Best Below Freezing
I am sitting in our old house just outside of Philadelphia on the ashy ledge of our slate plated fireplace. My dad crouches next to me and sets another splintered piece of wood on the dwindling fire. The nearly burned out embers below the log emit a twitching bright orange glow. Fleecy white snow heaps outside the downstairs window of our split-level and it presses so tight against the glass that I can push a ruler to the pane and accurately determine the number of accumulated inches. I report this seemingly crucial information back the rest of my family and they politely pretend to care.
There are six inches now. I am six years old, and we are only an eighth of the way into the worst blizzard of my life. The power went out long ago, so I sit on the dusty ledge, entranced by flames kissing the sides of the chimney walls. Watching fire is like observing goldfish in a bowl – pointless but somehow impossible to tear your eyes away from. Sitting on the ledge with my dad, watching fire, and counting the inches of snow - this evening felt like how hot chocolate tastes; warm, inviting, satisfying, and safe.
Without power we relied only on our newly developed cat eyes and a few scrounged up flashlights. My mom sat shivering on our old green leather couch, and her more-salt-than-pepper hair became shining silver in the dim glow seeping from the hearth in our den. She was cold even on days when blurry heat waves emanated off concrete sidewalks. My brother, only a year and a half younger than me, bounced around the room in a fit of excitement over his first black out snow storm. My mom, instinctive to the growing probability of boredom induced sibling rivalry, knew just what to do.
“Let’s make hot chocolate” she suggested in a tone reflecting her eagerness to keep us entertained. Instantly, I was off the ledge, up our creaking wooden stairs, rounding a corner, and standing expectantly at her waist. She heated water until the kettle called for relief and I knew she too desperately wanted absolution from the cold. After adding the powder packet, she made it her own by squeezing a stream of sticky caramel syrup into my mug and garnishing the swirling deep brown brew with coarse sea salt. She wisely advised to wait a few minutes or I would burn my tongue, but I always neglected to heed her warning. As the warmth inched down the back of my throat, it didn’t matter; nothing could taste more like home.
A predictable cycle followed as snow accumulated and then melted into slippery slush. My family moved south and we traded blizzards for hurricanes. I longed for sleds and icicles. I missed trudging through snow with my brother and arriving home to thaw our frostbitten toes in buckets of hot water. It may never snow in Florida, but I still had the fire.
I am attempting unsuccessfully to warm both sides of my body at the same time while balancing on a chalky broken cinder block. My best friend kneels beside the wildly arching flames and skillfully attaches a jumbo puff marshmallow to the end of a dirty stick. The firelight dances in the reflection on her pupils and accentuates her curly red hair against the pitch black sky. We have come to this place as an act of defiance and entered this darkness to illuminate it with the prospect of an exciting night. This town was leaving us with that uncomfortable burnt tongue feeling and slowly rendering us numb like the tip of my nose now facing away from the fire.
I am sixteen years old. The temperature is sixteen degrees above freezing, and we are shivering and cursing our thin Florida blood. Our sun-kissed and freckled skin cannot help us now. I stand on the cinder block, one of about seven rimming the crudely constructed fire pit, and clasp a travel mug of steaming hot chocolate. Flecks of white hot ash erupt from the center of the inferno each time a new piece of scrap wood or dried palm frond is tossed on top. I briefly envision droplets of fire setting the immediate area ablaze; however, they quickly extinguish when impacting with the shadowy night sky like tiny meteors entering Earth’s atmosphere. My cold palms and chilly fingers clutch the mug tight and as I bring the chocolate liquid to my lips it flows through me, like syrup down a maple tree, slow, sweet, purposeful, and warm.
“Are you ready?” She questions in a tone reflecting her eagerness to back away from the tear inducing smoke. With ease, I pop the top off the mug and hold it out to her while nodding my head. She slips the marshmallow off the stick and plops it in with a small splash. I add caramel, heavy-handedly sprinkle the top with sea salt, and tell her it’s my personal touch. On the first sip I burn my tongue, like always. But the drink spills warmly into me and it doesn’t matter because nothing could ever taste more like victory.
More flames burned and extinguished over the years. I moved to Gainesville and traded bonfires for bars. In the back of my mind, I yearned for the familiarity of home. I even almost missed the predictability of high school. The flavors of chocolate, caramel, and salt were as much a part of me as the appendages I used to grasp each mug. The chocolate powder swirling like molten lava prompted memories of childish excitement and naive adventure. The caramel’s hidden creaminess pleaded to be discovered like an exhilarating night in a lackluster hometown. The full combination allowed nostalgia to linger in my thoughts like bits of sea salt clinging to a mug’s rim. I might not be able to relive these years, but I’ll always have salted caramel hot chocolate.
Salted Caramel Hot Chocolate Cookies Original Recipe by Becca Goldring
1 2/3 cup all-purpose flour
½ tsp baking soda
½ tsp sea salt
4 tablespoons (2oz or 2 1oz packets) hot chocolate mix
1/2 cup butter (1 stick), softened
½ cup granulated sugar
2/3 cup brown sugar
1 egg + 1 egg yolk
1 tsp vanilla extract
Rolo Candies Sea salt for sprinkling
1. In a small bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, sea salt, and hot chocolate mix.
2. In another larger bowl, beat butter and sugars with a hand-mixer until very fluffy.
3. Add eggs and egg-yolk, one at a time, and then mix in the vanilla extract.
4. Add dry ingredients to wet ingredients in three parts, stir until combined.
5. Allow dough to chill in refrigerator at least one hour (for best results chill overnight)
6. When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350◦F
7. Form cookie dough in a ball around a Rolo candy.
8. Place each ball on baking sheet at least 2” apart
9. Slightly flatten cookies with palm and sprinkle with sea salt (to taste)
10. Bake for 10-12 minutes until tops are just firm to the touch
11. Let cool 3-4 minutes on a baking sheet before transferring to a wire rack
This post is a personal narrative and recipe assignment for the food writing class I took this semester!