Most teenagers can make themselves a bowl of cereal with milk, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and maybe a hot dog. For dessert: a chocolate chip cookie with milk. For 17-year-old Christina Swiatowy, however, dinner is a gourmet meal with an exquisite dessert. She doesn't just reheat pizza or bake chocolate cake out of a box, she likes a challenge. Crepes, homemade pasta, pierogies, French macaroons, creme brulee, Bakewell tarts and truffles -- that's more up her alley.
Christina, a senior at Williamsville North High School, started baking Christmas cookies with her mom, Laura, as a kid. They made sugar cutouts, Italian snowballs, raspberry thumbprints, cherry squares and candy cane cookies. The pair also won prizes for her mom's famous apple pie at Williamsville's Old Home Days (third place) and the Taste of Buffalo (first place).
Now that she's older though, Christina cooks by herself more often. She loves to bake for friends and family. She has friends living throughout the country and she sends them care packages of baked goods. She also cooks dinner every Sunday for her family. Some of her favorite dishes are: Asian stir fries, French savory crepes with chicken or mushrooms, and Italian homemade ravioli stuffed with cheese, mushroom or lobster.
However, Christina's family is Polish and she loves to cook Polish food such as sausages and pierogies. Her grandma taught her how to make pierogies, and she makes up to 200 of them with her dad, John, for Easter and Christmas. Sometimes she spends all day baking the dough, stuffing them with potato and cheese or sauerkraut, and frying them to her heart's delight.
"Everyone loves food -- it's a big part of our lives," says Christina.
Since she makes such extravagant dishes though, Christina has a hard time finding elaborate ingredients and baking dishes. She needs ingredients like almond flour and loose tea, items you can't just find in local supermarkets. Sometimes she needs to use vanilla beans that are not only difficult to find but expensive as well. Three vanilla beans cost $16. When she makes caneles, a sweet, bite-sized pastry, Christina needs specially shaped pans. One of these pans costs $8, and she needed 16 of them. To get all these special dishes, she orders them online or visits specialty shops like Sur La Table in New York City (www.surlatable.com).
The next item on Christina's wish list is an ice cream maker.
As any baker knows though, not all recipes turn out wonderful. Christina had to make French macaroons four times before she got it right. To make them, she had to measure all the ingredients by weight, and if everything wasn't exactly correct, the shells deflated.
When a recipe doesn't come out right, Christina says to "keep trying it and trying it and trying it," because the fourth time she did get them right and brought them into school for her AP European class "French Food Day."
One of Christina's biggest baking blunders happened around the holidays. Every year she sends out holiday boxes filled with apple pie cupcakes, pumpkin cake pops, molasses sugar cookies and other goodies. For Thanksgiving one year, she ended up burning the caramel for the cupcakes. The kitchen was a disaster, the oven almost started on fire and she didn't give anyone anything. The lesson she learned from that was: Timing is big -- don't take too much on at once.
Christina has moved beyond these mistakes on to bigger and better things though. In November, Christina's mom let her help make Thanksgiving dinner. Usually her mom is the only one allowed in the kitchen on Thanksgiving, but this year Christina made tiramisu and pecan pie. Her relatives ate more of Christina's desserts than her mom's, but her mom was just proud that Christina has become such a great cook.
As a great cook, Christina worries about health. How does Christina stay slim when she's surrounded by all these goodies? She is a dancer so she stays in shape. During the weekdays, she tries to maintain a healthy diet. She'll eat an omelette with goat cheese and spinach for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, and salmon, salad or whole wheat pasta with lots of veggies for dinner. By cooking appetizing meals, Christina can stay healthy and enjoy her food. However, Christina admits, "You can't always eat healthy." She saves baking for a weekend treat.
For another treat, Christina sometimes puts away her pots and pans and goes out to her favorite restaurants. She loves Hutch's; her favorite dish is the poblano stuffed peppers. Another favorite is Dicamillo Bakery on Main Street in Williamsville, but she only goes there on special occasions.
"I used to love going out to restaurants, but now I love trying to make my own food, too," she said.
Christina dreams of opening up her own bakery, but until that day, she loves baking just for the fun of it.
"Baking just makes me happy," she said.
Naomi Soman is a senior at Williamsville North High School.
Here's one of Christina's favorite recipes
Almond Raspberry Rugelach
Ingredients for dough:
1 cup of softened butter
6 ounces of softened cream cheese
2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
Ingredients for filling:
1 1/2 cups raspberry preserves
1 1/2 cups of sliced almonds
2 large egg yolks
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
In mixing bowl, cream butter and cream cheese until fluffy.
Add flour and salt and continue to mix until well blended.
Wrap and chill dough for at least two hours.
Mix two egg yolks with one part water and whisk gently. Set aside.
In small bowl, combine sugar and cinnamon and mix so that sugar and cinnamon are completely incorporated.
Divide chilled dough into six equal parts. Work with one piece at a time and put the remaining dough back in the refrigerator wrapped.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Roll out dough on a clean surface into an 8 1/2 -inch circle. Then use pastry wheel (or pizza wheel) to cut the circle into eight equal wedges.
Spread about 1/2 teaspoon of the raspberry preserves onto each wedge. (Leave about 1/4 -inch of the border clean all the way around the edges of the pieces.
Sprinkle the almonds on top of the raspberry preserves.
Beginning with the widest end, roll up each wedge. Then arrange the cookies on a parchment paper-lined cookie sheet with the points pinched and tucked under.
Refrigerate the tray while you begin working on the next piece of the dough.
Once you have filled a cookie sheet, brush the tops of each cookie with the egg wash. Then sprinkle on the desired amount of cinnamon sugar.
Bake the cookies for 14-17 minutes until the tops are just beginning to turn a light golden brown. Remove from the oven and immediately transfer to a wire rack to cool.
Repeat with the rest of the dough.
Makes 48 cookies.
-- Christina Swiatowy