Cooking, family, Recipe, science

Feed the Brain, Feed the Soul

When is a cookie not just a cookie?

The First Reader asked me yesterday if I would make cookies for him. He had talked about this the other day, so it wasn’t like he was springing a Monday night surprise on me after a long day at work. And the weather was perfect for baking, as it’s been so steamy hot here, but temperatures had fallen into a relatively cool evening. Add to that, I wanted to feed my husband.

It’s not just that he wanted cookies, you understand. It’s that he wanted to take cookies to work with him, and he was asking for his favorite kind of cookies with a recipe he’d researched and sent to me. Sweet, chewy, moist oatmeal cookies are about far more than a couple of moments of blissful mouth time. There were a lot of layers here, and we talked about them while he worked. I should back up – you see, he’d asked me to make cookies, and then he decided I was tired, so he should do it. So he asked me what creaming butter meant.

He’s not a baker, my beloved. Once I understood what he was trying to do, I got up and we went in the kitchen and did it together. The cookies became an excuse to spend time in the kitchen talking, finding ingredients, discussing the chemistry happening with the gluten, and generally fooling around. (Yes, you may insert a waggle of eyebrows here. We did get up to some hijinks that made the daughters roll their eyes). In other words, the cookies were feeding our souls. Long work weeks that leave us rushing on the weekends to get things done around the house or out shopping mean that we could fall into the trap of not spending enough time making sure our own relationship is strong and durable. Baking together is just one way we reconnect.

Baking, for me, is ultimately satisfying. Not only is every recipe like a science experiment in my kitchen, there’s just something about creating food from a selection of ingredients that makes your family salivate over it. Feeding people is just… it makes me deeply happy. Knowing that the First Reader walked into work carrying two boxes of pretty cookies this morning, and will be the most popular guy in his section at work, that gives me a glow. Which is why I didn’t stop at one batch of cookies last night. I wanted to make sure he had enough, and there was some left at home for the rest of the family. Plus a dozen the Ginja Ninja and I carried over to our next-door neighbors. We’ve not formally met them, but he had mowed a tricky bit of the lawn last week and we wanted to say thank you. There’s no better way to say thanks and give a country hi! than a box of homemade cookies still warm from the oven.

It’s interesting, when you stop and think about it, how different tastes are. I made oatmeal cookies for the First Reader, with extra ginger at his request, and we discussed adding allspice and nutmeg for very spicy cookies. We wound up not, because we are making these for other people and we didn’t know what they would like. We played it safe. The second batch of cookies I made were straight chocolate chip – because while the girls will eat the oatmeal, it’s not their first or second choice, and they won’t eat walnuts at all. Both cookies had the same amount of sugar, so that’s not it – and since the chocolate chip recipe calls for less sugar than the oatmeal, that compensates for the sugar in the added chocolate. We all like different things. We crave foods, sometimes, like the oatmeal cookies for the First Reader.

The relationship between our brain and food is a complex subject and one that has been the focus of much study. As we face disease linked to overconsumption, or consumption of the wrong things, we have culturally developed a neurosis about food. We crave sweet, and we try to trick our brain with non-sugar sweeteners. We fear fat, so we put sugar into foods as a substitute, even foods that really shouldn’t be sweet. Carbs are bad, sugar is bad, fat is bad, chemicals are bad, salt is bad, benzoate is bad…

Sigh. No wonder we collectively have a complex about eating.

I think I’ll have a cookie. The connection between my stomach and brain is much more complicated than simply ‘hungry’ and ‘not hungry.’ Studies have shown that there is a connection between cravings, and the body’s need for certain elements found in food. Model organisms that can be studied more readily than the human brain serve as a way to get a glimpse of what’s going on. Drosophila eat more protein after fertilization (the human equivalent to pregnancy) in order to support egg laying. If they can’t get that protein, they simply lay no eggs, or fewer eggs. Somewhat obviously humans can suss this out on their own, but having been pregnant, I can tell you that cravings are on another level than logical.

It’s important to listen to your body, but it’s also good to analyze what’s going on when you’re craving certain things. Personally, I know that when liver, or spinach, sounds heavenly, I’m probably anemic again. I listen, and I make Braunschweiger sandwiches for lunch for a week, and I feel better. When I’m standing in the checkout lane craving that candy bar? Well, I’m probably hungry because I left work and went straight to the store and dinner is still in the distant future and that sugar sounds really good. Then I apply logic and leave it alone. For myself and my family, I work at creating a balanced diet, rather than focusing on eliminating any one thing from it. With the sole exception of artificial sweeteners, which is less because I worry over the long-term effects than I find they upset my stomach horribly. I’m not one to jump on the conspiracy bandwagon, but there is something there about the enhanced cravings for sweet due to using non-sugar sweeteners to fool the brain. I’d rather eat less sugar, but real sugar, than lots of sweeteners.

If you follow my writing, you’ll note that I cook unrepentantly with sugar, with butter, with lard (gasp!), and whatever other real ingredients I can get my hands on. I was raised cooking from scratch, I find it yields better results, and tastier, too. Sure, we buy the occasional packaged stuff. But the food my family raves over is… oatmeal cookies. Blackberry cobbler. Hamburgers mixed up with spices and grilled on the porch. Brisket rubbed copiously with spices and smoked for hours and hours and… real food. Food that feeds the soul, and the brain. Food that feeds the body is easy, but this is more than that.

Food that brings us together in the kitchen, fooling around and laughing over the mixing bowls. Food that we can show off to our coworkers, with a puffed-out chest “My wife bakes. No, I didn’t find a gourmet bakery…” Food that we can write essays about. Who ever wrote an essay about Little Debbie cookies?

Food that you can share the recipe, like this. What? I wasn’t going to talk about the cookies and then not share!

Soft Oatmeal Cookies

Yield: 4 dozen

Ingredients

  • 1 c butter, creamed
  • 1 c brown sugar
  • 1 c sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp ginger
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 c flour
  • 3 c old-fashioned oats
  • 1 cup chopped walnuts, or 1 c chocolate chips, or both, or neither

Instructions

  • In a large bowl (I love my stand mixer for this) cream the butter. It's usually a good idea to allow it to come to room temperature before you do this. Cream the sugars into the butter until well incorporated. Add in the eggs and vanilla.
  • Add the spices in now. If you let them get fully fatted, they will have a better flavor than sifting them into the flour. Sift the salt and baking soda with the flour, then slowly mix it into the batter.
  • Add the oats, and the nuts if desired. Once the batter is fully mixed, chill for one hour. Preheat the oven to 375 F
  • You can either make the dough into approx. 1 oz balls and put on a greased baking sheet or silicone baking sheet, or you can use two teaspoons to form the cookies. I did the latter, it's easier. You'll learn to eyeball the size of the cookie - these do expand, so leave some room for them on the sheet.
  • Bake for about ten minutes. Cookies should be just golden-brown on the edges and look underdone in the center. Remove from the oven and allow to cool on the sheet for two to three minutes before placing on a cooling rack. These overbake very easily - not a problem if you want crispy oatmeal, but I wanted chewy.
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    7 thoughts on “Feed the Brain, Feed the Soul

    1. Baking, for me, is the ultimate therapy. Yesterday after work, i seriously needed to wind down – hello blueberry crumb muffins! I love oatmeal cookies, too. My favorite recipe comes from Smitten Kitchen, only I like to add dried tart cherries and walnuts. Seeing The Hubs munching away happily makes it even better. Love that you and the man baked together – i might have to try that sometime! 🙂

    2. If you ever want a baking project, we’ve got a recipe for chocolate crinkles that are simply heavenly. And messy. And take an absurd amount of time to bake because you have to chill the dough. But it’s dark chocolate rolled in powdered sugar, and it’s one of those things I crave sometimes.

      1. Sounds delicious! I don’t mind chill time, I just plan it in and usually use that time to be making another dough and baking other batches. That’s what I did while the oatmeal cookies were chilling, I did a batch of chocolate chip cookies.

    3. Chocolate crinkles
      1/2 cup vegetable oil 2 teaspoons vanilla
      4 squares unsweetened chocolate (4 oz), melted 2 cups flour
      2 cups granulated sugar 2 teaspoons baking powder
      4 eggs 1/2 teaspoon salt
      powdered sugar, as needed

      Mix oil, chocolate and sugar. Blend in one egg at a time until well-mixed. Add vanilla. Stir flour, baking powder, and salt into oil mixture. Chill for several hours (I put it in the freezer, though you can leave it in the fridge overnight) until the dough is firm. You’ll have to be able to roll it into balls without too much trouble.
      Heat oven to 350. Shape the dough into balls, roll in powdered sugar, and bake for 10-12 minutes.

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