Thursday, January 20, 2011

Chocolate brownie cookies good for winter Sundays...

Those Winter Sundays
Sundays too my father got up early
And put his clothes on in the blueback cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?
Robert Hayden

This poem has always reminded me, not of my father, but my mother. After my mother got divorced, despite her desire to start a new life, she seemed to fall back into her old one—caring for my anxious, asthmatic grandmother, as well as for my younger self. For many years, her life was shaped by an austere, monkish routine. She’d rise, many hours before dawn in the winter and do ‘Jane’ (the Jane Fonda workout). She’d still be weary from getting up many times during the night to rub the back of my grandmother, who was afraid to be alone for more than a few hours. Sometimes my grandmother would still call an ambulance, when my mother was resting, because my grandmother was afraid she was dying, as her lungs ached for breath. Then my mother would feed my grandmother breakfast (a slice of Entenmann's raspberry swirl danish and instant coffee), pack her own lunch (plain rye toast, an apple, an egg) and go to work. Upon arriving home, my mother would do the chores that needed to be done (everything from scrubbing the bathroom floor to cleaning out the gutters) and continue to tend to my grandmother.   

This regime often made my mother, to put it mildly, pretty stressed out, and she was always a very anxious person by nature, even at the best of times. However, now I can and do appreciate why she felt that way, better than when I was a child and an adolescent.

Where was I, during this time? I have to admit that I protected myself somewhat—I tried to be out of the house as much as possible, and even though my mother asked for help, I was afraid of getting sucked into the vortex of my grandmother’s seemingly infinite needs. And it’s hard for me to completely reproach myself, given how easily I’d observed it was to lose your sense of self-worth, living as a caretaker. As an adolescent, my identity was still fragile and I was afraid that if I helped my mother too much with my grandmother (other than basic, routine stuff like doing dishes), I would  become like my mother—and even looking back, I’m afraid those fears weren’t totally unfounded. I listened to my mother get up in the night every few hours, all those years, and console my grandmother, but I never joined them.

When my mother died from lung cancer, a number of the people she worked with--as well as my aunt and uncle--approached me and told me that she was so “good,” to always put others first. And because grief is often perverse and angry, I would think ‘why do we always praise women, if they don’t do things for themselves, and try to enjoy life?’  I wondered how much the anxiety of care-giving contributed to my mother's illness (there was no previous history of cancer in my family) and my grandmother’s smoking habit.

We often speak of women ‘doing things for themselves’ in terms of chocolate and shopping, but the idea of women doing things for themselves, like taking time to pursue goals that are important to them is far more frightening and challenging.  I think the idea frightened my mother, which is why she fell back into the role of care-giving.

I often think, although my relationship with my mother grew stronger, as I grew older: “we would have had much better times together, had she taken more time for herself.”

So I made these chocolate cookies for others during the holiday season and still nurture the personal aspirations within me that are--hard to believe, I know--even better than chocolate.

Well, I did save a few cookies for myself.
Adapted from Currents magazine

The cookies are to the right, accompanied by Snickerdoodles to the left
Chocolate Brownie-style cookies

These cookies are almost like a ‘brownie’ made as a ‘cookie’ although the  magazine in which I found the original recipe calls them ‘chocolate truffle’ cookies.


4 ounces of unsweetened chocolate (I used Baker’s)
2 cups semisweet chocolate chips (divided use)
6 tablespoons of unsalted butter
3 large eggs
1 cup brown or white sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 cup white whole wheat or all-purpose flour
(Note: while not a gluten-free baker, the relative unimportance of flour in the structure of the cookie would make this recipe fairly easy to make gluten-free, using rice or another type of non-wheat flour)
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder (I used regular Hershey's unsweetened)
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon sea salt

Waiting for the oven
  1. Melt all of the unsweetened chocolate and 1 cup of the unsweetened chocolate chips with the butter in a bain maire (or a microwave). Remove from heat when melted.
  2. Beat eggs, slowly adding sugar and vanilla.  Add to the chocolate and butter mixture.
  3. Sift the flour, cocoa, baking powder and salt. Add to the chocolate mix.  When fully blended and cool gradually stir into the second cup of chocolate chips. The idea is to fold them in gently, so that they are still intact.  (Note: For a color and flavor contrast, you could also use white chocolate, white 'colored' chocolate, or another type of chip such as peanut butter).
  4. Chill for an hour to overnight. (I chilled them for approximately four hours). The dough should be thick and the texture of soft clay.
  5. In the interest of full disclosure, I didn’t chill them overnight, because I have a ‘dough eating issue.’ As in, when there is a big bowl of cookie dough in my refrigerator, I am incapable of NOT taking small ‘tastes’ of it.  If you don’t have my impulse control issues, chill overnight, if you like!
  6. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
  7. Now, here is the fun part—roll the dough into 24-30 little balls. If you’re feeling very decadent, you can roll them in powdered sugar, or colored powdered sugar if you’re making them for a holiday.
  8. Bake for 9-13 minutes. Err on the side of taking them out while they are still soft, unless you like crispy chocolate cookies. These cookies need to cool and harden thoroughly. But you’ve been eating the dough from the refrigerator, so I’m sure you can wait. 


  1. wonderful words, Mary- thank you. So many of our mothers suffered from the same question as to their purpose in life, and so many of us, their daughters, questioned whether following one's heart and soul was "good". I decided that, not unlike the oxygen mask on an airplane, "me first" means I have more to give, not less...

  2. Exactly, Julie! The more you give to yourself, the more you have to give to others--it is about trusting the bounty of the universe, and not seeing compassion as something that is finite. Love, including self-love, is something that has to be rationed. Especially since when so many women try to ration their compassion and love, they place themselves last.