachio ice cream, one that I have always loved, but since pistachio ice cream proved strangely hard to find, the Greek and I agreed that chocolate strawberry would be just as good. Beyond the question of flavor, the concept of an ice cream cake relies only on clever, careful layering: ice cream topped by a mixture of hot fudge and cookie crumbs, which you then repeat. The final layer is whipped cream and whatever you want to put on top. I will say, though, that while the teenage years may have been the favorite dessert decade of my life at my small birthday gathering, I think my recipe could still be tweaked and improved. Consider this but a preview of good things to come.

And the Berkeley years/my 20s: while it’s true that my 20s were not entirely based in the Bay Area–I started out in New York, went to Japan and then found myself in this strange place that I am now happy to call one of my homes–I wanted to make a dessert that evoked this crazy place with its love of all things natural, good and seasonal. There has been a lot of hype in the food blogging world about the new ode to vegetables River Cottage Veg and, while trying to figure out what all of the fuss was about (between Roots, which I bought back in February, and Vegetable Literacy, which the Greek gave me for my birthday, I don’t think I can justify buying another vegetable book, although it does seem quite interesting and different), I stumbled upon a recipe that comes from the book’s raw food chapter: a Chocolate Avocado Tart. Looking at the bare bone list of natural ingredients–nuts, Medjool dates, avocado, coconut oil, cocoa powder–I knew I had found a dessert that said, no screamed, Berkeley to me. I will say that I wasn’t particularly crazy about the way the recipe was written (it could use some clarification) and I made more than a few modifications; again, this is but a preview of a future post. Although the dessert embodiment of my 20s, with its rich and unprocessed flavors, gave my other dessert decades a run for their money, today is really childhood’s day to shine.
All in all, making these desserts and then sharing them was a lovely way to spend my birthday. I got to do what I love, celebrate with a few friends and drink what I considered to be a jokingly appropriate cocktail for age 30: an Old Maid The next day there were peonies, bunches of other vibrant flowers, gorgeous new dessert plates and a blast of sunshine to greet me when I went into the dining room, which wasn’t a bad way to ring in my new decade. Now there’s a small part of me that’s wondering what 40 will look like. What dessert will join the others in their symbolic representation of who I am and where I’ve been?

Not that I’m rushing: one step at a time. 

Pizzelle with Saffron Whipped Cream

yields about 2 dozen pizzelle and 1 cup whipped cream (after stuffing the cookies, there will be at least 2/3 cup of extra whipped cream)
3 eggs, well beaten
1/2 cup sugar
6 tablespoons melted butter
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
2/3 cup (80 grams) all-purpose flour
coconut oil, for greasing the pizzelle iron
-In a small bowl, whisk together the eggs and sugar until light and fluffy.
-Melt the butter and set aside to cool slightly.
-In the meantime, stir in the vanilla extract into the egg and sugar mixture. 
-Stir in the melted butter.
-In another small bowl, whisk together the flour and the cardamom.
-Add to the wet mixture and stir until smooth.
-Heat the pizzelle iron according to the manufacturer’s instructions and lightly grease it with coconut oil.
-Add a tablespoon of batter to the iron and close. Let cook for about a minute each and then remove with a fork. 
-Roll individual pizzelle with tapered pastry forms (clothespins would also do) as soon as they come off the iron (if you let them sit, they will stiffen and be impossible to roll) and let sit wrapped while the next cookie is cooking in the pizzelle iron. Then remove the pin from the fatter, more open side of the cookie. 
-Place the rolled cookies on a parchment lined cookie sheet. 
-Repeat until the batter is gone.
-About an hour before serving, fill the pizzelle with cream on both sides, using a pastry bag (a real one or a DIY pastry bag).
-Let sit, but do not cover. Refrigerate any leftovers.
Saffron Whipped Cream
Inspired by Louisa Shafia and the class I took at 18 Reasons
What I learned about saffron recently, or at least the Persian way of dealing with saffron, is that it’s best first to grind it in a mortar and pestle with salt, and then to let a small amount of it steep in some hot water. Both of these things really enhance its flavor. Of course, given that I was going the sweet rather than the savory route, I opted to grind my saffron with sugar and then let a few additional strands soak in some hot water, which I then added to the cream mixture before whipping it with an immersion blender.
1 cup heavy whipping cream
3 tablespoons sugar
1/8 teaspoon saffron, plus a few extra strands steeped in about a tablespoon of hot water
-Prepare the saffron, grinding it with a mortar and pestle and then letting a few additional strands steep in a tablespoon of hot water. 
-Add the sugar saffron mixture, the whipping cream and the steeped saffron in a small bowl. Then whip until soft peaks form.
-Place in a pastry bag and use to fill the pizzelle.There may be leftovers, but it’s versatile cream, so don’t worry.

8 thoughts on “Three Decades of Dessert, or Dessert Mapping

  1. This is such an inspired idea! I have to think about what my three would be…ice cream would definitely be there! Happy happy belated birthday and graduation to you! I hope the ceremony was fun and not too long (one can dream!). And I hope you are enjoying the ultimate birthday gift: summer!

  2. Pizelles and the Dairy Queen. I can't get over it. Love. BTW I hated the anise when I was a kid, but now I like it. Thinking of digging my grandma's pizelle iron out this Christmas, thanks to your post:). J

  3. I love, love, LOVE this post and idea! The more dessert, the better — and meaningful, beautiful, delicious looking desserts like these are a rare and wonderful thing. Lovely photographs, too!

  4. Thank you, Ann! I don't know if I could celebrate like this on a yearly basis, but certainly for a new decade birthday, it was worth the extra effort. My 30s will be all about style!

  5. Thank you! I had a lot of fun coming up with it all, although I'm still most curious about what the recipe that says “me” would be….As for you, I think some kind of spice cake would have to be on the list. Once you come up with them, let me know; I'd love to see what 3 decades of Cameron would look like. 🙂

    I am enjoying summer, although, given the weather, you'd never know it was summer in these parts…Then again, fog is usually a pretty tell-tale sign.

  6. Thanks, Jess. A girl does have to represent, right? My roots are my roots and they are entrenched in the world of pizzelles and the Dairy Queen.

    I've also come to like anise; I can drink ouzo and I really love fennel, but I still don't know if I would like it in pizzelles. I guess I'll have to give it a try and let you know.

    And I'm glad you'll be making pizzelles; it's a tradition worth keeping. I think I'll be using mine a lot more in the future, too.

  7. Thanks, Moriah! It was one of my more inspired moments, although I did ask myself a gazillion times if I should really be “dessert mapping” my life while my undone dissertation was waiting in the wings…Then I reminded myself that the memories/photos/tastes would all be worth it and they were. It was a nice birthday, definitely a memorable one.

    And I'm still convinced that I may just revisit this idea when I'm 40.

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