A year ago, my then six-year-old daughter Bean approached us with a proposal: She wanted to make invention foods. Not as a one-time thing, but as her new activity, the way her brother plays the clarinet. She wanted supplies and time and to be taken seriously. I smiled a mommy smile, the same one that gets trotted out for moshs of pinecones and mud or a beautiful drawing that may or not be a brown cloud if you tilt it the right way.
“Sure,” I said.
She requested flour and sugar, eggs, and lots of chocolate.
“I’m going to bake,” she said.
“If you’re going to bake, maybe you should follow a recipe,” I said. “It’s about chemistry.”
“No way,” she said. “I don’t like to follow recipes.”
Karma loves a good prank.
Bean is creative in a let’s-spin-in-circles-and-wear-eight-scarves-on-our-heads-while-practicing-judo-kicks-and-dancing-to-Jay-Z kind of way. Had her twin sister asked to bake, not only would we have a recipe, but there probably would have been a scale and protractor involved, as well as research into any case law regarding proper conduct in the kitchen. Rae has never met a rule she didn’t like. When we go to the grocery store, she critiques my shopping lists for lack of organization and frowns upon off-list purchases.
“What’s the point of having a list if you are going to shop like this?” she said to me on our last trip, right before she spent five minutes reorganizing the dish soap display.
But Rae had no interested in baking. It was Bean.
Bean is, um, less obsessed with order. She’s likely to take your shopping list, flip it to the back and color you a wild picture, and then drop the paper on the ground because she just realized that she needs to demonstrate her favorite yoga pose, after which she will help you come up with a great plan for dinner which you will not follow. But you will have lots of fun talking about it, and the results will be unexpected but good anyway. And if, somewhere in the middle of all this, you play Michael Jackson, she will dance, anytime, anywhere. Of all my children, she is the most like me. And this made me fear for her baking ambitions among other things.
“No recipe at all?” I asked.
“Nope,” she said. “You know me, I like to go with the flow.”
“Sounds great,” I said. Nodded with something that I hoped looked like enthusiasm.
I’m not a big advocate of truth in parenting. It might have been best to discourage her, suggest something I thought played to her strengths -- belly dancing classes perhaps. But some of the things I do best in life are the very things people were honest enough to tell me to quit. (Not my parents thankfully). But I am quite familiar with the phrases “You’re hopeless” and “Don’t ever try this again” and “I see no future for you.”
So even though I am a failed baker many times over. And even though Bean has a freewheeling style that reminds me of everything I’ve ever done wrong in my ovenly pursuits, I held my tongue.
We hope that our children will be better than us. Take a familiar set of strengths and bumbles and mix them in a new way. Avoid our mistakes. Or not suffer as much from them. How much worse could it get anyway?
Baking and I have a long and tortured history.
Once every five years or so, I get amnesia and am overcome with the urge to bring crumbs into the world. It seems to me in these moments -- and the thought always occurs with a sense of fresh insight unburdened by the evidence of history and ruined pans -- that if I could bake, make wonder out of warm bits of flour, butter and sugar, I would find some deep and longed for answer, some kind of heretofore elusive peace.
(I’ve never been clear what the question is, only that the answer requires a rolling pin and yeast.)
At 19, I set my ambitions on bread. I had just moved in with my boyfriend. And in some fit of sepia domesticity, I had started wearing an apron when I cooked. Bread seemed like the next logical step. Luckily my boyfriend had an unstoppable metabolism, a gut of steel, and sturdy teeth. He dutifully plowed his way through the bricks that came out of my oven, slathered the rocky nuggets with butter, picked his way around the black edges and soupy middles, and tried to smile.
I gave up eventually and he married me anyway.
My no-baking resolve lasted until motherhood, when I was again struck. There is something about traditional woman turf that makes me want to bolster my dubious female credentials. Even though my intellect leans toward feminism, my instincts push me toward the oven every time.
This time it was pie, and the results were so bad even my husband had to beg off eating my triangular wiggles of berry-colored cornstarch. Finally I settled on cobblers because they are forgiving the way that cooking is forgiving. A cobbler can withstand heavy doses of spontaneity and inspiration and a stubborn aversion to recipes. My strengths and weaknesses in the kitchen.
Cobblers, I suggested to Bean. How about cobblers….
My daughter had no interest in cobblers or any of my other “baking for people who suck at this” ideas. She wanted to bake cookies. Without any direction. And with lots of chocolate.
And the first few results were what you might imagine would happen if you handed a six-year-old a big bowl and let her pull what she wanted from the baking cabinet.
My husband’s ability to choke down anything was pressed into action again as the march of brownish lumps emerged from the oven once a week or so.
But then something strange happened. Unlike me, who can make the same mistake over and over again without an sense of evolution or even memory, my daughter began to have opinions about things. She was not, as I thought, merely dumping things into a pan.
“I’m not into baking soda,” she told me one day. “Baking power is better.”
As a treat, I brought her some super fancy cocoa powder. She tried it a few times.
“Baker’s chocolate is better,” she said.
She tried more flour and less flour. Salt, no salt, and way, way too much salt. Eggs, no eggs. The only thing that stayed consistent was chocolate. My daughter does not bake without chocolate. She is one of those people.
And here’s the thing. The brown lumps started to get better. After four or five months her brother and sister were hovering around the oven to see what their sister might be inventing now.
And after about eight months, I found myself lurking to see what she might bring forth.
“Are you going to put my cookies up on Celinabean?” she asked me.
“When they are good enough,” I said. “And when you have a recipe.”
Bean went into chocolate super drive.
The results got chewier, the chocolate flavor more intense, the crumb less cakey. They had long since surpassed any cookie I have ever been able to produce, but that wasn’t saying much. Pretty soon, they were better than any cookie I could buy locally. A year in, we started to pass her cookies out to guests. And recently, a plate of them went to nourish a bunch of reporters at the Capitol.
She and her father worked out a recipe, and I’ve tested it several times. With this recipe, even I can reliably produce these beauties.
They are like the love child between a fudge brownie and the best chocolate chip cookie you’ve ever had. They are delicious and they are also original. I’ve never had a cookie like them. The chocolate comes in waves. But the best part is the texture. The outside has a brownie crackle while the inside is chewy enough to let the fudgy flavor spread and linger. They need to settle for at least 10 minutes after coming out of the oven. Wait a day, and they are even better -- and chewier -- if you can make them last that long. Come to think of it, they would make them the perfect care-package cookies.
We recently tried out the brownie recipe on the back of the King Arthur’s flour bag. It promised the best ever fudge brownies.
“I’ll bet they won’t be as good as my cookies,” she said.
They weren’t. Not even close.
She is my daughter. And she’s not. And for both of these things, I am profoundly thankful.
1 stick butter
3 cubes baker's chocolate
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cup chocolate chips (semi-sweet dark chocolate if possible)
preheat oven to 370 degrees
Melt together the butter and the baker's chocolate over low heat.
Put the mixture in a large mixing bowl and add the sugar, brown sugar, eggs and vanilla. Mix until smooth. If using a beater, use a slow setting so it doesn't get too much air.
Mix the flour with the salt and baking powder and then add the dry ingredients to the mixing bowl. Mix until completely blended.
Add the chips and mix until they are evenly distributed.
If the batter seems a little wet, let it sit for two or three minutes.
Bake on an ungreased cookie sheet for 9 minutes at 370 degrees.
Remove from the oven and allow to cool for at least 10 minutes.
These cookies taste even better the second day.
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