I am baking and ganaching and wrapping up safely (I hope) this week. My boys are helping me to make the final batches. The occasion is a very special one, and one which I have been unable to be part of, for the last two years (due to performing a play). So this year, I am happy to be back, as part of the huge team of amazing volunteers, who put together the annual Oppenheimer Park Christmas Dinner, in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, hosted by the BC Film Commission.
This is a very special dinner, in Canada’s Poorest Postal District, and each year I have had the privilege to take part, I have met some wise and wonderful spirits, and had conversations which have kept me musing long afterward.
I am on volunteer helper duty, so I will be making sure that the volunteers have what they need to provide the people attending the dinner what they need. I think I get it, and plan to wear running shoes. I foresee a great deal of to-ing and fro-ing. Excellent. I hope that means I get to talk to everyone
I volunteered to make desserts as well, of course. This offer is completely self-serving, as it gives me an opportunity to try out some indulgent and glorious, calorie-filled goodies in which I would normally not indulge. The team leader has given us excellent suggestions (no nuts, nothing that oozes unpleasantly). “Chocolate is always a favorite”. Beautiful. It is my favorite, too.
I pull out the stack of favorite holiday magazines I have been carrying around since my first basement suite, and pore over recipes on the internet, trying to find just the right ones. I have pledged ten dozen cookies, bars or squares. I have decided they must ALL contain chocolate. And this year, thanks to Ecole Chocolat, that chocolate may just be properly tempered.
I go to the Chocolate Apprentice supply cupboard and lovingly take out the tools I keep separated from the rest of the kitchen – they are to be used only for working with chocolate. I thankfully hearken back to the wise words Pam has written on the Ecole Chocolat website, in regard to garlic infused silicon spatulas ruining a lovely batch of chocolates.
I get the slabs of bittersweet, white and milk chocolate from their shelf, and prepare the “zone” in the kitchen.
I don’t know how it happens (that’s a lie, actually I know perfectly well) but I get a bit carried away, and since I have leftover egg whites from last week’s birthday cake (which was yolk heavy), I need to make marshmallows.
This results in a cascade of “I need to makes” because now, I have to use up home-made marshmallows, as well as chocolate. That’s how we end up with a pan of Chocolate Fudge (concocted with the expert help of my younger son) and one of Chocolate Marshmallow/Coconut Squares.
During this, my dear friend calls, and in the course of our conversation, she gives me her recipe for “the definitive chocolate butter cookie”. I believe her implicitly, and as the recipe is straightforward, with a few very good ingredients, it joins our family of chocolate donations. It results in a lovely, fragrant, dark buttery tasting round cookie, which will stand up to travel, and tastes wonderful, especially when sporting the chocolate glaze my elder son ladles on, once they are cool.
The recipe is from Jack Bishop’s Al Dente blog reprinted by permission from Cook’s Illustrated, and I love the explanation regarding blooming the cocoa (they recommend using Dutch Processed as well as adding a small amount of instant espresso powder) in melted butter, to intensify the flavour.
I am in the groove, as my bread knife and shoulder muscles can attest to, while I carve and weigh chocolate. I whip up the dough for dark and white chocolate dried cherry drop cookies, while family members’ fingers inch toward the bowl of dried cherries and blueberries.
They are really being good sports, each son taking on the preparations for a particular batch, knowing that the tantalizing smells emanating from the oven, will not result in them being able to eat what they have made. But, I think they are thinking of the people who will.
And, they are having a lot of fun, doing deadly accurate impersonations of past cooking teachers, urging me to “remember to measure to the meniscus”. They are both good at chemistry, particularly my eldest, and nod sagely when I warn them not to overheat the chocolate, and how ounce for ounce, there is more intensity in cocoa powder than solid chocolate. I ask my elder son if that is why he has opted to make cocoa brownies. He smiles his gorgeous smile – “No. It’s way easier.”
They punctuate each addition of ingredients with a song from the internet (they particularly like some guy named Parry Gripp, who writes bizarre songs like “Do You Like Waffles?” and “Nom nom nom”, featuring small animals eating – I do not pretend to understand the teenaged male sense of humour).
I love having them in the kitchen with me. We don’t even bump into each other – much. Soon, we have a pan of Tiger Bars, Six Layer Bars and one of Cocoa Brownies, joining the others.
We have used every pan and cookie sheet in the kitchen, and somehow, I have ended up on dishwashing detail (their cleaning talents are honed to licking the beaters) but I don’t really mind this time, as they have worked hard, the warm, chocolate scented soapy water is kind of like a bath for my hands, and it gives me a few minutes quiet reflection.
And it is an opportunity to remember how lucky I am: to have these wonderful kids, this warm home, a refrigerator full of food, and the luxury of knowing that I will sleep tonight in a safe bed.
And I know it is not much, but tomorrow I will have the chance to serve, and, I dearly hope, to give someone a little bit of the love my life is so rich in. And if a square made with laughter by a good kid, and a plate of hot turkey with all the trimmings can help do that, I am humbled.
And I make once last batch. Tiny Dark Chocolate Raspberry Truffles, made of bittersweet ganache infused with raspberry. Little bites of love.