Ten AM on a Saturday and I am the only one up. Sitting at the kitchen table, looking onto the backyard, where I have planted colorful flowers and grasses and trees, I am reading a great book sipping my second cup of black coffee, hot but not scalding, and dark and delicious. On the napkin next to the mug is a homemade chocolate chip cookie. This is nirvana; quiet, a good book, coffee and a cookie.
I started baking in grade school, and long before stress and pandemic baking became a thing, I was a baker. At first, I followed simple recipes and exalted in the triumph of creating sweets that people wanted to eat. Saucepan Brownies from my mother’s Simply Delicious cookbook were unsurprisingly made in a saucepan. The melted chocolate chip top covered with colored jimmies was what made them special.
Nothing tastes better than an apple straight off the tree, except an apple dessert you bake with the fresh apples. In college, I would disappear into a basement kitchen with a bag of apples and reappear with Julia Child’s upside-down Tarte Tatin. The tempo of coring, peeling and slicing apples, required concentration and alleviated the anxiety of mid-terms. Sharing the apple-y goodness with roommates helped us all breathe a little deeper as we enjoyed a well-deserved break.
Despite my kitchen being the size of a shoebox when I moved to New York City, I continued to bake. We had been dating a month when I made my husband The Silver Palate Cookbook’s Chocolate Cake. His birthday coincided with Super Bowl Weekend. We took the cake over to his parent’s apartment where we were watching the game and I met his opinionated French Great Aunt for the first time. She tasted the cake.
“My birthday is August 16th. When it comes, you can make me one.”
She and I were fast friends from that moment on.
I graduated to more complex recipes and gravitated towards certain bakers. There was comfort in the knowledge that if, you followed the obsessively exact recipes of baking greats Maida Heatter and Rose Levy Birnbaum you could create enviable sweet treats. These women explained how to correctly measure flour, that room temperature eggs mix more easily into a batter, and that there is difference between unsalted and salted butter.
“Mommy?!” The memory is strong of my 2½ year old twins yelling from behind the gate at the top of the stairs, waking from their afternoon nap.
“Did you bake bwiscotti?”
From Maida Heatter’s Brand-New Book of Great Cookies, her Chocolate Chip and Almond Biscotti were requested and served at many Levenson family functions. I don’t like cracking my teeth on hard biscotti so mine were a little different because I underbaked them.
With that little change, growing confidence and the explosion of all things food, I learned that I could change recipes. I could substitute chocolate chips for raisins. A simple change but momentous for me, since my mother, who taught me to cook and bake, adhered strictly to a recipe. There was no deviation in her book and the thought of making a switch was tantamount to sacrilege.
I continued to read recipes and blogs and paid attention to taste profiles and became more proficient. I even took some classes. I experimented and grew more confident.
Now even when I find it hard to think clearly or find the energy for other things; I bake. I approach the task with a calm certainty and a sense of accomplishment and comfort. I get lost in the rhythm and the smell and the creation. My family happily exclaims at the end of dinner as I serve them my latest version of the perfect chocolate chip cookie:
“Yum!” And I smile.
Current Favorite Chocolate Chip Cookies adapted from Melissa Clark, NY Times
- 10 Tablespoons (145 grams) Unsalted Butter, softened
- ½ cup (100 grams) Sugar
- ½ cup (100 grams) Light brown sugar
- 3 Tablespoons (45 grams) Dark brown sugar (Don’t worry too much about amounts of brown sugar as long as you use about ¾ of a cup.)
- 1 Large Egg, room temperature
- 1 Tablespoon Vanilla
- ¾ teaspoon Kosher salt
- ¾ teaspoon Baking powder
- ½ teaspoon Baking soda
- 1½ Cups (200 grams) All purpose Flour
- ½ cup (55 grams) Whole wheat flour
- 1¼ Cups Chocolate Chips
- 1 Cup Oats or Pecans
- Flaky salt for sprinkling
Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the egg, vanilla and salt. Beat again and scrape the bowl to bring together. Whisk the baking powder and the baking soda into the flour. Then beating on low combine with the butter/sugar mixture just until mixed in. Add oats, pecans and chocolate chips or feel free to substitute other enhancements like raisins or cherries or walnuts.
Scoop into balls and refrigerator for at least one hour. Place the chilled balls on a cookie sheet and sprinkle very lightly with flaky salt. Bake at 350°, 12-15 minutes until golden brown on the outside and your kitchen smells amazing. Dough can be frozen and baked directly from the freezer. Baking time may be a little longer.