The Secret Ingredient

By Dominique Browning, January/February 2010

Author Dominique Browning’s essay on the healing powers of friends and family.

"It's not that these cookies don't look totally amazing, it's just that I don't know if I can bring myself to use 2 sticks of butter in a cookie recipe. Does Eating Well have a lighter version? If not, perhaps I can adjust it. "

Caroline stayed for several days, helping me with bandages, taking me by the arm and walking around the block, changing my sheets, making dinner for the boys, answering the phone, talking to my parents. Nothing I couldn’t have done on my own, but everything was so much lighter with her there. I began to see my way out of convalescence. After she left, I decided to try the cookie recipe again.

I still couldn’t get it right.

“I know, I know,” she said, when I confronted her. “It’s tricky. The key is the sugar. And the water. And really, it’s the flour. It’s just two to three tablespoons less than 11⁄2 cups. You have to do this by eye, experiment.”

Months of experimentation went by, during which I was getting stronger, but grumpier about the cookies.

“Are you sure there isn’t a typo in the recipe?” I asked her one afternoon. “Are you sure you didn’t skip something?”

“This is so frustrating,” she said. “Everyone is accusing me of holding back on the recipe. I’m not, I swear. I’m sharing. It is just tricky.”

For the tenth or twentieth time, I reviewed the steps, reviewed the ingredients, reviewed the timing.

“You have it all right.”

“Then why,” I asked, “am I unable to make your cookies?”

She hesitated. That’s when it hit me. Of course I would never be able to make Caroline’s cookies. It was so obvious, and I had missed it all these years. Those cookies weren’t about flour or sugar or eggs or water. They were about her touch, her spirit. Real cooking has less to do with ingredients, and more to do with love. When we cook for our friends, we cook our hearts out.

All I wanted was to remain suspended in the sweet crunch of friendship. All I needed from that recipe was a way to hang on for dear life.

“I have an idea,” said Caroline, interrupting my thoughts. “You need me to come down and show you how to make them.”

And she did.

Dominique Browning, former editor of House & Garden, writes a monthly online column for the Environmental Defense Fund; her new book, Slow Love, will be published this spring by Atlas & Co.

Read on for Caroline's renowned Mom’s Chocolate Chip Cookies recipe »

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