There’s a special joy in preparing something for the second time — or maybe the thousandth, whatever the case may be. It has to do with a flow, an organization, an ease in the kitchen, feeling a command over the various elements at play. I’ve heard Ina Garten say something to the effect of, “Every cook needs just needs a rotating repertoire of about 10 recipes.” This tends to happen naturally when you enjoy home cooking, but I like the idea of being more intentional about the process of testing new recipes, and the process of organizing and refining the keepers.
What I do know for sure is that it’s essential for brownies to be a part of the rotation. Otherwise there’s a voice in my head that pushes me out the door and along the all-too short path to a convenience store, where I will buy a pack of m&ms and I will graze on them in a manner that is unhealthy. I’m working on that. I am learning that according to Buddhist principles, cravings are inherently toxic to general well-being because they indicate a lack of mindfulness, that is, a disciplining of the mind to discern the difference between reality and the subjective thoughts and feelings that we project onto reality. But enough of that high brow talk — back to brownies. And chocolate. And baking.
Baking is kind of like penmanship. It’s a bit old-fashioned, it requires steady hands, and the ability to follow instructions well. Baking is not life-changing. But baking is life sustaining, feeding us, literally, but on another level, guiding us to toward the present, physical moment, which heals.
I’m really attached to the role that baking has in my life. There was a preteen summer of my childhood during which I requested to my mom that we bake a cobbler most days, and most days we did. My mom was cool like that. Still is. These days, I make enough of a mess cooking, so I have less patience to hand make my own baked goods, special occasions notwithstanding. But I’m no less obsessed with baked goods.
There’s a running list of “stuff I want to make” that I e-mail myself whenever I’m early for an appointment or an exercise class or you name it. There you go — that’s my secret — that’s what I’m doing when I look so “busy” on my phone. For a food obsessed soul who doesn’t always like to be alone with her own worries, perusing food blogs is what I do best. And it pays off. It really does. I tend to know what I’m bringing to the next potluck, or meeting, or family party. (For example, I think it’s about time to test out my mini donut pan and Joy the Baker’s Baked Brown Butter Pistachio Donuts.)
Most recently, I found myself perusing The Vanilla Bean Blog, and in particular, this chocolate loaf cake, adapted from celebrity chef Nigella Lawson’s book, How To Become a Domestic Goddess. (How’s that for a title.) At the top of the post for this “sunken, squidgy, chocolate masterpiece,” blogger Sarah quotes Lawson’s book on the draw of baking:
“In a way, baking stands both as a useful metaphor for the familial warmth of the kitchen we fondly imagine used to exist, and as a way of reclaiming our lost Eden. This is hardly a culinary matter, of course; but cooking, we know, has a way of cutting through things, and to things, which have nothing to do with the kitchen. This is why it matters… Sometimes, we don’t want to feel like a postmodern, post-feminist, overstretched woman but, rather, a domestic goddess, trailing nutmeggy fumes of baking pie in our languorous wake.”
Amen sista. Here are two recipes I tried this past week and then consumed with a fervor. Now I hate them, because even my gym clothes are feeling a bit tight. (It’s probably telling enough that I made both in one week and I live in a two person household.) So dive on in, but watch out — these brownie beauties are goooood.
Walnut Brownies, Rich and Chocolaty
Adapted from Big Bowl of Love by Cristina Ferrare
Makes 12 large brownies
1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature
Extra butter for greasing the pan, or baking spray
1 8 oz box of Baker’s unsweetened baking chocolate
1 cup sugar
2 pinches of salt
2 large eggs, slightly beaten, room temp
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3/4 cup cake flour
1/2 c. walnuts, chopped and toasted in a dry skillet for a few minutes
Things You’ll Need
Wax butter wrap
8-inch square baking dish
Spatula or wooden spoon
2 mixing bowls
Whisk or fork
Sifter (for homemade cake flour)
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. (I use an oven thermometer, and I’d highly recommend it. My oven is never accurate and I’d be lost without it. For these brownies I had to press 400 and keep checking the internal temperature. Ugg.)
- Unwrap the stick of butter and slice it into tablespoons. Place the sliced butter in a saucepan. Use the butter wrap to grease the baking dish, using extra butter if needed.
- Coarsely chop 3 ounces of the bittersweet chocolate. Add the chocolate to the saucepan. If needed, place the 2 eggs into a bowl of warm tap water for five minutes to bring them to room temperature. (If not, set them out an hour before you start baking.)
- Place the saucepan on the stove and over low heat, melt the stick of butter and the chocolate. Regularly stir the mixture, but do so gently. I like to use a heat-resistant, silicone spatula, but a wooden spoon also works. Remove the saucepan from the heat and set a timer for 10 minutes, allowing the mixture to cool (I like to use the kitchen timer on my microwave).
- Meanwhile, crack the 2 eggs into a small mixing bowl and gently beat them together with a whisk or a fork. Set aside.
- Measure the cake flour into a separate mixing bowl. If you don’t have cake flour on hand, make your own by following these simple instructions: Measure 1 cup of flour and place it in a sifter over a large bowl. Measure 2 tablespoons from the 1 cup and toss them back in the flour bin. Replace those 2 tablespoons with 2 tablespoons of cornstarch. Sift the flour and the cornstarch together about five times.
- Measure the walnuts, chop the walnuts, and toast them in a dry skillet over medium-low heat until they taste fragrant and extra nutty.
- Coarsely chop the rest of the Baker’s unsweetened chocolate.
- Add the eggs and vanilla to the chocolate/butter mixture and stir until all of the ingredients are fully incorporated.
- Add the cake flour (if you made it yourself, 12 tablespoons equals 3/4 cup) and stir until just blended.
- Add the coarsely chopped Baker’s chocolate and the walnuts. Stir to combine.
- Pour the batter into the baking dish and spread it evenly. Tap the dish on the counter to get rid of any bubbles.
- Bake for 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out almost clean. Don’t overbake. Cool on a wire rack for 30 minutes, if you can resist ‘em. Run a butter knife along the outer edge to loosen the brownies from the pan and then slice into large pieces.
Single-Serve Brownie Pudding
Adapted from Back to Basics by Ina Garten
Makes 6 servings
1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature
Extra butter for the dishes
2 large eggs, room temperature
1 cup sugar
6 tablespoons good cocoa powder
1/4 cup flour
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Vanilla ice cream, for serving, if desired
Things You’ll Need
Wax butter wrap
6 crème brulée dishes, or single-serve gratin dishes
Electric mixer, paddle attachment
jelly roll pan
Large liquid measuring cup
- Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.
If needed, place the 2 eggs into a bowl of warm tap water for five minutes to bring them to room temperature. (If not, set them out an hour before you start baking.)
- Unwrap the stick of butter and slice it into tablespoons. Place the pieces of butter in a mixing bowl. Melt them in the microwave. Set aside the melted butter and grease each dish with the wax paper. Make sure all the dishes are generously buttered.
- Place the eggs and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat for 5-8 minutes on medium-high speed, or as long as it takes for the mixture to get very thick and light yellow.
- Meanwhile, place the cocoa powder and the flour in a sifter over a mixing bowl. Sift them together and set the mixture aside.
- Add the vanilla extract and the cocoa powder/flour mixture, mixing until just combined. Then slowly pour in the melted butter, mixing until just combined.
- Use a 1/4 cup measure to fill each dish with the batter. Place the dishes on a jelly roll pan and place the pan on the stovetop. Fill a large, liquid measuring cup with hot tap water and fill the pan with enough hot water to come halfway up the side of each dish.
- Carefully lower the sheet pan into the oven and bake for 20 minutes, or until a cake tester comes out mostly clean. They are supposed to be underbaked in the center. Carefully transfer the gratin dishes to a baking rack using a large set of kitchen tongs.