My grandmother’s dessert recipes are huge. My mother was one of seven children in a vaguely Irish and vaguely Catholic family. The first thing of Grandma Cavanagh’s I ever learned to bake, which is a devil’s food cake a friend once referred to as “that crack cake,” requires three normal cake pans or a single industrial-sized one. These recipes involve shortening. They are not skimpy or healthy or polite. They will fill you with sugar and fat, whether you like it or not, and you will like it.
I did, and did not, know my grandmother very well. She died when I was small — I’d guess that I was around six. I could be wrong about that, but for some reason I can’t bring myself to ask my mother and find out. But before that, she lived with us for a few years. I have some beautiful memories of her. In one, I’ve woken up very early and wandered down to the kitchen. She’s sitting at the table eating orange sections off of a knife. She lets me have one, right off the knife, even though I am not supposed to be anywhere near knives, and then sends me back to bed. It is our secret. In another, she’s rolling my socks down. I cannot get the knack of rolling instead of folding, and I really want rolled socks. All the cool girls at school have rolled socks. The fact that it is 6 p.m. at night and no one will see my socks does not phase me for a second. It doesn’t phase her either. She rolls them just right.
Today, I decided to make a recipe that my family has always referred to as “hermit cookies.” I don’t know why. They are kind of like a brownie, in that you bake them flat in a pan and then cut them up into squares, but it’s a very stiff batter. I didn’t realize how stiff until I started mixing in the flour and the spices. When I finally felt like they had been mixed enough, my hand was shaking and my wrist was sore. I’d never made them before; in fact, I had mostly forgotten about them. But I spent this Thanksgiving with my mother’s sisters and their kids, and over dinner one night I heard myself asking one of my aunts if she still had the recipe. She did.
These, I don’t remember my grandmother making. Instead, it was my aunts. For a few glorious summers, we would go to my uncle’s wife’s lakeside cabin in Vermont. It was huge, and somehow all of us — me, my brothers, my mother and father, my three aunts, their occasional boyfriends, my two uncles, my uncle’s wife — would fit. Or maybe some of them stayed elsewhere, I’m not sure. My aunts definitely stayed with us, because we were frequently enlisted in pranks involving bras in freezers and pepper on toothbrushes and underwear-decorated bushes. And invariably, on the day we all arrived, there would be huge trays of hermits. We kids would have to be told to stop eating them, have them forcibly taken away from us. My uncle died when I was in 6th grade, and had split up with his wife a few years before that.
As I checked (and rechecked, and rechecked — apparently I put them in too deep a layer in the casserole dish, and they took closer to 30 minutes than the 15 the recipe calls for) the hermits, I tried to imagine what my grandmother must have been thinking about when she made these recipes. Maybe she was imagining her children quiet and happy, absorbed in eating, a reprieve from the near-constant brawling. Maybe she was splurging, making something that was for special occasions only, after weeks of leftovers and reheated mystery meals dictated by a budget that was never large enough. Maybe she just really loved dessert. Contrary to what you might expect, she was a small woman. One of my aunts looks astonishingly like her — short, with dark curly hair, small-boned, like a good breeze could blow her away. It was probably all that chasing after her brood. There’s a running joke in my family: If you didn’t get hurt, how do you know you had fun? They ski, they mountain bike, they rock-climb, they snorkel, they sail, they hike. You can imagine what they were all like as kids.
My grandmother’s recipes are imprecise. This one told me to bake at 350 for about 15-20 minutes, but not how or in what or what they should look like when they’re done. Assuming it would spread and/or rise, I just kind of pushed the batter around into a baking sheet and a casserole dish. The hermits came out lumpy, exactly the same shape and texture as when I put them in. But if the batter was any indication, once they cool they will be delicious, and my apartment currently smells like the safest place on earth.