Sunday, January 30, 2011

cookies from childhood, all grown up

Last June, I took a quick trip to Portland, Oregon. I stopped at a farmers' market and sampled sweet confections from this bakery. Their tagline goes, "artisan sweets for the soul." How could I resist?

One of the sweet treats I tried from the Two Tarts booth at the Portland farmers' market is fleur de sel chocolate chip cookies. There's something about chocolate and salt together that really hits the spot. Sweet and salty flavors, done just right. Toast with fruit preserves and Irish cheddar. Figs and gorgonzola. Fleur de sel caramels. It's that play between sweet and savory, a delicious contrast, each flavor bringing out the best in the other. 

Recently I started craving for fleur de sel chocolate chip cookies... and so the hunt for a recipe began. I used this recipe, but modified it by using fleur de sel instead of kosher salt. I also sprinkled the tops of the cookies with a touch more of fleur de sel right before baking.

But baking these cookies was more than a delight to the senses. It was a trip down memory lane, baking with my mother back home, when I was little. My first memory of being in the kitchen with my mother takes me back to a vivid picture of me standing on a chair next to my mom as she worked on cake batter on the countertop, with her big bowl and mixer, while I had my own kitchen play set, including a bowl, spoon, and apron. She even put some flour in my bowl for me to "mix", and I enthusiastically "baked" with her, making a mess in the process. But she didn't mind. Maybe she could foresee, back then, how much I would love to cook and bake as a teenager, then as an adult. Maybe she could envision me having so much fun baking and cooking with my nephews when we were on vacation.

Some years later, when I was old enough to actually handle real ingredients (7 or 8 maybe?), I remember making chocolate chip cookies with my mom and older brothers. Oh, what a big deal that was for us! Each of us had a role in the baking process. Later, when I was older, my mom told me how our family was on a tight budget then, with my three brothers and I going to private school and engaging in sports or other hobbies. But I never felt it, never felt deprived. I remember now, we had to ration the Hershey's chocolate bar, back then a precious commodity for us. Hershey's was a huge deal then! So we made the cookie dough separate from the chocolate. My mom gave us instructions to only put two pieces of chopped chocolate on each cookie, to make the chocolate bar go a long way. One of my brothers, of course, tried to sneak in a third or fourth piece of chopped chocolate on a few cookies, trying to remember where those "extra special" cookies were on the baking sheet for him to eat later.

Then I remember, years later, when we first tried US-made chocolate chip cookies. I remember looking at the cookies disbelievingly, because each cookie was studded with chocolate chips. But even as I look back to our childhood memories of chocolate chip cookies, with only two small pieces of chocolate on each one, it didn't matter. What mattered was the experience we had -- learning to take turns, learning to take on roles, learning to help out and cooperate, and learning about the joys of making something from scratch. And having fun, without gadgets and video games (which we never had, growing up, but I didn't mind). It goes to show how valuable the experience is. The experience of family, of being together. What I learned from these experiences back then are my anchors as an adult. And no matter how old I get or how far away I move from home, remembering these moments ground me in what I think is essential in life: nurturing relationships. Nourishing each other, not just through food made with love, but nourishing each other by giving undivided attention, listening, and exercising patience and compassion. The actions I experienced as a receiver, as a child, have become my anchors. Anchors which I hope to pass on to my children in the future. And my children's children.

Now, I look back with fondness as I made these "grown-up" chocolate chip cookies. It's amazing how the simple act of mixing butter, sugar, eggs, flour, and chocolate makes me think about my roots.

And it's funny how, as an adult, I never spent for cable TV service, but I will choose to make a splurge of $10 for something as "basic" as salt. Well, not just any salt, but fleur de sel. Anyway, clearly I know my priorities. :)

Here's what I do: since I don't bake the cookies all in one sitting, I freeze the rest of the dough. But before I freeze them, I mold them using a small cookie scoop for easy thawing later.

So here are my childhood cookies, all grown-up: I do allow the indulgence of mixing in the chocolate chips with the cookie dough. And the fleur de sel adds a grown-up touch.  But more than that, I find joy in thinking that I can also nourish someone else's soul. Even if it's just through chocolate or cookies. But it's something made with love, attention, and fond memories of the moments that really matter.


A few notes...

Below are some recipes to try:
David Lebovitz' Salted Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies
Jacques Torres' Chocolate Chip Cookies, here and here

Here is one of the best articles I've read about chocolate chip cookies. This is serious stuff, folks. And it's why I let chocolate chip cookie dough rest in the refrigerator for 2 whole days before baking.

I prefer to use a good chocolate bar (dark, 70% cocoa), chopped up - rather than chocolate chips, for two reasons. First, I think the quality of the chocolate is better (yes I know I'm a chocolate snob). Second, I like how chopped up chocolate is rough around the edges. All the pieces (big and small) and the tiny bits - the chocolate dust that results from chopping - become more distributed throughout the dough. The result? You're ensured to have a dose of chocolate in every bite.

I told you this was serious business.

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Sharon Tessandori said...

I love this post Mia. Your words are vivid and they paint a beautiful picture in my mind. You are so is the experiences that make life so rich, so satisfying. Again I see myself in your post as you write about the importance of nourishing relationships. I love that. :)

Mia said...

Thank you Sharon...It's also very fulfilling to hear that my words/thoughts resonate with someone else. I'd like to think that there is this one thread that connects us all...

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