On the last Monday of each month, I bake. I get up early and I try to make as many recipes as I can by noon. Mondays, when I remember to put the butter out to soften, and the eggs out to warm on the counter the night before, are good days. If I forget to do this, I have to nuzzle chilled eggs into my sports bra and shred hard butter with a cheese grater so I can use it, and I lose time.
I like to start with the recipes that need the most time to cool. This is usually the cakes. One of my favorite cakes to make is a buttermilk berry cake. I have made it enough times now to have the measurements memorized. The first time I ever made it, I didn’t use berries. I dotted the batter with big black cherries, careful to evenly disperse them so that each slice had fruit. The top of the cake is sprinkled with raw sugar right before it goes into the oven. If it’s a sunny morning, the little pebbles of sugar glisten as they catch the light from the window above the sink. After the cakes go in, I usually take out the mixer my dad gave me and get started on the cookies.
The house I grew up in had a big cherry tree in the backyard. In the summers, my dad would send my brother and me up into the high limbs with buckets to pick the fruit that hadn’t been bird-pecked. We would sit in the branches eating, spitting the pits down to the soft ground below. I would pinch the cherries at the top of the stem to gently separate them from the branch, and then carefully place them into the bucket. My father and I would use them to make pies.. My dad would mix the dough for the crust and roll it out, while I pitted the cherries. My thumbs bled the dark juice as I gouged the side of each fruit to move if off of the pit.
My father depended on me to help in the kitchen. After my mother died, I don’t think my dad knew exactly what he should be doing. Instead, he seemed to go through the motions, and the rest of us waited for direction. We worked side-by-side in the kitchen. Always a cook, and meticulously detail-oriented, my dad took instructing me very seriously, and I was equally devout in learning how to do things the way he wanted them done. There was an exact order and method to wash all of the vegetables, peel potatoes, and put our salads together. By the time I was seven, I knew them all. I was always looking for ways I could be of extra help. I never forgot to listen for the timers or keep vigil over the oil so it wouldn’t overheat when he left the room.
Drop cookies are my favorite. I can just spoon out dough and plop it onto my cookie sheet. Cutout cookies intimidate me. So do elaborately frosted cookies. Drop cookies are different. Straightforward and sturdy, they can stand up to the fumblings of an amateur baker without crumbling or falling apart. They are also easy to embellish. Sometimes I do fruit and nut combinations, other times, chocolates or spices.
A fascination with cream puffs overcame my dad when I was about nine and we made them once a week for many months. I thought they were delicious, but they scared me. If the dough wasn’t hot enough, or you didn’t incorporate the eggs, one at a time—just enough, but not too much—all was lost. Most of the time I just watched my dad, but sometimes he would have me do the puffs. I would forget to breathe, and the top of my arm would burn from working in the eggs with the wooden spoon. When the dough would shine and slump away from the sides of the pot, I knew my dad would be satisfied. The puffs would bake to a golden color. We would slice them in half and fill their airey centers with whipped cream or pudding.
Once I have the cookies out on the rack to cool, I start packing up the cakes and breads. I add what I have baked to the items my cousins have baked as well. Our little book club came up with the idea of doing this baking once a month.
I make sure everything is in something that is disposable. If it isn’t, I usually transfer it to a large styrofoam container, like restaurants give you for leftovers. I stack these containers into tall paper bags so they will be easy for me to carry. I like when I have everything tucked into two bags.
No later than 1:15, I take everything to the local soup kitchen. I walk it up to the back door for drop off. There’s always someone different when I go, perhaps circulating groups of volunteers.
The kitchen was founded by a Jesuit priest and named for Saint Francis of Assisi. I read an online blurb where this priest talked about how the broken and starved can be healed by being brought in from the cold and fed. I believe him.