This December I received a notice on my Google calendar that Leila Edwards’ birthday was coming up. It was a painful reminder because Leila, who was a friend, had died in September when her husband shot and killed her and then himself. Anyone who knew Michael Watkins, her husband, couldn’t imagine him doing that, but he’d been very ill with cancer and they were divorcing and, well, there are some things that are unfathomable. Michael and Leila’s son, Ben Watkins was in the house, but not harmed and is now living with his grandmother, Donna Edwards, in Miller Beach, a small community east of Gary, Indiana on Lake Michigan where the Watkins had lived as well.
Ben has always been a dedicated cook, who first started cooking when he was around three and was making food several days a week at the family restaurant when he wasn’t competing in spell bowl, math bowl, chess club or repairing broken bikes for kids in need through the Ken Parr Build a Bike program in Miller Beach.
The family was well-known in Miller Beach not only because of the restaurant, which is now closed because of the deaths, but also since Leila Edwards was a noted artist and jewelry maker who sold her creations in a store downtown. Besides that, she was a very active volunteer at Discovery Charter School in Chesterton, which Ben attends.
With all this sadness, I was really surprised and extremely happy to get a text from my niece, Linda Simon, who is a good friend of the family, that Ben, now 11-years-old, is a contestant in this season’s MasterChef Junior which premiered two weeks ago. Ben so impressed judges Gordon Ramsay, Christina Tosi and Joe Bastianich that he was one of the 24 contestants earning white aprons and a chance to go on to the next level.
The winner gets $100,000 which would be so important to Ben. The Miller Beach community has been wonderfully supportive, holding fundraisers and starting a Go Fund Me (gofundme.com/love4ben) to raise money for his education, maintenance and health care but, as we all know, raising a child is expensive.
MasterChef Junior airs at 8 p.m. Fridays on Fox so if you get the chance tune in and root for Ben whose future dream is to be a professional chef or scientist (he excels in math and science at his school).
You may enjoy this recipe, one of many he has shared with me over the years. He created it himself when he was in third grade, because, he said, “I like all three things and so I thought about putting them together — a layer of chocolate chip cookie dough on the bottom, crushed Double Stuf Oreos in the middle, covered with a layer of brownie batter and then baked.”
Ben Watkins’ Chocolate Chip Cookie and Oreo Brownie Bars
1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
¾ cup sugar
¾ cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 ½ cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
24 ounces chocolate chips
Mix butter with sugar until creamed. Add eggs and vanilla extract. In a separate bowl mix flour mixture and baking soda. Add to creamed butter. Fold in chocolate chips and spread evenly on the bottom of a greased 9×13-inch pan.
18 to 24 Double Stuf Oreos, crumbed.
Spread crumbled Oreos evenly over the top of the chocolate chip cookie dough.
4 ounces unsweetened Baker’s chocolate
¾ cup butter
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup flour
Place chocolate in microwave and melt. Melt butter, stir in chocolate and sugar. Stir in eggs one a time and vanilla. Add flour. Mix thoroughly. Spread evenly on top of chocolate chip cookie dough and Oreos.
Bake at 350 degrees for 40 to 50 minutes.