The Sweetest Perfection
July 19, 2006
I met my soul mate on 18th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues – on the north side of the street – in Manhattan. I can’t tell you what I was doing there or what time of day it was, except that it was daylight and I was walking alone. Because everything that happened before became a tasteless blur.
All I can remember is noticing a black sign jutting out at a right angle with a single, giant fruit tart pictured on it. I squinted through the big glass windows and saw what I needed to.
In a trance, I watched my hand move for the door as my body followed. I walked a few feet past the little bistro tables and over to the display case. And there it was, waiting patiently for me: the ideal chocolate chip cookie.
The size of a bread-and-butter plate, it was an ethereal shade of camel suede. Its surface was cracked in all the right places – not scars but endearing lines – to reveal a slightly paler and softer interior. It looked like an ancient map with faults, valleys, and plate tectonics of browned sugar. There were the slightest, tiniest bubbles of molten butter breaking through. And of course, there was the chocolate. Deeply dark, it was more chunks than chips (although after living in London, “chips” suddenly makes sense). The random pieces were sexy in their asymmetry.
I paid two dollars and carried the recipient of my lust to the nearest table. I sat down and removed it from its white sleeve, the paper already translucent from the butter. I was hooked before I even had a bite.
I carefully lifted the thick disk up and took a whiff, closing my eyes. It was the scent of a carefree childhood, of a chubby grandmother offering a sneaky taste before dinner.
I teased my tongue and inhaled deeply for as long as I could stand it – about three seconds. Blinking slowly again, I let my teeth cut tenderly through the cookie. The ensuing tumble within me was rapid. I flipped the cookie around, so that now I tasted the cracked top. I kept turning it as I bit, stopping every now and again only to gaze in wonder at this new object of my affection. I wanted to take it all in. I wanted to get under its sugary skin. I had to figure it out.
And so every weekend – usually Saturdays but sometimes Sundays if, heaven-forbid, some pressure of regular life got in the way – I would go to the bakery, alone, for a rendezvous with my beloved. Lemony tarts, cheesecake-swirled brownies, and even double-chocolate cookies all joined my cookie on the shelf, but I only had an appetite for C.C. Sometimes, while taking the express train there, I would convince myself that I should try something new. But I just couldn’t do it. Not to my taste buds. Not to my cookie.
As most smitten people do, I started talking about my cookie to my friends, then to colleagues and to out-of-town family. And on more than one occasion to complete strangers in bars. They’d look at me with polite amusement and slight concern while I heralded it as the best cookie in the universe. So, you can imagine my utter disbelief when I invited a friend to partake of my cookie worship only to later discover she didn’t think it was anything “that special.” I was insulted, our friendship forever altered.
But who cares, nothing would come between my cookie and me. After a few weeks, I thought it might be worth a look around the shop. With a mixture of skepticism and delight I spotted a cute little sleeve of flecked cookie dough marked “chocolate chip.” Was it possible? Could my cookie affair turn into a full-fledged romance?
I didn’t even attempt to find out. The thought that my cookie could come out of a printed plastic sleeve like a sugar sausage was not a reality I was willing to live with. And why should I? I was aware how powerfully the ritual of my habit had added to my rosewater-tinted devotion: the longing throughout the week, the excited awakening on Saturday mornings, the trek on the train, the hurried footsteps and mounting tension on the way up to the bakery. And besides, I was pretty sure that the pastry chef was not going to demystify his protégé by making it so blatantly accessible. I was convinced the vacuum-packed dough was an impostor, a pathetic substitute for THE ONE.
Only making it from scratch at home would do. Except I knew there was no way the chef would part with his recipe. And so, on each visit, I continued to dissect the flavors in my mouth – lots of premium butter, granulated sugar, packed brown sugar, vanilla extract (or was it the whole pod?), bittersweet Vahlrona chocolate, stiffly beaten egg whites to get that cracked effect – and made a few wholehearted attempts in my truffle-sized studio-apartment kitchen. There were some pretty darn good specimens, but they weren’t exactly right. Too flat. Not the right color. Something missing in the bite. Would I have to resign myself to a cookie on someone else’s terms?
A bakers’ dozen or so cookie encounters had gone by when I hit upon the perfect plan. I would apprentice at the bakery. I would work – for free – in the kitchen, learning and watching my cookie emerge in all its seductive glory from the sum of its dusty, shiny, creamy parts. It would be the ultimate gesture of love. I would achieve bliss, a kind of cookie nirvana.
Except I never had the guts to ask for the job. The true inner workings of that cookie will remain a mystery to me: the whipped hows, the measured whys, the detailed whats. I’ll just have to enjoy it as it is, when I’m lucky enough to be in its rapturous presence. And, come to think of it, that’s probably the sweetest thing.