(by Diana Dinerman)
I was never a Girl Scout. I was in the Brownies for exactly two months, then we quit. I say “we” because group activities aren’t just about what a kid wants to do, but also about how much a parent is willing to chauffeur. Neither my mother nor I liked the participating or the driving. You could call us loners, but I prefer virtuosos. We looked at life like a solo act. We weren’t joiners.
I didn’t have a hands-on mom. She didn’t pack me lunch, or drive me to friends’ houses, or talk to other mothers at the bus stop. My mother was a pediatric nurse. She worked long shifts taking care of other people’s children, and when she wasn’t doing that, she was reading or baking. She was at work by 6:30 a.m. and later on call with a beeper, long after I graduated from high school. She wasn’t available to teach me much, but if I came home from school and saw eggs and butter on the counter, I knew we were baking.
If there were two sticks of butter and two eggs, it was cookies. If there was one stick of butter and four eggs, it was brownies. All our recipes came out of The Joy of Cooking. In our kitchen, there was a top shelf that housed the cookbooks. I used Julia Child’s so often, I knew where it was on the shelf by feel. I could reach up with one hand and flip to the exact page I needed. Its faded blue cover, broken spine, and batter-stained pages kept me company through high school.
Working moms have one thing in common: not enough time. But we did not have store-bought desserts. My mother always made my birthday cake. She made muffins and quick breads and pie crusts. She made applesauce and angel food cakes and a chocolate frosting with no particular name that you could eat standing up at the fridge. (Well, that’s how I ate it.) And brownies were always homemade.
My mother and I made brownies often when I was growing up.Not together— separately. Once she taught me how, I was on my own. I got good at making them, so if my mother needed to bring something to a book club, she’d trust me to do it. She’d leave a note on the kitchen counter with the butter and eggs. If she didn’t take out the eggs, she taught me to put them in a bowl of warm water to get them to room temperature. The ingredients should be blended at the same temperature so they harmonize.
My favorite part of making the brownies was the batter. If you get the exact right combination of bitterness to sweetness to saltiness, the chocolate pops. I was often so excited about the batter that I didn’t let the sugar dissolve completely in the warm chocolate, so when I licked the batter off the beater, the undissolved granules of sugar crunched between my teeth, like sucking on a sugar cube. The deep chocolate grit clung to my tongue and the back of the spatula. The brownies had a thick, fudgy texture because we took them out of the oven a few minutes early to get an ooze in the center. I preferred the middles to the corners.
I attended college at Indiana University. In the Midwest, a lot of things come out of a box. Like wine. And brownies. When I had my first box brownie, it tasted different. I couldn’t place the ingredient that gave it that taste because there weren’t any ingredients—just an egg and some vegetable oil added to a powdered mix. Voila: brownies. I didn’t know that was possible. I remember calling my mother from my dorm room: “They make brownies from a box!”
Throughout college, my kitchen saw many pans of brownies, and most of them included pot. I didn’t need a box to make them, just a dime bag. When I moved into my first apartment, I made a pan of brownies from scratch to feel at home. My roommates looked at me like: Why would you do that when there’s a box to help? And I looked at them like: Why would you use a box when you could do it yourself? Brownies were an a capella performance, no box accompaniment needed.
My mother and I got to know each other better after she retired. Now, we talk to each other instead of through the sticks of butter on the counter. She wishes she had been more involved in my life when I was growing up, but necessity prioritizes time when you live in scarcity, and she was always compelled by necessity. I didn’t recognize the scarcity mindset when I was young. But I accept how that mindset shaped my mother’s choices, someone who wasn’t just a mother but also a woman who climbed uphill for many years to provide the way she knew how. For my mother’s generation, “providing” was more financial than emotional. We both wish we had communicated more then, but you can’t make up the time. You can only use well the time you still have.
Whenever I’ve moved over the years, I’ve made brownies to christen the kitchen. It makes a house feel like home. I live alone in Los Angeles now, and my mother recently moved to Cape Charles, Virginia, five hours south of Washington, D.C., where I grew up. She wanted to downsize and have more quiet time. I know exactly what she’s going to do to get settled in the new kitchen.
4 oz. (1 stick) unsalted butter
4 oz. Bakers unsweetened chocolate
2 c. sugar
1 t. vanilla extract
1 c. all-purpose flour
1/4 t. salt
optional: 1/2 c. chopped nuts or 1 c. chocolate chips
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Melt butter and chocolate over very low heat in a small saucepan.
Transfer to a bowl.
Stir sugar into chocolate mixture.
Beat in eggs, one at a time.
Slowly stir in flour and salt until there are no streaks.
If using chocolate chips, stir them in.
Pour batter into a 13 x 9 x 2 pan, greased or lined with parchment paper.
If using nuts, scatter them on top.
Bake for 25 minutes.
Insert a toothpick, and when there’s a few moist crumbs on it, remove from oven.
Cool on a rack before serving (if you can wait that long).