Saturday, October 29, 2005

The Art of Baking on Crutches

Right after the accident, food and cooking were the last things on my mind. It took extreme effort to make myself eat even a few sips of milkshake. As the weeks went by and my inability to smell became glaringly apparent, thoughts of food and cooking inspired only a deep sense of sadness. I could eat, but hardly taste. For over a month I wouldn’t go into the kitchen. I refused to take even one step into the room.

But as Rilke says, No feeling is final. And I have recently taken refuge in the kitchen.

I woke up one morning around two weeks ago to the seemingly ceaseless rain pounding on the windows; the blustery wind howling over our roof. It was a dark morning and the airy wetness fairly clung to body. I did my graceful one-legged hop down the stairs, balancing somewhat precariously on my crutches, and sunk comfortably into a large armchair. I sat with Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose propped open in front of me, wrapped in a blanket and ready to stave away boredom by getting lost in a book. But I couldn’t jump into Stegner’s story that morning. The air felt cold and the rain made me feel restless. Without even really thinking, I got up and went mindlessly into the kitchen. When I got there I looked around, not knowing quite what I was up to, and my gaze settled on the oven.

I’m going to bake; the idea suddenly shot into my head, taking my by surprise. There just didn’t seem to be any other option for that rainy Tuesday morning. And so wobbling awkwardly on crutches, I threw together some sugar and butter into a hazy silver metal bowl. The mixer hummed in its mechanical whir. The oven clinked as it painstakingly warmed itself and the room. I added eggs, vanilla extract, baking powder, espresso and flour. Cocoa, cinnamon and a daring dash of cayenne.

It took a while to figure out how to hold and carry baking sheets, how to portage dirty mixing bowls across to the sink and reach the spices way up on the top shelf. But soon it became a rhythm – the exact number of crutched steps I could take holding a bowl without losing balance, the length of time I could stand comfortably on my swaying right leg while my left hung delicately bent above the ground. The sound of my voice humming a cheerful melody was surprising.

And in the end, I pulled a tray of steaming and soft chocolate-chile butter cookies out of the oven. They were not the most beautiful I have ever seen – lumpy and uneven in my stiffly uncoordinated attempt at arranging them on the tray. I put my face close to the cookies; I could smell their warmth, if not their scent. Temperature holds a new value in my nose – heat is the smell of two bodies huddling in warmth on a freezing winter’s night under a mound of blankets; cold is the smell of the slowly vibrating chairlift as it brings me to the top of a frosty ski mountain in Vermont. I can smell the scentless temperature; it brings vivid recollections to mind.

Since that first foray back into the world of cooking, I have not been able to stop. I have gained enough strength to use my right leg as a balancing tool for long periods of time. I can leave my crutches leaning quietly alone on the far wall of the kitchen while I navigate the small room with well placed hops. To any fly on the wall, I look like a strange one-legged culinary rabbit, jumping abnormally to and fro with bowls and pans in our small little kitchen. But being able to cook and having the desire to step back into the kitchen makes me feel very much alive.

Some of what I’ve made has been, as my mother says, erratic. But I suppose that is all I can expect in my smell-less attempts at savory experimentation. Baking, however, with its necessary measurements and scientific precision, does not need a nose for excellence. Where my Moroccan chicken tagine, sheep’s milk and caramelized onion pasta, and even basic salad dressing may have been lacking the taste subtleties that come with scent, my almond cake, pumpkin pie, gingerbread, gateau au citron, chocolate pecan and oatmeal raisin cookies have been a reassuring jump back into the delicious. My only problem now is the sheer amount of baked goods that seems to spew themselves out of my oven. It’s a good thing I have wonderful friends willing to take them off my hands.

A Return to Cooking with my Ugly Chocolate-Chile Butter Cookies
adapted from Cooks Illustrated

While many were skeptical of the cayenne in these rich cookies (I do seem to add it to many things these days because I can taste it completely), the subtle bite of the chile gives a complex taste beyond the ordinary that even people who can smell really enjoy.

2 1/2 sticks of softened unsalted butter
1/2 cup cocoa powder
1 teaspoon instant espresso
1 cup sugar
pinch salt
2 egg yolks
1 tablespoon vanilla
1/2 cup toasted almonds, ground finely in the food processor
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
2 1/4 cups flour

Preheat the oven to 375. Mix together butter, sugar, salt, cocoa and espresso on high speed until fluffy. Add egg yolks and vanilla. Lower the mixer speed and add the ground almonds, cinnamon and cayenne. Once incorporated, begin adding the flour slowly. When the dough comes together, take it out of the mixer and roll it into a round log around 2 inches thick and a foot long. Wrap it in plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for an hour. When you're ready to bake, slice rounds off of the log, about a quarter inch thick, and place them on parchment lined baking sheets. Bake 12 minutes.

And thank you to Shauna for the Rilke quote, I think about it often.

"Let everything happen to you,
beauty and terror.
Just keep going.
No feeling is final."


Shauna said...

My dear, I'm so glad to read this. And the Rilke quote--I'm glad it has helped. I too think of it every day, several times a day.

And I'm certain those cookies tasted fantastic. It's the stumbling, the erratic attempts, the instinct that leads us back to the kitchen--that's what really keeps us alive and cooking. Brava.

Lillie said...

When I was in your situation recently, I could not even contemplate cooking or baking until I had two feet on the ground.
Everything had to be microwaved. More power to you, but be careful!

Michelle said...

Dear Molly,
It never ceases to amaze me to read words from others who have been through terrible's like reading words written by my own mind after my own terrible accident. Your words are beautiful, your spirit tenacious and strong, and it's obvious that even though you have had a minor setback, you are full of life and ready to take on the world. It takes sheer will to truly understand exactly how precious each day is, and to realize what others take for granted. You made me cry. Thank you. I'm so glad you are blogging about your triumphs and your struggles - I just recently found your blog through Gluten Free Girl (another strong and kindred spirit) and I'm so glad to have the opportunity to 'meet' you.

Amy Lore said...

Isn't baking a wonderful thing. It always makes me feel better, and I'm glad you're back in the kitchen.

I wonder...I've been unsuccessfully attempting to add espresso to a new muffin recipe I'm working on. The flavor never makes it through the baking process. I've been using reduced liquid espresso - did your cookies taste like coffee using the instant powder? I'd love to know.
I'm at by the way.