Life-Changing Cookbooks: Fat Witch Brownies

Paste's column on the cookbooks that shape who we are

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I’ve had depressive episodes, but not like this one. This was the one that knocked the wind from my lungs. I couldn’t get out of bed—but not like how normal people can’t get out of bed. An ooze the color of black holes sucked any energy I collected from my nightly 12 to 15 hours of sleep, and kept me in my mattress prison. It rendered me useless. My speech was molasses-slow, my voice barely audible. The psychiatrist suggested I take time off work to recuperate and go to intensive outpatient therapy.

I have Bipolar I disorder, which means I vacillate between the lowest of lows—underwater under a pile of rocks in the Mariana Trench, unable to swim to freedom—and the highest peaks in outer space, where I am euphoric and have fantastical ideas and talk too quickly. I make plans to do crazy things like go to graduate school in London, or try to become an indie comic artist in a brand new city.

But this wasn’t a high. It was the winter of 2011. And although Los Angelenos are spoiled when it comes to winters, I knew of no other kind back then, and the ocean chill was devastatingly harsh. For months, I lived my life in a fog of therapy sessions and the bed, of picking at Filipino meals my mother made. She chose to put them on tiny plates for me, since I had lost any semblance of an appetite and only took a few painful bites during dinner. I say painful, I mean it literally. When I ate, my jaw felt like it hadn’t moved in 30 years (I was 25). It creaked. My damn teeth hurt. I barely had the wherewithal to masticate. And swallowing? That took other muscles to work. Simply eating was a chore. I was lucky I lived at home with Mom. Otherwise, I’d probably have lost more weight than I could bear.

And then, for Christmas, my boyfriend at the time, Dylan, gave me a present. It was Patricia Helding’s Fat Witch Brownies: Brownies, Blondies, and Bars from New York’s Legendary Fat Witch Bakery. Dylan had been dealing with my relentless need to sleep, to lay prone, with pure aplomb. I can’t figure out why he would buy such a book for me except for his own mischievousness. Upon presenting me with the book, he chirped, “Now you can make treats for me!”

I was never a cook. Or a baker. Sure, I made Toll House cookies with Mom when I was a kid. And sometimes she’d let me measure water when she was making me Top Ramen. But teaching and learning how to cook was not in our relationship repertoire, and from toddler, to teen, to young adult, I hardly ever set foot in the kitchen except to steal snacks from the fridge.

But as Dylan and I spent our years as a couple, we found it enjoyable to bake together. After six or seven years of being in a relationship that started when you were both seniors in high school, you’re going to want to find other things to do with each other besides go to concerts (expensive), have sex (you aren’t feeling it/parents are home) or go outside and smoke cigarettes (lung cancer). I had two left hands in the kitchen, but with Dylan’s help, I felt my way around and eventually came up with batches of Duncan Hines brownies.

Now, he was giving me license to bake. On my own. With debilitating depression.

As I looked through that cookbook, I felt tiny sparks of excitement flaring from my chest. It had been a long time since I experienced such an emotion. What? With just three eggs and some flour and magic, I can make Triple Chocolate Brownies? And I can make Pecan Bars, too, if I wanted? The delicious possibilities coming from my own hands! And the book made the results look so appetizing. I couldn’t resist. Even the blackness from my bedroom wasn’t strong enough to keep me from wanting to don a cute li’l apron and making a cute li’l batch of Banana Bread Brownies. I slowly slid out of bed and asked Mom if she had a 9 × 9-inch baking pan.

You might see where this goes. Depressed girl is depressed, depressed girl makes things from a cookbook, depressed girl stops being depressed. But it took time, you see. The first time I set out to bake from the book, I made the original Fat Witch Brownie recipe (the cookbook is a spinoff of Helding’s popular New York City’s bakery, which specialized in brownies). I wouldn’t give them to Dylan—I left them on the dining room table for what I saw as a less tough crowd: my forgiving family of four. The next day, all 12 brownies were gone. I was more stunned than happy. It wasn’t long before Mom would eye me coming into the kitchen and ask in her heavily accented English, “Are you going to bake?” I knew I had to take my baked goods elsewhere when, after putting out a batch of Orange Walnut Bars, Mom patted her stomach and said, “Sylvia, I’m going to eat all of that and get fat!”

So I moved on to my next challenge: Dylan.

I didn’t want to just bake for Dylan; I wanted to impress him, make him fall in love with me as if for the first time. That’s why it took me so long to bake for him. All through the previous weeks, he’d gently badger me.

“Are you going to bake me stuff when you get home?”

“No. I’m not ready yet.”

“I’m sure it’ll be good no matter what you make for me.”

“Noooo.”

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But with my parents and sister stuffed to the hilt with sugar, and very few friends to surprise, I settled on Dylan. I saved what I considered the most interesting recipe for him: Espresso Brownies. When I finally took them to his house, once he took a bite of chewy, crumbly chocolate, he didn’t fall madly back in love with me. But his reviews were genuinely positive, his compliments storybook sweet. He couldn’t stop eating those brownies.

As it became easier to share my foodstuffs with Dylan, and eventually, his family, it became easier for me to share myself with the outside world. On medical leave, my social time was relegated to therapy sessions, my family and Dylan. And that was it. And I was fine with that, until I stopped having people to give baked goods to. I reached out to my small circle of friends. I ventured to parties—oh, the treacherous party, always an overstressed jaunt for the socially inept—and left trays of cheesecake brownies and blondies. I even bought another book to bake from, Martha Stewart’s Cookies, which had recipes that were 10 times prettier and infinitely harder than the ones from Fat Witch Brownies. I found myself trying to make the most inconsequential tuiles—a paper-thin cookie whose name I couldn’t even pronounce—one night. I learned what a Silpat was, and I learned that candied ginger is expensive, and I learned that the time required to bake some cookies can be more than the results are worth, and I learned that either I’m doing it wrong or dried cherries taste the same as large dried raisins when drowned in chocolate.

It’s a strange thing, when depression washes out of your life. It happens in increments so small, you don’t recognize anything is happening. It leaves your body as quickly as the hair on your head grows. And then one day, you look behind you, and realize you’ve shed your gray, musty cloak, your exhaustion, the blackness that was always at your back. Your bones are still weak, but they support your weight better than they have in months, and you can stand strong. I was so immersed in baking and making things for people and figuring out how to not burn caramel that when I finally looked up, I was able to breathe. I had swum to freedom.

Baking in itself didn’t get me out of my depressive episode. Other things helped. Therapy, for example. Medication. Time. The fact that spring had dawned on L.A., which means, in actuality, that our nine-month summer had come.

But I’d like to think that, one nonstick 9 × 9-inch pan at a time, along with the cheering of my family and close friends who actually liked the baked goods I’d made, I made it through the winter. And though it might not be the right panacea the next time I feel a chill in my chest, I swear to God, I am armed with a spatula, melting chocolate and butter. I will win this fight. And I will win this war.

Sylvia Masuda has been working in newspapers since before she graduated from college, and she continues the good fight in print news. Read her blog about sandwiches at www.thesandwichdamsel.com, and follow her on Twitter @LTSylvia.

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