January 6, 2013
I wonder how many of us, on this dark and frigid Epiphany night, are baking chocolate chip cookies?
Ohio is colder than it’s been in twenty years tonight; the weather experts say that being outside for seven minutes will–WILL, not might—cause frostbite. My work is closed tomorrow, a closing announced by an email that read, “Because of the frigid temperatures, only essential personnel are required to report tomorrow. If you are unsure whether your role is essential, please check with your Dean or department head.”
YES! spiraled my joyous thought, but to be sure I went to Susan and asked, “Am I essential?”
She laughed and said, “You certainly are not essential to the College tomorrow,” and must have noticed a shadow of crestfallen crawl across my face–why did I suddenly have a twinge of WANTING to be essential? “YOU are not essential,” Susan repeated, “and neither am I!”
Smiling, I went back to my office and wrapped up my email, wrote an auto-reply (“I’ll be back on Wednesday morning at 8–stay warm!!”), left a new message on my voice mail, cleaned off my desk. Susan left, swashed in a scarf; smart Theresa had her plushy hood tied so tightly only her blue eyes peered out. I packed up: computer, book bag, travel mugs, odd roll of gift wrap (I am moving offices and excavating layers, the archaeology of my four years in this domain. I bought the gift wrap when my first evening assistant, Brandon, had his 21st birthday. My third evening assistant would have started this evening, had the college been open; Brandon has gone on to a warm marriage, a beautiful son, and an amazing job.)
At home, we broiled hamburgers and baked crispy waffle fries. Mark came in with his “toque” protecting his shiny pate, blowing and exclaiming. Cold, cold, this is so cold! The cold breathed in with him, the dog ran and curled up in her chair; we ate burgers dripping with juice and melted cheese, and the carbs seemed like just the thing.
We ate and we talked–about Cris’s birthday lunch today and the appointment Mark had, walking briskly across the square to find that organization too had let all but ‘essential personnel’ go home. It was essential personnel with which he needed to meet, but he had to pound the door and press the bell and use his cell before they came to let him in, clucking and apologizing.
Jim talked about the story he is writing and the book he started to read, and the dog slipped off the chair and came to beg. I turned the heat up; the house is full of tiny leaks where cold air pools.
And after dinner and after dishes, I turned the oven back on and began to drag out the ingredients for chocolate chip cookies. The brown sugar had hardened; I put it in a bowl and nuked it for twenty seconds. It softened promisingly; I nuked it for another twenty and it agreed to give way. The eggs…they come from one of Mark’s co-worker’s chickens, miraculous winter eggs, donated when chickens really are kind of tired of laying just for our gluttonous benefit. Generous eggs, I thought.
The vanilla has a little spicy nip to it; it is Mexican vanilla, a gift from our wonderful friend Wendy, a teacher, mentor, and pie-baker; a bargain hunter extraordinaire, and a traveler of the world. I love the way it smells, as rich and good as my vanilla cologne; I use it sparingly or it will commandeer whatever dish it seeps into.
The flour fluffs into the soft, wet ingredients, and I dig in the cupboards for chocolate chips. I find baggies of miniature M&M’s, sorted by color; for Christmas, James and I dipped Oreo-style cookies in white chocolate and decorated them like snowmen, with M&M faces…blue eyes, a round orange nose to suggest a carrot, wobbly brown dot smiles. We sorted the candies so we could work quickly, before the milk coating solidified, and dumped the sorted chocolates into the baggies.
Now I dump them into the dough, mixing them again, and pour in half a bag of semi-sweet chocolate chips and then I discover, behind a bag of chow mein noodles and a candy store sack of gold foiled chocolate coins we forgot to bring for Christmas Eve, a half a bag of butterscotch chips. Butterscotch chips! More joy. In they go.
In our house, we act a play about butterscotch chips…Mark complains about them…”Aiyee,” he’ll say, “You put butterscotch in here?” But once, either to be kind or to test a theory, I divided up a big batch of cookies and made one half with only chocolate chips and the other with chocolate and butterscotch, and the boys ate all the scotchy ones first and then, only desultorily, the ones with just the chocolate.
I discovered the idea of butterscotch chips in chocolate chip treats in high school, in an after school time, when I was playing intramural basketball and got called to the office for a message. I had my cut-off jean shorts on–they were pretty short, and I knew I looked pretty good, and people lounging the halls yelled after me, “Yo, FLASH!” I am happy and bustling, and I turn the corner, the shiny, highly waxed corner, and realize that one of the clubs–maybe the Business club–is having an afterschool bake sale.
The sellers are earnest and worried that traffic is slow; a diplomat even then, I dig into my jeans shorts pockets and find a couple of crumpled ones (those were the days when I always had money, when the pay I got for babysitting or working retail was dumped onto my dresser, accumulating into piles of a hundred dollar–a whopping sum back then, and I could never think of what to spend it all on) and search the offerings, lighting on some bar cookies–big slabs of bar cookies laden with chocolate and butterscotch chips. I get my message and head back toward the gym, and I bite into the bar cookie and stop in my tracks.
It is AMAZING. It is the best thing I have ever, ever eaten. It crunches and explodes; it is buttery and sugary and loaded with chips. I turn around and use the rest of my crumpled money to buy all the remaining bars, and, I am slightly ashamed to say, I eat them all by myself and feel not one bit of remorse.
The next day I track down the bake sale girls and try to find out who donated those bars. I want the recipe. They stare at me dumbly, like ‘What’s the big deal?’ They do not have a clue which cookies I am talking about. I never get the recipe.
And so begins a quest to replicate, a quest as yet unsuccessful. I have made some very fine chocolate chip cookies and some excellent chocolate chip bars, but I have never come close to the perfection of the bake sale treasures.
That was well over forty years ago, and I can remember the taste, the texture, and the delight.
The wind howls outside the kitchen window, where I sit; James comes in to tell me Triple D is on, and I detach myself from the sugary kitchen, from sensory memories, and from a fantasy of saving my family from freezing by baking sweet treats. It is Epiphany–the night the wise ones visited. I am ready for visitors; I am ready for solitude; for Mark to fly off to work tomorrow as James and I keep the house warm, the home fires burning, and I find some kind of atavistic rightness to that scenario. Yep, let the cold come; I have chocolate chip cookies, forged from ingredients that tell a story, linked to memories, closing out last year’s holidays, their sweetness making frigid temps into an unexpected holiday to start this year.
A favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe: Potato chip cookies
This recipe is adapted from one found several years ago in Country Living magazine.
½ cup margarine
¼ cup shortening
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 cup sugar
2 medium eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups crushed potato chips
1 cup chocolate chips
1 cup butterscotch chips
Melt margarine and shortening: put in microwave on high for about 45 seconds. Stir. Pour into mixer bowl.
Beat sugars into shortening mixture, using electric beater.
Beat in eggs and vanilla.
Mix in flour and baking soda.
Stir in potato chip crumbs, chocolate chips, and butterscotch chips.
Drop dough onto ungreased baking sheets, using a tablespoon, about two inches apart.
Bake for 12-14 minutes on ungreased baking sheets, or until nicely brown. Remove cookies from cookie sheets immediately.