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Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Kitchen Memories and a New Specialty From the Oven

Winter arrives, and the kitchen beckons. Holidays approach, upping the ante. Holidays increase both a slightly anxious pressure and the happy or bittersweet weight of memories. The other morning, the first text of the day from the younger of my two younger sisters was this: “It’s been three months, sisters.” Three months since our mother died, that is. That loss, still sharp, is now accompanied for us by all our family memories of holiday kitchen projects: cookies we helped make and decorate from the time we were little girls; our mother’s amazing marzipan; her special coffee cakes; those intricate, magical sugar cube houses that sat on the sideboard, nested in a bed of cotton “snow” and surrounded by candles in the shape of pine trees; her inimitable peanut brittle; and so much more. I get out her old, old cookbook and turn the pages, where the most meaningful recipes to me are not those cut from magazines and taped in but the ones she copied out in here own hand. Handwriting on paper! How could anything “digital” hold so much of a person’s essence?

My only actual baking this year, however, came from a recipe on the inside of a box as, for only the second time, I set out to make peanut butter cheesecake brownies. On the first trial, a few months back, I had baked the brownies in muffin tins and was happy enough with the results that I wanted to experiment further in that direction. Hence the mini-muffin tins, with individual cups the perfect size to duplicate bite-sized cheesecake brownie treats (well, more like three bites each) that I’d discovered in a grocery store bakery in the Southwest.

(Measuring spoons for scale)
The recipe on the box was clearly written for people in a hurry, because it told me to melt the chocolate and butter in a microwave oven. Call me old-fashioned (you won’t be the first), but I prefer to use a double boiler, especially with the other changes I was making to the process. While chocolate and butter were melting, you see, I had time to grease my muffin tins. Of course, the recipe people had not foreseen the use of muffin tins so cannot be faulted, I suppose, for trying to rush the process. 

*** Excuse me, though, because here I have a thought that is a complete digression from memories and brownies but important enough that I want to interrupt myself to get it in. All these “quick” recipes that call for “instant” mashed potatoes and “instant” oatmeal? Please, please, please don’t do that! You might as well just sit down and eat a bowl of sugar! You think “it’s good for them in a casserole or a cookie”? No, not that pre-digested stuff: it leaves your digestive system nothing to do and does nothing for you but prime your system for more sugar. End of lecture. ***

Baker’s Chocolate instructions were at first somewhat confusing to me when it came to the eggs. They called for five eggs, “divided.” I never heard of “divided” eggs. Did they mean separated? Well, clearly not, because further along the eggs, not egg yolks and egg whites, were to be added — but not all at once to the same bowl. What the recipe had intended to forecast was that four eggs would be added to the chocolate mixture and one to the cream cheese and peanut butter mixture. Okay, that's settled!

Then there was the matter of swirling the peanut butter and cream cheese and sugar mixture (2-1/2 cups of sugar were also “divided,” 2 cups going into the chocolate/butter mix and 1/2 cup into peanut butter and cream cheese) into the chocolate mixture that also had flour added last. In a pan, swirling can be done with a knife, but in the tiny muffin tins only a toothpick would do the job. 

Do they look messy in the pans? I had moments of doubt at this stage.

Time in the oven for the different variations had to be adjusted by guess and by gosh, since brownies in the large muffin tin did not need to bake as long as those in a traditional cake pan, and those in the mini-muffin tins baked fastest of all. A watchful eye, initial short baking period, and an additional five minutes here and there seemed the recipe for success. It would depend on your ovens and your pans. 

In the end, all variations produced acceptable results, and though my mother never used this basic recipe, as far as I can recall, I could easily imagine her sitting at the table nearby, following the entire procedure, getting up to examine the brownies as they came out of the oven, and eventually giving them the taste test and pronouncing them “Very good, sweetheart!” 

My sisters and I returned to our morning text-fest, remembering a year when our grandmother was with us for the holidays and we had an old-fashioned taffy pull in my mother’s little kitchen. Small, that is, but not as small as the one I call my “Paris” kitchen. Still, my mother’s kitchen was probably good training for not letting lack of space get in the way of cooking and baking. 

My mother and grandmother are with me still when baking season comes around, as they are with my sisters, and we are fortunate to have memories to share.


  1. Oh my goodness!!! These photos are priceless Pamela! I loved seeing your mother's handwriting. And...your wisdom about food and health. Bless you all this first Christmas without your mother. It will be my first Christmas since I married (41 years ago!!!) And, of course, the earlier years I would have been with my family receiving your mother's beautifully written and typed Christmas letter. Love and hugs...Becky

  2. What a lovely surprise! Not only a comment on the blog (rare in these Facebook-intensive days) but one from my dear cousin! Love you, Becky! First since 41 years ... ? Don't quite understand. But Happy holidays to you and yours!!!

  3. LOVE the handwriting. I have some of my mom's recipes in her handwriting too. Priceless. And the memories, oh the memories. You remind me I need to go make her coffee cake. And use grandma's spoon while I make it. Have a peaceful holiday PJ.

  4. Is your AZ kitchen also a Paris kitchen?