I arrived in Ballater the way a first grader arrives for their first day of school, stood anxiously (and mildly shaking) before the towering brick and cement facade of the building in the lingering heat of September’s inaugural days. But perhaps that’s not the best comparison: firstly because it was January, secondly because I was twenty-two, and finally (and maybe most importantly) the small village, smack-dab in the middle of Scotland’s mystical Cairngorms National Park, resembled more a Rockwellian attempt at a Silent Hill-inspired 3D rendering and less the innocuous face of an elementary school swarming with shrieking children and brightly colored backpacks.
As a homichlophile, it was love at first sight.
And yet still, somehow, despite the calming ethereality of the fog and permeating wintry grayness (my natural habitat, if there ever was one), I remained nervous. Nervous because I suffer from a near-debilitating case of social anxiety; nervous because I’d decided to confront that condition head-on by scheduling a stay at my very first bed and breakfast. The bus ride from Aberdeen was long, and beautiful, and calming, and yet I couldn’t quite shake the tremor in my right leg. The only reason my left wasn’t bouncing, too, was because it was injured at the time (following a rather overzealous attempt at a studio cycle class a few weeks prior).
After making what I believed to be a vital stop at the Co-Op (conveniently located right beside the bus stop) for a bottle of gin and a sack full of toasties, I set off, cane in hand, through slushy sidewalks toward what would be my home for the next week: Osborne House Bed & Breakfast.
And would you believe me if I told you the gin wasn’t necessary to calm my nerves? Anyone who knows me personally probably wouldn’t. But I swear it’s the truth.
Exiting the town center onto Invercauld and then veering right onto Dundarroch Road, night fell and in the near distance was the golden, welcoming light of Osborne House. Inside, my hostess Heather waited with a tray of tea and biscuits.
We sat in a drawing room beside a wood-burning fire, its warm and homey decor torn straight from a book detailing the nuances of 19th century manor house design, where I thawed the midwinter frost from my, in hindsight, very insensible socks and footwear. Soft-spoken and smiling, we bonded over a mutual distaste for the newly elected president and a mutual love of travel and all the serenity and calm that comes hand-in-hand with gazing out at the Scottish countryside from the windows of buses and trains.
Snow fell, the perfect accompaniment to the northern night. I couldn’t help but step out and stand for an immeasurable amount of time on that snowbound road, unplagued by traffic of both the vehicle and foot sort; basking in the absolute quiet and peace one can only find in Highland villages surrounded on all sides by nature untouched by its contented people.
I retreated to my room, filled with a new sense of confidence in my ability to actually communicate with another human being without choking on every other word. And what’d ya know – there were more tea and cookies awaiting me on the dresser – cookies so delicious I absolutely had to have the recipe…
…only to discover that Heather hadn’t had time to bake that day. They were store-bought! Irresistible All Butter Fruit and Oat Cookies from the very same Co-Op from which I’d smuggled my stash of hooch and sandwiches.
But hey, I didn’t mind. (They were damn good cookies.)
Especially since every morning and evening during my stay, home-baked goods magically appeared in my room, courtesy of Heather, the culinary wizard from heaven. I indulged on shortbread and banana loaf, wondering what sort of black magic or deals with crossroads demons granted my hostess the ability to whip up such delectable treats.
I absolutely had to have the recipes. Heather, kind as she was, happily obliged: providing me with photocopies of handwritten recipes for both the shortbread and the loaf; her own takes on award-winning desserts conjured by such chefs as Candice Brown and Shirley Spear. I tucked them away for safe-keeping in my overstuffed bag – and they somehow survived my subsequent wanderings to Inverness, Fort William, London, Ghent, Edinburgh and finally back home to New York. Undamaged and unstained.
That was a first.
It wasn’t until yesterday, one year later, that I finally decided to exhume those recipes from the chaotic mess that is my library and try my hand at some serious Scottish baking.
What better occasion than the Superbowl to serve as an excuse to spend hours slaving away on stoves and counter tops, coated in flour and sugar and butter and chocolate? Like any self-respecting New Yorker I detest the Patriots, and the ornery nature of Eagles fans left a bad taste in my mouth. Lacking the motivation to root for either team, I turned my attention instead to my whisk and parchment paper.
And let me tell you right now – converting UK grams to US ounces, tablespoons, teaspoons and cups was a mathematical challenge comparable to quantum mechanics. But boy oh boy, was the struggle worth the results. Delicious, gooey, crispety-crunchety results.
First up was the banana loaf – or rather, the banana-dark-chocolate-coconut loaf avec sultanas.
Mixing the batter ingredients was easy enough. Toasting the coconut flakes was a study in patience and toeing the fine line between golden-brown and burnt, but somehow I managed. Melting the chocolate for drizzle was simple, too.
Honestly, the hardest part was figuring out how to get the parchment paper to stick to the loaf tin – and subsequently, how the hell to get the cake out of the tin post-baking.
“You have to let it cool!” my mom warned. But I’ve never been known for my patience. Somehow (with the help of an extra set of hands and a pair of scissors, oddly enough), the loaf came out in one piece.
Next up were the Three Chimneys shortbread cookies. Four ingredients. Simple, right?
I swear I spent at least 30 minutes on conversions, weighing flour and sugar on my digital scale, worrying over proportions and sure, absolutely, totally sure that the end product would be a flour-dense mess more akin to bricks than biscuits.
But eventually, I got it. At least I was pretty sure I did. To be honest, I was really just tired of measuring – and I had more flour on my chest than I did in the bowl (and it was getting harder and harder not to gorge myself on the fluffy creamed butter and sugar), so I said fuck it and went on my merry way to the next steps, incredibly simple by comparison: sifting, mixing, kneading, and rolling.
Let me tell you right now how unpleasant a sensation it is to have shortbread dough lodged under your nails. I cringed. I shuddered. I cursed the culinary gods with a raised fist and a scowl. But I persevered, in the holy name of baked goods.
And then I realized I didn’t have a cookie cutter.
Some hundred thousand expletives later, my dad, ever the helpful bastion of DIY ingenuity, found a perfectly-sized brandy glass in the dark recesses of the kitchen cabinet.
Upward and onward!
Oh, how satisfying it was to create such perfectly circular little discs of deliciousness. Oven at 375, 13 minutes a batch and a dusting of fine sugar post-bake created the loveliest little shortbread cookies this side of the Atlantic.
All the trials and tribulations were worth it. I reveled in their prettiness, and I reveled in the wide-eyed smiles of my parents as they feasted on the fruits of my labor…
…and I sat and watched, because I’m on a diet.