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

peanut-butter-crinkles
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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Favorite recipes.jpg
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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The Iron Man Interview

 

The Unexpected Finding

Belaruth bellowed in rage.
Belaruth bellowed in rage.

“Do not reveal.”

It’s the first rule of searching: Belaruth knows this. The father of seven daughters and godfather to three girls whose fathers passed, he has Searched nine times before, always with no incident. Each Search, however, has made him more annoyed with the clumsy, wasteful Humes; each successfully completed Search has seen him joyous to winkle back home.

So he knows. But when the she-ling Hume comes crashing through the woods, sniveling and snuffling, kicking over his painstakingly erected dye vats and mashing the metal shavings he has so carefully separated from the paper backings–ruining, in fact, a full day’s preparation—he can’t help it.

He bellows in rage.

He hears work stop in the camp behind him; he hears the scampering approach of his youngest daughter’s tiny feet.

“What is it, Father–oh, dear!” says Dagney. “Oh, the poor wee thing!”

“WEE!” roars Belaruth. “She’s a hundred times you!”

The she-ling has fwomped herself onto the nicely decaying log that supplies endless fuel for their conservative fires. She stopped her sniveling mid-sob when he bellowed, and her eyes, huge and pale behind outlandish spectacles, found him immediately. There can be no dashing away, no pretending they are not here.

Belaruth gestures lightly to the rest of the team–stay back. Humes are unpredictable, although it’s true they’re usually more afraid than frightening.

But Dagney steps boldly forward, and he groans.

“What’s your name, little she-ling?” It’s a ludicrous titling from his tiny, lithe daughter, whose head wouldn’t reach this great lump’s ankle bone.

The Hume child stares with her mouth open, her nose dripping, for a long moment. Tears quiver on her cheeks, but she is so startled to see the Searchers in what, Belaruth knows, she thinks of as ‘her’ woods, that she has forgotten to bawl.

Finally she gathers her wits together. He sees her swallow, reach down her hands to bolster herself on the log, and choke out, “Patricia. But they call me Pat.”

“And why,” begins his daughter–“Dagney!” he warns, but she quells him with a look,–“why are you so troubled?”

The tears tremble again on her magnified eyelids. “This BOY,” she snuffles, “Mark, in my class, made up a poem about me. He said it and everyone laughed and laughed.”

“A poem?” says Dagney, puzzled. “Would that not mean he is wooing you?”

“WOOING me!” wails Pat. “He’s MOCKING me! His poem goes like a Dr. Seuss book,” and she bites out, mockingly:

This is Pat.

Pat is fat.

She has a cat.

The cat is fat, just like Pat.”

Belaruth turns his head to cough–a cough that starts out as an unbidden laugh. He does not know this Dr. Seuss Hume, but–it IS a catchy little chantie.

Pat glares at him. “By the end of the day,” she says, “everyone was saying it. They said it in school and they said it on the bus. I was so embarrassed. I never want to go back to school again.” She sticks out her lip, pouting, and Belaruth thinks again that the Humes are unfortunately unattractive.

This one, though, he acknowledges, is somehow endearing. Needily so. He turns to Dagney and signals her with his eyes–I’ll take care of this, he is saying,—and she slips back to the women who halted in the midst of gathering materials.

He takes a deep breath–he knows, he KNOWS!– he shouldn’t be doing this, and he walks toward the she-ling.

“In my land,” he says to Pat, “this would be the opening salvo in a contest of rhymes. Tell me about this Mark child.”

By the time Pat lumbers off thirty minutes later, they are fast friends. She has learned about them–that they are from what Belaruth described as a world under. They have come on a Search for Dagney’s trousseau, to gather metals and cloth and plastic and wood–to gather things left behind from the wastefulness of the Humes. The team of craftspeople who have accompanied them will perform what comes to almost alchemy or magic; they will weave the waste into things of beauty with which Dagney will start her new life with Jegg, her intended. They will create a wedding gown that will make all who come to wish Dagney and Jegg well gasp in wonder.

Pat’s eyes soften thoughtfully as she listens, and she asks questions about their processes, and she looks around and notices the litter on the woods floor. She has the grace to look sheepish and ashamed.

Belaruth asks her about this Mark who torments her, and he learns that Mark is one of the two smartest children in the class; Pat is the other. And Mark is very competitive. He has bright red hair and a face full of those odd freckle spots some Humes are plagued with. It won’t be, thinks Belaruth, difficult to compose a catchy lay that will irritate the boy in his turn.

They begin to compose together; Pat pulls a piece of crumpled paper from her pocket, along with a broken pencil. By the time she lumbers off, she has written  down this chantie about her blazing-haired nemesis:

Markus Karkus
Combing his hair
He set his comb on fire!
What’s he gonna do now?
Shouldn’t use a plastic comb!
Use one made of wire!

They have even added a refrain, which can be sung:

Markus Karkus, put it out!
Your brain’s already burned!
It doesn’t matter anyhow
There’s nothing you have learned!

Humes, thinks Belaruth, shaking his head, listening to the pounding of Pat’s feet grow further and further away. They’re exhausting. He turns back to his work area, where he will erect again the dye vats and begin extracting brilliant colors from the paper debris left behind by the careless species.

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Dagney is a hard-working, beautiful daughter; she leads her team of crafters and artists with care and a light hand, and they begin to stockpile wonders. There is a set of carrying bags made from pounded plastic; the bags are soft and supple and a beautiful pale blue. They have separated sheets of thin aluminum from paper backing; Belaruth tells them a substance called ‘Wrigley’s’ is wrapped in these sheets. None of them understands just what a ‘Wrigley’s’ is or how the Humes employ it….although the discarded papers smell wonderfully minty.

The metal sheets will be shredded and spun and woven into soft cloth that will wrap around Dagney’s wedding gown. They have found three large squares of cloth to choose from for the gown–Dagney is debating whether she prefers a plain soft blue or a flower-sprigged blue cotton. Crafters are sewing and crafters are pounding; some knit; some boil dyes; and some plunge their arms into giant pots of hot soapy water, cleansing and rinsing all manner of carelessly discarded treasure.

The Search goes very well; Belaruth couldn’t be more pleased.

He isn’t even too annoyed when Pat comes clomping back; of course they heard her coming when she was yards away–her gasping breath, her pounding steps.

She comes to tell him the poem has worked. She made copies of the refrain, enlisted the girls in the class, and soon everyone was singing about Markus’s burned brain cells.

To her surprise, though, she tells Belaruth, Mark was a very good sport. He laughs and makes up a response poem on the spot:

Pat’s so smart!
She sent a dart
Right through my heart!

And Pat, feeling greatly daring, had quipped right back:

Please don’t make
a rhyme with ‘fart’!!!!

Belaruth laughs with her. And when she asks about their work, he goes to see if Dagney would mind if he shows her some of the creations. They drag out the carrying bags, the silver over-cloth, the soft-as-clouds blankets knit from finely spun plastic fibers. With care unexpected in such a clumsy creature, she touches and studies the crafters’ work.

Belaruth waits for her to react, but Pat is quiet, very quiet, for a long time.

“I could do this,” she says finally. “I could learn to use the things we throw away.”

Belaruth almost feels tears well up–although of course that doesn’t happen. “Dear child,” he says. “If only all Humes came to realize that.”

While the Searchers work, Pat cleans the little clearing.  She piles up scraps of paper, pop cans, plastic bottles. The crew, grateful for the time saved, eagerly gathers up her finds and starts the process of morphing them.

She treks out to meet them every day for the next two weeks, and she marvels at the wondrous creations the team produces. Their final project is the gown; when it is done, Dagney models it for her. She has chosen the flower sprigged print. The dress sweeps and sways; Dagney’s jet-black hair glows against the blue flowers and the silvery mesh over-skirt and vest.

When the gown is done, Dagney models it for Pat.
When the gown is done, Dagney models it for Pat.

Pat says it is the most beautiful thing she has ever seen. And Belaruth, who has grown truly fond of the great clumpy child, tells her, softly, that the completion of the gown signals the completion of the search.

Pat, who really is very bright, knows this.

“I’m going to make a little park here, in honor of meeting you,” she tells Belaruth, and he feels a little pang. He does not regret breaking Rule One; he will miss this Hume child.

“Remember, though,” he says gently, “don’t tell anyone about this time.”

“Belaruth!” says Pat, and there is a pretty ripple in her voice, “who’d BELIEVE me?” They look at each other, and they both begin to laugh.

When Pat leaves a little later, they  know it is their final parting. That night the Searchers pack up; in the morning, by the first light, they winkle away.

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Perhaps the meeting with the Hume child has addled his brain, thinks Belaruth. When he and Dagney take the goods the team has crafted to the storerooms, when they inventory the wonderfully crafted trousseau, they discover they have left all the soft blue carry bags behind. This has never happened before; Belaruth is chagrined. His daughter loves those bags.

For the first time ever, he will have to winkle back to a Search site.

It is almost a week later when he has the time to return. He goes in the early morning, when the dew is still clinging to the grass. He finds that Pat has begun her work. She has cut the grass in the clearing; there are rough benches made from three small logs she has dragged over. There are scuff marks from more feet than Pat’s.

Maybe, he thinks, maybe she has brought Mark here and some of the other friends from school. And maybe they looked at the waste and the litter on their pathway in, and they began to dream of ways to end that scourge.

He thinks it may be true. In the center of the clearing there’s a creation. It’s made from cans and a bucket, from containers and sticks. All these things have been dipped in concrete and stacked together. It is a statue,–and Belaruth feels a tightening in his throat,–that looks remarkably like him. Against the tin-can feet leans a little card, and the card reads, “In memory of a friend who taught me so much.” Neatly piled next to the card are the soft blue bags.

Maybe, thinks Belaruth, maybe Humes aren’t totally annoying, after all. Maybe there’s hope. He imagines a time when Searches have to change because  litter and waste have disappeared. Maybe, he thinks, they could partner with Humes then.

He carries the lovely luggage to a spot where he can stop long enough to plant the memory of the whole statue firmly in his mind. He will tell Dagney; it will make her smile. He gathers the well-loved bags in his arms, and he winkles them away.

The statue, Belaruth realizes, looks like him.
The statue, Belaruth realizes, looks like him.