The Secret Ingredient

By Dominique Browning, January/February 2010

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

Click here for Caroline's renowned Mom’s Chocolate Chip Cookies

Some time ago, I had to stay home in bed for several weeks, recovering from major surgery. I had no idea what I was in for. No one tells you that it isn’t the operation you need to worry about; that’s out of your control. What is in your hands—or rather, in the hands of the people who love you—is recovery.

When you are recuperating from surgery, your world becomes very tiny; you are living inside a small child’s crayon drawing of a house. There are four walls, there’s a window or two. There’s a transparency between this world and the next; you get a terrifying glimpse before it is once again hidden in the busyness of daily life. Your body, in its pain, preempts all. You must get better.

You will need. You will learn to say that you need. I had to practice saying it. I need ice. I need a cool washcloth on my face. There is no end to the need: I need to know that I am loved and cherished, that there is gladness around the simple fact of my survival.

In response to all that need, you get a demonstration of one of life’s blessings: nothing is more healing than the love of friends and family. My sister drove me home from the hospital, as slowly as she could, because every bump and pothole inflicted a spasm of pain. My children hovered at my door, sweet and scared. My friends came to see me. My parents came to the house every day for weeks. Eventually I understood what it must have been like for them to think how I could have died before they did. I had never realized that we are always, no matter how old we are, their children until our parents are no longer with us.

As soon as I got home from the hospital, my friend Caroline packed her bags, drove to New York from Boston, and moved into my guest room. She brought with her a tin of chocolate chip cookies so delicious they could have revived the dead. They are renowned in her world; she bakes a batch for every dinner party she gives. They are properly called Mom’s Chocolate Chip Cookies, as her mother invented them. Caroline isn’t one to keep secrets; all her friends have the recipe. Not a single one of us has been able to replicate it. Her cookie is a thin, delicate thing that holds hot, dark chips in a crunchy, crackly lacework. Mine sag, droop, clump and fray.

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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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Mom's Chocolate Chip Cookies
Caroline Cunningham

2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup light brown sugar, packed
3/4 cup white sugar
1 generous tablespoon vanilla extract

Mix well.*

Add 2 large eggs.
Mix well.

1 cup, plus 1/3 cup, plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour **
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt

Mix all dry ingredients together, then add to batter and mix well. Add one large (12-ounce) package of chocolate chips. Mix again.
Lightly grease a cookie sheet (you only have to do this for the first batch) with unsalted butter. Put 12 tablespoon-size dollops*** onto tray and bake at 350°F until golden brown. Allow to cool on tray for a minute before removing to a rack to cool. Repeat with the remaining batter. Enjoy!

Notes from the EatingWell Test Kitchen:

We baked 2 batches of these delicious and buttery cookies in our Test Kitchen and offer the following tips:

*Use an electric mixer when the recipe instructs you to “Mix”—use medium to high speed when mixing butter, sugar and vanilla, medium speed when adding eggs and low speed when adding the dry ingredients. Stir in the chocolate chips by hand.

**When measuring the flour, dip the measuring cup (or spoon) into the flour canister or bag, fill the cup and then level off the top. This method of measuring fills the cup with a little more flour than using the EatingWell method of spooning the flour into the measuring cup.

***We had more success when we baked only 6 cookies per tray. When we scooped 12 level tablespoons of dough onto one tray, all the cookies ran together into one large, thin sheet of “cookie.” Our cookies took 9 to 10 minutes to achieve a golden-brown result.

Final note: These cookies do not have a typical chocolate chip cookie appearance or texture. Because they use about 1 cup flour less than other chocolate chip cookie recipes, they are very thin and almost lacy looking.