Believe it or not, I grew up a stone’s throw from this house.
Ok fine, technically I lived quite a ways down the hill. And technically the Dunsmuir House is not a house, it’s a mansion, one that’s owned by the city of Oakland, California, and mostly used as a interpretive center and event space. But still, this imposing grand dame inspires in me the same warm and fuzzy feelings of nostalgia as the modest bungalow I grew up in.
Even though the Bay Area is dotted with similar turn-of-the-century mansions — relics surrounded by apartment houses and supermarkets, giving us a ghostly glimpse of what life looked like so many years ago — the Dunsmuir House is different. Not only is it the grandest of them all, it’s set away from the modern world by acres of landscaped grounds. Somehow it still feels alive, even in its antiquity.
Especially when it’s decked out for the holidays.
Every year, dozens of volunteers decorate the house and throw open the doors for a steady stream of visitors looking for a taste of that old-fashioned Currier & Ives kind of Christmas spirit. I was once one of those volunteers, even though I was just an elementary school kid. I remember wrapping the bannisters in the grand entry hall with ribbon, I was maybe 10 or 11, looking up at the domed stained glass skylight and feeling very important.
My great aunt Bernice was once a volunteer, too, though I didn’t know it until a few months ago, when I was combing through one of the vintage cookbooks I inherited when she passed away. Bernice always had excellent taste, and her cookbook collection was no exception. Even better, she was prone to filling those books with notes — thoughts, critiques, and names and dates cataloguing when she made each recipe and who it was for. Paging through the books is like having her next to me, telling me which recipes to try.
While browsing through “Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Chocolate Desserts” (an excellent book worthy of rediscovery), I spotted a note at the bottom of the recipe for Dolly’s Crisp Toffee Bars. In Bernice’s looping script it read: “11-25-82, For Dunsmuir House.” Instantly I could picture tall, impeccably dressed Bernice striding through the doors to my beloved Dunsmuir House brandishing her big smile and a tin of cookies, ready to share them with the other volunteers on her shift.
My eyes began to well and I could feel a lump forming in my throat. I really miss her. And the Dunsmuir House. And that magical time in my life when my future was so unformed and brimming with possibility.
That’s when I knew I would pay homage to Bernice and make those toffee bars for Christmas this year.
It’s worth noting that technically Bernice and I weren’t related. She was my grandpa’s brother’s ex-wife. But the fact that she remained a part of our family post-divorce (which I believe happened before I was even born) and that I knew her better than my own blood relative (I think I met my grandpa’s brother maybe three times), tells you something about what a wonderful person she was.
Bernice was smart, good-humored and generous. She never talked down to me or dismissed me for being a kid. And she was a loyal friend to my grandma, who was house-bound with severe rheumatoid arthritis for the last two decades of her life. But one of the coolest things about Bernice was that she had three career goals and accomplished them all — no easy feat for anyone, let alone a woman (a single mom no less) of her generation. She wanted to be a nurse, a journalist and a chef, and damn if she didn’t make it all happen. And the funny thing is, I followed her into two of those three careers. We might not be blood, but we were soul sisters.
I knew Bernice best during the chef chapter of her life. She was in her 70s and had graduated from Tante Marie cooking school in San Francisco. I was a food-obsessed teen toying with the idea of going to cooking school myself. There was a 60-year age gap between us, but it never felt that way. Whenever I’d see her at holiday gatherings, we’d talk shop and she’d applaud my latest attempt at making a way-too-fancy dessert (I was more Sacher Torte while the rest of my family was more Texas Sheet Cake). And eventually I took some cooking classes from her at the community center. It was just a cheap adult ed course, but she took it seriously, giving us an education in bûches de noël worthy of Le Cordon Bleu.
I wish we could’ve had more time to cook together, as adults. Instead, I can only cook with her through the vintage cookbooks she left behind, her notes leading me to discover new favorites among long-forgotten classics. I wish I could tell her that these cookies are my new go-to, all-occasion, in-a-pinch favorite, because they’re like a cross between a chocolate chip cookie and a toffee bar. I wish I could tell her I tried them with hazelnuts instead of walnuts, but didn’t like it as much. A sprinkle of sea salt on top, however, was divine.
And I wish I could tell her thank you, for her encouragement, her example, and most of all, for her influence on my life, which, even now, brings sweet rewards.
Dolly’s Crisp Toffee Bars
From “Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Chocolate Desserts” (Knopf 1981)
Makes 32 cookies
My friend Dolly (Mrs. Andy) Granatelli is a superb cook and hostess who says that asking her not to cook would be like asking her not to breathe. These cookies are one of her specialties: chocolate chip butter bars, extremely crisp and crunchy, chewy and buttery, quick and easy. They keep well, mail well, and everyone loves them.
½ pound (2 sticks) sweet butter
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup light or dark brown sugar, firmly packed
2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
4 ounces (generous 1 cup) walnuts, cut into medium size pieces
6 ounces (1 cup) semisweet morsels
Adjust rack to the center of the oven and preheat oven to 350 degrees.
In the large bowl of an electric mixer cream the butter. Add the salt, vanilla, and sugar and beat well. On low speed gradually add the flour, scraping the bowl with a rubber spatula and beating until the mixture holds together.
Add the nuts and chocolate morsels and stir until they are evenly distributed. The dough will be stiff.
With a teaspoon or with your fingers place small mounds of the dough in an unbuttered 10 ½ x 15 ½ x 1-inch jelly roll pan. With floured fingertips press the dough firmly to make an even layer — it will be thin.
Bake for 25 minutes, reversing the pan front to back once to insure even baking. The cake will be golden brown.
Let cool in the pan for only a minute or so. Then, with a small, sharp knife, cut into bars. Let stand in the pan until cool.
With a wide metal spatula transfer the cookies to paper towels to dry the bottoms.
Wrap them individually in clear cellophane or wax paper or store them in an airtight container.
My Notes: Think of these as a chocolate chip cookie without the leavening (no egg, no baking powder or baking soda), so each bar is addictively crispy, crunchy, buttery, and brown-sugary all the way through. The pan size is important. You want a cheap supermarket cookie sheet, sometimes called a jelly roll pan. Those nice quarter-sheet pans from the cookware store are too big. The cookies keep for days and travel well, making them the perfect food gift for friends. I love salt with my sweets, so I sprinkle the tops with flaky sea salt before baking.