Letters from Home

Baking on Saturday

Today is Saturday. I am sitting in my kitchen on Delaware Road, making cookies.

It is quiet in the flat. Colin is at the other end, sitting at the computer, playing a game and relaxing. Through the open window, I can hear, again and again, the hollow sound of a tennis ball striking a racquet, from the sports club behind us. Somewhere nearby, someone is banging on something metal, Saturday chores. Out the window, across our funny concrete courtyard, I occasionally glance up and watch the woman in the other kitchen standing over her sink. She is taller than me, with longer hair. There’s a bottle of wine open and her husband is wearing a clean, crisp white Oxford shirt.

It seems strange that so much time has passed. It feels strange, not telling you things, as if I have been keeping secrets. But there is so much noise in the world. The clamour of it makes me small, compact, press down inside myself.

Sometimes it is nice to be quiet. A grey day means you are forgiven if you decide to just stay inside and putter around the house. It has been a grey summer for us, Colin and I. We have been puttering around our life together, picking things up, and putting them back down again. Quiet, taking the stiff winds and blasts of noise as they come.

This recipe for peanut butter cookies is one I have had for years. My mom used to make them at Christmas time, and my sisters still make them. I changed it a little, added chocolate chips, because I love that flavour combination.

I don’t cook very much; I let Colin do that. But I have always enjoyed baking. Frances – she’s my sweet friend from Tennessee who lives around the corner from me – agrees with me, I think, that cooking is enjoyable, but by the time you get done, you just aren’t interested in the food anymore. I never feel that way about baking. I love cookies. I don’t crave them, or scarf them down or have to have them. I just really like them. Sweet, individual, eat with your hand. Dunk in your coffee, if you like, or your milk. Spread cream in the middle of two cookies and press them together. Dump raisins or butterscotch chips or chocolate chips into the batter, and then, when reach to eat one, you never know which cookie will have the most. Oreos are good, but homemade cookies are the best.

When I was a kid, every Christmas my mom made roll-out Christmas sugar cookies. You know, the kind you use with cookie cutters. We had all kinds of Christmas shapes: bells, stars, diamonds (the ever-famous Christmas diamond?), reindeer, snowmen, trees, and the weirdest Santa you ever saw. The most thrilling cutter, though, was the gingerbread man. Mom didn’t make gingerbread, but she did roll and cut out one gingerbread-man shape for each kid. They were big, larger than my hand. For a kid, that was a whopper of a cookie. After mom baked all the cookies, she’d whip up homemade “green” and “red” frosting (the colours were really mint and pink) in two matching silver mixing bowls and we’d all sit around the dining room table to decorate. Red sprinkles, green sprinkles, multi-colored balls. We may have had to shop at Aldi’s when we were kids, but my parents definitely had their priorities straight.

It seems odd to think about, but I grew up before boxed cakes and canned icing. Every dessert I ate, with the exception of ice cream or the Brach’s Pic-A-Mix from my Granny’s bread box, was homemade. Mom made coffee cake and French pastry squares and chocolate or butterscotch brownies. On our birthdays, we could choose what kinds of layer cake we wanted — chocolate, “yellow”, or marble—and the frosting of our choice too. The cakes were always baked from scratch, the frosting made from milk, butter, powdered sugar, and cocoa powder. There was always a little frosting a left over, which Mom spread between graham crackers. She put them in the green or yellow mixing bowl, and left them in the fridge to harden. We’d have them for dessert another night, or for snacks later. Whenever Mom said we could.

Mom baked all kinds of cookies. At Christmas, we had to use old giant potato chip or pretzel tins to hold them all. Of course there were the rollout-sugar cookies, frosted and decorated with sprinkles. Next came the regular sugar cookies, topped with a mixture of red and green sprinkles to make them festive.

My favourite to make were Snickerdoodles, a variation of sugar cookies with cinnamon. Mom spooned the dough to us and we rolled it into perfectly round doughballs, which we tumbled through a bowl of cinnamon and sugar and dropped onto the cookie sheets. Mom also made peanut butter cookies, the thick batter speckled with peanuts from the chunky brand. We dropped the balls on to the cookie sheet, then had to pressed them down with the back of a fork dipped in flour, marking them with a tell-tale cross-hatch.

There was also chocolate chip cookie dough, a double batch. Mom always made most of the dough in advance and either stored it in plastic bags in the freezer or in our “downstairs refrigerator” that Dad had built cunningly into a wall between the family room and laundry room. The chocolate-chip cookie dough was always stored in the largest, silver mixing bowl, with a plate covering it, in the spare fridge. This meant one thing: easy access. By the time Mom got around to baking the cookies, there usually wasn’t much left to bake. When I reached puberty, I sometimes broke into the frozen chocolate chips before they even made it into the dough. But frustrated Mom never bought more chips, so she added walnuts, which were to her taste, but no one else’s.

The recipes either came out of the Betty Crocker cookbook, an old red binder recipe holder Mom had, with recipe cards pasted in, or a metal recipe tin that must have gotten slightly smushed in one move. I remember one recipe card was personalized: “From the Kitchen of Betty Gadient.” Mom talked about her friend Betty often throughout my childhood. I didn’t get to meet her until my wedding party last summer. I wished I had told her about that recipe.

Now I have my own recipe box. One year, for Christmas, my younger sister, Ann, copied all of mom’s recipes for me and gave it to me as a present. On top of the box she taped a recipe card that reads “Elizabeth’s Recipe’s.” I guess they are mine now.

My mom gets a hard time about being a lousy cook. She went through a Weight Watchers phase in the 80s when turkey was the nutrition buzzword. Suddenly, every meat but poultry seemed to disappear from our table. For a few months we ate through a cycle of turkey loaf, turkey pizza, turkey burgers, turkey hotdogs, turkey and spaghetti casserole. No children understood the Bubba’s shrimp litany from Forest Gump better than the Howard kids. But from the 20-plus years that her husband worked and she had children at home, my Mom made dinner almost every night. We didn’t have money to eat out. When we, occasionally, hopefully, asked Dad where we going to eat that night, he’d say, puffing up his chest with perfect timing, “Howard’s Kitchen!”

Dad cooked too. Every winter, he’d make a huge batch of faschnachts, a German potato pastry that his mom used to make when he was kid. We’d cut them open on cold, snowy mornings and eat them with butter and syrup. Dad would dunk them in his coffee. On the weekends, he might boil, then simmer, a pot of barbeque spareribs, or make chicken corn soup. Or, in the summer, on the long, lovely evenings, after mowing the lawn, he would grill up the hamburgers (or turkey burgers) Mom had made. Mom would boil the corn on the cob she bought at roadside stand. We shucked it just an hour before, sitting on the ground in our shorts, our legs splayed out, picking the tiny hairs off, onto a newspaper. And we might eat outside on the deck my Dad designed and built.

I take the cookies from the oven now. The first batch crumbles a little bit as I transfer them from the cookie sheet to the newspaper I pulled from the recycle bin. I pad out to the living and ask Colin for a minute. He pauses his game and comes to take a look.

“They look,” he snitches a piece, blowing on it quickly before he pops it in his mouth, “delicious.” He nods vigorously as he chews.

“Any ideas? They are breaking apart.” Colin has excellent instincts in the kitchen. His mom also made fantasic cakes from scratch.

“Try letting them cool down a couple minutes, before you take them from cookie sheet.” He kisses me and takes a half cookie, disappearing down the hall.

I nod, popping the rest of the broken chocolate peanut butter cookie into my mouth. He’s right. They are delicious.

I pull the second batch from the oven. It rests, breathes, on the stovetop, for a few minutes, while I write. The tennis players hoot and thwack and volley. The kitchen across the courtyard is empty now, but a black cat in the courtyard turns it head, squeezes it eyes half shut, sidles away along the brick wall. I write a little more and push my chair back.

The cookies slide off the ungreased sheet, perfect, mismatched, modified. All in one piece.

3 thoughts on “Baking on Saturday

  1. I love this…. It makes me realize how lucky we were as kids. As much grief as mom gets for her cooking, she obviously, instilled a love for baking in her daughters’.

  2. You knew my grandmother. That recipe “From the kitchen of Betty Gadient” well that is my grandmother. I like this.

  3. damn it…now i want cookies and it is only 9:40!! Thanks for the shout out. Feeling a bit famous.

    xo
    Frances

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