Flour, Sugar & The Pursuit of Good News

Yoga pants that haven’t seen yoga in a year too long, a messy bun that means business, some serious gangster rap and a tiny kitchen. The oven is preheating, there are slightly sticky butter wrappers scattered across our chipped tile counter, pads of butter melting into little pools and an overflowing measuring cup of chocolate chips balanced a bit too close to the edge to rule out a trip to the emergency vet. My hands are dusted with enough flour to make Lebron James’ chalk toss look like a mere smattering and somehow, I already have a streak of melted dark chocolate across my face. The heat from the churning oven floats throughout all 900 square feet of our little home, but soon enough the smell of actual heaven baking will make these amazonian temperatures worth it. Good vanilla (sup, Ina) fills the warm little kitchen with a luxuriously smooth aroma. A sauce pan boils with soon-to-be browned butter, two whisks are tangled atop each other on an ancient yet beloved oven mitt. A scoop of soft brown sugar here, a heaping cup of flour, and the whirring of my newfound soulmate in the form of a copper Kitchen-aid. I’m blissed out and bobbing along to the new Jay Z album, hopping over one dog and cooing at another while rustling in my now over packed utensil drawer – looking for that elusive ice cream scooper that I now rely on so heavily…I wonder for a split second if Rachel Roy is as sorry as she should be, because Jay certainly seems to be…there it is. My scooper. I take two steps to the fridge, jostling 80 pounds of Labrador in the process. Sweet Toby. He gives me that patented Labrador look as if to say that his entire life has been a series of me jumping over him to reach for the oven, and I blow him a kiss that he frankly doesn’t quite want because he loves my husband more.

My hands reach blindly for what I know I will find without question – a perfect chilled glass bowl of creamy, toffee-colored cookie dough. I poise over the bowl with my trusty scoop in hand, eyeing my golden cookie sheets. I guess technically they can be used for things other than baking up pillows of goodness – I think back to the last time I used them to roast of sheet of perfectly crisp broccoli or garlicky asparagus and silently promise to eat more vegetables tomorrow. Pandora has switched it up on me, something a Jason Derulo song snuck onto my purely rap playlist and I find myself singing along to a song I would’ve sworn I didn’t know as I scoop. I’m testing two recipes against each other – one that is tugging at my instant-gratification-loving heartstrings with zero chilling time needed and enough melted butter to make Paula Dean smile, the other has been taunting me from the chilly fridge for 48 long hours but kept me under it’s spell with the promise of rich, toffee notes. I release the catch of the scooper, moving with the speed of a fairly clumsy but well seasoned baker. I step back and admire my progress. Two sheets are full with rows of thick, round, fat, chunky, gorgeous scoops of glistening dough – I sprinkle a few flecks of sea salt on the top and say a prayer to the baking gods that these bake off into the pure visions of golden, puffy pillows. You know the type. I’m talking about those soft-yet-firm chocolate chip angels that you can bite into without worry of a cakey explosion, the chewy, buttery, thick type with ribbons of warm chocolatey-goodness and a hint of salt to finish off that velvety, rich toffee taste. I half scream half ask at my Alexa to set a timer, and she asks me if I’d like to hear the news. God no, please I think, that’s why I’m baking in the first place. No news. No news. No news. It’s all bad news lately, isn’t it? I mean, not to sound all dooms day on you, but it’s been a season of natural disasters, nation wide heartbreak, and deep, dark, no good, bad news. So thanks but no thanks Alexa, I’ll pass.

I brush back an unruly strand of hair that’s done it’s best to break fear of my business bun and lick the corner of my lips – surprised and yet not at all surprised to find a few flakes of cane sugar. I turn my attention back to the deep bowl of my Kitchen-aid, dragging up the last gorgeous trace of remaining dough. I have just enough left to bake a mini tray – something that I weirdly have, thanks to the incredible women who showered me with endless baking tools at my bridal shower. I slide this sheet into the cranking oven and exhale, leaning against our sink as I watch that dough rise beautifully. It’s still summer here, though in California is it even not, so turning my oven on is a bit misogynistic and yet somehow the heat of the oven meeting with the tepid evening air feels comforting on a night like tonight. Candles are strewn throughout our space, flickering and casting shadows as I dance across the kitchen floor. This is my ritual. My sacred time. My clock out. My time out. My zen moment. I’m baking. Something that started as a way to put my wedding presents to work has turned into almost a religious experience for me, and for my anxious mind. Flour, butter, sugar and vanilla have given way to more than just cookies, they’ve been a reprieve. Because lately, that bad news has been everywhere. I don’t think that there is necessarily any more bad news to go around today than say, fifteen years ago..I just think that our world is at it’s peak online presence. Social media is no longer an outlet or escape, it’s a way for more bad news to be shared – 140 characters is all it takes to churn your stomach and fill your mind with worry. With so much heartbreak across the world, it’s hard to know how anyone can help. So, I bake.

Our neighbor and his wife have been struggling. She’s seven months pregnant and has spent the last three weeks in the hospital with complications – hard for anyone, but impossible seeming for a young family with a two year old, a puppy, and a fairly small space to call home. We’ve heard the usually happy toddler wail for hours on end and the frazzled father is doing his best to keep up with his new role of stay at home parent. The dog is barking and the little boy is sobbing. I’ve turned my attention to them. I’d offered to help walk the dog, to hold the toddler, to play with him while the dad got a minute to think, to shower, to maybe even nap. He’d graciously thanked me and said he knew how hard we work during the day, he didn’t want to impose. I let a week ago. He didn’t take me up on it. I brought over a dish of homemade enchiladas and bunches of bananas – the little boy’s favorite and something hearty enough to sustain the dad for at least a few days. The gratitude in the frantic father’s eyes was enough to make me cry. He couldn’t believe someone would take the time to help them out. He returned the dish the very next day, proudly saying he hand washed it because he wasn’t sure it could go in the dishwasher. Cue heart shattering. He said he’d eaten them for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I hadn’t even considered that as an option, and mentally vowed to include a breakfast item next time. They’ve got a baker’s dozen settling on my cooling rack with their name’s on it, a treat that I know isn’t life changing but it’s night changing. Night changing is good, for me. It’s a smile, a moment of excitement, a mouthful of warm, gooey goodness and a full belly. And okay, a little sugar rush.

When I first started baking, I simply baked too many cookies to consume in a two person household. My poor husband even tapped out – stating that while they were truly, promise, pink swear the best cookies he’d had, he couldn’t possibly hope to fit into his pants and eat anymore. I suggested the man version of leggings but decided that it was a fair statement – it was time to pimp these cookies out. So pimp, I did. But, never one to do anything half way – I ordered baker’s boxes printed with pale pink peonies, and string. I stuffed each box to the brim with golden, glorious cookies and left them on a friend’s doorstep, proudly positioned them in a work break room, and handed them by the armfuls to neighbors. I baked for my beloved Soul Cycle studio and my hard working doctor’s office. I baked for my always cheerful mailman and for my usually grumpy neighbor across the way. I baked, and bake, and baked.  The response was a natural high, for me. Their gratitude, joy, excitement, delight, and then total dear-God-bake-me-more insistence was all I needed to keep baking. Bake, and bake, and bake. Pretty soon, my girlfriends were calling me the cookie monster and my coworkers were texting me randomly to just ‘check in, oh and by the way, are you bringing any cookies tomorrow?’. I loved it. I realized that I’d unintentionally taken on a thought that my Mom – via her own father – had always preached to me. The idea that to best change the world, you must first take care of your own little world. No, that’s not to say that you should ignore what is happening and only worry about those fortunate enough to live near you. That’s not it, at all. It’s the idea that our best work starts at home. Tend to your family, to your neighbors, to those who pass by and to yourself with kindness, grace and a helping hand. No, you will not change the world at once. But sometimes, the greatest changes are made by a thousand smaller acts. And sometimes, simply doing something good shines light and bright in the ugly face of bad.

I couldn’t do anything about the current state of the world. I’d done what I’d thought was right – I’d voted, I’d spoken up, I’d spoken out, I’d promoted, I’d kept an open mind and yet still, was plagued with horrific images of tragedy, racism, ruin, and heartbreak. I couldn’t change the current hardships of loved ones, the fear of the nation, or the state of the world. No, I couldn’t do that. But what I could do – can do – is take care of those around me in hopes that someday, one day, they are able to take care of someone else who needs it, too. No, cookies aren’t a life raft, they aren’t a way out, they aren’t an answer to the thousands of questions of why. They’re simply cookies. But when given with a warm heart as a gesture of support, a glimmer of joy in an otherwise hard time, or even with a simple “Hey, make it a great week” I’ve found that cookies really are a catalyst for something really, really good.

My neighbor shared a few of her batch (something that was challenging for her to do, her husband admitted) with her favorite nurse who had worked tirelessly to take care of her during her hospital stay. She said she wanted something to show her appreciation to the woman who had been by her side – a woman who a few weeks before had been a stranger, but now held her hand and stood guard at her bedside. My neighbor reported that the nurse was now begging for the recipe and swearing that those cookies had made her whole shift – if not week. To think that those cookies put a smile on her face while she took care of dozens of other people that day fills my little heart with pride. No, I’m not changing the world. I’m baking cookies. But hey, it’s a start.