My Brain On Vertigo

Flourless Peanut Butter Blossoms
with Dark Chocolate and Torched Marshmallow
(Or, Stoner’s Delight III*)

When I was 12 years old, I became convinced I was going to die before I reached college. The idea presented itself in a dream and that was all the prophecy I needed. Thinking that it was my truth, I held my secret close; no one would understand. I reached driving age and still hadn’t died, so I delayed getting my license for a year; a car accident seemed like a reasonable way for a 16-year-old to go. That’s why I still hate driving.

Years later, I now fear the opposite—I fear that I’m cursed with never-ending life. I’ve had too many scares to still be here and my body constantly surprises me with how strong it is, so I must be immortal. This is a much scarier truth.

These irrational thoughts on my own mortality were going through my head as I sat on the floor of my cubicle at work on a Saturday, Halloween, two weeks ago, my knees clutched tightly against my chest, the pulsating beats of my music reverberating violently against my tympanic membrane; like when I have migraines, I was trying to drown out the hollow white noise of my own between-the-ear nausea. I didn’t know what was wrong, but I kept the trash near me in case of emergency, and I just sat there, alone, turning up the volume every so often until I feared my eardrums would burst.

I had just moved most of my belongings from my desk on the tippity-top floor of my building to a new one, as low in the building as I could go. I work in publishing, so this involved a lot of heavy books. I work in food, so this also involved a sous vide machine and some faux-fancy China. I would be starting a new role at my company that coming Monday. I assumed it was stress and anxiety coupled with my migraines that were making me loopy. I let my head rest on the cubicle wall. I just needed to close my eyes and breathe; I’d be fine.

Eventually my legs felt strong enough to stand and walk, though my weight shifted frantically from one foot to the other and my head felt like it was forced to make the weighty bobbing movements of an enlightened hipster at a synth-pop concert. This was unnerving for me as a dancer: Without balance and posture, without an unwavering center of gravity, the dancer is lost. When I got outside, I opened my coat wide. I needed the brisk air to hit my bare skin—to wake me up enough to carry me home, a 20-minute walk. I was all over the sidewalks, zig-zagging as if I was intoxicated. My skin was flushed enough, my under-eye area black as coal—I could have passed as a wasted Halloween reveler. It was a true out-of-body experience. My brain concentrated hard on striving forward, one foot in front of the other, like the Winter Warlock sings in the Fred Astaire–narrated Santa Claus Is Coming to Town. But my body was doing something very different, and my typically lithe arms were heavy and lifeless. I looked down and the ground was a blur; I looked forward and people had no faces; I looked up and the moon’s light hurt my eyes. This was something I hadn’t felt before. Maybe it was finally time to go? No, this was vertigo.

Processed with VSCOcam with f2 preset

It’s fun to be outside of ourselves. That’s why we get high, why we sleep to dream, why we meditate, why we jump out of planes. The desire is stronger in those who constantly feel unsettled. Vertigo, though, is not fun, I’ve learned. And it’s nothing like that shitty U2 song would lead you to believe.

I proceeded to sleep away the rest of the weekend, not because sleeping made me feel better when I woke up—getting out of bed made the world spin more violently—but because it temporarily let me escape existence. There were no dreams, no tossing or turning. This sleep was heavy, dark, and cold. No, I don’t want to live forever.

The evening vertigo struck, I had planned to share the below recipe, because it’s whimsical and has some of the flavors of Halloween candies. But this altered state of being continued, for two weeks. I could barely make it through my first weeks in a new job, never mind write. (The original topic for this post was supposed to be the economic isolation I felt from my peers on Halloween, growing up in a Central Mass suburb. We’re always cheery around here.) And though the nausea has started to subside and I’ve picked up some of my activities, I still can’t walk properly. The cause, I learned on Tuesday? Sinuses. Fucking sinuses. Not my migraines (as my neurologist said), not my stress (as I figured), and not even my inner ear. I knew this big Persian nose would be a liability one day.

So now we have a recipe and a story that have nothing to do with each other–Shit Food Blogger would chastise me–but I think that’s OK. Because maybe I ended up telling a ghost story, after all? My bones caged in some real haunted shit the past couple of weeks. At the very least, I’ve given you a recipe to have on hand when you think you might get the munchies.

This vertigo wasn’t close to the most severe thing I’ve faced. But it was the most mysterious. It didn’t feel like illness. It felt like my mind and soul had been pulled just a few inches away from my body. They floated there, struggling but failing to get back to the core. I don’t want to live forever, but I don’t want to die. I don’t search for the morose, but it seems to have no problem finding me.

(*Stoner’s Delight I is the sugary-sweet PB, banana, chocolate, fluff concoction they offer you after dinner at the Gallows. Stoner’s Delight II is my Miso S’More Bars recipe. This felt like a fitting addition to the collection, and it’s fun to make things that don’t really reflect my usual flavor profiles but which make people very happy.)

Flourless Peanut Butter Blossoms with Dark Chocolate and Torched Marshmallow

This is a chewy, salty peanut butter cookie (made using all of the discoveries of my last PB cookie, pool of bitter chocolate (I used Lindt 90%), and smoky plume of fluffy marshmallow. I used 1% lowfat milk here but I’m sure it would work with whole or skim. The amount of salt you add to the dough depends on the salt level of your peanut butter. I used my beloved, Everett-made, Teddie Old-Fashioned Smooth Salted Natural Peanut Butter and added ½ teaspoon kosher salt. You may find that you don’t need extra salt at all. This recipe is not written to work with peanut butters that include ingredients other than just peanuts and salt.

Makes 24 Cookies

256 grams (1 cup) well-stirred salted natural peanut butter (the kind with natural oil separation)
100 grams (½ cup) light brown sugar
50 grams (¼ cup) granulated sugar
1 large egg
½-1 teaspoon milk
¾ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
Kosher salt
1⁄8 teaspoon cinnamon
45 grams (about 1/3 cup) peanuts, toasted and chopped coarse
1½ ounces really, really dark chocolate, chopped into chunks

2¾ teaspoons unflavored powdered gelatin
57 grams (¼ cup) cold water
100 grams (½ cup) granulated sugar
50 grams (2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons) light corn syrup
Pinch kosher salt
1 large egg white, whipped to stiff peaks
½ teaspoon vanilla extract

1. For the cookies: Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Line rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.

2. Combine peanut butter and sugars in large bowl and, using hand-held (or stand mixer fitted with paddle), mix on medium-low speed until most of sugar is moistened with peanut butter. Increase speed to medium and mix until peanut butter and sugar are well combined, about 1 minute. Add egg and yolk, ½ teaspoon milk, baking soda, baking powder, vanilla, and salt to taste to peanut butter mixture; reduce speed to medium-low; and mix until incorporated, about 30 seconds. Pinch off some dough in you hand and try to roll into ball. If dough is very dry and crumbly, add up to ½ teaspoon more of milk, ¼ teaspoon at a time. Add peanuts and fold into dough to evenly distribute. Press 1 tablespoon portions of dough into tablespoon measure and transfer to prepared baking sheet, spacing evenly. Make small divot in cookies with rounded bottom of ¼ teaspoon measure.

3. Bake cookies until puffed and cracked, golden brown, and crevices still appear underdone, 8 minutes. Add a chunk of chocolate to each divot and return cookies to the oven for 1 minutes. Let cookies cool on sheet for 5 minutes, then carefully transfer to wire rack and let cool completely.

4. For the marshmallow: When the cookies are cool and the chocolate has set, sprinkle gelatin over half of cold water in bowl of stand mixer fitted with whisk. Let sit for at least 15 minutes until softened. Turn mixer to low to break up gelatin mixture.

5. Meanwhile, bring sugar, corn syrup, salt, and remaining water to boil over medium-high heat. Cook, swirling pan occasionally, until mixture registers 240 degrees, 2 to 4 minutes.

6. With mixer running on low, slowly pour sugar syrup into gelatin mixture until incorporated, avoiding sides of bowl and whisk. Increase speed to high and whip until mixture is bright white, voluminous, and almost stiff, 4 to 7 minutes, scraping down bowl as needed. Add vanilla and mix briefly to incorporate. Add egg white and whip until stiff, 1 to 2 minutes. Transfer marshmallow to pastry bag fitted with large round tip. Immediately pipe marshmallow on top of chocolate on cookies. Let marshmallow set for 30 minutes.

7. Using small butane torch (like for crème brulée), toast marshmallow topping and let sit or serve.

9 responses

  1. i’m so glad you’ve found the cause of vertigo, but sad that you’re having to go through this. as i mentioned when we talked, i know how crazy it is, when your body just spins and spins and nothing can take that away. such a horrible, helpless feeling!

    i love the way your wrote this post too, very interesting how each of our thoughts go when we’re faced with a difficult situation. and these cookies – well, they look just my style, toasty marshmallow and all. xo

  2. I understand vertigo can be terrible. Surely you had some of these left over to soothe during the horrible experience? (And the writing is superb. Glad you didn’t lose your beautifully mordant sense of humor.)

  3. Wow – you are a great writer. I loved the way you maintained a sense of suspense throughout this piece. Love the peanut butter cookies as well! Instead of a torch, do you think a minute or so on the top rack of an oven on broil would do the trick?

    • Thank you, Stefanie! I didn’t try it, but I think broiling would work. I’d give the cookies enough headroom and put the broiler on high so you get the job done quickly; if you do it on low and it takes a long time, the marshmallow might melt and become less attractive. Cheers!

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