From Generation to Generation
When I was a teenager I taught myself to bake. Actually, my mother taught me the basics (both by the example of watching her and during occasional joint projects) but then I went off on my own, so to speak. Every now and then I would feel like making something, usually a cake or some cookies. The most ambitious thing I ever tried was croissants, which actually came out quite nicely. (It's difficult for anything with that much butter to taste bad.) I never had any horrible catastrophes, though of course some things were better than others as I learned and experimented: what if I used this instead of that? More of this or not quite as much of that?
In the mornings, my mother would come downstairs to be confronted with the results of my experimentation: cake, or cookies, or whatever. It wasn't at all fair to her (or her diet) but she always expressed praise, and occasionally offered a constructive critique. I remember one cake was a little heavier-textured than it should have been, and I realized it was because the recipe had called for heavy cream -- which we didn't have -- so I had substituted milk. Through this trial and error process, I learned the finer points of the relationship between ingredients and results on things like texture and crumb, and in the fullness of time I would say I have become quite an accomplished baker.
Two nights ago my younger son said, "I feel like making something." So he pored through my cookbooks, settling on one called 1001 Cookie Recipes (disclosure: we have discovered more than one duplicated recipe going by different titles, so we have agreed that we were cheated) and finally selecting a recipe. Unfortunately we didn't have vegetable shortening, so he asked what he could use instead. The answer was butter, but the only butter we had was frozen. He took out a couple of sticks and put them on this nifty metal quick-thawing thingie we have, but it still wasn't quite the right temperature when he started to cream the butter. He managed, though. (That was always the hardest part for me too: softening up the butter when deciding to bake at the last minute and all we had was frozen. It's hard to get the balance just right between softening and melting when using the microwave, and patience was never one of my virtues, at least when baking.)
He checked with me from time to time about the texture, which was as good as possible when starting with butter that was a little too hard, but the end result was fabulous. The recipe he had chosen was essentially a Toll House dough but with only brown sugar instead of mixed white brown, and he had substituted chocolate chips for walnuts (which we had, but he liked the chocolate chips better.) He underbaked them slightly, just the way I (and he, obviously) like them: gooey, molasses-y flavored dough with bits of hot melting chocolate just waiting to drip down onto your shirt. He brought me one, along with a glass of milk, as I sat working on my NaNoWriMo novel. Heaven!
Yesterday afternoon he announced that he was making more, to bring in to his German and English classes' pre-Thanksgiving parties. We took the butter out of the freezer right away, so that by the time he was ready to start, it was too. He commented how much easier it was to cream the butter and sugar together, and I just smiled to myself. This time he used both chocolate chips and M&Ms.
This morning I came downstairs to several dozen cookies, beautifully arrayed on cooling racks and carefully protected from marauding felines (paper towels work just fine to keep the cats away.) It wasn't at all fair to me (or my diet) but I smiled and thought of my mother.