On March 22, 2020, I paid $61.72 to have a large Belgian Callebaut chocolate bar shipped to my home.

The Press Herald’s offices had abruptly shut down one week earlier. A few days later, my partner had arrived on the bus with a laptop computer, a cinnamon-colored L.L. Bean bag filled with late winter sweaters and socks, and a lot of anxiety about being in Maine when his office, and his home, are in Boston.

While the rest of Maine hoarded toilet paper, pasta, hand sanitizer, flour and dried beans, I apparently thought an 11-pound 70.5% dark chocolate baking bar a pandemic necessity. Which strikes me as funny because, while I like chocolate, sure I like chocolate, I don’t love it.

In April 2020, Food Editor Peggy Grodinsky, dressed in biking gear and in seeming disbelief, holds the mega 11-lb. chocolate bar she ordered online. Photo by Joe Pollender

Before it arrived in the mail, I had no idea just how much 11 pounds of chocolate is. After it arrived, I posted a picture on Twitter of me hefting it – the bar weighed more than my cat, more than a newborn – and I joked about being ready for whatever would come.

We had no idea what would come.

The bar was bittersweet, as was, though I didn’t know it at the time, the year. I feel I ought to say it was – is – mostly bitter, a global pandemic in which 3.2 million people have died, many of them alone, and the numbers, in India – in Maine, even – continue to go up. There are not many degrees of separation between me and a handful of COVID’s victims – a neighbor’s grandmother; my partner’s colleague’s brother and sister-in-law, both; my sister’s old friend. But, as my partner Joe said a few minutes ago when I asked him about people we knew who’d died from COVID, “We have been largely unscathed.”

I hope we haven’t just tempted fate.

For me, there has been a lot of sweet, too. So much so, I asked a German friend recently if the Germans had come up with a multi-syllabic, hard-to-say word for the survivor’s guilt I feel. This past year, Joe and I have lived together, sharing meals, sharing chores, sharing day-to-day intimacies, with the weekly grind of back-and-forths between Boston and Portland temporarily halted. I’ve kept my job, working from a sunny, cozy home office two steps from the kitchen. I’ve written more than usual in addition to editing, a joy. We live in Maine, where the damage has been comparatively contained, and unlike many, I am not caring for small children full time while working full time nor overseeing larger children struggle with school by Zoom.

The worst part of my year was the gnawing anxiety and growing dread about my 92-year-old mother, who lives in a retirement community 20 minutes from New York City, mostly forgets to wear a mask, and was, for a time, isolated, lonely and losing ground. But she has been fully vaccinated since February. Sweet! So sweet. And last summer she stayed with me for two whole weeks, a long visit that wouldn’t have happened without the coronavirus and its attendant worries. We sat on the porch. We sat by the ocean. We looked at family photographs. We petted the cat. I’ve rarely done so little and felt so tired. I’ve rarely been so grateful. Realistically, how much time do we have left together? Last summer, time briefly stopped.

And, as I’ve cooked my heart out, my shrinking chocolate bar has marked the passage of time.

Early on, while others baked sourdough bread, I baked cookies, soothed by the ease of making them and the repetition of shaping them: chocolate-walnut-buckwheat cookies, potato chip cookies, chocolate-lime financiers, cream, beat, mix, add, rest, roll.

In July, I baked a raspberry-rose-chocolate birthday cake to thank Nancy Atwell, who pruned my lilac trees with her husband, Maine Gardener columnist Tom Atwell, and then joined my mother and me for tea and cake on the deck. In the space of an hour, I reminded Mom to put on her mask at least 25 times. July also brought cinnamon-chocolate zucchini cake, because, pandemic or no, it is not officially July in Maine until there is zucchini cake. Soon after, I made chocolate-mint cake, a futile attempt to keep the mint by my kitchen door from taking over the garden. As I write this the following spring, it’s clear that I didn’t make a dent.

In October, I brought tahini-chocolate blondies to the White Mountains for a getaway with my sister and a Maine friend. The friend and I drove there together, our environmental good-citizen selves (carpool!) at war with our pandemic selves (was it safe to share a car?). For that matter, was it safe to share a cabin? We survived.

The week before Thanksgiving – perhaps trying to get our stomach muscles into fighting trim – we had Pati Jinich’s luscious Almond and Chocolate Leche Cake. The night before Thanksgiving – Thanksgiving for two, previously unheard of (for my family) – I was tired and cranky, having worked late and then put together a complicated winter squash lasagna for the next day. Our evening meal was late and kooky: roasted Brussels sprouts and a big bowl of popcorn drizzled with peanut butter sauce and mixed with chopped Callebaut chocolate. After, I felt sick.

The batch of World Peace cookies (a legendary Dorie Greenspan recipe) that I put together in early December was meant as an overdue thank-you to a South Berwick friend who’d sewn and mailed us masks the previous April. We’d asked for tie closures, having no idea my increasingly unruly pandemic hair would hopelessly tangle the ties, making them impractical. The dough went into the freezer for the time being, but as case numbers climbed and we kept to ourselves, the Berwicks seemed as far away as Japan. Instead, I gave the deeply, chocolatey cookies to neighbors, Josh and Deb, who lent us a hand drill (I tried to buy one but was confused by the many choices and afraid to linger at the store); and Tony and Julie, who found my lost cat hiding, terrified, in their basement. The pandemic didn’t scare her, but an overnight in an unknown basement did.

Passover macaroons with chopped Callebaut chocolate. Photo by Peggy Grodinsky

More holidays came and went. For dessert on Christmas Eve, we poured spiced magic shell chocolate sauce onto pistachio ice cream. For Valentine’s, we ate chocolate-pistachio loaf. For Passover, there were meringues with candied matzo shards, chocolate and almonds. The crumbs flew everywhere. In a pandemic, I refused to sweat the small stuff.

Just this morning, I baked chocolate raspberry coffee cake with The Bar. It called for 1 ounce of bittersweet chocolate. At that rate, it would have taken me 176 baking projects to use the bar up.

We have needed sweets this past year. We have needed ordinary routines, and the comforting assurance that when you mix butter, sugar, flour and chocolate, something good will emerge. Probably, I should have spent the year learning to speak Spanish, to dance the waltz, to recognize bird calls. Instead, I baked my way through the pandemic.

Just now, I weighed the remains of the Callebaut bar: 6.7 pounds. Like the mint, barely a dent. I am fully vaccinated. I hugged a friend yesterday. I am walking the streets maskless, considering vacations that involve airplanes, and no longer feeling rage when I see people at the supermarket whose masks don’t cover their noses.

I think the worst is over. I hope the worst is over. I pray the worst is over. But if it’s not, and you need chocolate, stop by.

Pati Jinich’s Almond and Chocolate Leche Cake. Photo by Peggy Grodinsky

Almond and Chocolate Leche Cake (Pastel de Almendras y Chocolate de Leche)
Recipe from Pati Jinich.

Yields one 9-inch cake

6 ounces bittersweet chocolate
1 cup unsalted butter
4 large eggs
1½ cups sweetened condensed milk (One 14-ounce can plus ¼ cup)
1½ cups almond flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon baking powder
Scant ½ teaspoon salt
¼ boiling water or coffee

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter a 9-inch springform pan, line with parchment paper and butter and flour. Melt the chocolate and butter in a double boiler.

Whisk together the eggs and condensed milk in a large bowl. Add the melted chocolate and beat to combine. Whisk in the almond flour, baking soda and powder and salt. Add the boiling water or coffee and whisk until smooth.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake until the top is slightly springy and a toothpick poked into the center of the cake comes up moist but not wet, 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Let the cool cake 10 minutes. Remove the sides of the springform pan. Carefully flip the cake, remove the bottom of the pan, then flip right side up and cool completely on a cooling rack.

Serve dusted with confectioners’ sugar, with ice cream, whipped cream or fruit compote.


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