Monday, November 22, 2010

Home is Where the Chocolate Is

There are less than forty-eight hours left before the kids float in from college for the Thanksgiving weekend, and a few more hours after that before fifteen people sit down in the kitchen to devour a turkey and a half. On one of those intervening days between I'll be at work fifty miles away. On the other, I'll be a guest speaker at a law school class. I'm cutting it closer than usual to the margins when it comes to getting ready for company.

The house is still a disaster from (a) living with a puppy and (b) relying on a "piling system" for all the detritus from family medical disasters, funerals and estate management that have wound up on my doorstep for the past three years, and (c) having housework take a backseat to all the unforeseen things that required making hay while the sun was shining this past summer and fall. Painting the storm windows, for example. Painting the garage doors. Cutting overhanging branches with a saw on the walking path. Laying the brick patio. (That was a real doozy of an project.) Redoing part of the patio project two months later. Reorganizing the garage. Right now there are furballs galore to be vacuumed, and dishes to be washed, and a kitchen to be cleared to make elbow room for passing the dinner rolls.

And what did I do with this evening? I got home from work, took Lucky for a walk, and then, with my last shreds of concentration waning, shoved a chocolate cake in the oven. Not just any chocolate cake, but my famous sour cream chocolate cake, whose seductive aroma is still wafting through the house like the welcoming arms of Venus.

This is the cake whose first four ingredients--soft butter creamed with white granulated sugar, then beaten with vanilla and two eggs added separately, then whipped to an impossibly light mousse with the addition of three and a half melted squares of unsweetened chocolate--make the epitome of "finger food." I confess to overindulging at this stage to just one more taste...and then just one infinitum until the only way to counteract the amount disappearing from the bowl is to wing it with decreasing the proportions of the remaining ingredients and hope that, as Julia Child used to put it, "you're alone it the kitchen." So far nobody who ever digs into the cake, smothered with buttercream frosting, has complained about quality control.

The day before, the kitchen floor got washed, and some beds got made. But the piece de resistance was a nine by thirteen plan full of "mint squares," a desert that comes in three layers and incorporates a can of Hershey syrup, a package of chocolate chips, and nearly three sticks of butter. There are priorities in my family caretaking, and dessert ranks high.

In the grand scheme of things, my children know that while they may not always be able to count on clean laundry or a carpet free of pet hair or a piano bench not covered in books and magazines, there will be desserts if they stick around long enough. I am a mediocre cook if I stray from my few standards--pork normandy, homemade potato salad, turkey tetrazzini, chili made straight from the recipe on the back of the seasoning packet.

But oh, desserts are a different story entirely. Chocolate chip cheesecake. Chocolate amaretto cheesecake. Crustless fudge pie. Homemade frozen custard (okay, we haven't done that in a while but it's still part of the record!). Apple pies and apple crisp and banana muffins with streusel topping and cinnamon rolls with cream cheese icing. Chocolate chip cookies made with brown sugar and real butter. Blonde brownies studded with chocolate chips. My love of transforming various proportions of sugar and butter and eggs into delectable sweets takes me back to baking cakes with my aunt when I was a little girl and life was far simpler.

At Christmas we have traditionally gone overboard on the sugar express, although the last few years have seen the baking get scaled down to accommodate more pressing family matters. The kids took over the baking of the rolled out cookies a couple of Christmases ago. The holiday still stands alone in distinction for being the introduction of the "bloody axe" cookies.

Memories of earlier Christmases inundated by dozens of cookies in several varieties linger. Gingerbread, butterballs, tri-color bars, pressed butter cookies, homemade fudge. I still remember one year when I started my baking early. I made my first batch of toffee bars just after Thanksgiving, and dutifully put them in a storage container in the freezer. They were out of sight but not out of mind, unfortunately, and I developed the habit of sneaking two or three frozen bars out of the freezer as soon as the kids left for school, thawing them in the microwave, and enjoying them with a cup of tea. I ate the whole batch that way, then baked another when the school bus left me with an empty kitchen. However, just as I was pulling the replacement bars out of the oven, I got a call from school. My youngest son--only in kindergarten--was not feeling well. Could I please come to school and bring him home? I did, of course, thanking my lucky stars that he was not quite tall enough to see over the top of the stove to the evidence cooling on the back burner. I tucked him into bed, carved the toffee bars into squares, and put them all back in the freezer. It was a close call, and taught me to never think I was capable of ignoring chocolate in my freezer for that long again.

I confess to feeling chagrined some years ago when one of the children came home from grade school with the results of a holiday class assignment. What family traditions did we share at Christmas time? Little classmates shared experiences of making presents, crafting handmade ornaments, visiting relatives, singing Christmas carols, setting up a creche together, cutting down a live fir tree in the forest. Our contribution? "We make a LOT of Christmas cookies," my child wrote. I felt like I'd been handed a "participant" ribbon in the race to responsible motherhood. Surely I'd failed SOMEHOW in not inbuing my children with more meaningful, soul-nourishing holiday activities. At the very least, I could have taken my cues from Martha Stewart and come up with something more substantial, or convoluted, than a butterball rolled in powdered sugar.

As the years have rolled by, I've learned to forgive myself more for things that used to bother me a great deal. Some are deeper than others. The timing of a divorce, for one thing, compared to the fact that I may never again fit into my "skinny" jeans that I wore when I was twenty two (and which I still hold on to as a relic of my past).

And one of those censorious thoughts that have softened with age is that feeling of dismay at discovering that an abundance of cookies were the highlight of our family Christmas experience. There is a heck of a lot of bonding that goes on over a plate of cookies, with milk, and cocoa, and coffee on the side. A lot of laughter that ensues when a kitchen full of teenagers turns the sedate routine of rolling out cookies on the kitchen table into a flour fight. A rhythm and joy in sharing the act of pouring sugar and flour into a mixing bowl with a four year old to make something special for a birthday.

So when the tribe arrives for Thanksgiving again this year, they may not come home to the cleanest bathroom in town, or to a living room entirely free of clutter, or to cups that always match the saucers. But they know that when they walk in the front door, more often than not they'll catch the smell of something chocolate baking. And that's how they'll know they've come home.

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