The Only Brownie Recipe You Will Ever Need

by Caroline

Last summer, to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary, Tony and I arranged back to back sleepovers for our kids with two different families, and thus managed our first two-night getaway together since Ben was born. We’d each been away longer on our own (or with friends and family), both for work and for pleasure, but never just the two of us. So we drove to Calistoga with a pile of books and magazines and spent our time away sleeping, eating, and reading.

One of the books I read that weekend was Kate Moses’ richly-detailed, quietly moving memoir with recipes, Cakewalk. I read it very slowly, savoring her writing, not wanting it to end, and when it did end, I cried.

Cakewalk was in ways not the happiest choice for my anniversary reading. None of the many marriages she describes in the book are easy, whether she’s writing about her own parents or those of her teenage boyfriend, whose father mutters under his breath to Kate, in his wife’s presence, “Twenty-five years of that woman is enough to choke a horse.” It is in that chapter that Moses offers her brownie recipe, which, with its two versions, is perhaps a good example of how to thrive in a long relationship: stay flexible and always offer options.

One version of the recipe (the one that I prefer) was reprinted in the New York Times and I offer it here; you’ll have to buy the book to get the frosting-covered creamy brownie recipe.

1 1/2 cups unsalted butter, plus more for greasing pan

1 1/2 cups walnut halves (optional)

9 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped or broken into small pieces

3 large eggs

1 teaspoon salt

2 3/4 cups sugar

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour.

1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 13-by-9-inch glass baking pan. If using walnuts, spread on a baking sheet and toast in oven until fragrant and lightly browned, 8 to 10 minutes. Let cool.

2. Melt butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Remove from heat, add chocolate, and cover pan until chocolate is melted, about 10 minutes. In a mixing bowl, whisk the eggs, salt, sugar and vanilla just until thick, creamy and beginning to lighten in color.

3. Whisk the butter and chocolate until smooth, then mix into the sugar-egg mixture just until well combined. Using a spatula, fold in the flour, using as few strokes as possible, until it disappears. Fold in the walnuts, if using. Spread the batter evenly in the baking pan.

4. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, checking after 22 minutes to avoid over-baking. When the tip of a knife inserted in the center comes out with moist crumbs, but not liquid, remove brownies from the oven. Allow to cool to room temperature, then cover and leave in the pan for several hours or overnight before cutting into squares. Store in an airtight container.

Maple Easter Candy

by Caroline

Every year, I hope that maybe our Easter trip to my parents’ home in Connecticut will line up with sugar season, that window every New England spring when the temperatures sink below freezing at night but rise into the 40s during the day, with enough sun to warm the trees and encourage the maple sap to flow. Even though I don’t really like that kind of weather, I want my boys to experience what I did as a kid, tramping along in the mud and snow in my grandfather’s booted footsteps as he gathered maple sap and boiled it down into syrup. It takes 40 gallons to make a single gallon of syrup, so a couple energetic helpers would be useful, I know, but so far we’ve missed all the work, instead always getting to enjoy the sweet results of my dad’s labors.

At Christmas time, we make sugar on snow; now that the snow is gone, we made maple candy inside, with nothing but syrup, some simple kitchen equipment, and — because after a visit to Old Sturbridge Village we were feeling old-fashioned — a great deal of arm strength. You can make this, too, with any maple syrup and even an electric mixer.

Pour 2 cups maple syrup into a large pot and bring to a boil. Let it boil gently until it comes to 240 degrees on a candy thermometer (soft ball stage: test it by letting some of the boiled syrup drop off the end of a spoon into a glass of water; if it forms a ball, it’s done). Pour it out into a large mixing bowl (or two) and start stirring:

Here’s a close-up action shot of the stirring:

Stir the syrup until it lightens and thickens to the consistency of peanut butter, about five minutes. You can use a hand mixer if your arm gets tired (or your children refuse to stir anymore). If you want to add some toasted walnuts or pecans (a fine idea) stir them in now.

If you have candy molds, by all means use them. We just spread some waxed paper on the counter and experimented with different dollops. Let the candy set at room temperature for about ten minutes. For long-term storage, you’d want to keep it in the refrigerator, but it likely won’t last that long.

The Birthday Menu

by Caroline

The one day a year I am very happy to take orders from my kids is on their birthdays, when they know they can order up a day of special meals, culminating in whatever birthday cake they like.

Ben’s birthday today falls on a school day, so I have no say over his lunch, but I’m mixing up waffle batter for breakfast. Then for dinner at home, the boy has requested homemade sushi and a lemon layer cake for dessert.

The layer cake is one I haven’t made since a friend’s baby shower four years ago, but it’s a classic 1-2-3-4 cake that’s a good one to have in the repertoire. I’m using the Martha Stewart recipe for a lemon version, with The Joy of Cooking’s lemon curd filling (because it uses whole eggs rather than the just-yolks version Martha suggests) and a lemon cream cheese frosting. And then, because my boy loves candied citrus peel, I’ve made candied lemon peel to decorate the top. Ben, claiming birthday boy prerogative, is not assisting with the baking (even I don’t bake my own birthday cake), but his younger brother volunteered as an enthusiastic sous chef, and wound up pretty much handling the project on his own. He just needed me to read the recipe:

I don’t think I’ll leave the baking entirely to him anytime soon; after all, it feels like a privilege to bake something delicious for my favorite nine-year-old.

Birthday Cake

by Caroline

Five years ago today, in honor of her milestone birthday, I organized a virtual birthday celebration for my sister by having her many friends post birthday cake pictures on their blogs.

This year, with fewer of us blogging and more of us on Facebook, her friend Becca and I organized a somewhat different celebration of the day. But here I am, still blogging, and still with cake-baking energy, so in her honor I want to post the recipe for the first cake we ever baked together. It’s known by many names — Crazy Cake, Cockeyed Cake, 6-Minute Cake — but no matter what you call it, it’s always delicious. I usually make it now with revisions Libby first suggested to me — adding espresso powder and chocolate chips; using raspberry vinegar for the white vinegar — but whether you use those variations or not, the result is always surprisingly chocolate-y and rich. It happens also to be vegan, which is often convenient these days.

So for Libby on her birthday:

1 1/2 c white flour
1/3 c unsweetened cocoa
1 c sugar
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp espresso powder (optional but good)
1/2 tsp salt

1 c water or coffee
1/2 c vegetable oil
2 tsp vanilla
2 tbsp vinegar (any old vinegar will do, but red wine or raspberry is particularly nice)

1/2 c semisweet chocolate chips (optional, but what’s not better with some chocolate chips?)

Preheat the oven to 375.

Combine the dry ingredients in an ungreased 8″ square or 9″ round baking pan. In a 2-cup measure, combine the water, oil and vanilla. Pour the liquid ingredients into the baking pan and mix the batter with a fork until smooth (make sure to get into the corners so that you don’t get dry floury bites in the finished cake!). Now add the vinegar and stir quickly. There will be pale swirls in the batter from the baking soda and vinegar reacting. Stir just until the vinegar is evenly distributed. Sprinkle the chocolate chips on top.

Alternatively, line a cupcake pan with liners, mix the dry ingredients in a bowl, then carry on with the directions as above.

Bake a single cake for 25 minutes, bake cupcakes for 15, cool briefly on a rack, and enjoy.

Tropical Blizzard

By Lisa

This is an unlikely and unpractical post for the middle of winter if, like me, you’re cold in any state but Hawaii.  But it’s not wholly inappropriate if you’re like my kids, and are not ever bothered by the cold, even in the middle of blizzard.  In an effort to keep my hungry kids out of trouble while I was cooking dinner on Saturday, I had Finn put together a plate of snacks (cheese, crackers, turkey, olives) and let Ella make the kidtinis. The problem was we had no bubbly water and no juice. She concocted a kind of smoothie with milk, ice, and mango and coconut syrups.

I was a skeptical, but the drink was really pretty, and–because she somehow found just the right proportion of milk and ice and syrup–perfectly light and not too sweet. In fact, it was a lot like shave ice.  It melted in the mouth.

Also, it reminded me of first snow. And the blizzard we experienced over vacation. Which was also a beautiful, serendipitous, icy mess.

Tropical Blizzard Smoothie

1 part low fat milk to about 3 parts ice

Equal parts mango and coconut syrups, about 2 T each

Blend in a blender. Adjust syrups to taste.