The secret cookie ingredient? Steady attention.

Until recently, I would have described myself as a multitasking cookie baker. I'd wedge the phone between my ear and shoulder and chat away as I washed dishes or sorted laundry while mounds of chocolate chip dough melted in the oven. My attempts at efficiency ruined more cookies than I care to think about, but the occasional burned bottom wasn't enough to reform me.

Thanks to a new picture hanging in my kitchen, this scenario did not replay itself the last time I baked cookies. When the urge to be efficient beckoned, I quickly reminded myself, "Mrs. Brenner wouldn't approve." And the dirty plates and socks waited until all the crispy pepparkokers lay cooling on racks.

As I turned from the sink, I understood how much that whimsical image had changed my cooking habits since it entered my home. You might expect the frame to hold a likeness of Mrs. Brenner, my conscience in the kitchen. But it doesn't. The picture merely portrays an empty wooden chair facing an old-fashioned white stove. Although that vignette might seem odd to some, to me it represents a valued cooking lesson.

Years ago, my aunt Sylvia mentioned that her mother-in-law, Mrs. Brenner, was the best cookie baker she'd ever known. The memory of her orange-scented poppy seed cookies lingered long after my aunt had last sampled one.

"What was her secret?" I eagerly asked my aunt. I expected a response like, "She always sifted her flour four times," or "She used only unsalted butter." But I was surprised by the reply. Although 40 years had passed since my aunt had witnessed the secret, she recalled it clearly.

"Mrs. Brenner always pulled up a chair in front of the stove and sat there while her cookies baked. Since her oven didn't have a window, she'd peek inside to know when the cookies were ready. She never did anything else when she baked," my aunt said. "She just sat there."

I have to admit I just sat there, too, as I quietly digested this unwelcome information. No more phone calls while I waited for macaroon tops to brown? Forsake laundry as molasses crinkles puffed and dropped into chewy treats? It didn't take the culinary skill of a Julia Child to figure out the answers.

Soon after, I shared the conversation with my friend Patti. We never revisited the topic, but I recently discovered the secret had touched her as well. Last month, Patti handed me a gift-wrapped package and said, "I couldn't resist buying this for you."

From the shape and weight of the present, I realized it was a framed picture. Because of that image, I now hover by the oven when I bake so I can finger-test cookies for firmness, see when they look done, and sniff the aroma for perfection. I remember to rotate pans of spritz halfway through baking and to check on shortbread before the recipe suggests sliding it from the oven. If I consider abandoning cookies in progress for just a minute, a glance at the wall prompts a silent voice that stops me with, "What would Mrs. Brenner think?"

Whenever I glimpse the picture hanging above my stove, it reinforces that anything worth doing needs my complete attention. Occasionally, it even inspires me to pull up a chair and sit facing the warm oven. After all, time and cookies wait for no one.

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