Such A Drama Queen, Martha!- Sarah Bernhardt Cookies- 38 eggs, 34 3/4 cups of sugar, 22 3/4 sticks of Butter, and 21 1/4 cups of flour used so far- 154 recipes to go!

May 1, 2010

Martha's Sarah Bernhardt Cookies

André's Sarah Bernhardt Cookies

Oscar Wilde- “‘Do you mind if I smoke?”

Sarah Bernhardt- “I don’t care if you burn.”

Sara-Marie-Henriette Rosine Bernhardt was born in 1844, the illegitimate child of a Parisian courtesan. She was brought up in a convent, and at age thirteen, under the advisement of one of her mother’s many lovers and coincidentally,  Napoleon III’s half-brother, Sarah was sent to the Conservatoire to become an actress.

At such a young age, Sarah was on the path to become the most famous actress the world had ever known. From age thirteen, her life played out on the stage and earned her the reputation of being one of the finest, serious, dramatic actresses ever, earning her the nickname, “The Divine Sarah.”

The cookie that bears her name has an interesting story behind it as well. The cookie’s origin is Dutch and in the late nineteenth century, it was common for Dutch bakers to name their goods after celebrities. While touring in Amsterdam, Sarah Bernhardt sampled and fell in love with this chocolate covered macaroon. The owner of the shop was so honored, he named the confection after her.

During World War II, the Sarah Bernhardt cookie was a code used by the resistance. The cookie resembled old radio dials, like those found on antiquated communication devices. When a person walked into a shop and asked for a Sarah Bernhardt, they were really identifying themselves as a member of the resistance with hopes of finding others like them.

So, what is a Sarah Bernhardt Cookie, exactly? It is essentially a macaroon covered in chocolate. The word, “macaroon,” comes from the Italian word for crush or shred. It is in reference to the fact that flour is not used in the making of a macaroon, but rather, almonds are crushed into a paste, combined with sugar and egg whites to create a light and thin wafer. The lack of wheat or any leavening agent also makes it the perfect confection for Passover meals, where leaven breads are forbidden.

The thin almond-y macaroon is then covered with a layer of chocolate truffle, piped into a mound on top. These are then frozen solid and dipped in a layer of chocolate and vegetable shortening. The shortening allows the chocolate to take on a glossy appearance once dried.

How do they taste? – In the South, they often refer to something being so good it makes you want to slap your mama. This cookie is so good, the threat of violence could extend beyond the maternal and include second and third cousins twice removed.

I baked these cookies as a gift to a Russian friend, who was celebrating her birthday. This friend could best be described as a “Drama Queen.” When searching through Martha’s book, I saw the name “Sarah Bernhardt” and thought to myself- “Perfect!”

I’ve had a lot of “Drama Queens” come in and out of my life and, at times, I myself have been a “Drama Queen.”

At age thirteen, my cousin/godfather showed up with his new wife at a family gathering at my aunt’s & uncle’s house in suburban Baton Rouge. My cousin was a quiet and pensive person. He wore dark corrective glasses that shaded his light-sensitive eyes. These glasses combined with his large moustache gave him the aura of a poetic recluse or possibly a serial killer.

His new wife was not what any of us were expecting. She was petite, exuberant, with tight blond curls that flowed down to her shoulders framing her round, pink face and tiny cupid-bow lips. She spoke rapidly with great enthusiasm. Musical theatre, feminism, yoga, dietary supplements, alternative medicines, singing, dancing, and sexual politics were her favorite topics and she leapt from each subject to the next with punctuation of nervous and robust laughter.

While most of our conservative family didn’t know what to make of her, I thought she was the most exciting person ever to step foot into our wildly conservative and dysfunctional family.

At age thirteen, I found that we shared so many of the same interests. Finally, I had someone in my life who could argue the finer points of Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics, and knew that Lerner and Lowe was not the name of a farming equipment manufacturer- AND she was family! Thank you, Jesus!

Arlene and I spent many hours, then weeks, then months, then years getting to know each other. It was early in our relationship that I learned she was bipolar. Back then, it was simply referred to as manic depression and most laypeople thought it was purely “in her head.”  She would have terrific emotional highs that would last for weeks, followed by equally lengthy emotional lows. I loved Arlene when she was riding a high and worried about her when she trudged through her  lows.

My family discouraged me from spending time with her. “She’s crazy,” would be their usual assessment of Arlene’s behavior. “She’s just using your cousin for his money so she doesn’t have to work,” they’d say. “You don’t understand. She has a real medical condition that makes her behave this way,” I’d try to explain to my parents. “Then she oughta be in a nut house,” they’d respond.

It made me very sad. Arlene had emotional problems, yes, but she was also the most intelligent and fun person I knew. She accepted me for who I was. Even more so, she celebrated my uniqueness and encouraged me to always be myself.  She loved me and I needed that love. So, I was willing to overlook the sleepless nights where she would sit me in front of the piano so I could help her compose her “Yoga-Musical.” I participated while she tried to contact her deceased mother through transcendental meditation. I cried when she told me how tired she was of feeling like her mind was betraying her. I pleaded reason during her numerous suicide attempts. I held her hand through her divorce from my cousin. I walked away when, after years of experimental medicines and numerous treatments left Arlene a shaking mass of involuntary movements and vocalizations.

It was too difficult to be in her presence. She was embarrassed by what she had become and I was keenly aware that this was not the person she wanted me to remember. She lashed out at me, violently. She called me names. She threw her slippers at me. She wept. At the time, I was hurt, confused, and very, very angry. I yelled back and told her I never wanted to see her again.

I never did after that.

Upon reflection, I know this was her way of trying to protect me… protect me from what she was becoming. Her mind was slipping and she didn’t want me to bear witness to her decline. She pushed me away. Her last violent, venom-filled words were, in fact, an act of love.

It’s been many years since this last encounter. I learned that she eventually was able to level off her medications which corrected many of her spasms and speech difficulties and she later remarried another bipolar whom she then divorced a few months later.

I will always have fond memories of the roles we played in each other’s life. I needed her encouragement, she needed my validation. It was a temporary, symbiotic relationship. Two dysfunctional people who came together to form something that resembled functionality… normalcy.

My parents have also since come to learn much about bipolar disorder. One of my sisters was diagnosed with the disorder a few years ago and is now on permanent disability. It’s strange how these lessons play out in our lives. How life prepares us for… well… life.

I’ve learned that “normal” is in the eye of the beholder and sometimes “crazy” is the best thing to do.

I try to honor the people in my life who walk “left of center” by frequently doing something a little crazy. I recommend you do the same.

Sarah Bernhardt Cookie, anyone?

4 Responses to “Such A Drama Queen, Martha!- Sarah Bernhardt Cookies- 38 eggs, 34 3/4 cups of sugar, 22 3/4 sticks of Butter, and 21 1/4 cups of flour used so far- 154 recipes to go!”

  1. Russ Says:

    Maybe it’s time to get back in touch with Arlene. Hey -send her some cookies!

  2. pattyabr Says:

    I’ll be giving this cookie a try for the Christmas cookie exchange. Thanks for the history lesson of the origins of the cookie. My Martha Stewart magazine is the Holiday Cookies one from 2001. Has it really been ten years since I opened this cookie book?? aghast!

  3. […] Andre bakes his way through Martha Stewart’s Cookie book  has an excellent history of the Sarah Bernhardt cookie. Apparently while Sarah was touring in Amsterdam, she tasted this cookie and the bakeshop owner named it after her. It was also a secret code during WWII as the cookies looked like radio dials. If someone asked for the cookie in a bake shop they identified themselves with the resistance. […]

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