A Fresh, Hot Batch of History

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Oh, it’s a changeable day…clouds scud across an early moon as it edges out the pale setting sun. Dry leaves skitter across the street, and children, in puffy quilted jackets that belie their terrifying masks or princess-y tiaras, trick or treat. One burly little football player is made even bulkier by the fact that his snowsuit is UNDER his uniform. His mama, wrapped up in a thick woven blanket, grins as she escorts the boy from door to door.

Mark is doing candy duty on this cold, October-fleeing night, braving the insistent wind and foot-fending the little dog who desperately wants to bark the costumed visitors away, away, away from her door. And I—I am in the kitchen, baking cookies.

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I opened the cookie jar after lunch to find just two chocolate chip cookies.

“Cookie?” asked Mark, my hard-working husband, wistfully, and I handed them over. I washed out the jar, setting it upside down on the cast-iron stove spiders to dry. And then Mark went back to work and James and I drove to the library in Westerville.

The knowledge of that empty cookie jar went with me, a subtle but insistent prod. We have a history, cookies and me, and somewhere along the line, I signed the pledge,– the one that says an empty cookie jar will always, and soon, be filled.

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My mother, a stay-at-home mom most of the time, kept her cookie jar full. We seldom had things like soda pop, potato chips, or ice cream novelties in the house, but we always had something baked. My friends all knew where the cookie jar lived; they all loved my mother’s baking.

I bemoaned the fact that her chocolate chip cookies doubled the batter and halved the chips.

“You don’t NEED that many chips,” she’d reiterate, good Depression kid that she was, frugal nerves twitching. But I DID–I did need my chocolate chip cookies to be lumpy, crunchy clusters of morselly delight.

My friends didn’t care. They poured tall glasses from the opened gallon of skim milk in the refrigerator, sat at my kitchen table, and munched.

“These are GOOD,” they mumbled, spitting crumbs, and they looked at me like I was crazy to complain.

I sighed. I was happier when the cookies were ginger snaps, or peanut butter drops pressed flat and crunchy with the sugared tines of a fork. I liked the oatmeal cookie recipe I was pretty sure crossed the ocean with Mom’s family from Scotland, and when Mom added Snickerdoodles to the everyday cookie pantheon, I fell in love with those too. She made chocolate sugar jumbles and frosted them with white frosting. She made molasses cream cookies and tinted the icing pink or green.

Dad liked weird cookies–like Italian fig bars, which Mom made only at Christmas. The recipe, though, made a thousand or so cookies, and they would haunt the kitchen in their tupperware for a month. Dad contended they improved with age, and he would take a bundle in his lunch, every day, until they disappeared.

He also liked minced meat cookies, which looked a lot like chocolate chip cookies, but one quick read of the ingredients on the minced meat can swayed me firmly onto the side of ‘No, thank you.’

“Try one,” Dad would say; “they’re really tasty!”

I would make an awful face and back away.

“Aw,” he’d mutter, “you kids don’t know what’s good.”

I can live with my ignorance, thank you, I thought but did not say.

Christmas and Easter brought cut-out cookies, made with a short bread recipe that was family-bound, too. Those were glazed and dusted with colored sugar. Just getting the cookie cutters out, pulling them from the top cabinet where they resided in a battered old tin, was  excitement.

Cookies were part of the everyday fabric, and part of the special times fabric, too.

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Family photos:

My cousin Barbara shows me a picture of our grandmother Wilhelmina, my mother’s mother, in her wedding gown. She has a Gibson girl hairdo–glossy, thick hair piled high above her open, pretty face. Her elegant dress is beaded, buttoned, high-necked, long sleeved. She smiles tentatively. She is beautiful, this woman that we never knew.

Barbara tells me she has spoken with someone–an aging family member, or an old, old friend of the family, I don’t remember who–who told her that “Minnie” was ever smiling, welcoming, hospitable. She always had cookies in the jar for kids and for company, this person said.

My brother Sean sends a photo in the mail one day. Wait until you see it, he messages. When the manila envelope arrives, I carefully lift open the flap and pull out  a glossy black and white picture of my mother, tiny, scowling deeply, being held in her brother Jim’s arms. Next to them is Annie, Barbara’s mother, in a cloche hat, her arms full of flowers. Annie and Jim, young teenagers, look tired and desperate. In front of them are mounds and mounds of flowers.

They are standing at their mother’s freshly dug grave.

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There were always baked goods when we visited Aunt Annie, a special trip that only happened once a year, if that. There were always cookies in my mother’s kitchen. For two grown girls, bereft too early of a beloved mother, maybe that was a way of maintaining connection, of keeping the faith.

A cookie jar that’s always full means someone really cares.

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Cookies: background to my personal history. But cookies are an essential part of our larger culture, too, I think. We use cookie language. “That’s the way the cookie crumbles,” we say, philosophically, when things go wrong. Or, “She’s a smart cookie!” we say admiringly, when she figures out a clever, savvy way to navigate a tricky passage.

We sing, along with a fuzzy monster, “C is for Cookie! That’s good enough for me!” We sing about animal crackers in our soup.

On Facebook, I see a meme: “If a redhead loses her temper,” it reads, “do we say Ginger snaps?”

When Bill Clinton ran against the original President Bush, there were hard issues on the table, but chocolate chip cookies caught the attention of United States voters. Whose recipe was better–Barbara Bush’s or Hillary Clinton’s? The amount of press and attention that got was a measure of how deeply we value our cookies.

So where, I wonder now, did cookies come from?

Cookies have been around a LONG time, I find on whatscookingamerica. net–gosh, since at least the seventh century AD. Scholars posit that the first cookies were ‘test cakes’ in a time of uncertain oven temps. Conscientious bakers would whip up a batch of cake dough; to make sure the oven was hot enough, they would bake up a little portion to see how well or how quickly it cooked. I imagine a jolly, roly-poly royal baker indulging in a hot little cake fresh from a flaming oven, bouncing the toasty treat  on his tender fingers. “Oh, yeah!” he’s thinking. “That oven’s hot enough. And damn, I make a good cake batter…”

Persia, I learn, was one of the first countries to cultivate sugar, and, as a result, cookie-style cakes. By the 1400’s, Europe had embraced the use of sugar and little cake-baking. A Parisian shopper in that era could purchase sweet, filled wafers on the busy city streets. Renaissance cookbooks offered an abundance of cookie recipes, What’s Cooking America (whatscookingamerica.com) tells me, and, in 1596, a cookbook called Goode Huswife’s Jewel contained directions for square shortbread cookies enriched with egg yolks.

Settlers brought their cookie traditions to United States ovens,–cookies called things like tea cakes, jumbles, plunkets, or cry babies. And the railroad made exotic ingredients available–coconut, pineapple, and oranges, for example–and broadened the boundaries of Cookiedom.

Mr. Kellogg invented the corn flake in the early 1900’s, and shortly after that, his company proposed the concept of adding cereal to cookies. (Tiger Cookies, with crushed up frosted corn flakes and swirls of melted chocolate, are a family favorite here. The random addition of the forlorn leftovers at the bottom of the cereal box to any old cookie recipe is highly frowned upon, however.)

Refrigerators hit the big time in the 1930’s, and icebox cookie recipes did, too.

And maybe the best known morsel of cookie history is the story of the Tollhouse cookie–how Ruth Wakefield, at the Tollhouse restaurant, ran out of nuts one day. She decided to chop up a chocolate bar and add that to her “Butter Drop-Do” cookie dough (www.culinarylore.com). Patrons went crazy for the cookie; by 1939, Nestle was marketing Tollhouse chocolate chips to accommodate the craze.

I go searching for the story behind Snickerdoodles, the deliberately NON-chocolate cookie that fills our cookie jars this indulgent Hallowe’en season; their story is nowhere near as crisply outlined as the Tollhouse cookie’s tale. Grit.com tells me the  recipe might have come to the States from Germany or Holland, or it might have come from a creative, whimsical New England cook’s kitchen. The name may be an Americanization of ‘Schneckennudelin,” which means, ‘snail dumpling.’ (Eeeuw.) Or–the cookies might have been named for an early 1900’s hero called Snickerdoodle. (But then, he might have been named for the cookie.)

An American Food Historian (americanfoodhistorian.blogspot.com) reports that the earliest mention of Snickerdoodles in print might be from page 8 of the June 14, 1898, Boston Globe. So of course, she notes, the cookies had to exist before then.

Like most of our history, it seems, Snickerdoodles were created in the quiet, with deliberation, maybe, but not much fanfare, and then their popularity spread, until the little cookie became ubiquitous. Most people, these days, if you whisper ‘Snickerdoodle’ in their ears, will immediately think, Cinnamon. Chewy. Yummy.

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It’s the morning of November 2 as I finish typing this ramble; I sit at my dining room table in the just-dawning day. My son and I have a breakfast plan this morning: we will dine at the classic Denny’s out on Airport Road. Last night Jim read me a long litany of hot cake possibilities, including pecan sticky bun and red velvet variations. A purist, I will probably order something more traditional than those glorious concoctions.

But it will be an hour or two before James shakes off the night’s sleep and we pile into the Hyundai to search out sustenance. I sip my fragrant cup of fake coffee and realize I am little bit peckish. I grab two Snickerdoodles from the big plaid cookie jar. We like our cookies crisp, not soft; we like the edges nicely browned. These two, stolen from the top of the pile, are just perfect.

I place the cookies on my napkin, and yield to the importunings of the anxious little dog, who wants her Second Walkies now. We slip off into the dawning day, gray and wet, and she sniffs and considers for fifteen minutes or so. My silly slide-on shoes soak up the morning rain.

I am not concerned. My pay off waits–that steaming coffee, those two crunchable, spicy cookies. Let the winds blow, and the rains come. My shoes will dry. We’ll light a fire in the fireplace, snuggle up with fuzzy blankets.

In an uncertain world, symbols of security are precious. Today, we feel fortified and fortunate. We have our reserves. There are cookies in the cookie jar. We’ll weather the storm all right.

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GOT IT! (The end of my quest for the ultimate cookie)

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It started years and years ago, when a visit to the Barnes and Noble in Erie, Pennsylvania, was a rare and wonderful getaway. My friend Sharon introduced me to the concept that, in the Starbucks snack bar connected to the book store, one could gather up a fat stack of glossy magazines from the well-stocked shelves, order up coffee and a treat, and sit and flip page after page without being accosted. And then, words and images and coffee treats digested, one could take those carefully handled magazines and put them back on the shelves.

And it was okay. In fact, the store management encouraged reading and browsing while snacking.

Those were days of diapers and tight budgets, of precious quiet personal time, and of limited opportunities for real vacations. A visit to the Starbucks cafe at B and N, an hour of paging through glossies that had no direct relation to mommyhood, a steaming cup of Italian roast coffee–that was a refreshing respite in itself. It didn’t think it could get much better.

But then, I ordered the Starbucks Reese’s cup cookie, and I heard the angels sing.

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The Reese’s cup cookie was big and flat and filled with chunks of peanut butter cup and chocolate chips. It had the perfect combination of crunch and chew, and I would savor it, breaking off small pieces, chewing them slowly, clearing my palate with a hot swig of rich, dark brew. I would slide the magazine across the little round table, making sure no crumb or drip sullied its pristine pages, and I would read about that year’s fashions or the best way to teach pronouns to middle-schoolers or how to make a tasty dinner from stale bread and leftover ham.

The cookie was big enough to last, if I was careful, for the life of the venti coffee. When both were gone, it was time to put the magazines on their shelves and head back into it.

The taste of Italian roast and Reese’s cookie began, to me, to mean treasured respite. But visits to the book store, an hour’s drive, were too few and too far between. I decided I needed to recreate that lovely, warm, restful experience in my own kitchen.

It wasn’t hard to master the coffee. I acquired my first coffee grinder, and I could buy Italian roasted beans at my local supermarket. Soon, I was sleepily brewing a wonderful pot of morning coffee, floating on its steam to a happy place before the day began to buffet me.

But the cookie. Ah. That was a different story.

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I thought perhaps I could adapt my traditional peanut butter cookie recipe, the kind that’s crisscrossed with fork tines. I mixed up a batch and stirred in chocolate chips and a handful of peanut butter cups, chopped; this was an activity that required stealth and the willingness to smack small grubby hands that reached insistently for the chopped chocolate treats. I  arranged one-inch balls carefully on the cookie sheets, and put them into a pre-heated oven, waiting for them to flatten out and become the chewy-crunchy discs I loved so much.

They never flattened. They remained candy-studded peanut butter golf balls. Although the boyos ate them willingly, I was not happy. And I was determined to get closer to the mark.

Thus began my quest. At least twice a year, I would try a new recipe for peanut butter cookies. I rummaged through library cookbooks in five different hometowns, finding, along the way, some wonderful dishes that we have woven into family cuisine. But I did not find a peanut cookie recipe that approximated the Starbucks treat.

I discovered the Reese’s cookies were only available in Barnes and Nobles Starbucks,–at least where I lived–, and I swerved the car when passing such places. I interrogated hapless baristas who had nothing to do with the baking of cookies; they looked nervous as I pelted them with cookie questions. I was a woman on a mission, but my goal seemed elusive.

I bought baking books. Their recipes did not include the one I sought. I scoured the Internet fruitlessly.

I tried chocolate chip cookie variations–“Omit the half cup of shortening and add 2/3 cup of peanut butter…”

I chopped peanut butter cups and stirred them into dozens of different doughs, sharing results with family and friends and colleagues. None of them objected to the cookies I slid in front of them.

But none of the cookies was quite the cookie I needed.

Years and years went by. I savored Barnes and Noble visits, learning, in every town we settled, the fastest route to the closest store whose cafe offered those sweet treats.

I began to despair, though, of ever finding a recipe to come close to my cookie ideal.

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And then, at Christmas time, I reached for my mother’s recipe book, a book that contains, in her own handwriting, essential holiday recipes–the shortbread cookie recipe, the directions for making chocolate fudge delight. And I noticed that recipe number two was for a cookie called ‘Peanut Butter Crinkles.’

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Did I remember my mother making peanut butter crinkles? The criss-cross tine cookies, yes, but there was no memory of this other. We had cookies we called molasses crinkles; they were a favorite, and they flattened into the same kind of chewy crunch I sought.

I had a chocolate crinkle recipe, too; they yielded the same result.  Could it be…??

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I went ahead with my Christmas baking, stirring up the fudge, rolling out the shortbread, shaping dollops of clove-scented chocolate dough into Italian chocolate cookies.

It was all good; we ate and shared, and then when the holidays treats were gone, I pulled out the little recipe book, chopped up a package of Reese’s peanut butter trees found in my Christmas stocking, and mixed them into the peanut butter crinkle dough. I added, because I had them, a handle of white chocolate chips and a scoop of mini semi-sweet morsels. I shaped the candy-studded dough into 1-1/2 inch balls, and I rolled the balls in sugar. Then I put them on lightly greased cookie sheets, flattened them gently with the sugared bottom of a juice glass, and slid them into the oven.

They spread out beautifully, and the edges cracked and got crunchy. After ten minutes or so, I took the first tray from the oven, wielded my spatula, and spread the first twelve hot cookies out to cool. And finally, after an agonizing wait, I tried them.

And they were, as Goldilocks said so long ago, JUST RIGHT.

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Last night, Jim took the last of the Reese’s cookies from the cookie jar. But I know how to make more.

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I felt triumphant for two days after those cookies came out of the oven–triumphant and sated with my dream cookies. And then, a little reaction began to set in.

For there’s a cost, I’m discovering, to achieving a long-sought goal. There’s a vacuum. The quest is a thing in itself, powered by passion and possibility and the delight of the search.

And when the mission is completed, that power is gone. Now I have to say to myself, the quest for the Reese’s cookie recipe was a thirty-five year chapter in my life. And that chapter is now complete.

It’s a little unsettling; it’s a little…final.

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But still. I have my recipe! And I found it, of all places, in a book that’s been sitting patiently on my cookbook shelf, a little book that’s traveled with me over hundreds of miles and through five different kitchens. There’s a message there to ponder, kind of a Wizard of Oz wisdom-byte, about the things I need maybe being in my backyard all along.

There are other cooking quests to get serious about. I have my new pasta maker; watch out, ravioli. And this is the year I’ll finally learn to make a buttery delectable biscuit.

I’ll still treat myself to a Reese’s cookie when I visit my favorite Barnes and Noble store.

And every so often–but not too often–I’ll make myself a batch of Reese’s cookies. In the quiet of the morning, I’ll French press myself some smoky brew, pull over the magazine that arrived in yesterday’s mail, and serve myself a cookie on a dessert plate. I’ll savor it, making it last until I’ve poured the last steamy froth from my coffee pot, turned the last page of that magazine. I’ll savor the triumph, too, of finally achieving my goal–silly and frivolous though that goal might seem.

And then…well, then, I’ll  face the future, bravely embarked on a mighty new mission.

And fueled by a hefty dose of Reese’s candy-laden peanut butter crinkles.

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Of Snow Storms and Fitness and Cookies, Still Warm

 

Soup

When I leave work at 5:30, it has just started to snow, a hard, fine sugar that glazes the roads.  I take the long way, carefully, and savor driving through the sparkling mist in the half-light of dusk.

At home, the dog meets me at the door; she trots to the edge of the back stoop, and she puts her nose out into the weather.  She turns her head, gives me a look that says, clearly, “Never mind!” and hurries back inside.

I feed her.  I change into a soft old navy blue sweater and pull-on pants.  I start a pot of soup.

The soup is a hearty recipe from a dear friend, Kathie, and it  goes together quickly. I follow the recipe exactly. Well, I do, except that I have five cups of broth made from the bones of Sunday’s roast chicken in the fridge, and I put that in instead of the water that’s called for.  Which is just as well, because, instead of a package of wild rice mix with its tangy flavor packet, I use the leftover rice from a big batch of risotto.  And I discover a little cup of French style green beans from last night’s dinner, so I throw those in–with a hefty helping more from the bag in the freezer–instead of broccoli.

Other than that, though, it is EXACTLY Kathie’s recipe, and it begins, quickly, to burble enticingly. It blends sautéed onion and shredded carrot, the nice lean chicken, the broth with the fat skimmed off. It is hefty on the vegetable matter–even the broth was a long simmer of celery and carrot and bay leaf, herbs and spices and bones with shreds of meat a-clingin’, onion and leftover corn and one sad tomato. For the most part, I think, Tara would approve of this soup.

Tara is our wellness coach at the College; every Wednesday she meets with us, and evaluates us and talks to us.  She demonstrates good stuff to us.

At our first meeting, she takes our measures. Considering them, she sets the curriculum: we’ll work, she says, on body mass indexes, cholesterol, and nutrition.  We’ll learn, Tara tells us, to incorporate activity into our days, to do exercises that relieve the stress in our backs and our necks, and to walk until our heart rates reach a nice healthy thumping pace.

We nod and smile and look at each other plaintively.

Tara is an inspiring person, glowing of mien, joyously giving, and there is no way we can doubt that what she tells us is what we should do.

So we begin, and we encourage each other: I pack celery sticks for snacking, enough to share.  Linda brings baby carrots; Jaime stashes a six pack of little Greek yogurt cups in the staff room refrigerator.  We bring our sneakers to work; in the afternoons, at 2:00 or so, we lap the building, striding down the hallways, romping up the stairs.  For the first circuit, anyway.  We elevate our heart rates.

Tara talks about changing habits rather than dieting, so I set myself two immediate goals:  increasing the helpings of fruits and veggies I eat each day, and building three thirty minute sessions of heart-pumping exercise into my week.  I’ll start, also,  practicing better portion control, and, as time rolls on, when I use up a bag of flour or a loaf of bread or a box of pasta, I’ll replace that soft white starchiness with something whole grained and hearty.

I am determined. I am committed.

I am home on a snowy cold night, and I am–sorry, Tara,–going to make cookies.

The soup bubbles merrily. I get out the peanut butter, the eggs, the flour, the rich dark brown sugar.  The butter. I pull out my old red-checkered cookbook and check the instructions. I mix up a double batch of peanut butter cookie dough.

By the time I am done, the boyos have arrived, safely home from their excursion to Westerville, 50 miles away. The roads were fine on their way there.  They kept an appointment, browsed through a bookstore, stopped at Panera for dinner.  By then, the snow had begun to fall, and they drove sedately home. Mark brought a beautiful little loaf of sliced, crusty, rustic bread.  It is the perfect thing to go with the steaming soup.  I ladle out a bowl and take two small slices of bread from the bag. The boyos shed their snowy jackets and stomp off their boots in the back hall, and I grab my cozy murder mystery and take my lovely supper to the table.

Despite my variations, the soup is as good as I remember; the bread is a fresh and  chewy treat, and the book is a tantalizing, comforting read. Refreshed, I turn the oven on to 350, pull the baking sheets out of the cabinet, and begin shaping little meatballs of peanut butter cookie dough. It’s a learned task; I must have first done this well over fifty years ago, when my mother taught me that the cookie jar should never really be empty.

She was not an extravagant shopper, my mother–and the family budget applauded that: we did not have soda pop or potato chips or ice cream treats in the house very often.  But we always had baked goods.  The cookie jar was full or it was being replenished; and sometimes there was also a cake or a pie. Our friends liked to visit. They were each on a first name basis with the cookie jar, and they knew where to find the glasses to contain tall drinks of milk.

No more demonstrative than she was extravagant, my mother showed she cared by baking for us.  A house devoid of home-baked cookies was an empty home, indeed.

That’s especially true, I think,  on a night when the furnace has to struggle and chug itself to life and the snow’s so cold it glitters. I set up trays of peanut butter doughballs, dip a fork into sugar, and flatten the balls with criss-cross tine marks limned in sweet crystals.  I slip the first two trays into the oven; in moments the smell of warm peanut butter floats through the house.  The dog comes out to sit by my side as I type, hopeful, keeping me company, trotting at my heels when I pull two sheets from the hot oven and replace them with two more.

She gets the leftover burger, the dog does, but no cookies. She considers that, and then, a canine pragmatist, accepts.  Mark and Jim appear in the kitchen, take themselves little stacks of cookies warm from the oven, slide back to their electronic universes, munching.

“These are GOOD,” they say.  I try one, too, and I agree.

Outside, in the full dark, snow still falls, getting more defined and less sugary.  The wind picks up.  Drifts pile up in the shelter of the hedges.  This is a storm so strong the weather gurus have named it; I watch the deepening glitter and fantasize that work tomorrow may be cancelled. Mark goes quietly through the house, opening cabinet doors that shelter pipes; the warmed air will cradle those conduits, keep them from freezing.

I pull the last two trays of cookies from the oven. With a spatula, I slide the cookies onto a platter, adding them to a burgeoning mountain.  I clean the last of the baking things, setting the cookie sheets face down on the warm stove to dry.  I divide the soup into little containers, and I look around my kitchen.

Some deep-seeded need to fill the larder, to batten down against the storm,  is satisfied.  Maybe the snow will stop within the hour; maybe it will continue all night. I hear the vigilant snowplow scrape by; I acknowledge, sadly, that a snow day tomorrow is an unlikely thing.  But whatever happens, there is soup in the refrigerator; there are cookies in the jar.  My family is safe and warm, protected from the elements.

Tomorrow I will chop more celery sticks to take to work; I’ll do some solitary Saturday laps around the building.  I will keep to my goals. But I will not regret the cookies, those warm and fragrant amulets that keep winter’s breath at bay.

PB Cookies