On four or five occasions I came out of the library door at exactly the moment that a student passed by wheeling an upright bass along the cobbled street, like someone guiding an overgrown child. Sometimes he had just passed the instant before, and other times he was about to pass. But once I exited the library doors at the exact moment he was passing them, and our eyes locked in one of those looks that sometimes happen between strangers, when both wordlessly agree that reality contains sinkholes whose depths neither can ever hope to fathom.
-Nicole Krauss (Great House)
All week I've been longing to bake. There were fantasies of biscotti (fantasies that will come to fruition soon), fantasies of buttermilk bread (long-held and absolutely imperative...then again, it took me months to get around to the granola), fantasies of muffins...I don't know what was wrong with me. Then again, when you consider that I basically came back to life this week and again could not only breathe freely, but feel hungry and appreciate the taste of things, it only makes sense that sugary goodness would have been at the top of my list of most desired foods.
But there never seemed to be enough time. Monday and Tuesday were slow days since I was still becoming reacquainted with reality and happily spending my days sitting at a desk in Bancroft...It's amazing to think about how different life was--at least materially-- a little more than 100 years ago, but yet how, on some level, the life of the mind was basically the same, seeking answers to the same questions, voicing similar cultural concerns...I kid you not; if I had a dollar for every time I've read about the threat of China and the East (in both the modern press and that of a century ago and beyond), I would be a wealthy woman by now. At the very least, wealthier than the average grad student.
Then, on Wednesday, I went to the city to tutor and, afterwards, had time to go and read and have coffee and a delicious pastry at a fairly new and amazingly cute Mission cafe, The Blue Fig. This was probably a little silly and decadent since I was meeting the Greek at Garçon! for a three-course prix fixe meal courtesy of San Francisco's Dine about Town before going to the Symphony, for what was essentially a night of Prokofiev. Yeah, I guess you might say that, for every meal and calorie I lost last week, I'm now eating twice the amount: Lobster bisque, Seven Layer Bars, Soy Lattes, Pomegranate Sorbet....I don't even care because this, my friends, is what good health looks like! And definitely what it tastes like...
Thursday and Friday also passed in a blur; I was still making up for lost time, going to appointments that had to be rescheduled for this week, having dinners with friends that had formerly been impossible...There was also some necessary pop-cultural hazing that had to take place during this time period: the Greek and I had dinner with friends on Friday night--dinner and a movie, in fact--and I am happy to report that he has now seen Zoolander, and thought it was hilarious. *deep sigh of relief*
In the midst of all of this madness, I also decided to do something nice for myself, to give myself a little "welcome back to good health" present. This gift came in the form of a renewal to Bon Appetit; frankly, it just makes me happy to know that once a month, I will get a magazine with pretty pictures, lots of recipes and also one that will give me tips on how to pick out the best oranges at the grocery store...or what kind of knife is best for cutting pineapple. Consider it one of my small and slightly guilty pleasures in life. While perusing the website after making my order, I realized that the front cover had the most delicious looking brownies on it. And still recovering from the deprivation of the week before, I knew I would make these brownies before the week was over....
And, come Saturday, I did! The ironic thing about this whole experience is that I've never really been a brownie person. There have been moments in my life when I've connected with them, thinking that they were the best thing ever, as when my old college roommate sent me a box of brownies with peanut butter chips before my Master's Exam, or even sometimes when I've made them from a good old box of Betty Crocker Brownie Mix and they've been properly gooey and good. In fact, I've long held the belief that brownies from a box are better than what you can produce from scratch and believe me when I say that I've even tried Katharine Hepburn's brownie recipe, which has received a fair amount of acclaim. When all was said and done, they were good, but I wasn't impressed. Brownies remained somewhere in the middle of my "dessert totem pole", something I could easily take or leave.
In short, nothing could have prepared me for these brownies. Maybe it was the browned butter that made them so fudge-like and just right in texture? Or maybe it was the walnuts? Maybe they weren't too sweet and had just the right amount of chocolate? Maybe the flu has forever changed my tastes (such things can, I think, happen)? None of that matters, however, because the point is that these brownies, as the February cover of Bon Appetit claims, are the best. I would almost say that, should the baking bug bite me again this week, maybe I wouldn't even mind another batch of these very brownies. And, supposedly, I'm a muffin person. Not to mention somebody who, before these brownies, was desperately craving biscotti. I guess the point is that life never fails to surprise, which in and of itself can often be nothing short of miraculous...especially when in the shape of gooey chocolate squares. Truly, I am a woman smitten.
Cocoa Brownies with Browned Butter and Walnuts
From the February 2011 issue of Bon Appetit; I basically followed Alice Medrich's recipe to the letter (the few slight modifications I made are explained below) and the results were well worth it
Yields from 16-20 brownies, depending on how you cut them
For the brownies:
Nonstick vegetable oil spray
10 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter
1 1/4 cups sugar
3/4 cup natural unsweetened cocoa powder (spooned into cup to measure, then leveled)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs, chilled
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon unbleached all purpose flour
1 cup walnut pieces
-Preheat to 325°F.
- Line 8x8x2-inch metal baking pan with foil, pressing foil firmly against pan sides and leaving 2-inch overhang. (NB: I used a 9x13x1 pan and so I modified it with tin foil, cutting off the mixture at a certain point so that the brownies would still be properly sized. This is always an option, considering that the batter is very thick and heavy.)
-Coat foil with nonstick spray.
-Melt butter in medium saucepan over medium heat.
-Continue cooking until butter stops foaming and browned bits form at bottom of pan, stirring often, about 5 minutes.
-Remove from heat; immediately add sugar, cocoa, 2 teaspoons water, vanilla, and 1/4 teaspoon salt.
-Stir to blend.
-Let cool 5 minutes (mixture will still be hot).
-Add eggs to hot mixture 1 at a time, beating vigorously to blend after each addition.
-When mixture looks thick and shiny, add flour and stir until blended.
- Beat vigorously 60 strokes. (NB: I did, in fact, do this, maybe even 61 instead of 60 times and all with a plastic spoon. I'm not sure what would happen if this step were to be avoided by those of us who seek an easy out, but trust me when I say that the texture of these brownies was everything you would hope it would be...and more.)
- Stir in nuts.
-Transfer batter to prepared pan.
-Bake brownies until toothpick inserted into center comes out almost clean (with a few moist crumbs attached), about 20-25 minutes.
-Cool in pan on rack.
-Using foil overhang, lift brownies from pan.
-Cut into 4 strips. Cut each strip crosswise into 4 brownies (or however large or small you prefer).