+ By Andrea Stuart + Photos by Alison Harbaugh
The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking, you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude. – Julia Child
Liquid amber drips off the edge of a saucepan, forming a molten blanket over a peanut-buttery pretzel crust. Chopped peanuts sink elegantly into the plush bedding created by a layer of homemade caramel before being adorned with chocolate chips that soften into a chocolatey cloak in the oven. Opulence, created simply—this is the spirit behind Seton Rossini’s new dessert cookbook, Sweet Envy.
When Rossini, an award-winning designer, was approached last year by W. W. Norton & Publishing to write a cookbook inspired by her blog, Pixel Whisk, she was overcome with anticipation. The Annapolis native, who had moved to New York 13 years earlier and served as associate design director at Food & Wine magazine, would have to leave the culinary Mecca to pursue the project. She and her family moved to Baltimore and then more recently to Annapolis, where her son, Nolan, will attend the schools she attended as a child, she hopes.
One might say Rossini’s careers in baking and authorship began with an elusive childhood affair with cookie dough, that sweet, sticky, buttery rapture that wraps the tongue in sunshine. The idea of swiping her finger along the smooth edges of a dough-slathered bowl, repeatedly licking her fingers in between each pass until the bowl was spic-and-span, was all the motivation she needed.
While it’s easy to imagine Rossini growing up alongside her mother in the kitchen, face spotted with flour and apron speckled with sauce, her relationship with food, especially with sweets, is multidimensional: a product of an artistic mind, scientific curiosity, motherly love, and unadulterated passion.
During the holidays, she and the family would bake her grandmother’s cookies. When Rossini inherited her grandmother’s most prized possession—a Toll House® cookbook lined with her recipes—she was smitten. Her grandmother was a source of inspiration, alongside several of her mother’s 15 siblings who also cook. But Rossini is, perhaps, the apple that fell a few feet farther from the tree. “I’m one of five in a family of lawyers, not artists. But [my parents] love the fact I have always been artistic, and they always pushed me to do artistic things,” she says. “I enrolled in Maryland Hall [for the Creative Arts] when I was younger, and enjoyed theater, dance, and art—anything creative.” As a result, Rossini went straight from Southern High School in Harwood to Parsons School of Design in New York City.
Fast-forward to today: Rossini talks animatedly about the connection between baking and nature. “There are so many gorgeous things in nature that translate to baking,” she says, referencing a chapter in Sweet Envy titled “Natural Curiosities.” “Nature represents all beauty. You see it in herbs, trees, leaves, and patterns such as in snowflakes.” Her mint chocolate trifle is a perfect example of this inspiration, with its chocolate mint leaves poised atop mint whipped cream and cookie crumbles—also an example of how fancy doesn’t necessarily mean complicated.
Rossini’s creative nature moves beyond the recipes in Sweet Envy. Her design and writing aptitudes, paired with a fearless attitude, have enabled her to be the exclusive creator of her book, from conceptualization to the finishing artwork. Much of her success is attributed to her relationship with trial and error, often staying up until the wee hours of the morning, tweaking recipes that she’s already baked a dozen times in pursuit of perfection. As the first chapter in her books says, “Bake it ’til you make it!”
When Rossini began baking cakes and blogging about them on the side, it was no surprise that her learn-from-your-mistakes philosophy landed her a book deal. Okay, it was a little surprising, but it was earned nonetheless. When it came down to deciding what to write about, Rossini says, “I had this tongue-in-cheek idea to make a quirky cookbook of things that look impressive but are tangible—brag-worthy desserts—without trying too hard. That’s where Sweet Envy came from.”
While the idea of creating every part of a book might sound romantic, Rossini admits that the process required a light-hearted attitude and an ability to go with the flow. While most cookbook authors create recipes then hire a photographer to photograph them in one session, Rossini baked one recipe at a time and then waited for the lighting to present itself, sometimes moving her baked goods outside to best capture the image.
The true challenge came with the reality that infants, pets, and book creators have differing perspectives as to what’s important. There’s nothing like baking a dish for the twelfth time and seeing that the light has finally created an opportunity for a crisp photo. The camera is poised, the finger is on the shutter release button, the eye is focused on the perfect balance of color. And then, in the background, the shrill of a hungry infant is heard. While taking care of the baby, there is another sound. Back in the room, the camera lays in shatters on the floor, and a jubilant hundred-pound black lab is sitting by its remains. “Take two!”
“I wrote that I didn’t go to culinary school, so why should you trust me? It’s about giving yourself permission to make mistakes and learning from them,” Rossini shares. “You try things until you find your passion.” Now that Rossini has found her passion, she urges others to explore their own paths. And if her book helps someone do that, even if just by dispelling a few myths about baking, then she’s done her job.
Perhaps it’s time to pick up a copy of Sweet Envy and begin with a recipe from the “Sweet and Boozy” chapter. It could be that some bubbly Pop Rocks shots are all a person needs to take the first confident step back into the mixing bowl of life. █