#72 It's Amazing What Baking Can Do
I’m getting lots of calls and texts asking how I'm coping with the loss of Delilah, my Chief of Staff and faithful canine companion of 17 years. The truth is that I’m coping the same as I’ve been all throughout the flaming asteroid heading toward earth that is 2020: ice cream, tv, and bouts of undemanding productivity like rearranging the canned goods in my cabinets and perfecting my at-home manicure technique.
My tendency of managing grief and anxiety with isolation and mindless busywork isn’t new — it’s just that before I was expected to show up most days to a job where eating directly from a pint of Ben & Jerry’s and blasting Netflix was frowned upon. And now I have ALL THE TIME IN THE WORLD. Isn't this what I wanted?
I’m trying to find better ways of coping — reaching out to friends and family more and to accepting help and offers to talk or have a socially distanced meet up. Plus, I’m writing again (huzzah!).
It's called self care, ok?
But there’s still a lot of tv. Right now I’m watching the Great British Baking Show . It’s completely engrossing but doesn’t give me the icky feeling that I get from watching most reality show competitions. There’s no histrionics, no alliances or sabotage, and no corny packages showing us why Alastair really, really needs to win this.
The closest thing to a meltdown was the blink-and-you-missed-it raised eyebrow from judge and baking elder stateswoman Mary Berry when a contestant told her he was going to use store-bought fondant during cake week!*
So, no drama. Just measuring, kneading, “sugar work” and cuppa after cuppa being sipped while the dough proves.
It reminds me of my grandmother Alice, my father’s mother, who we called Nana. By all accounts, Alice was a formidable woman, always perfectly dressed and coiffed as if she was on her way to Easter mass even if she was at the beach or running the kitchen at my grandfather’s bar. She was notoriously strict with children and bar patrons. If an order for a hamburger came in on a Friday, she would check to see who it was for. And if she recognized the customer as a fellow Catholic, she’d wordlessly send out a tuna sandwich instead, all but daring the recipient to complain. They never did.
"Get dafuq outta here with your pagan hamburger."
My memories of Nana were in her home kitchen making chocolate chip cookies. They were made from the recipe on the back of the famous yellow bag but she added something — some special, secret ingredient that made them taste like they were blessed by the Pope. Nana ran a tight ship in that kitchen, but sometimes she let me assist her. If I was very careful and used both hands, I could just manage to hold the flour sifter. I could feel and hear the clack-clack-clack of the metal handle as I squeezed it sending fine flour dust up my nose. Nana always gave me a little bit of the finished dough so I could make my own cookies. While she rolled hers with near military precision, I squished the dough in my chubby little fist until it oozed between my fingers. I’d place my monster-shaped creation on the baking sheet next to her neat little soldiers and wait. My attempts never really turned out, but she always let me try. Once she just-missed stopping me from shoving a big spoonful of what I thought was vanilla icing into my mouth. It was Crisco. She gave me a glass of water and said, “Well, you’ll never do that again.”
"Dear, we don't hug."
Nana died when I was in third grade, taking her secret recipe with her. My sisters and I tried to replicate her recipe over the years (sift the flour? Almond extract? Dark brown sugar?) but while our attempts were delicious, they weren’t like Nana’s.
A few years ago I contacted a medium hoping to hear from my mom and dad. I wrote a little about that here. Towards the end of the session, the medium told me my grandmothers were there. I saw my chance. Ask her about the cookies!
And just like that, the medium revealed several tweaks to the recipe. I told my family and, like the good sugar junkies we are, we raced to our kitchens to test the recipe. After 40 years we finally had Nana’s cookies: golden brown and slightly crisp, but with a nice, soft bite.
My sister, Patti, said, “Next time ask her about the coleslaw.”**
*Main exception was a Baked Alaska challenge where one contestant petulantly tossed his ruined creation “right into the bin” then immediately apologized and shook everyone’s hands. I texted this to Joanna, another GBBS superfan, who wrote back “Oh, yes. That one is notorious.”
** EDITED. I originally typed "...ask her about the potato salad" and Patti reminded me that it was coleslaw ("that's not how it happened..."). I told her she was right... THIS time.