This is a Holiday of Memories for me. There are no presents, no decorations, no tree with all the trimmings. There are just memories. Some are real, and some I have to concoct on my own to sooth my ravaged soul.
Two men in my life meant the world to me as I was growing up. They were my rocks. My shelters. My heroes. Of course, the first was my daddy. The second was my granddaddy. I’ve spent the last couple of weeks reliving my daddy’s funeral, and unbeknownst to me, memories of my granddaddy have begun filtering in. He passed away the day after Christmas, 2003.
Granddaddy was THE Baker of the family, so it’s only natural to think of him now, as I pull out the ingredients to make my favorite chocolate chip cookies. There are so many things I wish I had asked him while he lived, but of course, I never did ask. Hence, my concocted memories. Remember the story of my first batch of cookies? I can just imagine granddaddy’s response to them…
“Well, the first thing you have to do is make sure your shortening is fresh. So they don't taste rancid.” Naturally, he would have given me a little more ribbing for those disgusting cookies. He would have told me that even though the recipe said to use butter, I should’ve used shortening and butter – half and half. Of course, in my memory, I would have asked him why. He would’ve explained that butter will make your cookies flat and crispy, but the shortening won't melt as fast so the cookies will be chewier.
He would have had me to start with fats and sugars: shortening, butter, white sugar, and brown sugar. Then mix them at high speed for at least two or three minutes, so the batter is really creamy instead of grainy, which I, of course, neglected to do.
Next, he would have told me to add all the eggs and vanilla and to beat the batter for about three to five minutes. “You could add the eggs one at a time, which will do wonders for a cake, but that much air isn’t necessary for cookies.” Then he would have told me that I could have substituted any flavoring for the vanilla that I wanted and even added a little extra and they’d still taste good.
Then he would have explained the differences in baking soda and baking powder as he measured out the baking soda for the recipe. He would have told me that while they both created carbon-dioxide bubbles in the batter, baking soda will not do so until it’s heated. Baking powder, on the other hand, will begin rising as soon as it gets wet. He’d go on to tell me that most recipes have you fold the flour in because now you have to be gentle with the batter. Once again, I’d ask him why. “Because the flour will lose its stretchiness. Here, you try folding the batter.” I would’ve taken the bowl and spoon from him and started stirring. “No, don’t stir it! I said be gentle!” He would have taken the bowl away from me and said, “It’s like you’re folding a wash rag – one half at a time, see?” Nodding my head, I would have taken the bowl back and gently picked up one side of the batter and laid it on top of the other. “Now, go turn that oven on to 325°.” I would have questioned him because the recipe said 375°. “I know that. Just do what I told you. Those fools who wrote that recipe must like their cookies burnt. I don’t. Drop that temperature, especially in an electric oven, and you’ll have perfectly browned cookies that are still chewy in the middle.”
Then he would’ve had me add the chocolate chips and nuts while he pulled out a flat 13” round baking stone. He would have bragged about his stone, saying how it’s the best thing to bake your cookies on instead of a metal cookie sheet. And again, I would’ve had to ask why. “Because – the stone will absorb the fat from the cookies, giving them a nice crispy bottom, that’s why. Metal cookie sheets let the fat float around under the cookies, making them soggy. This is the best thing out there for all baked goods. Except for my cakes... Don’t want a crispy bottom on my cakes.”
Naturally, his cookies would’ve been perfect. I never did go and ask him to teach me how to bake. And now that the baking torch has passed to me, I really wish I had, because concocted memories only tell you what you already know. I used to think there were mysterious things you had to do in order to bake up something really delicious. But over the last eighteen years, I’ve learned that it’s not so mysterious. It’s about knowing your batter. It’s seeing its consistency and feeling its texture. It’s about listening to it; hearing it tell you what it needs. This is what my granddaddy knew, and, if I had taken the time, what I could‘ve known from the beginning.