Spreading hospitality through cookies
Chocolate chip cookies were a standard go-to dessert in my family growing up. Whenever my father felt the inclination for a chocolate treat, he took out the mixer and whipped up a batch of Nestlé’s Tollhouse chocolate chip cookies, per the recommended recipe on the back of the plastic yellow packing.
Chocolate chip cookies have found their way to the Czech Republic and although they are not yet a standard café dessert offering, you can often find some version of them in many coffee shops and supermarkets. I’ve sampled them all, though I haven’t found any as of yet that taste like the cookies I know from home. When Radek and I got married in my hometown my parents prepared welcome packages for out-of-town guests who stayed at the local hotel. In addition to a few regional products like a can of Mountain Dew and a bag of Virginia roasted peanuts, my parents included a goody bag of homemade chocolate chip cookies. When I asked my father how he’d managed to make so many batches of cookies in addition to getting all the wedding preparations straight, he just smiled. Later, he admitted that he’d frozen several batches of the dough in advance. The cookies made an impression. No less so on the visiting Czech contingency, who later remarked that, to their own surprise, the American cookies were delicious.
Over the years, I’ve experimented with making chocolate chip cookies in Prague using a variety of recipes. I have tried the three different textures of traditional Czech white flour, both smooth and crystallized brown sugar, and I’ve substituted different types of chocolate for the Nestlé chips. From my experience, an Orion 70% dark chocolate bar works well cut into squares for the chocolate chips, but really any chocolate bar chopped up does fine. As an interesting aside, Orion was formerly Czech owned but now operates under Nestlé. I’ve made cookies with nuts and without, I’ve even added rolled-oats and dried fruits. The only thing that all these attempts have in common is the attitude that I typically don when making the cookies.
Whenever I’m cooking or baking from an American recipe, I’m nostalgic. The American measuring cups and teaspoons are part of a set that I got for our wedding. Although it takes a bit of mathematical juggling to convert things like butter from sticks into grams or making adjustments for the character or fineness of the sugar, I tend to do the estimations on the spot. When my children come to help, for a minute, I imagine we’re in my parents’ kitchen. I let them lick the beaters, even though there’s raw egg in the batter (mainly because my father always let us) and sometimes they drop the cookie dough onto the pans for baking. Their attention for the mixing process doesn’t last long and I am usually instructed to give them a shout out when the cookies are finished so that they can taste test. When it comes to tasting, Radek prefers his cookies crispy and nearly-overcooked, while the children like a soft, almost undercooked cookie. I actually don’t like eating chocolate chip cookies as much as I like making them, so I’m glad to have a reason to give part of the batch away.
I have observed that my Czech friends and neighbors never come visiting empty-handed. When I invite a Czech friend over for coffee, she usually brings flowers, some pieces of a traditional Czech cake or a bakery dessert, small toys for the children, chocolate or bonbons. Even when my next-door neighbors drop by for an impromptu Friday afternoon coffee or a glass of wine, they come bearing hospitable gifts. I try to remember that this is the custom here and to keep a few extra sweets or packaged hors d’oeuvres on hand for such occasions, but when an invitation comes on the spur-of-the-moment I am often caught without. I’m embarrassed when I have to go somewhere without bringing my hostess something; however, my Czech friends are gracious and never make me feel out of place when I show up invited, but empty-handed. On the other hand, I have also witnessed the fuss made over any homemade item that I bring to our neighborhood barbeques or friends’ children’s birthday parties.
My chocolate chip cookies are now a staple of neighborhood gatherings, and I know that even though they’ll be placed on the table with the children’s snacks, I’ll find adults sampling them and then asking me for the recipe. I’ve translated the recipe into Czech and upon request I’ve passed it on to neighbors, friends’ of neighbors, and teachers at my children’s school. Once I brought the cookies to Samuel’s preschool and the teachers were so delighted that one of them asked me where she could buy the chocolate chips. I ended up giving her the recipe and my last bag of Nestlé’s chocolate chips. I knew we were going home for the summer, and we could get more there. Yet, my motives behind spreading appreciation for chocolate chip cookies are purely selfish.
Many years ago, pre-kids and before I could speak Czech very well, I realized that surviving a social gathering where most of the attendees were Czech required a bit of courage. Holding a plate of chocolate chip cookies helped boost my confidence, and it also provided a pleasant medium for a conversation starter. I felt better knowing that I’d brought something original for guests to enjoy, and I also felt more open to initiating to or responding to a conversation. Twelve years and three kids later, you might think that I would be confident enough to socialize with our friends and neighbors without needing to hold a plate of cookies. But I’ve discovered that bringing something to a gathering that reveals a bit of my American heritage is often just the right spark to get the typically more reserved Czechs to open up.
Anna Lee’s tenth birthday is coming up this Christmas, and we’re planning a party at home to celebrate it in a few weeks. In addition to a horse cake and horse-themed party favors that Anna chose over the summer in the US, a fresh batch of chocolate chip cookies is on the party food list. I think I still have one bag of Nestlé’s chocolate chips left. But perhaps, as a representative gesture of Anna’s mixture cultural heritage, I’ll use the Orion chocolate. Maybe I’ll ask her if she wants to give the Nestlé chips to her classroom teacher to use in their traditional Czech Christmas sweets baking.
Blending traditions and maintaining my cultural identity while adapting to life here can be a challenge. Keeping my family’s ritual of baking chocolate chip cookies and sharing them keeps me close to my roots. As the holiday season approaches, I encourage you to take a moment in the madness to prepare one of your family’s favorite foods or desserts. Eat it with them or share it with a neighbor. Think back on your fond memories of making the dish or eating the dish in the past. And try to instill a little of that delicious nostalgia into the kind of holiday experience you’d like to have this year.