Tuesday, March 1, 2011

On Sanity, Family, and Peanut Butter

Dear No One in Particular,

If you're following me on Twitter, you're already privy to my horrible job situation. Granted, it could be worse -- I could have no job situation whatsoever -- but last week I hit my lowest career point ever. I cried. At work. In front of my sole male co-worker.

Ever since, I've been working on checking out mentally and physically. I am sensitive to a fault; I take everything personally and hold onto every thoughtless comment for years, the better to beat myself up with. It's a combination not well-suited to customer service, much less retail.

Last night I found myself in a deep funk, dreading the return of the work week like a middle schooler dreads the return of school. But Disneyland couldn't have been 2 months ago! Summer can't be over! My only solution, fueled by a couple of glasses of wine, was to bake.

I'm an avid baker. I fancy myself an American Nigella Lawson, when really, I'm a horrifying mix of Paula Deen's ambivalence towards "heart healthy" ingredients, Martha Stewart's blind ambition, and a wolverine.

The kitchen routinely looks like a bomb exploded, leaving nothing but eggshells and butter wrappers and perfectly decorated cupcakes in the wreckage.
As messy and unorganised as I am in front of the stove, the precision required for baking is deeply calming to me. I'm incredibly self-assured in the kitchen, much more so than I am in regular life. I thrive in my self-made chaos, knowing all along that something beautiful and delicious is being born. A stereotypical control freak, I love knowing that, when I add 2 cups flour, 1 cup sugar, 1/2 cup butter, I get cookies every time. It's math and science I can wrap my head around: the kind that adds to my hips and subtracts from my lifespan.

I was planning on making peanut butter & jelly bar cookies, but I failed to read the recipe before I committed to purchasing all the ingredients. It was unnecessarily complicated, by which I mean I had to refrigerate and roll out the dough. I found myself staring at my KitchenAid mixer with equal amounts peanut butter and laziness. Peanut butter cookies it was then.

My family has a rather spotty history with peanut butter cookies. My mother loves them like I love Tofutti Cuties. They can't be in the house, and if they are, they disappear within hours. There's almost no danger, however, considering my mother can not bake. Her lack of skills are legendary in my household, specifically with regard to -- you guessed it, peanut butter cookies.

The first time I can remember her making them from scratch, she forgot to add the sugar. Needless to say, they were salty, disturbingly savoury little discs that only she was able to choke down.

The second time she forgot the butter. She will never forget the butter again, namely because anytime she mentions baking, I pop up like a little shoulder devil and mock her mercilessly about the butter. To spite me she uses Smart Balance, declaring them to be the same thing. They are not.
After producing peanut butter biscuits and dry, crumbling peanut butter-y sawdust, she stopped attempting to make her favourite dessert. I stepped up to take her place but never made peanut butter cookies, no matter how many times she asked. I would make fluffy, mouth-puckering lemon cakes; moist, fudgy chocolate cupcakes; refreshing berry muffins; even rich creme brulee -- but not peanut butter cookies.

I have an irrational dislike of peanut butter. Chunky is an abomination; creamy is tolerable. My mother always used chunky in her failure cookies, only adding to my increasing dislike of the sweet. But last night, not wanting to waste the pot of organic peanut butter the Boy so thoughtfully picked up for me, I steeled myself to face my nemesis.

There is only one way I really like my peanut butter: with equal amounts of dark chocolate and a nice smattering of salt. Using this recipe as a guide, I omitted the peanut butter chips (ew) and doubled the amount of chocolate.

I watched the oily batter swirl around in the mixer, clunking along as the chocolate chips were incorporated and lamented the fact that I'd have to handle the batter. It was so gooey; it would make an un-godly mess. And then I realised: I'd forgotten the flour.

After years of taunting my mother for forgetting the butter, I'd managed to forget to add all the dry ingredients. After smacking myself across the forehead, I dumped the flour mix into the chocolate-studded goo, praying that it would still come together.

It did. Sort of.
Baking requires that steps be followed and in a specific order. Mix them up and instead of chiffon cake, you'll have an orange-scented doorstop. The balance and control I was hoping to harness in my funk-fueled baking spree was lost. My self-assurance dissipated. There was no method to the madness; there was only madness. Madness, and wine.

So I shrugged and did my best to piece the batter together. In the end, the cookies turned out delightful. A little too sweet -- I wouldn't roll them in sugar next time -- but delicious and better for the fiasco that made them.

Who needs perfection when adding a bit more peanut butter will do?