Last week Friday I upended my own long-held sentiment about brownies: Nuts. Do. Not. Belong.
Granted, I’m a nut purist. As far as I’m concerned they should be enjoyed on their own, preferably popped from their shells with a hefty nutcracker. Why ruin otherwise perfect dishes, especially desserts? The textures are never complementary, and the meatiness of the nuts throws the flavors off balance. And yet. I had purchased a giant bag of walnut halves from a Syrian corner store down the road, and when the weekend revealed itself ripe for brownies, the synapses in my brain forged an unknown path, firing off a new craving for an unwarranted pairing. After pouring the brownie batter into its pan, I set all reason aside, loosely chopped a couple of handfuls of walnuts, and scattered them over the top. Life is strange sometimes.
Back in bed (where I endeavor to spend most weekends), munching on chewy brownies with a bizarre and crunchy topping, my mind connected the sweet crumbs to a cherished memory. In my youth, I spent a few weeks of every August on St. Joseph’s Island, Ontario. It was a quick enough trip across the border from the States, and our riverside family cottage featured all the trappings of an exotic adventure for a suburban girl who grew up in a 2-bedroom apartment. The cottage was enormous by my standards, with five bedrooms, a stone chimney, and a wood burning stove, the interior layered in weathered antiques. I played on a sloped lawn enveloped in cedar and tamarack trees, picked wildflowers, fed bread crumbs to fish and seagulls from our dock across the road, canoed in the river shallows, and sometimes eschewed modern plumbing, gathering up the courage to relieve myself in the spooky outhouse at the rear of the property. We fished and swam, played cribbage and pieced together giant puzzles, made popcorn on the fire and watched great steamships roll up the river at night, decked out like tiered wedding cakes with glowing candles.
My family gathered annually there, to rebuild the aged dock, trim the arbor, paint the porch, bicker and laugh, and find their ways to the bottoms of whisky glasses and Canadian beer bottles. When I was eight or nine years old, my uncle fell in love. When he brought his beloved to the cottage, I fell for her, too. I can’t discern between reliable memory and infatuated imagination, but from my young perspective, Kimberly was pure magic. She was beautiful, yes, but she also had a way of enchanting people, of pulling them into her glow. She had soft clothes, and soft hair. She made open-faced grilled cheese sandwiches in the toaster oven, tomato slices asleep beneath bubbling blankets of cheddar, a vegetarian revelation to my younger self. I followed her everywhere, hung onto her every word; she made me feel spoiled and tended to, summer days peppered with secret winks and inside jokes. She held a space where rules didn’t apply, and neither did bedtimes or vegetables.
One summer evening, we caught a mini-series on the small, old television set in the living room. We pulled pillows from the davenport onto the floor next to the fireplace, and for three or four nights we stayed up late together, watching an awful Stephen King made-for-television horror series that gave me nightmares, but was worth it just to curl up in her lap for a few hours. One of those nights, in a moment of aunt-inspired genius, Kim suggested we make brownies. I was sleepy, and ecstatic. She pulled a dusty cookbook from a kitchen shelf, thumbed through for a recipe, and in the quiet of night we mixed flour and cocoa, sugar and eggs, working at a round wooden table under a lamp hanging by a cord from the ceiling, the edges of the room obscured in darkness. To be honest, I don’t remember eating the brownies, although I’m sure I devoured several. What stuck with me were the sublime feelings of safety and spontaneity, of listening to her read the recipe aloud, wrapped up in the soft kitchen light and in the warmth of her smile.
Several years later, I sat at the same kitchen table mid-afternoon, eating a quick lunch, when my uncle stumbled in and, seeing my father across the room, began to weep. We had lost my aunt to cancer not long before, and he returned to the cottage alone that August for the first time since her death. I remember my father telling him that this suffering, this tremendous and ravaging loss, this is the risk you take when you choose to love someone so much. We all struggled through that summer, and the loss still smarts, even now, as I reach Kim’s age when I first met her, and wonder what it would be like to have her still.
Back in bed on Friday, synapses colliding anew yet again, I recalled a separate, equally beloved brownie reminiscence. Growing up outside of Cleveland, I was fortunate to have a first and a second set of parents, close friends who lived three streets apart. When one marriage disintegrated, and then the other, I stayed closer to Beth, who stayed closer to my mother through those difficult years.
It’s hard to describe someone from the outside in when you’ve only ever known them from the inside out, from before your earliest memory, from before you had language. Beth was a magistrate in the Cleveland court system. She wore expensive, tailored suits to work downtown, and she wore torn-up blue jeans, tired t-shirts, and worn moccasins at home. She was a role model to me before I knew what that meant, before I had the maturity to pay attention. Some evenings we would go to her brick home with beautiful wood floors and sit together on leather furniture in front of the fire place; I read books or made art projects while the grown-ups talked through their days. When local politicians and judges were up for election, Beth, always current, would walk my mother through the candidates over wine and beer, cracking walnuts and pecans as she spelled out their platforms and their proclivities, their public personas and their private agendas. Beth never had children; I don’t think she was interested. But she cared for me as her own, and gripped my hand with fierce love to cross the street when I was 6 years old, and when I was 16.
As I recall, Beth was no gourmand, although she had preferences influenced by her Italian heritage. She taught me to eat raviolis with olive oil, salt, and lots of fresh black pepper (and to do the same with macaroni and cheese!). Before I learned of her diagnosis, before she moved to Boca Raton to get away from the people who cared so much it hurt, Beth went through a Brownie Period. For a while, it seemed like that’s all she ate; she baked a fresh batch nearly every night. They were delicious, and I enjoyed them in the haze of childhood, when you sense tectonic shifts but only hear the fragments that grown-ups forget to whisper. Something about the daily relentlessness of the brownies felt alarming, even compulsive, but also necessary. They were how she was holding it together; brownies were her process, her therapeutic modality.
I don’t know exactly when she fell ill, or when she shared the news; I heard everything at a delay. Home from Washington D.C. one summer, I mailed her a hand-written letter, an ode to all she had taught me about being a woman, lessons that have nothing to do with fashion or babies, nothing to do with demurring or apologies, nothing to do with high heels or perfume. Beth passed away on my birthday several years ago, and passed on to me a legacy of political opinions and mystery novels, of NPR and unapologetic laughter, of scuffed moccasins and self-sufficiency in crisis. In a fit of adoration, I had painted a paperback-sized canvas with acrylics, and sent it with the letter: a single tulip in a slender vase, set behind a brownie on a small white plate.
I hadn’t realized until last Friday that this dessert holds so much for me. I can tell you that I prepare them lovingly, without realizing why. I almost always use cocoa instead of baker’s chocolate, because it feels like a rite of passage, or maybe because the flavor brings the past into the present. I always throw in an extra pinch or two of salt, because that’s what chocolate deserves. And I never add walnuts, now, because I guess I’m growing, and carpe diem before the diem slips away from you, and all that.
Below is the recipe I’ve used for the past several years: one-pot brownies by Alice Medrich, adapted by Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen here, by Luisa Weiss of The Wednesday Chef here, and also by Food52 here. I don’t much discuss different varieties of sugar or cocoa or flour because we’re making brownies here, not a rocket ship. My variation is based on personal preferences, but frankly they come out a bit different every time because I’m no baker, and I’m okay with that.
- 10 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
- 1 teaspoon salt (I may put slightly more because I’m slightly crazy)
- 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 2 large eggs, cold
- 2/3 cup all-purpose flour
- Walnut or pecan pieces, I also mix in chocolate chips if I have them
Preheat oven to 325F. Butter an 8×8 baking pan and dust with flour.
Melt the butter slowly in a pot over low heat. Add the sugar, cocoa powder, and salt, and whisk to combine until all melts together (will be gritty!). Set aside off the heat to cool, until you can stick in a fingertip without flinching, Add the vanilla and eggs and beat the mixture quickly (40 strokes recommended!) until it’s shiny and smooth. Stir in the flour and chocolate chips. Pour into the prepared pan, and sprinkle the nuts on top. Bake for 30-40 minutes, and remove from the oven when a knife inserted comes out clean.