I am not a dessert person. I can easily turn away from cupcakes and fruit crumbles, and I have no interest in bowls of Halloween candy or after-dinner scoops of ice cream. But when stress begins to chew on my brain, I find great comfort in the act of baking. There is something soothing about the ritual of gathering ingredients from the pantry and rummaging around in the kitchen drawer for the correct measuring spoons. The smell of melted butter mixed with brown sugar and vanilla instantly relaxes and unwinds my busy mind. Even though most of my baked goods are just passable–my pie crusts don’t flake and my fruit breads are always a little dry–I make a very good cookie. You might say cookies are my specialty. Throw a little oatmeal in the batter and I might even have one.
I credit my association with homemade cookies and comfort to my maternal grandmother. Every December we would arrive at Grandma’s doorstep in Manchester, Iowa for Christmas Break. After a quick hug, my siblings, cousins, and I would tear to the kitchen to investigate the large circular tins stacked on the counter. Grandma always made three types of cookies: molasses cookies that were small and round and rolled in sugar; paper-thin sugar cookies decorated with colored sprinkles but no frosting; and tiger cookies, which were a combination of crushed Frosted Flakes cereal and chocolate chips. There were also enormous Tupperware tubs of Chex Mix and piles of saffron biscuits, a traditional Welsh treat. We girl grandchildren would wail in outrage as our boy cousins consumed fistfuls of cookies at a time, but the cookie supply was endless at Grandma’s house. She never ran out, not once, even though the house was full to capacity with family.
My grandma died over fifteen years ago. As the main baker in the family, I have inherited her recipes. Her handwritten recipe cards, filled with her schoolroom cursive, help keep the details of who she was vivid in my mind: her ringing laugh, the bi-weekly trips downtown to the beauty salon to have Russell set her hair, the steady supply of Lifesavers that emerged from her purse during church. These memories fit neatly between the lists of ingredients and baking temperatures.
While I don’t have the patience to make rolled cookies, and I stubbornly refuse to allow pre-sweetened cereal into my house, I do make her molasses cookie recipe every Christmas season.* (See end of essay for recipe.) I send some to my aunt and uncle and my boy cousins, give some to our neighbors and to my girls’ teachers. I make sure my mom has a stash in her freezer as well. Even though I triple, sometimes quadruple the recipe, I always seem to come up short. Somehow I am lacking my grandmother’s gift of never running out.
But even though my cookie supply is not endless, at times it can be plentiful. Last fall, there was a lot going on in my life. One indication of this was that my counter teemed with baked goods. Much to my family’s delight, I experimented with a number of new cookie recipes. My favorite discovery was a dense, rich brownie made with black beans.* I toted these brownies all over town and made the recipients try to guess the “secret” ingredient. No one got it, but one creative participant guessed “breast milk.”
Although I found the black bean brownie recipe online by accident, the best place to find really good cookie recipes is in old church cookbooks, the kind cobbled together and printed as a fundraising effort for new Eucharist banners or to replace the worn out organ pipes that wheeze and hiss during the Benediction. Although most of my church cookbooks are from the midwest, my favorite recipe comes from a collection called People Cooking for People put together by Bethel Lutheran Church in Cupertino, California.
The original recipe is for raisin bars. A layer of cooked raisin filling between a crumbly oatmeal, butter, sugar, flour mixture. The raisin filling was too rich for my taste, and stuck to the bottom of the pan as it cooked so the cleanup required more labor than actually making the bars. During apple season, I substituted an Asian pear/applesauce mixture that I’d made from fruit gathered at a local orchard. On days I was feeling the high-pitched hum of anxiety chasing me, I also added a layer of quick and easy salt caramel sauce, the recipe torn from a magazine.* For me, a mouthful of this concoction, eaten straight from the pan with a fork (because I-am-only-going-to-have-one-bite) was pretty close to heaven. Immediately, the stress hum was chased away by a chorus of angels.
I know that “stress eating” is not the answer, but it is interesting to note that researchers have found that reaching for high fat and sugar-laden foods is actually our body’s biological response to help mitigate the deterioration caused by chronic stress. Long-term anxiety can deplete our energy. Eating food that is quickly metabolized, as most comfort food is, helps us refuel and restore our reserves so we are better able to hunt antelope or carry children on our backs for long distances while we gather nuts and berries. Of course, these finds are not an excuse to sample every flavor of Ben and Jerry’s in the ice cream section of the supermarket just in the name of stress relief. Scientists emphasize that comfort eating is an immediate, short-term response, and that turning off the body mechanics that keep us humming in the stress mode requires more healthy long-term solutions such as exercise, yoga, and meditation. But still, anxiety, worry, and stress all create a hollow feeling inside us that sometimes is most readily comforted with something warm, chewy, and sweet. One of the underlying objectives in many stress relieving techniques is to distract oneself from the stressful thoughts or repetitive worry cycle. What better way than to fully enjoy a mouthful of brownie sundae now and again.
I tend to bake on Friday afternoon, after the week has played itself out. Making a treat is a way to reward my family’s little accomplishments or sooth any painful defeats. What I bake depends on who needs it the most. If my nine-year-old had to plow through a lot of math homework, I bake her a panful of lemon bars. When her younger sister is feeling unsteady on her feet because she got lost in the schoolyard social banter, I mix up some oatmeal butterscotch cookies as she hangs over the counter and watches. My husband prefers plain butter cookies sprinkled with cinnamon sugar. Like my boy cousins, he eats them by the handful.
Lately, I have been baking up a storm, but not because I’m stressed. In a few days, our school is putting on a huge fundraiser. Five dollar tickets buy access to an all-you-can-eat dessert buffet. There will be homemade brownies, cupcakes, fruit breads, chocolate covered strawberries, ice cream floats, and every kind of cookie imaginable. There will also be live music and great raffle prizes, but those things pale in comparison to the orgy of sugar, butter, and chocolate. The last few years, attendance numbered around 300. We are hoping for a good turnout, and to raise enough money for new playground equipment.
But it isn’t all about fundraising. It was only a couple of weeks ago, as we worked on organizing our event, that a fire broke out in the small town fifteen miles south of here. Steady 35 mile per hour winds spread the flames quickly and volunteer fire fighters from towns up and down the valley arrived to battle the fire. The town was evacuated and the highway was closed. Smoke filled the sky. Before the end of the two-day struggle to get the fire under control, nineteen homes burned to the ground.
As I stand at my kitchen counter and mix batch after batch of cookie batter for our school fundraiser, I think of my grandmother and of people in the little towns throughout this valley. I open a cookbook compiled by a church group in Wisconsin where I have marked a recipe for almond squares.* I’ve been asked for this recipe more often than any other–the simple mixture of eggs, sugar, butter, flour, and almond extract deliciously pleasing. I decide to make four 13 by 9 inch pans hoping that it will be the endless supply I need for the event, and hoping to work a little of my grandma’s magic. The rich scent of almond fills my kitchen, and I consider how the sinking economy has left our little town gasping for air–the businesses that have failed, the families who are living on the edges of their resources. I stir the eggs, sugar, and melted butter quickly as I think of the firefighters who faced the heat of the recent fire in order to protect a community of friends and strangers. As I beat in the flour, I mourn with the people who lost all that was dear to them. The mobile home park that was destroyed. The old family ranch that had been here since the valley was first settled.
I pour the batter into the pans and set the timer. I slide the pans into the oven and think less about how much money we will raise for the playground and think more about the comfort of cookies. Just like my grandma, I bake with a full heart to welcome this community that I love through the doors of our school gym. I want those who go to bed worried, those who have lost, those who are barely hanging on, to have a mouthful of sweetness and distraction. It doesn’t feel like there is much I can do, but I can bake and share a bit of cookie-comfort.
I take out a clean bowl, flip open a cookbook to a new recipe, and begin mixing up another batch.
Grandma Hutchison’s Molasses Cookies
- 3/4 cup melted butter
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 1/4 cup molasses
- 1 egg
- 2 1/4 cup flour
- 2 teaspoons baking soda
- 1 teaspoon ginger
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon cloves
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
Mix together butter, sugar, molasses, and egg. Add dry ingredients. Mix well. Shape into small balls (1 1/2 inch) and roll in white sugar. Place on greased cookie sheets and bake at 375 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes.
Black Bean Brownies (adapted from black bean recipe in Baking with Agave Nectar)
- 4 ounces dark chocolate
- 1 cup unsalted butter
- 2 cups soft-cooked black beans, drained well (canned is fine)
- 1 cup walnuts, chopped
- 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
- ¼ cup (granulated) instant coffee
- ¼ teaspoon sea salt
- 4 large eggs
- 1½ cups light agave nectar or honey
Preheat the oven to 325°F. Grease an 11- by 18-inch (rimmed) baking pan well. Melt the chocolate and butter on low temperature. Stir with a spoon to melt the chocolate completely. Place the beans, 1/2 cup of the walnuts, the vanilla extract, and a couple of spoonfuls of the melted chocolate mixture into the bowl of a food processor. Blend about 2 minutes, or until smooth. The batter should be thick and the beans smooth. Add remaining ingredients and blend well.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until the brownies are set. Let cool in the pan completely before cutting into squares. (They will be soft until refrigerated.) Best if kept refrigerated.
Applesauce Caramel Heaven Bars
- 3/4 cup unsweetened applesauce
- salt caramel sauce (optional but recipe follows just in case)
- 1 1/2 cup brown sugar
- 2 cups rolled oats
- 2 cups flour
- 1 teaspoon soda
- 1 3/4 cups melted butter
Mix dry ingredients. Mix in melted butter until mixture is crumbly. Press half the mixture into the bottom of a 9 by 13 inch pan. Spread a layer of applesauce over oat mixture. Drizzle salt caramel sauce over the top of applesauce. Crumble the remaining oat mixture over the top evenly. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes in a 325 degree oven.
Salt Caramel Sauce
- 1/4 cup butter
- 1/4 cup brown sugar
- 1/4 cup white sugar
- 1/2 cup whipping cream
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
Melt butter in heavy saucepan over medium low heat. Stir in sugars. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Stir in whipping cream. Continue stirring and return to a boil. Boil two minutes (keep stirring!). Remove from heat and mix in salt.
- 4 eggs
- 2 cups of sugar
- 1 cup of melted butter
- 2 cups of flour
- 2 tablespoons of almond extract
- 1/2 cup of chopped almonds
Beat together eggs and sugar until lemon colored. Add butter, flour, and extract. Mix well. Spread into a greased 13 by 9 inch baking pan. Sprinkle with chopped almonds. Bake at 325 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.