When I first begin to get sick, I begin to clean. Ambitiously.

It's not just scrubbing dishes or sweeping the floors or folding the laundry. It's cleaning the windows and flipping the mattresses and vacuuming under the fridge. When my mind is fuzzy with sickness, I can't stand a similar feeling of clutter in my surroundings.

It drives me bonkers. But at least, in the best of circumstances, my fits of crazy result in cookies.

Last Tuesday I organized the closets. Most specifically, the Closet We Dare Not Open. That's the closet in our little den, a stash and dash repository, the closet that still had sealed boxes from when we moved to this house two years ago.

Yes, you heard me right. Sealed boxes. And yes, it has been two years.

Don't look at me like that. You try moving with a toddler when you're already expecting your next and let's see how well you do in getting all your boxes unpacked.

Ahem. Now that we've thrown open the quite literal door on my secret shame, back to the present. And those boxes. These were the boxes of nonessentials - the last boxes we'd packed from our previous house, thrown together as we made our way out the door.

In one I found a storage container (empty) for CDs, an unopened package of paper, a sketchpad and some dice. In another, pictureless fames and ice cube trays. And in another, I found my recipe notebooks.

The pair of books, pale slate with Prussian blue trim, date back even further than the move to this house. They are from A Time Before; the time before a ring had ever been put upon my finger and before my child had ever been placed in my arms. A time before I started writing here.

My Mum had recipe folders when I was growing up. She'd snip out and tack in recipes from magazines and newspapers, these interspersed with handwritten cards bearing the bosom-held secret recipes of family and friends. Hers were fat and full with both the memory and the promise of delicious meals.

When I decided I it was time to become an adult, I started my own recipe notebooks. It seemed the Thing to Do. I'm a gatherer by nature, and had a considerable stockpile of magazines and notepads full of material ready and waiting. I remember stacking the clippings into neat little piles, considering my methods of categorization. I had Breakfasts, Soups, Salads, Breads, Sides, Vegetarian Mains, Meat, Poultry, Cakes, Pies, Frozen Desserts and Sweets. (All of this compulsion fell neatly in line with my established addiction to stationery.)

I was ready, at least recipe-wise, for Sort of Life I was Going to Lead. My books were as much a compilation of tried recipes as it was of the recipes I wanted to try in that future. I was going to be prepared.

Prepared for everything except baking cookies. In curating these books, I overlooked cookies entirely. Filled anticipation for future dinner parties that would surely require an elegant sweets course, I hopped, skipped, and jumped my way past biscuits and wafers and biscotti. The closest I come to a cookie is the solitary mention of brownies.

I think I thought that cookies were dull. I know. I was young and stupid. Cookies were one of the first things I'd learned to bake, due in large part to Mrs. Wakefield and those bags of morsels, and I believe I had the fool idea that adulthood was the time to move on from such childish pursuits.

Thank goodness for being lazy. And in love. I started those books years ago, but I never finished them. They went into the back of a closet, moved from apartment to apartment to house to house, untouched. Instead of collecting, I started cooking, and the next thing I knew I was here.

And the person that is here is a mum who bakes cookies. Often.

A move to rectify the lapse in those books' the cookie section is long overdue, and I have already got my choice for the first one in. These Chocolate-chunk Oatmeal Cookies with Pecans and Dried Cherries are sigh-inducing balance of sweet, salty and subtly sour. They are speckled and nubbly, with a crisp rim and a soft centre, and deep cracks that travel their surface. And oh my stars, they are perfectly delicious. So delicious that they deserve a fan club.

We can have the meetings at my place. Once I'm done cleaning.

CHOCOLATE-CHUNK OATMEAL COOKIES WITH PECANS AND DRIED CHERRIES

From Cooks Illustrated published May 2005.

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/4 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
  • 1 cup pecans, toasted and chopped
  • 1 cup dried sour cherries or cranberries, chopped coarse
  • 4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped into small pieces about the size of chocolate chips
  • 3/4 cup (12 tablespoons, 1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened but still cool
  • 1 1/2 cups packed dark brown sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

METHOD

Preheat oven to 350°F (175°C), with racks on the top and bottom thirds. Use parchment paper to line several standard baking sheets and set aside.

In a bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Set aside.

In another bowl combine the oats, pecans, dried cherries and chocolate.

In the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, or with a hand mixer, cream together the butter and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. With the mixer on medium-low, add the egg and beat until incorporated.

Scrape down the sides of the bowl, turn the mixer down to low, and add the flour mixture to the bowl. Stir until just combined. Finally incorporate the oats, nuts, fruit and chocolate. Do not overmix. Turn off the mixer and use a rubber spatula to give the dough a final stir and make sure that all the ingredients are incorporated.

Using an ice cream scoop to measure 1/4 cup portions of dough. Roll these portions lightly between your hands, then place 8 on each baking sheet, spaced evenly. Wet your hands and lightly press the dough to a 1-inch thickness. Bake the cookies, two trays at a time, in a preheated oven for 12 minutes. Rotate the trays top to bottom and back to front and bake for another 8 minutes or until the cookies are uniformly golden, but still wet in the middle. You might think that they're undercooked, but you're wrong - resist the urge to overbake, they will set up further as they cool.

Remove from the oven and cool on the baking sheets for 5 minutes before transferring to a wire rack. Store cooled cookies in an airtight container at room temperature.

Makes 16.

Notes:

• Although the original recipe specifies table salt, I used kosher salt instead; I enjoy the uneven saltiness of kosher in cookies, but that is only a personal preference.

• Continuing on the topic of salt, I sprinkled the pecans with some fine grained sea salt when they were toasted. This subtle salinity hummed steadily beneath the complexity of the chocolate and cherries.

• Wanting a slightly more modest cookie, I divided the dough into 24 and reduced my cooking time accordingly.

Covetousness is probably not the most noble of things to admit, but I am guilty nonetheless.

I have, at some point or another, yearned for the following:

• Eyeglasses. I do not wear them, but I have often thought that a well-chosen pair can make the wearer look instantly infinitely more interesting. I have a love of sunglasses for this same reason.

• A pair of slouchy, winter-white suede boots with layers upon layers of fringe and little silver beads adorning said fringe that would click as you walked. I thought them fabulous, and my heart tightened a bit every time I heard the distinctive sound they made as my classmate skipped about the playground. How I would have skipped had those boots been mine.

• Curly hair. Or straight. I had curls when I was an infant, fairly-straight hair in my teens, and now it falls somewhere (infuriatingly) in between.

• A jaunty accent. Or a mysterious one. Or a charming one, even. Now I know I have an accent, a Canadian one, and could easily move to a foreign country and attain this aspiration. Problem is, I like living in Canada. And, if we are being honest, I do not often hear comments on the lilting tone of the Canadian manner of speaking. Give me a good, rich Irish brogue or something equally melodic.

• The set of wicker Barbie doll furniture (loveseat, two chairs and a table) owned by my friend who lived up the street when I was six years old. How I wished it was mine. Looking back, I assume that this set was not an officially-branded Barbie product, as all of her furniture was molded plastic and this, this was the real thing. Delicate rattan interwoven into pattern upon pattern, with twists and arabesques and florets as decoration. My friend would bring her set over to play, which was fun, but deep down I wished it was mine. I imagined that my Peaches n' Cream Barbie, renamed Scarlett or something fittingly-dramatic, would flit gracefully about the verandah of her Dream Home as best as one without fully-operational joints could flit, only to finally alight upon the edge of the wicker settee as she entertained her gentlemen callers.

• Gorgeously-ripe, local strawberries in March. Crimson to their cores, such jewels that if you strung them on some silk you could wear them as a necklace. Juicy, luscious fruit, tasting of sun.

As you might surmise, dear reader, that last object of desire is my most recent fixation. My preoccupation developed when I looked at Helen's site a few weeks ago. Ooof. That first photo brought all my want for springtime into one perfect image, and it hit me with the weight of all the snow we have had this season. The mint is so green, the soup so vivid, the berries so vibrant, they belong in a jewelery box.

My longing was only exacerbated by two gloriously-sunshiney days that came that same week; the wind had turned mild, carrying the kiss of spring to our cheeks. Sadly, it was not long lived, and we were back to a windchill of -17°C by the weekend. But although the warmth was gone, my desire for strawberries remained.

I could not ignore the cold, and so I looked to make something that would appease my craving, but still took its inspiration from my meteorological circumstance. I settled on oatcakes, ones that incorporate cooked steel-cut oats, griddled little cakes that are substantial without heaviness. The oats contribute not only a slight chewiness and nuttiness, also a cobblestoned texture.

Of course I needed to have my strawberries. This was one of those occasions when the habit freezing local berries when in season comes in handy. A scarely-sweetened sauce, simply crushed fruit, a sprinkle of sugar and a squeeze of lemon, brought zest and brightness and smacking sharpness to the pleasantly-stodgy oatcakes. The most modest drizzle of maple syrup rounded out that edge, with a mellow sweetness that worked with both the berries and the oats.

Breakfast done, I could not help but smile in the knowledge that both our appetites and my want were satisfied.

STEEL-CUT OATCAKES WITH QUICK STRAWBERRY SAUCE

FOR THE OATCAKES

  • 1 cup of all-purpose flour

  • 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 cup of prepared steel-cut oats
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • 1/2 cup yogurt (I use nonfat)
  • 1/2 cup milk (I use 1%)
  • 3 tablespoons melted clarified butter or neutral oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

FOR THE SAUCE

  • strawberries, frozen in my case, fresh if you are lucky
  • freshly-squeezed lemon juice
  • granulated sugar
  • salt

TO COOK AND SESRVE

  • melted butter, optional for cooking
  • maple syrup, optional for serving

METHOD

In a large bowl, whisk or sift together the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, stir together the oats, egg, yogurt, milk, oil and vanilla. Stir these wet ingredients into the dry, mixing until incorporated but not completely smooth. Allow to rest while you make the strawberry sauce.

For the sauce, take a few handfuls of strawberries, and put them in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add a squeeze of lemon juice and a sprinkling of sugar. Cook, until the berries begin to soften and release their juices, about 5 minutes. Crush the berries using a potato masher or the back of a fork, until you have a coarse, chunky sauce. Taste, adding sugar accordingly and a pinch of salt if desired. Bring to a simmer and cook another 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until the juices have reduced to your liking. Take the sauce off the heat and allow it to cool slightly while you prepare the oatcakes.

To cook the oatcakes, preheat a non-stick or cast iron griddle over medium high heat. Lightly brush with melted clarified butter if desired. Ladle about 1/4 cup of the batter onto the pan. Cook until the edges become dry and bubbles begin to form in the centre, about 3 minutes. Flip and cook on the other side until golden and puffed, about another 2 minutes. Remove to a platter and keep warm in a low oven if needed. Continue until all batter is used. Serve the oatcakes with the strawberry sauce and a drizzle of maple syrup.

Makes 20 small pancakes, serving about 4-6.

Notes:

This blueberry sauce (scroll down) would also be a fine accompaniment. And congratulations to Carrie and Andrew on their 50th post.

• For those with fresh berries, you might want to forgo cooking the sauce entirely, instead crushing the fresh berries and allowing them to soak in their juices, along with the sugar and lemon.

I am feeling more than a tad under the weather. I know that a lot of people, including my dear husband, are in the same circumstance just now, but even company is not making this misery go away any faster.

The company is appreciated though, as Sean and I are spending our time comparing analogies to our symptoms. At last count he was mired in a rather fog-shrouded bog, whilst I was enjoying the company of particularly-prodigious pachyderms as they perched upon my head.

I am not so sick as to require reinforcements to help me wrangle the boys or make it through my day, but I am sick enough that said wrangling sometimes sets my mind aswirl and by the end of the day I am reaching for the coziest of sweaters and the softest of pillows. I am not so sick that I did not get dressed today, but I am sick enough that when I noticed my socks did not exactly match, I shrugged my shoulders and pulled them on anyway.

I had meant to write about bread baking and chocolate cakes and other such interesting things. But to be honest, I am not in the mood for food just now. I have little appetite, and when I do eat, that's not the food I am wanting - I want warmth, and I want it in a bowl.

Wandering about the kitchen this morning, I set about making a pot of steel cut oats; hearty and filling, a regular winter breakfast for us. I took pause however, and thought of baked oatmeal instead. This is the goose down duvet of breakfasts; stewed fruit is tucked beneath a layer of soft, pillowy oats, with a thin, crisp crust atop. My banana and blueberry version is like eating banana bread combined with a fruit crumble, with the best qualities of a breakfast bar and oatmeal cookie thrown in for good measure.

The potent mix of spice and fruit filled the kitchen with a soothing fug that brought appetites to the table. Textured and toothsome, the oatmeal was greedily spooned out and gobbled up, warming both our hearts and bellies. It was just what the doctor ordered.

Be well.

Endnote: If anyone might happen to find me, still in my robe (and possibly mismatched socks) eating this cold out of the fridge (and directly from the dish), please don't judge.

BAKED OATMEAL WITH BLUEBERRIES AND BANANA

Perfect for a cold morning, this baked oatmeal can be served as is or, as I like it, with a splash of extra milk or a dollop of yogurt.

INGREDIENTS

  • Softened butter for greasing the pan
  • 2 cups large flake rolled oats (not instant)
  • 1/2 cup sliced almonds, lightly toasted
  • 1/3 cup brown sugar, packed
  • 1/4 cup pepitas, lightly toasted
  • 2 teaspoons flax seeds
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground clove
  • 1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 cups milk (I use 1%)
  • 1 large egg
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 teaspoon pure maple syrup
  • 2 medium bananas, diced
  • 1/2 cup frozen blueberries (not thawed)
  • Coarse sugar, optional

METHOD

Preheat oven to 375°F (190°C). Lightly grease the inside of a 8" round baking dish (around 2 quart capacity) and set aside.

In a medium bowl, mix together the oats, almonds, brown sugar, pepitas, flax seeds, baking powder, spices and salt. Set aside.

In another bowl, whisk together the milk, egg, almost all of the butter (save about 1 teaspoon for drizzling over the finished dish), vanilla and maple syrup. Set aside.

In the prepared baking dish, spread the diced bananas in an even layer, then scatter the blueberries over top. Pile the oat mixture to cover the fruit, but do not pack too tightly. Carefully pour the wet milk mixture over the oats; it will look as if there is too much liquid, but not to worry, it will be absorbed during baking.

Drizzle over the reserved butter, sprinkle with a scant teaspoon of coarse sugar (or to taste), and bake for 35-40 minutes, until the oatmeal is puffed and set, with a golden brown top.

Remove from the oven, allow to cool for a few minutes, then enjoy.

Makes about 4 hearty servings.

Notes:

• Although I have given measurements, the fruit simply needs to completely cover the base of the baking dish. You might need to adjust your quantities to suit your baking dish. Speaking of which, an 8x8 inch square baking dish can be used in place of the round; the oatmeal will be crisper, though.

• This is one of those recipes that allows for a host of variations; I simply pillaged my pantry for ingredients and went from there. Almost any nuts and an array of fresh and dried fruit would all work here. Some specifically-tasty combinations: grated apple with almonds, bananas, dried cranberries and pecans, blackberries and peaches with almonds, dried figs with pistachios, or diced pears with walnuts. In each case, spices should also be adapted accordingly.

Menu for Hope V update:Marty McCarthy, winner of CA06: The flavours of Canada, please email me at tara[at]sevenspoons[dot]net with your contact information.

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