Happy Thursday! Here’s some “food for thought…” (literally) suitable for this cloudy, rainy November day (at least where I am). Warning: You may be hungry after.
I can still remember the first time that I learned of the word “bittersweet.” It was in the local grocery store, and my mom and I were shopping for ingredients for the chocolate chip cookies we were planning on baking together later. I was walking down the baking aisle, grabbing flour, sugar, baking soda, and other needed ingredients. I stopped in front of the chocolate section, glancing down at my list to see what chocolate-loaded bag was called for in the recipe. My mom said to me, “Find the bittersweet ones.” I looked at her, confused, and asked, “But why? Aren’t cookies sweet? Aren’t they supposed to have sugar in them?” She responded by explaining that there was sugar in the cookie dough already, so in order to balance it out, we always used “bittersweet” chocolate chips in the recipe. Still confused, I went along with it, but it was an idea that I mulled over in my brain for a while after, thinking to myself: How can something sweet also be bitter at the same time? How can we enjoy a dessert that is packed full of such a conflicted candy?
When we got home, the first thing I wanted to do was to try these chocolate chips, to see exactly what was meant by “bittersweet.” So I popped one in my mouth and let it sit there, slowly dissolving, the hard, mini-Hershey-kiss-shaped chip sitting on my tongue and slowly warping from its perfect bell shape into a mush of chocolate, releasing the wonderful flavor of cocoa. And in this process, in the changing and shifting of complex flavors, I finally understood why “bittersweet” was the perfect term to describe this food.
At first the chocolate was harsh and somewhat tangy, but as it melted and its hidden sugars were released, it became sweet to the taste, and the tang was replaced by the comforting and smooth rich chocolate flavor I was more familiar with—that flavor that makes you crave a glass of milk, a crackling fire, and a good movie. I immediately recognized, in trying my first bittersweet chocolate chip, what my mother meant by balance in our cookies, as I could clearly tell that too much of that overly-sweet chocolate flavor would make them unpalatable and unpleasant, ruining the perfectness of what already existed. Too much sweet would become cloying, untrustworthy, and lose that special sense of reward and satisfaction that comes with the semi-unruly edge and hint of bitter that remains underneath that sweet chocolate flavor, that enhances and adds a hidden shadow and mysteriousness to the experience.
While chocolate chips can be bittersweet, so can moments, especially the most memorable, treasured ones. As ironic as it seems, just like the perfectness of a good chocolate chip cookie, the best moments go hand in hand with a bitter sense of longing, as they can only last so long before they are gone and have entered the nostalgic past instead of the immediately felt present. We can savor them while they occur, but each is shadowed by the reality that it will soon be over. Strolling down the grocery store aisle of moments and memories, it is these most precious ones that are found in the yellow plastic bag of chocolate chips marked “bittersweet,” written down in the recipe for the chocolate chip cookie of our lives. They are the moments of hidden yet welcome surprise, scattered throughout our days and experiences, gooey pockets of sweet that hit us simply by chance in where they ended up incorporated in the dough.
Too many beautiful moments makes them no longer special. Too much sweet makes us crave the feeling of the moment, but not appreciate the rarity of the instant itself. We need that bitter to serve as a prerequisite, a jolt of reality before the sweet reward, and then directly at its end to close up that moment, cutting it off as it melts and fades away. Because we deserve these moments, but like the beautiful brief sweetness of a bittersweet chocolate chip, we must first earn it, then willingly release it once it is over. While bitter initially, the pain of the loss makes it all the more impactful, and the next one all the more beautiful, powerful, and memorable.
As we move from one of these extra-special moments to the next, we learn how to enhance them, allowing ourselves the tall glasses of milk of self-acceptance, crackling fires of love, and curling up to watch the movies of our own lives. Thanks to the bitter, we can balance out the sweet, living for life itself both by the moment and for the moment, simply appreciating each as it comes, and more importantly the tang remaining as it leaves. These transcendent moments of beauty are the bittersweet chocolate chips we discover early on in life. First we may question them, as young I questioned the counterintuitive cookie recipe when I first read it. Yet after, we recognize them as crucial and amazing flavor enhancers, as we combine all the ingredients of human existence into one gigantic, delicious, warm, slightly melted, bittersweet chocolate chip cookie: each bite longed for, treasured, and then subsequently missed until the next bite’s mind-clearing tang and finally earned enveloping sweet release.
Needless to say, chocolate chip cookies are like our lives: Moments of quick return to memory, brief and nostalgic times of déjá vu that return as soon as you sink your teeth into the chewy dessert and taste the first burst of semi-melted chocolate-chip goodness. Brief and fading, but worth it all the same.
Preheat the oven to 375. Grease or line 2 cookie sheets.
1 cup plus 2 Tbs all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
Beat in a large bowl until well-blended:
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
Add and beat until well combined:
1 large egg
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp vanilla
Stir in the flour mixture until well-blended and smooth. Stir in 1 cup chocolate chips (I added an extra 1/2 cup).
Drop the dough by heaping teaspoonfuls about 2 inches apart on the cookie sheets. Bake, 1 sheet at a time, until the cookies are just slightly colored on top and the edges are brown, about 8 – 10 minutes. Let stand briefly, then remove to a rack to cool.
Makes about 36 cookies.
Have fun baking!