Dimples and limits

The cookie: Peanut butter cookies (see this post for the recipe)

The speaker: Wazhma, owner of boutique Retail Therapy in Capitol Hill. (Her name is pronounced like “Taj Ma” of the Taj Mahal, if you’re curious. But she wasn’t named after it or anything).

The story:

“For my store, I’m always searching for products that make people feel good. But I always wonder: How do other people run their businesses?

“Recently I traveled to Jamaica. I really wanted to get into the nitty-gritty of how people there live; after all, life is all about the people you encounter and how they can shift your perspectives. If you spend all your time inside the walls of a resort, it’s easy to be enchanted by snorkeling and the beautiful sunsets and forget that Jamaica is an extremely poor country. Another thing most tourists don’t notice is that the private beaches aren’t sectioned off just to mark property lines, but to keep native Jamaicans out. Even if Jamaicans pay to stay at the resort as guests, they still have to swim in the Jamaican section. It’s definitely a callback to segregation and yet everyone accepts it. And I’m like, ‘I’m in the water. You’re in the same water. What difference does a floaty Styrofoam rope make?’

“On the other hand, people are freer there, in a way. Take this woman I met named Dimples. I swear, she had the biggest dimples you’ll ever see. In the background you can see her little stand called ‘Dimples’ Hot Spot.’ It’s just off the road about an hour from Negril as you head inland into the mountains. It’s virtually a shack, but there she was, serving the best fried chicken, beans, and rice I’d ever eaten in my life. She’d raised the chickens herself—free-range, no hormones. It was clean, simple food, being served on the side of the road to whoever’s hungry. I can’t imagine anyone in America doing that. Here, you can’t just nail up some 4 X 4s, cover them with corrugated sheet metal, and start a restaurant. You have to have eight permits and jump through all these hoops.

“Yes, there are benefits to the world we live in, in terms of health and access to opportunity. But we as Americans have also entered a limited space in terms of how we treat ourselves and our communities. Maybe the Jamaicans have trained themselves not to swim in water where they should rightfully swim, but we’ve also trained ourselves to accept certain limits, like not pursuing our dreams if they deviate from the norm.

“Just do what you do, and what you love; everything else kind of passes. That’s a constant lesson I have to learn and re-learn to live by.”

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We are all snowflakes

The cookie: Peanut butter cookies (find the recipe on this post)

The speakers: Rose and Tailor, two members of a writers’ group I attend

The story:

Rose: Dude, we’re all exactly the same.

Taylor: Not me; I’m a snowflake.

Rose: Did your mom tell you that?

Taylor: Yes, and she still does. I mean, we’re all people. But everyone has their own story. If you’re a writer, you have to think about all the freaking tumult going on in each person’s mind– all the shit going on at home, or with whatever they do in their free time. Maybe this guy has his World of Warcraft game, or his crazy boss is breathing down his neck at work, or his freaking kid lives Rome and she’s on some tour and he feels like he’s losing touch with her. There’s always some shit going on. Or at least that’s why I try to think, so when I get disillusioned I guess I can comfort myself with the fact that we’re all the same. In some ways.

Rose: But see, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I don’t think it has to be one way or the other. If we focus on both the similarities and the differences, that will bring us together but also remind us that we’re individuals.

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Captain America on moderation

I thought this post would be timely given last weekend’s Comicon.

The cookie: Peanut butter cookies (scroll to the bottom of the post for the recipe)

The speakers: John, aka Captain America, Rhea aka Black Widow, and Gianni aka Batman

The story:

Me: I had to ask: why are you dressed up like a superhero?

John: It was Superhero Day at my daughter Rhea’s school, McGilvra Elementary in Madison Park. She was Black Widow, but her spider has since fallen off. My son Gianni is Batman.

Me: So the parents got to come and dress up, too?

John: Well, no. I think several of the teachers dressed up as well, but we were just feeling… enthusiastic. It all started with Rhea’s 6th birthday party. She had a superhero theme, so the kids dressed up in capes and jumped around on the trampoline.

Me: Ah. What did the missus dress up as?

John: She did not. But today Batman and I had to fight some bad guys at home. They dropped a bomb on the house and blew it up. Then we had to make a shield. It’s a very important part of the costume, especially if you’re Captain America. Right, G?

Gianni: *touches John’s shield, which consists of a metal trashcan lid painted red, white, and blue* Dad, this is dry now!

John: This is dry now, I know!

Gianni: *looks at the red paint on his fingers and licks it*

Me: You probably shouldn’t lick that; it’s paint. Hopefully it’s non-toxic.

John: He’s allergic to peanut butter cookies so he’ll have to give his to Rhea. Are you allergic to paint, too, Gianni?

Gianni: No.

Me: People have eaten worse things. My parents played with mercury and they’re still kicking, right?

John: Mercury, paint… All things in moderation.

Note how John strategically dodged explaining why he, specifically, chose to dress up in such a spirited manner.

Rhea enjoys her cookie.

Maybe I’d have a six-pack like Gianni if I were allergic to peanut butter cookies, too.

The recipe: Peanut Butter Cookies adapted from Pithy and Cleaver

Makes 18-24 cookies, depending on your preference of big-ass cookie or dainty cookie.

I’ve been playing with PB cookies for a while now, and this version adds cinnamon and masala, although I’ll continue to tweak the amounts until I achieve that elusive thing I call perfection. The cinnamon adds an earthy richness, and the masala a nutty subtleness that you can’t quite put your finger on. It’s not overpowering. Think “hint of Mumbai,” not “peanut butter samosa sandwich.” Future incarnations will involve graham flour (I want a chewier cookie) and browned butter. Because if you’re going to use butter, why not brown it?

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt, plus a few generous pinches
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup chunky peanut butter at room temperature (I used this brand I picked up at Walgreens)
3/4 cup sugar minus 2 tablespoons
1/2 cup lightly packed light brown sugar
1 large egg, at room temperature
1 tablespoon milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3/4 teaspoon cinnamon (I used Indonesian, purchased at World Spice in Seattle)

1/2 teaspoon garam masala (also purchased at World Spice)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a medium sized bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, masala, and salt. Set aside.

In a large bowl (or in an electric mixer) beat the butter and peanut butter together until fluffy. Add the sugars and continue beating until fully combined. Add the egg, milk, and vanilla extract, and beat well. Add half the flour mixture, fold in, then the rest of the flour, and beat until no white pockets remain. 

Drop teaspoonfuls of dough onto ungreased cookie sheets, leaving a few inches of space between drops for expansion. Using a fork dipped in flour, lightly indent with a criss-cross pattern, but do not smash the cookie completely flat. Bake for 10 minutes. Do not overbake—use an offset spatula to gently lift the edge of the cookie. The underside should be a golden brown.

Cool the cookies on the cookie sheets one minute, then remove to a wire rack to cool completely.

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On catching things, trains or otherwise

The cookie: Mini chocolate cupcakes (see this entry for the recipe)

The speaker: Jessie Oleson, artist, writer, baker, and creative mastermind behind the cutest, cakiest blog on the net, CakeSpy. That was a lot of adjectives.

The story:

“I used to waitress in New York and the only train I could take home was the G train. The G train is notorious; not only is it the only train that goes straight from Brooklyn to Queens without stopping in Manhattan, but it’s also slow, barely follows a schedule, and breaks down constantly. I had just gotten off work and was running late, and that’s when I see my train pulling up. Right then I decide, “I’m not missing this fucking train!

“I run across the mezzanine and fly down the steps three at a time, which is a lot for a little person like me. Just as get on the platform I see the train doors closing. Then—and this is seriously like the Indiana Jones movie moment of my life—I leap and dive through them just as they shut. I kid you not, when I look up, the four people on the train all start clapping.

“All your dignity goes out the window when you’re trying to catch something.

A few words about Jessie–

From the day I wandered into her brick-and-mortar shop on Pine St when the large, smiling cupcake in the window caught my eye, Jessie has been a generous and amiable mentor to my cause, blogging or otherwise. For all of you aspiring anythingers out there, go visit her. It’s one thing to admire a deceased author or a far-away celebrity, but having easy access to such sincere, warm inspiration just down the street is truly rare. Expect to hear other stories from Jessie’s frosting-smeared lips because she has good things to say and is up on all things sweet in the Seattle community. And she usually bakes cookies! Come on, how can you turn that down?

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Jackhammering

The cookie: Mini chocolate cupcakes (I know they’re not precisely cookies, but they’re bite-sized, delicious, and this is my blog so I can do what I want)

The speakers: Two guys busting up the sidewalk with a jackhammer outside of Cafe Vita on Pike and 10th

The story:

Me: What’s the best thing about jackhammering?

Guys: The money you get when you’re done.

Me: What’s the best thing about not jackhammering?

Guys: Drinking.

The most awesome thing about these guys by far was that they let me jackhammer. Jack the hammer? Hammer the jack? And I never turn down an opportunity to try something new. I even got to wear glasses– for safety’s sake, not just because I wanted to look cool.

The recipe:

I adapted the cupcake recipe from a Smitten Kitchen recipe for Everyday Chocolate Cake. I say adapted because when I bake anything, I habitually do these things:

1) Remove 1 or 2 tablespoons of sugar

2) Add a few more pinches of salt

And every time people eat my bake goods I hear the same praise: “Wow, this is good! And I don’t even like sweets! But this one isn’t too sweet.”

Exactly.

Mini Chocolate Cupcakes

This cake was originally baked in a single loaf pan, but I distributed my batter among 24 mini tarts and several ramekins.

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup minus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 large egg, at room temperature
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup Dutch cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt plus a few generous pinches

Preheat the oven to 325°F. Butter and lightly flour whichever pan you’re using. In a large bowl, cream the butter until smooth. Add the sugars and beat until fluffy– don’t worry if the mixture clumps up; adding the egg in the next step smooths things out. Add the egg and beat well, then the buttermilk and vanilla. The batter will look a bit curdled but this is normal. SIFT the flour, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder and salt together in another bowl– don’t skip the sifting like me (because I think sifting is for squares, but squares probably don’t end up with little balls of unmixed cocoa powder in their cake). Stir the dry ingredients into the wet until well-blended but do not overmix.

For a 9 x 3-inch loaf pan like in the original recipe, bake for 60 to 70 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted into the center of the loaf comes out clean. I baked my tiny cakes for 15-20 minutes. Cool in pan on a rack for about 10-15 minutes and then pop the cake(s) out and cool them on a rack.

This didn’t turn out to trump my other favorite chocolate cake recipe, but it bakes up flawlessly and does have a dark, chocolatey flavor. Folks on SK commented that they subbed Greek yogurt or sour cream for the buttermilk; I haven’t tried either, but I love the tang of yogurt or sour cream in sweet recipes like these, so let me know how it turns out if you try it.

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Always remember to soften the butter

I don’t want this to be one of those posts that outlines the grand mission of my blog in broad, sweeping gestures like Julie Andrew frolicking on a hill in Austria.

I work roughly 25 hours a week and am waiting for the last two Creative Writing MFA programs I’ve applied to to reject me like the other five already have. My grandma just died, and a few days ago I split with the guy I’ve been dating for five months because HEY! He was sleeping with his ex.

If my story seems blunt, that’s good. I won’t lie here. The best stories are true, or a version of the truth that may be truer in its embellishment. Besides, in telling stories, we might discover that another version feels truer because it means more and makes us feel better.

I want to feel better. I feel better when I bake and when I write. I also feel better when I listen to people tell stories about their lives and how they got through the gnarly patches. Or how they met their spouses. Or how you should always remember to soften the butter before you bake anything (unless we’re talking pastry).

So I thought I’d feed people cookies and talk to them and listen to what they say. If they’re feeling generous, I’ll put their stories on this blog. The stories might be happy or sad or long or short, or not stories at all. Read them. Then I’ll teach you how to make the cookies I fed them and you can make the cookies. Eat them. This is how this might go.

Want to tell me a story? Want to eat a cookie? That’s all we need to begin.

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