My grandmother used to make chocolate chip cookies.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, but this was no ordinary grandmother and these were no ordinary cookies.
They were magical cookies. Or at least I thought so when I was 10.
These cookies seemed to march out of her kitchen at regular intervals throughout my childhood, oozing with chips and walnuts, the perfect texture and the most gorgeous color of golden. There were no “duds” whose dough was scraped sparingly from the bottom of the mixing bowl. Each cookie was uniformly as good as the one we devoured before it.
This might seem to be a lot of acclaim for a cookie, but I’ve never had another one as good since my grandmother passed away 20 years ago.
But not for lack of trying.
Over the years, my family members have been trying to recreate those cookies by adding or substituting ingredients from the original Toll House recipe. We’ve beaten the dough longer or softened the butter more or varied the baking time. We’ve interviewed other family members – under the threat of torture – to see if they could remember how she made those things.
And once in a while we came close.
I’ve even dared to call my family members from time to time to tell them that I’ve recreated grandma’s recipe only to be laughed out of the peanut gallery at the cookies’ unveiling. Over the years I suppose we gave up, figuring the recipe went with her to her grave.
And then, something interesting happened.
I read an article in The Post-Journal about a medium who claimed he could communicate with people from the other side. Author and Bemus Point native Geof Jowlett has written a book called “Recipes From Beyond” where he channeled, collected and published his deceased grandmothers’ recipes. He recently had a book signing at the Bemus Point Library.
How convenient, I thought.
Ever the resourceful one, I called him immediately to see if he could help me in my pursuit of the perfect cookie. Perhaps we could get my grandmother on the horn to see if she would finally relinquish the elusive recipe. Maybe it was possible to have her knowledge slide from the netherworld right into my mixing bowls.
He said he thought he could help.
On the appointed day I called Geof at his home in sunny California, and we began to chat. It didn’t take long for him to describe my grandmother: her flowered dresses and her aprons, her sweet little kitchen, her mixing bowls and her cookies. He seemed to convey her just as she was.
“Your grandmother says she was an intuitive cook,” Geof explained. “A little of this and a little of that.”
So there was no recipe?
“Well,” he said, “You need to let the dough sit on the counter for a while after you make it. Also, double sift the dry ingredients. You want to use real butter, and you want to really beat the dough.”
He sat quietly for a while on the telephone line.
“Your grandmother also says she varied the measurement between the white sugar and the brown sugars. She added more brown and less white.”
That’s when I realized there was no recipe.
There was no recipe because my grandmother’s cooking was a part of who she was. It can’t be recreated because it was uniquely her style – as individual as a snowflake.
My grandmother knew her oven like she knew her sons. Her food was a product of everything in her kitchen – from her wooden spoons to her mixing bowls. If I were to make her cookies, I’d have to be her, standing in the kitchen, baking in her oven and licking her spoons. Her cooking was a culmination of her life experiences and so everything that tumbled off of her baking sheet and into our hands was part of a unique process that only she could replicate.
A little of this and a little of that indeed.
Maybe one day my own grandchildren will be missing my cookies. I am going to leave my recipe, but I’ll add a note explaining that a little bit of who you are should go into every batch.
My grandmother’s recipe:
Assemble your ingredients in a small kitchen that smells of old apples and fresh bread. Wear a clean apron over your flowered house dress and apply lipstick before proceeding. Always have a few sticks of butter softening on the counter so at any given time you can create a little magic. Preheat the oven you’ve had since you were married that has never failed you and you know as well as you know your sons. Don’t measure the ingredients, but rely on 60 years of experience and two years at finishing school. Since you’ve just finished reading the latest issue of True Romance magazine, you might feel compelled to add more sugar – but add more brown sugar than white. Double sift the dry ingredients and add them to the wet. Beat the dough until your arm is tired, remembering to reserve energy for an afternoon of dusting and talking on the phone. Let the dough sit on the counter for 30 minutes while you watch the “Guiding Light.” Always make a test cookie, adding more flour or salt if needed. Store the cookies in an ancient blue tin adorned with yellow flowers and leave them in the same place on the counter – near the bread box – and within easy reach of seven pairs of hands.