Let us Bake: On Cookies

I have a confession to make in the subject of baking. I am uncomfortable with the concept of making cakes. Not just the big ones that are covered in fondant or frosting—I am concerned with mini-cupcakes, cupcakes, sheet-cakes, bundt-cakes, and all manner of cake-pops.

I do not like frosting. I have told several members of the Pastor Parish Relations Committee that I have one nemesis when I spend time in the church kitchen and that nemesis is not a person. My kitchen nemesis is frosting. As a perfectionist, I cannot manage to get the frosting completely even on a simple cake (on even my best of days) and that bothers me deeply and fundamentally. I struggle with Shepherd’s pies for the same reason, but those I manage through just applying massive quantities of potatoes in thick layers.

By now I probably have established my dislike of frosting, but let me make absolutely certain you understand my feelings on the subject. I do not like frosting in my house, I do not like it with a mouse, I do not like it with a box, I do not like it with a fox… My dislike of frosting requires “Suessical” levels of description. I think you get the point.

Still, I live in a world that likes sweet things and I like sweet things. How do I cope with living in a world where people come to visit, we need to take a plate of something to share, or there’s going to be a rough meeting and everyone will be cranky? I cope through making cookies. Sweet, sweet cookies.

Not the frosted one mind you—cookies should be enjoyed without icing, as God intended. I would know as I have both a degree saying that I have mastered the divine and the slightest tendency to exaggerate!

So, I find myself cooking cookies a lot more than I ever did before I took it on myself to take on the lion’s share of the cooking in our house. As I have more luck being creative with savory things, I am always on the lookout for another cookbook, another magazine article, or another recipe from a church kitchen. I could use the internet, but people on the internet use things like “frosting” and I do not want to get my hopes up with a recipe just to find my arch-nemesis is hiding in the details.

My newest cookie cookbook. Yes, it is older than me. You can tell the age of the cookbook by the fact that “lard” is a common ingredient in a lot of the recipes… The recipes still look delicious!

I have learned a few things about cookies while practicing the art of making tasty things. Some of the things I have learned even have a spiritual aspect!

One of the first things I learned was that cookie dough occasionally needs to be refrigerated before use. I like working with bread and especially bread that rises in a warm place. I like watching it grow to gigantic sizes before being beaten down. There is something beautiful about thinking of those tiny little grains of yeast growing, living, eating, and creating little communities that make my bread taste better. I like to think of them as living little tiny lives in a symbiotic relationship. A couple may give their lives to make my loaf of bread, but millions of their relatives are grown, kept safe, and given a chance to live in a safe environment so that there will be more yeast tomorrow. They are domesticated micro-organisms and I like to think of them as being as happy as cows in a field.

Cookies are different though. There’s nothing happily growing in the cookies. Cookie dough tends to be sticky, messy, and goopy. Cookie dough can be hard to portion, hard to roll, and hard to make uniformly sized, unless you refrigerate it! With some cookie dough, refrigerating the dough takes a sticky goop and makes it manageable. What would have been a disaster when first mixed separates calmly from a scoop after the dough is chilled.

What spiritual lesson do I get from this? I have learned that sometimes you need to take a step back from a situation and allow time to cool your passions. I work in a church and often there are situations that make me “hot under the collar.” In my case, they make me feel hot under the clerical collar, and that’s a problem at times. When I wear that collar, I represent something greater than myself. While others have the luxury of being themselves, when I stand there in a collar I represent a part of the continuum of the clergy who will come before and after me. In fact, I wear the collar in part to remind me that I am fulfilling my call to ministry as part of a tradition and with a family of colleagues.

At times, when I get mad, I need to let myself calm down. Occasionally that means excusing myself from a meeting to take a walk around the sanctuary before returning. Sometimes that means circling the metaphorical problem a number of times before blowing a horn and hoping that things will come crashing down without having to go and get crazy in my own little Jericho. Occasionally, I need to just take a couple of deep breaths.

When I cool down, things tend to go easier. I have an easier time forgiving, an easier time being flexible, an easier time realizing when I have made a mistake, an easier time asking for forgiveness, and especially an easier time being the human who has to live under that collar.

I imagine that most people would find that life goes a lot easier when they give themselves time to calm down like cookie dough. Consider Proverbs 14:15-17: (NRSV)

The simple believe everything,
but the clever consider their steps.
The wise are cautious and turn away from evil,
but the fool throws off restraint and is careless.
One who is quick-tempered acts foolishly,
and the schemer is hated.

Second, I have learned the value of practice. When I first try a recipe, I generally do everything in the recipe the way that it is written. I found one recipe for a double-chocolate macaroon which was quite delicious as written. The coconut in the recipe was very tasty and the recipe as written was delicious.

I could keep enjoying that recipe the way it was written, but I have learned something valuable in all of my time in the kitchen. Practice widens the ability to experiment. I took the recipe, pondered the ingredients, considered the coconut, and then looked at the oven. I toasted the coconut in the oven to bring out the flavor found in the unassuming white shreds. From the outside, you would not know that the coconut had been altered. The coconut was covered and interlaced with two types of chocolate before being cooked and was no longer white regardless of what happened before making the cookies, but the taste of the cookies.

The toasted coconut dances with the chocolate. A steaming hot cup of coffee, those toasted coconut cookies, and a good conversation move a pretty good afternoon to an amazing afternoon.

The only reason that I knew how to move the cookies from good to amazing was because I spent time in the kitchen practicing. In ministry, as in life, there is value to practicing until you can not only know how to do a thing, but how to improvise based on the resources you have around you. Practice helps in public speaking, public praying, and musical performance. Practice helps you to be better when a friend needs comfort, when a neighbor needs a hand, when the world turns upside down, and when the unexpected happens. Life is better when you put in the time to practice, learn to improvise, and get to a place where challenges can be met with confidence and faith.

Third, I learned to forgive myself when I burn the cookies. Let’s be honest. Everyone burns cookies now and again. Learning to let go and move on with life is a life skill that we all need from time to time. Just as I had to learn to forgive myself when I first burnt bread, just as I had to learn to forgive myself when I messed up soup so badly it made me want to cry, and just as in all other things, I had to learn to forgive myself the first time the cookies were so hard I could break a tooth on them without a good soak in warm milk. The cookies burn, you salvage what you can, and you move on with life.

I hope these reflections on lessons from cookies helps you to think about what lessons you might learn from your kitchen, especially if you spend a lot of time in there like me. May God bless you as you learn from life’s mistakes and may you never be forced to frost something that is fine without it!

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