Friday, April 27, 2012

a better brownie

 The following article first appeared in the Daily News Record on April 25, 2012.


I can get a little obsessed when searching for the perfect recipe. For a while there, it was English muffins—I tried six or seven different recipes and still came up empty. And then there were the brownies.

The recipe from childhood just didn’t cut it anymore, I decided. I started playing around with the amounts of chocolate and butter, and with a variety of add-ins. On the fourth try, I found what I was looking for—a dense, rich, and profoundly chocolatey brownie.

I was thrilled with my little victory. But when I mentioned my triumph to my mother over the phone, she did not share my excitement.

“Good grief,” my mother sighed. “Why are you always trying to change things?”

“Well, um ... because the recipe wasn’t very good?”

“Pooh!” my mother snorted. “It’s the recipes that have withstood the test of time that are the best. You’re just being picky.”

I was momentarily flummoxed, for my mother is queen of pick. But I quickly recovered.

“Okay then,” I said, laughing to mask my rising hackles. “The next time you come visit, we’ll do a taste test. I bet you’ll agree with me.”

So one weekend night after the kids were tucked in, my parents and my husband and I clustered around the kitchen table for The Official Brownie Reckoning of 2012. I placed four anonymous samples, all different, on a cutting board and sliced each one into four bite-sized morsels. Only I knew which brownie was which. I braced myself for the showdown.

My mother stared down her nose at the selection. “I can tell you right now those are horrible.” She jabbed her finger at the brownies closest to her. “Look at them. They’re grey!”

“You have to taste them,” I reminded her.

She popped one in her mouth. “Oh my, these are awful!” She scrunched up her face like a prune and swallowed painfully.

I had planned to stay quiet until all the brownies were tasted. But suddenly I couldn’t bear it. “Mom!” I crowed. “That’s your recipe!”

She paused for a moment, considering. Then she shrugged her shoulders and popped the next sample into her mouth. “So what makes your brownies better?”

“More chocolate, more butter, and no baking powder,” I explained. I had to struggle to put a cap on my mirth. “They’re darker, richer, and fudgier. That’s all.”

You know what though? My mom is always saying it’s the simple recipes that are best, and on that one point she and I stand united. One of the recipes I tried included Nutella swirled into the batter. Other recipes called for pumping up the brownies with toffee bits and cacao nibs. But the brownies that ended up being my favorite were unembellished.


If you prefer a lighter brownie, you can dial back the chocolate to 2 or 3 ounces.

½ cup butter
4 ounces unsweetened baking chocolate
1 cup sugar
2 eggs, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon salt
½ cup flour

Melt the butter and chocolate in a saucepan over low heat. Off heat, stir in the sugar, eggs, and vanilla. Gently stir in the flour and salt.

Pour the batter into a greased 8x8 pan and bake at 350 degrees for 20-25 minutes. The brownies should look underbaked—still jiggly in the middle and only just beginning to pull away from the sides. A toothpick inserted in the center should come out wet. (If it comes out clean, you’ve gone too far and your brownies will be dry and crumbly.)

Delicious served slightly warm, with a scoop of coffee ice cream and a drizzle of caramel sauce.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

in the midst of chaos

The following article first appeared in the Daily News Record on April 11, 2012.


I love it when my girlfriends come to visit. Good conversation energizes me and is a welcome diversion from the daily humdrum routine. Sometimes, however, maintaining a thread of coherent conversation while simultaneously mothering my little ones can be a feat of monumental proportions.

Such was the case one day in February. A not-often-seen friend was scheduled to arrive for lunch, so I corralled my two younger children (the older ones weren’t home) and briefed them on my expectations for their behavior.

But when my girlfriend glided through the door, oozing charm and goodwill, my children flew into a tizz of happy excitement. A new person is in the house and she’s smiling at us, whee! Promptly they forgot (or intentionally neglected to remember) my lecture. My fantasy of a peaceful meal—my friend and I expounding on all manner of weighty topics and my children sitting as quiet and still as holy church mice—fluttered straight out the window.

While I sauteed the spinach, ladled the thick, creamy lentil soup into bowls, and made a stab at preliminary catch-up talk, the children grabbed silverware out of the drawer. They scraped their stools across the floor tiles. They chattered nonstop. My stress levels shot through the roof.

Then during the meal, the children slyly kicked each other under the table. They picked at the food without interest, impishly stuck their fingers in their water glasses, and clanked their spoons against their bowls. They interrupted. They rocked on their stools. Their behavior wasn’t full-on intentional naughtiness, but in no way whatsoever did they resemble the timid little church mice of my dreams.

I had two choices. I could either disrupt the adult conversation to correct their behavior, or I could ignore them. Since focusing on them would draw attention to them even more, and since I was already discombobulated enough, I chose the latter. Shifting my body so I was directly facing my friend, I tried to pretend my kids weren’t even present. Only occasionally did I shoot them some hairy eyeballs, which they deftly dodged.

Preparing my children for a proper company lunch is hit or miss. Some days they behave beautifully. Other days—well, now you know how those go. Thank goodness I had taken measures with the food so I wouldn’t have to stress over that as well. The lemony red lentil soup, with mounds of sauteed greens, brown rice, and plain yogurt on top, was a smash hit. My girlfriend and I both had seconds.

Red Lentil Soup with Lemon and Spinach

Inspired by a recipe on Heidi Swanson’s blog 101 Cookbooks.

2 cups red lentils, rinsed
6 cups chicken broth (or water)
2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon turmeric
4 tablespoons butter, divided
2 medium onions, chopped
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 ½ teaspoons yellow mustard seed
2-3 lemons, the juice of
lots of fresh spinach
cooked brown rice
plain yogurt
black pepper

Put the lentils, turmeric, 1 tablespoon butter, and salt in a large pot and add the chicken broth. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the lentils are very soft. Puree the soup using a handheld immersion blender or a regular blender.

Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a large skillet and add the onions, cumin, and mustard seed. Saute until the onions are very soft—about 15-20 minutes.

Add the onions to the pot of pureed soup. Squeeze in the lemon juice. Taste to correct seasonings.

Immediately before serving, melt the remaining tablespoon of butter in a large skillet and add the spinach. Sprinkle with salt and toss until wilted.

To serve: fill the bowls with soup and garnish liberally with scoops of warm brown rice, the sauteed spinach, plain yogurt, and freshly ground black pepper.