A fond farewell (with cookies)

Leah Eskin
Chicago Tribune

The first recipe I published was a fail. I was writing a weekly column for the Chicago Tribune Sunday magazine — not a food column, more of a ruminative ramble — and, after the World Trade Center crumbled, I tacked on a recipe for calm: chocolate-chip cookies. I made cookies regularly, ritually, obsessively, so I set down the steps in a snap.

In those anxious days, the newsroom was alert to letters laced with anthrax. No toxic dust dropped from mine, but a few were scorched with scorn. The cookies — 2 tablespoons short on flour — baked up flat. My editor clicked her sharp heels to my desk and asked if I’d submitted the recipe for testing. I gave her a dumbfounded stare.

Since then I’ve learned about recipe testing, recipe development and writing a food column, which became my job in 2004. I’ve learned to rely on a timer and a measuring tape. I’ve learned to keep notes. I’ve learned that no one wants to track down membrillo or churn ice cream.

I took the job — terrified. I’d read about a recipe in another magazine that had combusted “like Napalm.” Most writing, I realized, is captured by the eyes and settles in the mind; food writing slides down the throat and settles in the stomach. Best if it doesn’t explode. I opened a fresh document and titled it “A Year of Sundays.” Now 116 pages, it details 15 years of Sundays — first-dance dumplings, summer-camp shrimp, empty-nest noodles.

Along the way, newspapers changed. The column moved from a glossy magazine spread to a compressed newsprint layout. My work changed, paring down to plainer prose and simpler recipes. Even my cookies changed — now they’re warmed by browned butter and bristle bittersweet.

Readers still correspond, more often online than on paper, sending recipes, reminiscences and, once, a contraption that sticks a bowl to the countertop. I appreciate them all — except the death threat that followed a story about stone soup.

This is my final “Home on the Range,” my last byline after three decades in the Chicago Tribune, but not goodbye. You can find my work in other publications, online at leaheskin.com and in my book “Slices of Life: A Food Writer Cooks Through Many a Conundrum.”

Thank you. I’ll miss writing, and cooking, for you.

Bittersweet Chip Cookies

Prep: 15 minutes plus 2 or more hours to freeze

Bake: 16 minutes

Makes: About 32 cookies

Note: To melt the butter, do not use a pan with a dark bottom or you will not be able to see the brown bits.

11/2 cups dark-brown sugar

2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, cut up

2 whole eggs

1 egg white

2 teaspoons vanilla

1 heaping teaspoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

21/4 cups flour

1 bag (10 ounces) bittersweet chocolate chips or disks

Prep: Measure brown sugar into a mixing bowl.

Brown: Settle butter in a medium saucepan. Set over medium heat. Butter will melt, foam and — after another 5 or so minutes — brown. When the bottom of the pan is speckled with brown bits, scrape butter and bits over the sugar in the bowl. Stir.

Mix: Stir in, one at a time, in order: eggs, egg white, vanilla, salt, baking soda, flour.

Rest: Let dough rest until no longer hot (to avoid melting chocolate). Stir in chips or disks. Using a 2-tablespoon scoop, scoop 32 balls of dough. Line them up, shoulder to shoulder, on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Freeze solid, about 2 hours. When frozen, store dough balls in a zip-close bag.

Bake: At cookie time, line a baking sheet with parchment. Choose the optimum number of cookie balls and settle them on the parchment, leaving 3 inches space between balls. Bake at 325 degrees on the center rack until shiny on top and just set, 14 to 16 minutes. Munch warm.