Mother was not the mothering sort. She had babies. Plenty of ‘em – five – but after they graduated from wriggling, cooing helplessness, she checked out. She always said she loved infants. Kids, not so much.
Spring melt in Como, Quebec. Mother taking my brother Donny for a walk around 1940something. Both are gone now.
To be fair, she was depressed, improperly and sporadically medicated, angry and lonely. A broken soul. I don’t suppose I’d like a bunch of demanding kids around either, all wanting stuff: attention, looking after, love...
She never said as much, but I think she wished she could have been someone else. Someone more. She took no pride or joy in being a mother, wife or homemaker, yet that is what she settled for. Perhaps that's all that was available to her?
Mother always had a far away look; pretty but with sad eyes. Florida, 1965.
Mother and Father didn’t share a bedroom. Their rooms were at opposite ends of a long hallway. She outfitted her room like a hotel suite, replete with a secretary and sitting area; a bedside trolley held her little black and white TV, her magnifying mirror, which she spent hours and hours in front of, and piles of eclectic reading: Leonard Cohen, Irving Layton (she found him disgusting, but read him anyway), the National Enquirer, Cosmo, Germane Greer, Erica Jong. Her queen bed was decked out in ruffled shams and fluffy floral comforters, and I was rarely permitted to sit on it for fear I’d dirty the covers somehow.
At her dark wood desk with brass fittings, she took care of any correspondence and the bills that Father could not be trusted to pay. She keep an eagle eye on her collection of pens. Her pens were as off limits as her bed.
At one end of her room, she had a lime green crushed velvet loveseat, coffee table, mustard vinyl hassock, faux Persian rug, mahogany Hi-Fi stacked with LPs: Shirley Bassey, Kenneth McKellar, Lou Rawls, Engelbert Humperdinck (not his real name, by the way).Through the walls we heard her muffled singalongs; "Goldfinger!..." Mother could sing. She had a voice. Was she imagining she was a star like Shirley or just wishing she had never married, never had kids. She had everything she needed in there to maintain the fantasy for most of the day and night; and a door that was usually shut tight.
She also had a secret stash, hidden away in her walk-in closet. I knew this, because I’d taken many secret expeditions in there, hunting for treasure. Among her collection of clothes and furs, Mother squirreled away food. Very special food. Delicacies in tiny tins, fancy boxes, and pretty jars. A slim, white cardboard box of Laura Secord chocolates, a bite taken out of each, the softer fillings oozing out wastefully into the frilly brown paper. I still don’t know if she did that to mark her territory - an insurance policy against prowlers like me - or because she just couldn’t wait to know what was inside all 24.
I'd sneak into her boudoir pantry every chance I got. I found pâté, smoked oysters, potted shrimp, Carr’s table water crackers, little greenish glass bottles of Coke, a thimble-sized glass test tube of saffron for her famous paella, and tins of tiny shrimp. “Eh, eh, eh…put those back! Those are for when company comes.” She'd command from her bed. I did as I was told, but the seed of my obsession with her hoard had been planted, and I knew there should be some cookies in there too; I’d caught her eating cookies with her demitasse of black coffee in bed. Digestives. The best kind, covered with dark chocolate. But I didn't find them on any of my hunting trips.
On an afternoon when Mother was out, I had time for a real search. I was going to find those cookies.The closet was clean. No digestives. Likewise, her bedside table, desk, and Hi-Fi - all clean. There could only be one answer; she’s hiding them under her bed.
I lifted the floofy bed skirt and shimmied under belly-down, collecting a patch of dust and shed hair on the front of my shirt. Bingo! The cellophane was already torn, the box was open, the cookies dug into, but only one was gone. Would she miss one more? I was dealing with a woman who counted her pens and would interrogate my Father and me if one went missing. Yes, she’d miss one of her precious, delicious, Digestives.
Taking a nibble was also out of the question, and then it came to me; she’d never notice if I just licked a little bit of the chocolate coating from each of the cookies then put them back, exactly as I had found them. Not all of it, you understand, just a few warm, melting licks of my tongue applied to each; just enough to taste the chocolate without exposing the cookie beneath.
A stroke of genius! It would be the perfect crime...a victim-less crime!
I was wrong.
I’d like to be able to recount the discovery, the trial, the punishment, but I can’t. It’s lost; everything after the licking is a blank. The mind has a way of forgetting the painful stuff.
I've made these so I can damn well lick all the chocolate off, or take a bite out of each one, or eat the whole freakin' batch!!
Not My Mother’s Digestive Biscuits
You might think I’d have been scarred for life, but no, I still love a good digestive. I don’t buy them because the factory kinds tend to be full of evil palm oil and deadly over-refined sugars. These taste perfectly naughty - rather like a healthy-ish shortbread - and what with the wheat bran and brown sugar, it’s possible to convince the easily convinced (that’d be me!) that they’re not entirely bad.
½ cup (125 mL) unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup (250 mL) whole wheat flour
½ (125 mL) wheat bran
1 tsp (5 mL) baking powder
½ tsp (2 mL) fine sea salt
½ cup (125 mL) butter, at room temperature
¾ cup (175 mL) well-packed brown sugar
1/2 cup (125 mL) whole milk, 18% or 35% cream
1/2 cup (125 mL) semi-sweet chocolate chips (optional)
Line baking sheet with parchment; set aside.
Add the flours, bran, baking powder and salt into a large bowl; stir.
With a pastry cutter or two butter knives, or if you have very cold hands, cut or rub the butter into the dry mixture.
Add the sugar; stir to combine.
Start adding the milk or cream a few drops at a time, combining in between additions, until you have a stiff dough.
Tip dough out onto lightly floured work surface or lightly floured sheet of parchment; kneed the dough until smooth – should happen very quickly – with floured hands.
Wrap the ball of dough up in plastic wrap, a plastic bag, or airtight container and chill in the fridge for about 30 minutes.
When ready to roll the dough, pre-heat the oven to 350F (180C), transfer the dough ball onto a lightly floured work surface and with floured rolling pin, roll out to about ¼-inch thick (about 5 mm); use a floured cookie cutter or drinking glass about 2 ½–inch (6 cm) across to cut the cookies out.
Transfer cookies to the prepared cookie sheet. Dock (or prick them) with a fork; bake about 15 to 20 minutes or until lightly golden. Less time for softer cookies. I like them crisp, so I bake mine the full 20 minutes.
When done, allow to cool on the cookie sheets.
These cookies are delicious as is, but truly over the top with lashings of melted dark chocolate (Mother was right, about that, at least!). Melt the chocolate in a heat-proof or microwave-safe bowl; stopping to stir a few times. When very hot and completely melted, add a few chocolate chips in at a time and stir until melted. Repeat until a further 2Tbsp (30 mL) of chocolate chips have been melted in just from the remaining heat.
Using an offset spatula or back of a spoon, coat the top of the cookies with the melted chocolate or simply drizzle the melted chocolate over the cookies in a random pattern; leave on the sheet to harden!
Yield approximately 24 biscuits
Tip: the dough ball can be divided; bake some now and freeze some for later!