February, not April, is the cruelest month. Ask anyone in the mid-Atlantic states who's been pummelled by snow for the last couple of weeks. Here in central Virginia it's only raining today, but in some ways, that's worse: it's grey and cloudy and cold and there's not even a chance that anything will be cancelled for it. In the meantime mounds of snow are still piled up in the parking lots and along the sides of streets, and the potholes have appeared from under the now-melted ice and snow, making the simplest drive an obstacle course.
February may be short, but it makes up for its shortness with, well, awfulness. And I say this despite Valentine's Day, President's Day (a snow makeup day for public school kids in my town this year); despite Black History Month (which, yes, should be a longer month with better weather); despite Mardi Gras. While we don't often have a lot of snow here in February it's usually cold and dreary. We haven't made it to midterms yet but the excitement of the first few weeks of the semester has worn off. We're building next fall's schedules, hardly believing that we'll ever get out of these doldrums.
And now, to compound my February blues, I am sick at heart over the news from the University of Alabama—Huntsville. There's no part of this story that isn't devastating: Amy Bishop's haunting past, the too-short lives of the three professors she killed, the four children her husband will now probably raise on his own. I have to confess, my first thought after hearing the news was about her children—how unusual, I thought, for a woman on the tenure-track to have that many children. I wondered how she'd managed the balance issues to date; whether she thought of them before heading into that meeting; how they were taking the news, and what their lives will be like. Like Dean Dad, and UD, though, I'm pretty sure this case doesn't prove anything about tenure or—my own hobbyhorse—about balancing work and family. While it may prove something about background-checking or about police procedures in Braintree, MA, that would only be speculation now, and I would rather focus on what we know: that at least four families are now bereft.
Bereavement is beyond words. This makes me uncomfortable—I live in a world of words. When words fail, I bake. I can't bake for the families of the murdered Alabama professors, but I do bake, when I can, for those I love who suffer losses, for friends and neighbors undergoing tough times. I bake for my family when I can, when I feel like it, when it seems like they might need it. I bake for myself. When February gets to be too much, I bake. Like knitting, baking is a tangible expression, a deed instead of a word, an action rather than simply a thought. ("I wanted to bake something for you" just doesn't quite cut it as an expression of care unless it's accompanied by a loaf of bread, a batch of brownies.)
This weekend when I wasn't thinking about Huntsville I was baking. While I don't usually do much to celebrate Valentine's Day, it's a convenient excuse to try out new chocolate recipes—and I felt a little need for comfort as I listened to the news. So here is a simple cookie recipe for you. I adapted it from a couple of others I found online; it's (incidentally) gluten free and, except for the walnuts, has no added fat, but it's hardly a diet cookie. It's a fudgy, crunchy, deeply satisfying pleasure—a little bit of comfort during a bleak stretch of winter.
Cookies to defeat the February Blues
Ingredients: 3 cups confectioner's sugar
½ cup plus 3 tbl. unsweetened cocoa powder
½ tsp. salt 1 cup chocolate chips
2 cups toasted chopped walnuts,* cooled to room temperature
4 large egg whites at room temperature
1 tbl. vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 320F (my oven thermostat is marked in 25 degree increments, so I set it for 325 and then backed off just a little). If possible, position the racks in the top and bottom thirds of your oven.
In a large bowl, whisk together the sugar, salt, and walnuts. Stir in the chocolate chips, then add the egg whites and the vanilla. You'll have a somewhat sticky dough now; it may be hard to get all the ingredients incorporated, but carry on with a rubber spatula or a wooden spoon and eventually it will all come together. Don't overbeat—just get everything wet and then stop.
Line three cookie sheets with parchment paper (or if, like me, you only have two, start there). Spoon the batter onto the cookie sheets in evenly-spaced mounds: you should only put about six on a sheet, as they will spread. Bake 12-15 minutes, rotating the cookie sheets about halfway through. The cookies will be slightly glossy and cracked when they are done. Let them cool for a few minutes on the parchment, then remove to a cooling rack. I am told that these keep for three days in an air-tight container, but it's hard to imagine they'll last that long. Makes 18 (I got 17, but I think they were a little generously sized).
* Toast 2 cups of chopped walnuts or walnut halves, either in a toaster oven (mine does it in about two standard "toast" cycles) or in a standard oven at 350F for 8-10 minutes. If your walnut pieces are not already quite small, chop them after they've cooled a bit.