Farewell

Insomnia, guilt, and a conversation I had today are the inspiration for this post. Why can’t I sleep when certain thoughts creep into my brain? More importantly, why can’t I let things, people, or “friends” go?

It’s all about the brownies. If you had one day inadvertently come across this recipe as I did, you would understand. The scrumptious perfection of these brownies, modified by my specification of Hershey’s Special Dark chocolate chips and dutch process cocoa, make every morsel a delectable experience. When I first started making them, it was an occasional treat, a decadence the whole family could enjoy. But I was quick to discover that they don’t last, that from-scratch bakery items must be enjoyed to their fullest almost immediately after emerging from the oven, or all sense of richness is lost. And so I brought a few to work. The reaction was astounding, and people began to ask about them. I brought in a few more. Soon I was making weekly batches of brownies and bringing the entire 9×13 pan into work, cutting them up, bagging them individually, and setting aside corners for certain colleagues and the coveted “center cuts” for a special few.

So as I lay in bed just now, thinking about the F-bomb and my purposeful use of it under imperative circumstances when the whole FUCKING world ought to agree it is necessary, I started adding up the ingredients of my weekly brownie list. Fifteen brownies a week, four eggs, two sticks of butter, a bag of chocolate chips, one and a quarter cup of cocoa, a tablespoon of premium vanilla, one and a quarter cup of flour, two cups of sugar, one teaspoon of baking soda, fifteen sandwich baggies. What does it add up to? $10 a week, $40 a month, 10 months in a school year, $400 a year.

Now let’s talk about my coworkers, who have two incomes and car payments and student loans and childcare expenses and every other FUCKING excuse in the world to NOT have any money. And me, family of five, ONE income, NO debt (other than a mortgage), who rides my ass up thirteen miles of hills with those heavy ass brownies ON MY BICYCLE and specifically sets aside the best cuts for the BEST people, and I am spending $400 a year so that if I USE THE WORD FUCK ON FACEBOOK I GET DE-FRIENDED??

That’s it. Farewell to the fucking brownie list.

Baking

For those of you unversed in baking, this is all you need to know:

Don’t waste your money on cheap flour.
Scavenge magazine recipes like a hungry bear.
Talk to chefs. In person and in your dreams.
Surprise your coworkers at least once a week. It’ll make both of your days.
Never underestimate the delectability of pure butter.
A Kitchenaid standup mixer is God’s gift to the kitchen.
Balk at store-bought bakery items. Teach your children to balk as well.
Plan your birthday parties and holiday desserts months in advance.
Make everything that comes out of your oven a culinary orgasm.
Hershey’s Special Dark Cocoa and chocolate chips. Need I say more?

Swallowing Our Sadness

After two gloriously quiet hours,
they are ready for the flourless cake
that this time (after multiple envious complaints)
I have made just for them.

They emerge from the family room
after watching The Velveteen Rabbit,
tears streaming down their
reddened-with-sadness cheeks.

“What’s the matter, don’t you want cake?”
Daddy asks, his voice dripping with confusion.
“The movie was so sad.” Sobs erupt
from their throats and trap any more anxious words.

“Really? What’s it about?” he asks, never having seen it.
As I begin to describe the rabbit becoming Real
(Isabella chimes in about the high fever)
their tears find their way into my own eyes.

I look at the three pained faces of my girls
who for the first time have been touched to tears
by a movie, and I wonder if I’m crying because of
the story or because they’re now old enough to understand it.

Either way, as I slice up the cake
that they take tiny bites of and abandon,
swallowing their sadness with delectability,
I am not able to swallow my own sadness.

Before I have even had a chance to stop time,
I have a houseful of growing-up girls
who reminded me today how precious
every bite of cake, every rite of passage, can be.

Decisions, Decisions

What can I capture from today?

The angry parent email
with threat to principal and
superintendent, all over a book
she shouldn’t have read
(for surely she didn’t understand
its genuine meaning)?

The morose groans of CSAP prep
and note-taking
that I put my students through
year after year
(yet do they listen)?

Or

The perfect rectangle of dough
rolled and ready to fill
with a mix of scallions, dill,
butter, garlic, and parsley
(everything already chopped)
laid out by my husband’s hands?

The well-behaved seven-year-old
daughter who carried in posters,
collected pennies for tastes,
sat listening to every presentation
and (for once)
asked permission before every request?

The gutak herb fritters
and sour cream, cider vinegar,
lemon-pepper sauce
that filled everyone’s faces
with smiles and everyone’s
stomachs with thanks?

The choice,
just like my fretful decision to bake,
my too-young-to-be-married decision to marry,
my too-early-for-grandkids decision to have them anyway,
is obvious.

My Grandmother’s (Ever)last(ing) Gift

I baked another magnificent concoction—a blackout chocolate cake—that was received with rave reviews and status updates and insistences that it was the best cake anyone had ever tasted. Having tasted only the frosting and a few remaining crumbs myself, I couldn’t understand what the fuss was all about.

But then I remembered the flour.

I grew up in the kitchens of my mother and grandmother. My mother taught me how to can vegetables and fruits, how to prepare a simple, healthy meal with meat, a starch, and a vegetable, and how to clean the kitchen, scrubbing every pot and wiping behind the sink and ringing out the rags after their scorching water rinses. My Italian grandmother taught me how to make marinara from scratch, first sautéing garlic, onions, and carrots in olive oil, then dunking fresh tomatoes in boiling water to remove their skins, then mashing them up with a spoon and adding them, with a six-ounce jar of tomato paste, fresh basil, oregano, marjoram, and parsley, to the pan. But it didn’t stop there. She showed me how to roll out dough for pasta and crank it into shapes with her metal hand pasta maker. She taught us both (my mother and I) what temperature a pot roast needed to begin at and how it should come out in the end. With wrinkled hands and bouts of passing out kisses between measurements, she showed me how to cook like an Italian: from scratch.

Growing up, the only things my mother ever baked were chocolate chip cookies or birthday cakes, where we would walk through the aisles of the grocery store picking out our favorite flavored mix and frosting. She knew just how to frost a cake with her thin metal spatula so that it was a work of art every time.

But it wasn’t until I was a grown woman with a baby of my own that I learned from my grandmother how to bake. She flew in on a surprise visit for my father’s fiftieth birthday. It was the very end of 2003, one of the most emotionally turbulent years for my family. In the course of eight months, the first great-grandchild, Isabella, came into the world, followed closely by my grandfather’s death, and then, before even catching a breath, my great-aunt Frances (who taught my mother to cook) and my grandmother’s mother, the original creator of the magnificent sauce and noodles, both passed away.

So I was surprised when Grandma called, begging me to arrange the plane ticket out of New York so she could surprise my father. She was always thinking of someone else, even in her time of turmoil. When she arrived the day before his birthday, she had a menu in mind. We woke up early the next day and headed to the store where she insisted on certain brands for every product, whether it was tomatoes, chicken, spices, cocoa, pudding mix, butter, champagne, vegetables, and, finally, the flour.

“You can’t bake a cake without King Arthur flour.”

We came home and read the recipe (already in my cookbook) for chocolate cake. She worked on the frosting—also made from scratch (who knew frosting was simply butter, cocoa, powdered sugar, and vanilla?)—while I mixed together the ingredients for the cake. I was shocked: all it took were eggs, sour milk, flour, butter, sugar, cocoa, baking powder, and baking soda. I thought about all the ingredients listed on the back of the cake mix box and it made my stomach churn. Meanwhile, Grandma mixed up some pudding for the middle of the cake—also something I never would have thought of.

When my parents came over for dinner that night, thinking that I had prepared a simple meal, they were shocked out of their minds to see Grandma at our house. Everyone sat down to enjoy one of Dad’s favorites—chicken cacciatore prepared with those delicious tomatoes Grandma picked, delicious Italian bread, and a side of peas and onions sautéed in olive oil. But the cake? What can I say? It took the cake! Hands down, it was the best cake I had ever tasted. Was it the flour or the fact that we didn’t use a mix? It didn’t matter—I was hooked. I repeated the recipe six weeks later for Isabella’s first birthday, and year after year, using that flour and a variety of different flavors, we have had nothing less than a series of delicious cakes.

The King Arthur flour bag had become a staple in our kitchen, and by chance one afternoon I read the recipe for “The Best Fudge Brownies Ever.” An eternal chocolate lover could never turn down such an insistent advertisement, so I shopped for what I would need, in particular Dutch-process cocoa (dark!) and dark chocolate chips, and tasted once, and a hundred or more times since that first bite, the most scrumptious brownie anyone could ever imagine.

That is the cake and those are the brownies that got me hooked on baking. Before we knew it, we were using the flour to make homemade pancakes, breads, and pizza dough. But it wasn’t enough to share it with my family—the world needed to taste the creations derived from this flour. Soon brownies became a weekly event, a special treat for me to take to work and share with coworkers, whose everlasting delight has included thank-you notes and bags of flour, sugar, and chocolate chips in my box. Throw a few cakes in and the happiness breeds itself in a workplace that is weighed down with stress and financial insecurities, making everyone feel, for the moments that they indulge in these desserts, that life is still a gift.

My grandmother, after that visit, began to deteriorate rapidly. She stopped cooking, baking, and is almost to the point of having to be forced to eat. Suffering from Alzheimer’s now, she will soon enter an assisted living home. Even though the average grocery store customer, while in the baking aisle, might think all the flours will create the same results, I will always remember what I consider to be my grandmother’s final, most precious, kitchen gift: the King Arthur flour that has brought pure love to all the people who have ever brought a taste of its creations to their lips.

Remedy for Bitterness…

or, Recipe for Flourless Chocolate Cake

8 cold-as-ice eggs
2 sticks of bitter butter
1 pound of BITTERsweet chocolate
2 cups wishy-washy water

1. Beat the crap out of the eggs for five minutes until they are filled with twice the rage that they began with.
2. Boil the water until it’s as hot as hell
3. Stick the sticks in the chocolate and melt into darkened mush that is the color of (bull)shit.
4. Fold the eggs into the chocolate and stir away until not a single bubble of rage remains.
5. Pour the bitter batter into the springform pan wrapped in foil that will hold off the bubbling hot-as-hell water that you will submerge it in.
6. Bake at 325 for 45 minutes, or until you insert a toothpick until it reemerges without any bitterness.
7. Serve 12 small pieces in order to wash away all bitterness with ten bites, twelve friends, and a few good laughs.