Delectable Chemistry

In life, in love, and especially in the kitchen, a handful of qualities or ingredients will collaborate to produce something incredible. While each ingredient lends its particular property, some strange magic occurs during the process of combination. Something tweaks the assembly of these few items and creates an extraordinary whole. Today I experience this magic as baking.

With my collection of tiny extract bottles and spice canisters, I feel like a medieval apothecary. I arrange my ingredients on the kitchen counter and place the large bright mixing bowl atop a wooden cutting board. A devil’s food cake mix, 2 eggs, a stick of butter, vanilla extract, hazelnut extract, instant coffee, cinnamon, white and semi-sweet chocolate chips—this array promises a delectable future.

After preheating the oven to 375, I open the devil’s food cake mix. The rich smell of cocoa rushes out of the opened pouch as I tip the light brown powder into the bowl. It falls quietly into the bowl, and I understand that the powder has a loosely packed, fluffy texture. I measure cinnamon into my palm—about a quarter of a palmful—and add it to the cake mix.

Next comes the instant coffee, in its fat glass jar. I enjoy the smell of the instant coffee, though I never prepare it as a drink. The granules smell earthy, woody, and slightly bitter—the smell is deep and dark. Since this is the only ingredient I’m measuring with a utensil, I don’t bother to use my measuring spoons. I retrieve a regular spoon from the silverware drawer and add a spoonful of instant coffee to the other dry ingredients.

I whisk together the dry ingredients, watching the dark streaks of coffee fade into the softer brown of the cake mix. I pour in a handful of semi-sweet chocolate chips and two handfuls of white chocolate chips. I apply the whisk again, ensuring that all the chips are thoroughly coated by the cake mix.

I unwrap the butter and place it in a sturdy coffee mug with a handle. I pop it in the microwave to soften for 45 seconds. While the microwave drones and the kitchen fills with the smell of melting butter, I add a splash of hazelnut extract and two splashes of vanilla to the batter. When the microwave beeps in completion, I retrieve the butter. I add this to the mix as well.

Now comes a tiresome baking task: cracking eggs. Currently my favorite method involves lightly tapping the egg on the counter and cracking it over a separate bowl. I crack my two eggs in the large mug, vacated by the softened butter. I save the eggshells for use in our garden.

The melted butter, extracts, and eggs transform my fluffy dry mixture into a sloppy mess. I use the whisk to incorporate the new ingredients; I watch my batter take on streaks of dark brown. Setting the whisk aside, I prepare to tackle the batter by hand. My left hand rests on one corner of the square bowl while my right hand massages the mixture within. I rotate the bowl with my left hand and mix its contents with my right. The well-mixed batter feels thick and slippery—a textural contrast to the few clumps of dry powder that need to be incorporated. As I mix, I can feel the small chocolate chips, carried along in the current of batter. Since they were well-coated with the dry mix, they do not fall out of this happy stream.

When the batter is thoroughly mixed, I begin preparing my baking surface. I line a cookie sheet with shiny foil and apply cooking spray. Because I can’t see whether I’ve given the sheet an even coat, I slide a paper towel over the foil. Now I can see that my foil’s shine has become slightly foggy.

Using a small, spring-loaded scoop, I create balls of dough. I can fit twelve balls on the cookie sheet, spacing them at least an inch apart. The scoop ensures that the cookies will be about the same size. As with mixing the batter, I can keep one hand clean. My clean right hand holds the scoop while I shear off extra dough with my left.

I place the cookie sheet, with its small chocolate burdens, on the lower oven rack and turn on the oven light for extra visibility. I set the timer for 11 minutes and put the cinnamon, instant coffee, hazelnut, and vanilla back on my shelf, in their proper places. I wait.

Soon the smell of transformation wafts from the kitchen, and the oven chimes its solicitous one-minute warning. I return to the kitchen and take up my purple oven mitts. Large and long, these mitten-shaped protectors have heavily textured silicon outside and soft fabric inside.

The oven display flashes as the last minute elapses, and then the timer begins its persistent beep. I lower the oven door, catching a glimpse of my cookies. Illuminated by the oven light, they are easy to spot—puffy dark circles on a bright stage. I bring out the pan and balance it on the stovetop. I close the oven and remove the mitt from my left hand. With my right, I hold the cookie sheet steady; with my left, I gingerly press the center of several cookies on the tray.

To tell if the cookies are done, I must pay attention to their surface texture and smell. Their color has changed, become darker and less glossy. The smell has changed too—all traces of the batter’s raw, wet aroma are gone. When I press each with a finger, the cookie feels firm but not rock-solid. One minute more and these will turn to disks of concrete. Each cookie has some give. All the cookies display a few fault lines—cracks and crinkles that tell me that they are done. Here and there, white chocolate chips twinkle invitingly against their dark chocolate surroundings.

From experience I know that I can’t take the cookies off the sheet right away. Because these are made from a cake mix, they are not crunchy or sturdy like other cookies. They are fluffy and light, similar to madeleines. Removing them before they’ve had time to cool will mean lots of breakage. Though broken cookies taste just as good, they don’t look as appealing, and they leave the cookie sheet a mess. So I wait.

Five minutes pass, and I decide that the cookies are cool enough. I gently rotate each cookie, freeing it from the foil. I stack the cookies on a plate. I arrange them asymmetrically.

One cookie doesn’t make it to the plate. It is warm and soft, its chocolate flavor rich and complex. The cinnamon and coffee heighten the overall flavor in perfect subtlety, never coming out into the open. The chocolate chips make tiny creamy pockets in the soft, fluffy texture. Short-lived and long-savored, the cookie is a small gift of magic and science.


Chocolate cookies


Dishing up Something Special

Sunday brunch at the Casa Marina Hotel is an impressive sensory affair. As you ascend the front steps and enter the lobby, the smell of salt-infused wood greets you. The hotel is so close to the beach that the smell of the sea has permeated every room. You know that the dining room is on your left, because tantalizing aromas waft out in heavy, warm gusts. You can hear the clink of serving utensils, the splash of ice water pouring into petite glass goblets, and the satisfying pop of champagne corks.

We are ushered into the large, sunny dining room, where light from the copious windows spills onto the white tablecloths and reflects off the metal dish covers along the buffet. To cope with the brightness of the room, I wear my sunglasses as usual, but I’ve added a sand-colored cloche hat, trimmed on one side with flowers made from coiled silk ribbon. The hat’s bell shape and wire-lined brim cut just enough of the glare, so that I can remove my sunglasses when we reach our table.

As I pull out my chair, dark against the white of the tablecloth, I assess the table before me. I can barely make out the slim shapes of two forks, a knife, and a spoon on either side of my folded napkin. I cannot see the napkin, because it camouflages perfectly with the tablecloth. Instead, I see a lumpy something in the middle of my place setting, and I guess (rightly) that it is the napkin. Just beyond my silverware stands an invisible glass of water – a clear glass holding a clear liquid atop a white tablecloth in a bright room is a recipe for invisibility. Once I’m seated, I cautiously feel for the glass. I want to know where it is so that I don’t spill it.

The server asks for my drink order and I request coffee. By this time, the buffet is now open – the newly-available food made audible by the metallic clang of dish covers sliding away and the creaking of chair legs dragging across the floor as other patrons leave their tables. The buffet architecture is always the same, though the food on offer may be arranged differently. At the end farthest from the initial entrance into the dining room, a chef stands making omelettes to order. Next to the omelettes stands a carving station for prime rib. Just beyond these two specialty areas, a series of long tables bisects the dining room. Placed end-to-end, they hold a spectrum of food starting with breakfast dishes (grits, hash browns, sausage, bacon, waffles, biscuits and gravy, and eggs benedict), morphing into richer, heavier entrees (baked queen snapper, seafood with rice, mashed potatoes, and sauteed veggies),  and fading to light, cold foods like fresh fruit, shrimp salad, pasta salad, three-bean salad, and boiled shrimp. The last section of the buffet, a table offering a wide selection of desserts, stands apart.

I begin at the omelette station, where the chef obligingly tells me all the ingredients he has to offer. I appreciate this courtesy because I can barely distinguish the ingredients on display. While I could easily ask, “Do you have mushrooms?” and receive an answer, his willingness to read off the list of ingredients makes the whole process much more efficient. After I request an omelette with cheese, bacon, and mushrooms, he assures me that I don’t have to stand and wait for it. He will bring it to my table – a kindness I did not expect.

When I return to my table after a trip along the buffet for some blackberries, raspberries, and cantaloupe, I immediately notice that our server has brought my coffee. Situated in its pale cup atop an equally pale saucer, the black liquid stands out against the whiteness of the table. I hesitate to add cream to the coffee, knowing that the cream will make the beverage lighter and more difficult to see. The cream itself is not easy to distinguish; it comes in a tiny silver pitcher that is hard to spot on the bright table. I add it to my coffee slowly – so that I won’t spill it and I can see how much I’m adding. I am able to judge the quantity of cream because it contrasts easily with the blackness of the coffee and I can monitor the decreasing weight of the tiny pitcher.

So far, the berries are the smartest visual choice I’ve made. Because of their dark color and manageable size, they are easy to spot and spear with a fork – which means that they don’t give me the kind of trouble that lettuce does. When it comes to desserts, I make another smart visual (not nutritious) choice – a dense chocolate cake with dark chocolate icing. It contrasts nicely with the pale plate and the silver fork, which means I’m less likely to spear a bite that’s too big to handle.

Normally, two champagne drinks come with the brunch, and you have your choice of a mimosa (orange juice and champagne – lovely pale orange color) or a poinsettia (cranberry juice and champagne – an even lovelier dark red color). Today I abstain, but, when I’m in the mood for something bubbly, I prefer the poinsettia for the same reasons as the coffee, the blackberries, and the chocolate cake. In its slender, nearly-invisible glass flute, the red liquid is easy to find on the white table.

However, I cannot always rely on the visual discernibility of my food. Though I enjoy red grapes, brown bread, and spinach for their flavor as well as their visual convenience, I prefer white wine to red, white sauces on pasta, and white pizza. Luckily, the white pizza at my favorite pizza restaurant comes on a bright silver tray, but white wine, served in clear glasses, is consistently hard to spot.

Maybe I will invent a new type of wine charm for the blind with bright red beads and braille tags that identify the kind of wine in the glass (sb for sauvignon blanc, r for riesling, pg for pinot grigio, pn for pinot noir). The charm could fan out across the bottom of the glass and snake up the stem, which is usually the trickiest thing to spot. While I’m creating, I’ll come up with a book of tips on entertaining guests with low vision. First, I’ll completely do away with white table linen and clear glasses. Glasses will be frosted, if served on a dark tablecloth, or tinted green, red, or dark blue, if served on a pale tablecloth. For the stubborn hosts and hostesses who cling to their pristine white tablecloths, I’ll insist on colored runners and bold napkins. Napkins in dark reds, purples, and blues will contrast especially with the silverware. I’ll suggest that the place settings follow a few simple rules of consistency: forks on the left, knife and spoon on the right, and water glass placed just above the knife – instead of floating out in limbo. I’ll ask for dishes in contrasting colors: serve the alfredo on dark plates and the cream-based soups in dark bowls. Serve the chocolate mousse in white, yellow, or powder blue ramekins.

Most importantly, I’ll insist upon a tactic I regularly employ: The Buffet Buddy. When I am in a buffet line, like the brunch of today, I take someone with me – not just anyone, but someone whose descriptions are reliable and informative. It’s not helpful to be traveling a buffet with a companion who says things like, “Um they’ve got this green stuff in a bowl…” I want a companion who knows food and can describe what he or she is seeing: “It looks like some kind of salad with raisins, pine nuts, spinach, and crumbled blue cheese.” It’s infinitely preferable to have a buffet guide who is also a foodie.

I am lucky to have a large supply of competent buffet companions in my life. They’ve helped me navigate countless self-serve situations, from the mysterious lanes of the potluck dinner party to the well-ordered tureens of the Casa Marina.

Perfect Vision

During my senior year of high school, a newspaper reporter interviewed me for an article on the organization that had awarded me a generous scholarship. Because the organization regularly offers scholarships and other attentions to blind and visually-impaired people, the article focused heavily on my vision and how I use it. At some point in the interview, the reporter asked me, “So if you could see anything more clearly, what would it be?” I thought for a minute, before responding, “Well…nothing I guess. I mean, the important things aren’t blurry. I can read print and do almost everything I need to do.”

A few weeks later when the article appeared in the Sunday paper, the final sentence read like this:

          “When asked what she wishes she could see more clearly, Emily responded, “The important things aren’t blurry.”

Ending the article on this note left readers to speculate about the kind of wisdom that my sight impairment had undoubtedly created. After its publication, people approached my parents, wiping tears from their eyes and saying, “Oh! She’s so wise! The important things aren’t blurry! Like love and friendship! And peace and togetherness!”

I could kick myself for not wracking my brain harder at the time. If I had thought of it, I would’ve told the reporter, “It would be nice if I could see well enough to pluck my own eyebrows.”

Some years later, my mom and I were shopping at the Town Center when a man approached and asked her if he could pray over me. Thinking that it never hurts to get a little extra heavenly intervention, she acquiesced. I remained silent because this had never happened to me before. However, as soon as the prayer started, I realized that, without consulting me, this man had decided to pray that my vision would be “healed.” Feeling unsure and unworthy, I couldn’t seem to articulate my thoughts. When the prayer was done, he looked at me and said, “Anything yet?” (Translation: Any Improvement?)

If I had been more with it at the time, I would’ve said to him, “Sure you can pray over me, and while you’re at it, ask God if he could send me a boyfriend. There’s a swing dance party coming up and I really need a date.”

Alas, this cognitive clarity never comes to me when I need it.

The question that follows me around, the one that tags insistently after most people born with low vision or no vision, is this: If you could have perfect vision, what would you want to see? The question that pursues people who have lost their vision later in life is this: If you could see anything again, what would it be?

Our answers to these inquiries are supposed to contain things like rainbows, sunsets, snow-capped mountains, and the faces of our loved ones. These questions, and the answers that are expected by those who ask them, imply that the most perfect understanding of our world is a visual understanding. Since we have limited or no vision, we are supposed to feel that our other sensory perceptions aren’t as valid as vision. It doesn’t matter that we can describe the voices of our loved ones in great detail; we must long to see their faces.

I’m going to appear to go off topic here and insert that I love chocolate, particularly dark chocolate. If it tastes faintly like dirt, is really bitter, and has the phrase “90% cacao” somewhere on the label, you can’t keep me away!

When people try to imagine living with vision loss, I think they imagine it as the life of a chocolate-obsessed person who suddenly develops a chocolate allergy.

  • “You can’t eat chocolate anymore? Like, ever?”
  • “If you could eat chocolate again, what kind would it be?”
  • “Do you miss chocolate?”
  • “Are you hoping that they can cure your chocolate allergy? Then you could enjoy restaurants again!”
  • “How can you even go into the grocery store, knowing you can’t have chocolate?!”
  • “I just don’t know how I’d live if I couldn’t have chocolate! How could any other dessert stand up to chocolate?!”

Well as much as I enjoy the vision I have, and as much as I adore chocolate, I’ve got news for you. Vision isn’t chocolate. It isn’t even like chocolate. Yes, both are delightful, but that’s where the similarities end.

For one thing, while I would NOT be happy with a life without dark chocolate (don’t even mention milk chocolate because it just Isn’t The Same), my life with low vision is quite enjoyable and fulfilling. Unlike the chocolate-loving unfortunate who can’t eat chocolate, I don’t stand at the Sensory Deli Counter and drool over the senses I’m lacking. Because I’ve learned to live with my low vision – not by virtue, but by necessity – I do not lean dreamily against the wall and pine for the sense I appear to have lost.

Some time ago, an ancient Greek philosopher told us that the unexamined life wasn’t worth living. Most of us with sensory impairments can tell you that the average person takes this time-honored quote and replaces “unexamined” with the particular medical deficit that seems applicable. The blind life isn’t worth living. The deaf life isn’t worth living. The I-can-only-control-the-muscles-in-my-right-arm life isn’t worth living. What eludes the carriers of these attitudes is this: I don’t lead a blind life. I lead a life. I lead my life. As such, I wouldn’t relinquish the understanding, frustration, and joy that accompany my vision for the perceived benefits of “perfect vision.”

There are many things I would like to see better. I would like to be able to pluck my own eyebrows. I would like to be able to sightread piano music. I would like to be able to read the screen on an iPod. But these longings do not make it impossible for me to enjoy the life I live.

When you want to ask a blind person about his or her ideal vision, stop and consider which of your senses you would want to be “cured.” Think about a unique component of your perception or a talent that has emerged from a quirk in your movement, your speech, the shape of your face – and ask yourself how you would feel if most people told you that it should be removed or exchanged for something “better.” Remember that they will assume that you want to be “perfected,” because they cannot imagine living a vibrant life in your present state.

The perspective of a blind man is not more valuable because of his blindness. He’s not a saint for wanting to share his sensory experience with you.

When a blind woman stands in the rain, she is not more pathetic than a sighted woman standing in the rain. Her blindness does not make her clothing more permeable.

When you get to the bakery and they’re out of chocolate croissants, take a deep breath and try the scones. Even though chocolate is wonderful, it melts quickly on a sunny day.