Call me Ishmael, outward bound seeking the White Whale with Queequeg and Ahab.
An exotic dream. For this tale, better call me Bozo.
My first cook book probably looked like anyone over fifty would imagine, more elementary school primer than library quality. Neutral blocks of color with dark backgrounds and basic concepts of kitchen and appliances. Primitive illustrations with caricatures of mid-20th century housewives in gingham aprons and flouncy skirts, bouffants and pearls surrounded by an immaculate kitchen and empty oven, a bake pan and canisters of flour and sugar beside flats of butter. A measuring cup and spoons laying on the counter to the side. The cover of the cookbook was flimsy cardboard with a foil binding, the kind of book only one in a million buyers might find worthy of inspection much less purchase in a consignment shop where it mingled with more assorted useless items than anything of true collectible value.
My child’s cookbook contained recipes simple enough for anyone who had never cooked or baked from a cookbook, including me, an eight year old boy. At least that was the theory.
The recipe for brownies in the old cookbook was one that my mother had used. I am sure she had better options so I do not know why she chose the recipe in that specific book. Perhaps simplicity for her little boy. When I decided I wanted to experiment with cooking, naturally I wanted something sweet, and I didn’t mean a sweet potato casserole topped with those infernal marshmallows. Mother handed me the cookbook and turned to the page with the recipe for brownies. She read the ingredients to me and helped retrieve the square baking pan, mixing bowl, measuring cup, measuring spoons and large mixing spoon. I assured her I knew where to find the ingredients in various cupboards and the pantry, so she left me on my own, alone in the kitchen with a preheating oven and enough counter space to create an explosive disaster of flour, sugar, eggs, chocolate chips, and melted butter.
I rested the cookbook on the counter open to the brownie recipe and began to collect ingredients in the mixing bowl. When it came time for the vanilla, I plucked the small bottle from the cabinet and poured the vanilla into a measuring cup, but the bottle did not have as much remaining as the recipe called for. I called to Mother in the family room asking if she had any more vanilla and where it was. “I’m sorry Son, I didn’t think I had so little vanilla left. There’s more in the pantry, on the left side.” I found the new bottle, topped up the measuring cup and added the vanilla to the mixing bowl.
[At this point, cooks or readers paying attention may see a problem with my baking technique or my writing. Can you guess which it is?]
With all the ingredients properly mixed in the bowl, I buttered the baking pan and poured in the dough. Thick, wet, and brown, the dough conjured visions of something I would never eat, but I reminded myself of the sweetly satisfying sensation of warm brownies, slid the pan into the oven and set the timer. I did not even pretend to clean up the mess I had made, didn’t even bother to put the bowl or other mixing implements into the sink to soak. I just focused on the baking brownies, watching and waiting for them to be ready to eat. The clock ticked off minutes, and I watched the pan as the brownies sagged and darkened.
When the alarm on the clock buzzed to indicate that I had baked the brownies for the requisite amount of time, I called to Mother, “They’re ready!” She appeared and suggested that we check them by sticking a toothpick into the dough, which she did.
“Why do you do that?” I asked.
“It tells us if the dough is baked properly all the way through.” Pulling the toothpick out, she noted wet dough sticking to it which meant that the brownies needed more bake time. She pushed the pan back into the oven and set the clock for five more minutes.
Eager to taste the dessert of my labor, I stared into the oven more intently, willing the brownies to finish baking. After an hour (I might have been impatient), the five minute alarm buzzed, and Mother pulled the brownies from the oven again. She drew another toothpick from the box of toothpicks and stabbed the dough. And again it came up wet, not fully cooked.
“That’s odd,” she declared. With her forefinger she tested the top of the brownies and found the entire pan was filled with not-yet-fully-baked dough. “Hmm. The dough should not still be this raw. Are you sure you followed the recipe?”
“Yes, Of course, it was easy.” I picked up the cookbook and reviewed the ingredients verbally. “Two cups all purpose flour, cup and a half sugar, cup of semi-sweet chocolate chips, cup of vanilla....”
“What?!” Mother exclaimed. “How much vanilla?”
“A cup, just like it says.” I looked at the cookbook again and saw that it listed a “tsp.” of vanilla, not a “C”. “Oh. Oops.” Chagrin pulsed through me, leaving me weak with disappointment and folly.
Mother replied with a smile, “I thought I had enough vanilla left in the small bottle. I should have checked when you said you ran out of vanilla.”
“Well, the brownies smell fine, so I’ll eat them as they are.”
Mother attempted to cut a square from the baking pan, but it collapsed into a soggy mound of mushy crumbs. I tasted a spoonful, and the vanilla had saturated the dough to the point of nausea.
“On second thought, I think I’ll pass. Maybe Julie (my three year old sister) will eat them. Julie,” I called, “Brownies.”
Despite knowing better, Mother simply replied, “Yes, maybe.” She was too kind to tempt her little girl.