Whenever my mother comes to visit, she brings us something she’s baked. “This is your favorite!” she’ll announce to Peter or a kid. Is it? Maybe. We’ve never felt inclined to dissuade her.
She needs little encouragement to believe that her purpose in baking is to make someone else happy. A simple “yum” from one of her grandchildren will keep her going for years.
I know the feeling. There is something particularly gratifying about cooking while the thought of someone you love plays in your mind. Picturing their delight is a great motivator. It’s also a drug. Extensive research has demonstrated that imagining a beloved releases actual oxytocin, a hormone that engenders waves of calm and affection throughout your body.
But I’ve often wondered if you can taste the difference on the back end — if a pan of brownies “made with love” tastes discernibly more delicious than one made in a snit of frustration, obligation or impatience. At the summer camps where I cooked for many years, one oft-cited motto, borrowed from Kahlil Gibran, went: “Work is love made visible.” A worthy goal. Yet I often found myself thinking, as I sent a meal out to 100 hungry campers: “Dig in, kids: Tonight’s supper is anxiety made edible.”
My mother turns 89 at the end of this month, and for the past couple years, she’s been swearing that this batch of pecan squares, blueberry bars or Karjalanpiirakkas will be her last. She’s tired; her knees hurt; the kneading, folding and crimping have grown arduous; her hands are no longer agile.
Every time she announces one of these mini-retirements, I am seized with a small panic: Why haven’t I been baking alongside her all these years, mastering her techniques? Is it too late? My hands are not young. She’s been rolling cinnamon buns and weaving shortbread dough into perfect lattices since she was a child. Even deformed by arthritis, her fingers are more adept than mine.
Then she arrives in our kitchen bearing yet another batch of something delicious, someone’s “favorite,” and I’m off the hook. Her pleasure is its own sweetness.
I’m in New Hampshire at the moment. I sat down on the porch this morning intending to write about a sandwich. Then our friend Ann walked up the driveway with a dish of wild blueberries she’d just picked from the meadow, and suddenly all I wanted to do was write about blueberries — in particular, a certain blueberry bar my mom has been making since I was a kid.
I wonder if the thought of favorite ingredients releases oxytocin the way conjuring up a beloved person does? It certainly makes the writing easier; just as the image of a happy eater makes the baking easier. Yet within minutes, my finicky, perfectionist mind had gone to work on my blueberry bliss, imagining tweaks and adjustments to the recipe that might alleviate its density and brighten its flavor.
The passage from which the Gibran line was taken goes on to say this: “If you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and … take alms of those who work with joy. For if you bake bread with indifference, you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half a man’s hunger.”
“I love you. You’re perfect. Now change.” That should be my own personal culinary motto. The truth is, tinkering makes me happy. And who knows? Maybe that’s its own form of love.
Blueberry Bars with Lime-Cornflour Shortbread Crust
These can be cut into small squares for snacking or cut larger for a tea or dessert.
For the crust:
- 2 teaspoons lime zest, from 1 large or 2 small limes
- ½ cup sugar
- 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 3/4 cups corn flour (not cornmeal)
- ½ teaspoon baking powder
- 1 cup (2 sticks) butter, cut into pieces
- 1 large egg, lightly beaten
For the filling::
- 3 cups blueberries
- ¼ cup sugar
- 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
- 2 tablespoons, plus 1 teaspoon cornstarch
- ½ teaspoon salt
Heat the oven to 350. Cut 2 pieces of parchment paper slightly larger than needed to fit a 9”x13” baking pan. In the bowl of a food processor, combine the lime zest and sugar; pulse to blend. Add the flour, corn flour and baking powder and pulse until mixed. Add the butter and pulse briefly, until the mixture resembles fine crumbs. Add the beaten egg and pulse very briefly, no more than 3-4 seconds.
Lay the parchment on a work surface and dust lightly with flour. Turn the dough out onto this parchment, reserving about ¼ of the dough to use for the lattice. Dust the remainder with flour and roll to ¼-inch thickness. The dough will be fairly crumbly but don’t worry; you can pat and patch it together as you work.
Cut off any ragged bits, then roll up the edges to create a ridge around the perimeter.
Flour the second piece of parchment. Squeeze the reserved dough into a ball (you might have to knead slightly to get it to come together), then roll it out on the floured parchment to a thickness of about ⅛ inch. Cut into narrow strips. Transfer the crust and strips to the refrigerator for 10-15 minutes.
Meanwhile, prepare the filling: In a small bowl, combine the blueberries with the remaining filling ingredients. Set aside.
Spread the blueberry mixture over the prepared crust. Arrange the dough strips in a crisscross pattern over the filling. Transfer to the oven and bake 30-35 minutes, or until the crust is golden.