My mother spends most of her time in the kitchen. It is a good place for someone who is meticulous in the way she follows directions, and appreciates order. There is always something to organize, tidy up, clear away or scrub.
There are photos of me as a baby, strapped to my mother’s chest, facing out, arms flailing, with flour on every inch of my head, in the creases of my chubby elbows and in between my toes. I would scream if she left me in my crib, or anywhere she wasn’t. Thus I spent my early childhood in the kitchen, literally attached to her.
Every year for as long as I can remember, except the year she was too sick with breast cancer to stand (she’s since recovered), my mother has baked. And during the three weeks leading up to the holiday season, the smells of brown butter, sugar and chocolate, mixed with the heat from the double oven, hover in the house like a warm blanket — cozy, comforting and forever drawing me into the kitchen.
If Helen Harris gives you a holiday present, you want it to be edible. Her four signature sweets are legendary with anyone acquainted with our family, and for good reason.
There’s the toffee cookies, perfectly round in shape, golden brown in color, crisp around the edges and chewy toward the middle; her chocolate crinkle cookies with their intense, fudge-like chocolateness and snow white, cracked coating of powdered sugar; her lemon ricotta cookies, practically flat disks of lemon cake with lemon zest-flecked frosting; and her apple cake, with diced apples that have been painstakingly chopped to a uniform size.
She knows every recipe by heart but reads each one, step by step, again and again while baking, just to make sure she doesn’t forget something. That one time she forgot to put baking powder in her apple cake, I swear I saw tears swell up in her eyes.
And the presentation is just as important. She puts the cookies, three at a time, in white paper baking cups, arranged in Tupperware, on a platter, or most often in gift baskets. The cakes she wraps in cellophane and ties with a pretty bow.
If she happens to be next to you when you try one of her desserts, she’ll stare at you, not breaking eye contact until you've eaten and can respond to her line of inquiry.
“Can you taste the difference in the new chocolate I used?”
“Should I put more lemon in the frosting?”
"They came out better last time, huh?"
If the word “perfect” doesn’t make its way into your response, she’ll take it personally. Very good batches of cookies have been thrown out for not having the right shape.
And despite the many strangers, colleagues and friends who have repeatedly told her she should open a bakery, she rarely eats her own desserts.
After one bite, her reaction is always the same:
"It's just OK."
She may be her toughest critic, but I’ll always be her biggest fan.