Summer’s Over — Let’s Bake!

Ha.

As if I really needed a reason.

But here we are. Tomorrow’s the last work day before the Labor Day weekend. And although summer may not technically be over, it’s a mental sled ride straight downhill from here to Christmas. Football starts this weekend, and there’s no other work holiday until Thanksgiving. Summer’s my busiest season at work, so except for one lazy “Kansas Caymans” pool day, I haven’t exactly been soaking up the sun. (The SPF 75 also had something to do with that.)

Still, it seems fitting to pay my respects to the season of blindingly hot days, steamy nights, and post-9:00 sunsets. (I’ll really miss those.) Tomorrow means Big Blue Friday, the beginning of a much-needed long weekend, and So Long, Summer! Mango Bars.

This is a Williams-Sonoma show-off recipe originally made with pumpkin-pecan butter — delicious, but expensive and seasonal. I’ve tried this recipe with a variety of grocery-store-brand butters — apple, cranberry, fig — and never been disappointed. I have high hopes for the mango, too. (I’ll report back with the coworkers’ reactions.)

Star of the Show

So Long, Summer! Mango Bars

1 package yellow cake mix; separate 1 cup
1/2 cup butter, melted
3 eggs
1 jar Trader Joe’s Mango Butter
1/4 cup butter, softened
1 Tbsp flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 tsp cinnamon

Oven at 350°.

Set aside 1 cup of the cake mix. Combine the rest of the mix with the melted butter and one egg. Press into a 9×13 pan. (I lined mine with parchment paper and greased the exposed sides.)

Mix the mango butter, two eggs, and milk together. Spread this evenly over the cake mix crust.

With a pastry blender, a fork, or your fingers, combine the softened butter, flour, sugar, and cinnamon. Depending on the temperature of your butter, this will result in anything from a sandy consistency to a chunky crumble. It’s all good. Just make sure things are as well-combined as you can. Sprinkle over the top of the mango butter layer. (All of it, even if it seems crazy.)

Bake 35-40 minutes until golden brown. (Just make sure it’s not jiggly in the middle, especially if you plan to put cut bars on a plate. If you’re serving from the pan, I think there’s always more patience for gooey centers.)

Enjoy, thinking longingly of tropical beaches and rum cocktails.

Out of the oven, and looking good.

*Caveats: For the first time, I used a Trader Joe’s cake mix. While I am utterly convinced of the quality of the product, I did find it reacted slightly differently to the recipe than, say, Pillsbury or Hy-Vee brand. For this crust, I used 3/4 cup melted butter in order to get enough moisture into the mix. Watching the bars bake now, I probably should’ve used a little more softened butter in the crumble top, too. Meh…we live and learn. And eat more mango bars.*

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Memory

{cut CATS…}

But seriously. Memory. I’ve confronted it in a variety of ways recently. Once for my ten-year high school reunion; a second time when I came home from a long, crazy weekend and confronted my first week of grad school homework.

In readings for my class about 19th-century Paris, I found the theme of memory everywhere. One essay, Esther da Costa Meyer’s “The Place of Place in Memory,” talks about the way the senses bring memories vividly to life in the cinema of the mind.

“Volatile and invisible, odor too has a strong connection to human emotions and can color the places we bring back to mind.” Precisely how I felt walking through a tour of my high school. It’s been renovated recently, but it still smelled the same. The hallways were like early mornings or rushed passing periods, when we frantically slipped notes to each other and pushed our way through the swirling current of books and backpacks. In the old gym, I felt like I was supposed to start stretching, running laps, or running lines. The new gym and the back hallway leading to it smelled like Friday-night basketball games — we were ready to strike up the pep band. In the auditorium, the cool rush of paint and saw dust swept over the stage and onto the floor so often set up for the annual musical’s pit orchestra. I could hear the brass section tuning up, the riffs and rumblings on timpani and keys, my own chromatic scales climbing and falling.

And the thing is? So could everyone else. Though my own specific memories were vivid as we walked around those once-hallowed halls, so were theirs. And it kept happening all weekend. We talked about things that happened in first grade, in fifth, in seventh, and twelfth. It took our reunion beyond the vodka-fueled craze of the party bus. The collective conscious of these people, separated now by miles, jobs, and years, helped reconstruct those places that brought us all together in the first place. For me, it was something emotional, comforting, encouraging, nourishing, even. I so often find myself feeling like I’m isolated in my need to hold on to those school memories. And I might still be. But that collective memory — tons of us sharing in those past joys of stolen pink hall passes and weird classes — did more for me than I ever expected it would.

There’s this great line in The Big Chill when they’re all talking about how they had so much promise in college, but have somehow lost sight of everything they used to want. “It’s a cold world out there,” says Meg, “and sometimes I feel like I’m getting a little frosty myself.” These days, I feel like I exist in a bubble of cynical, jaded bitchiness. Looking back at high school pictures, I’m struck at how genuinely happy we all look. Being around my former classmates this weekend, sharing those memories of the time that essentially built us all, made me feel at home again.

Those memories constructed places we’d shared and the one place most dear to be. Home.

Julia Child, a French Test, and Cookies

Find something you’re passionate about and stay tremendously interested in it. — Julia Child

As I sit here, Julia is taking about carbon steel knives, chopping onions, and soupe à l’oignon. I’m watching the second episode of The French Chef, and I love her. But instead of talking all about the ways I celebrated her birthday today (it involved movies, books, and mounds of caramelized onion), I want to talk about my newest passion: grad school.

And cookies. There will be cookies by the end. But first, a little story. To begin, here’s what I posted on Facebook last night:

Big day tomorrow for these two redheads. Let’s hope I don’t turn out to be a disgrace to my degree.

You see, I was a little bit nervous. I’m starting a grad program in art history in just a few days, and I’m thrilled about that. But the first step is proving language proficiency — French language proficiency. And that? That, I was less thrilled about. In part because I’m a nerd. I was a French major, for merde‘s sake, but I feel I’ve regressed these past six years (!!!) with little practice beyond occasionally making my Facebook posts (even more) pretentious. I second-guess myself, I fret, I worry, I mourn the loss of those skills I once owned: knowing the when to use the subjunctive, when to use the plus-que parfait, what to do with a preceding direct object, and how to conjugate, well, anything. I feel like a failure, a traitor to the subject I loved so much. There surely is a council of French teachers, meeting weekly or so in some locked-away classroom, for the sole purpose of grading the continuing use of French by their former students. That Laure-Renée, they must say, she had such promise, such enthusiasm for the language. And did she ever have a charming way of saying tarte flambée! But now? Quel horreur! What a mess. She should probably return her diploma. At least that’s what happens in my head.

So knowing I’d be locked in a room with 90 minutes to translate as much as possible of an article from French into English, I formulated a battle plan: take the biggest dictionary I owned, write fiendishly fast, and don’t skip over words.

(In college, I read most literature assignments just skipping words that didn’t immediately compute. She verbed. She was adjective. Noun ran. But sometimes? Those little words and simple sentences matter. Example: Madame Bovary. Very important plot moment. Quand on partit de Tostes, au mois de mars, madame Bovary était enceinte . I missed it completely.)

I called upon every Gallic talisman I could think of. My giant La Rousse dictionary. My totebag from Bayeux with tapestry scenes of William the Conqueror printed on it. I took to heart the kind words and well-wishes my personal French pantheon left on Facebook. I counted on Julia’s divine wisdom about being passionate in my interests. I prayed.

And thanks to a merciful God and the support of French teachers everywhere…I think I nailed it. And let me tell you — nothing makes this nerdy heart happier than that kind of success.

So tonight, confident again in this new and exciting project, looking forward to whatever comes next, only cookies will do. Et voilà! A clean-out-the-cupboard cookie recipe in celebration of The French Chef, French tests, and finding the things you love.

Et Voilà! Chocolate Chunk Cookies

1 cup (2 sticks) butter
3/4 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup white sugar
2 eggs
1 Tbsp vanilla
2 1/4 cup flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
Chocolate. Whatever you have. (5 ounces of semi-sweet baking chocolate squares? Sure!) Chop it up.
Sea salt, for sprinkling

Preheat the oven to 350.

Since this is a spontaneous, clean-out-the-cupboard situation, it’s unlikely that you have 1 cup of softened butter already. So do this. Microwave cold butter on 10 percent power for about 2.5 minutes, turning once. Your butter should be soft, but still a little chilly. Perfect.

Cream the butter and sugars together. Add eggs and mix until incorporated. Add the vanilla, quickly mix in. Add flour, soda, and salt; mix until incorporated.

Stir in whatever chocolate you have. Chopped up Easter bunny? Leftover baking squares (anything but unsweetened!)? Half a bag of chocolate chips? Whatever works.

Drop by the spoonful onto a greased cookie sheet or silicon baking mat.

Now here’s the good part: gently press each cookie just a little bit so there’s more surface area on top. Now sprinkle sea salt liberally on each one. Trust me.

Bake until just golden on the edges (so they stay a little gooey). Cool on the sheet for a few minutes, then move to wax paper on the kitchen counter.

Pour a big glass of milk. Eat cookies for dinner. Bon appétit!