Bittermelons and Brownies: How to Eat Brownies

Brownies represent the alter ego of bittermelons. Instead of embracing the bitter, brownies challenge us to endure the abundance of sweetness.  Brownies with a hint of roasted bitterness and bittermelon bhaji with a hint of roasted sweetness operate like a dynamic gastronomic yin-yang. Most taste and encounters with others happen within this range. Sweetness and bitterness, ease and effort, are encounters that asks us to notice our repulsion and attraction to things. Life happens between tastes of bittermelons and brownies, between bitter medicine and sweet poison.

I have yet to meet a person who hates brownies. Unlike bittermelon, brownies are not an acquired taste. The sweet, moist and dense brownie conquers and overcomes bitterness unlike bittermelon bhaji that celebrates it. The beloved brownie does not have the unpleasant bitterness of a thing that cleanses the human liver or the risk of a thing that boils over and requires unpleasant cleanup, like dal.  There are ways to make an experience of brownies, unpleasant. Just imagine biting into a brownie and hearing an unwelcomed crunch, maybe of an errant eggshell shard.

Broken off into small bites with hot coffee or cold milk, or spooned from a bowl, warm and draped in melting vanilla ice cream, casual or elegant, there is no wrong way to eat a brownie. A miracle food in my house, brownies are one of the few foods celebrated by all members of my chopped and blended family.  In the past, in addition to special occasion dessert, a squat tower of brownies served as the platform for birthday candles, as well as traveled, boxed, to school as birthday treats instead of cupcakes.

Brownies represent a magical definition-defying confection between cake and candy. A small square aims to deliver big taste for the elegant and casual American diner. Dense and moist enough to be picked up and bit into without an uncivilized shower of cake crumbles, brownies exist for a society on the go and perfectly represents a designed American cultural experience.   In fact, the brownie was invented as a portable dessert for the ladies meeting at Chicago’s Palmer house to discuss the Chicago World’s Fair. Today a “to-go” version of this confection at the Palmer House comes boxed and wrapped with a ribbon. The packaging also includes a brief history and the original recipe. The taste can be described as dense yet delicate, with a texture between fudge and cake that melts in your mouth. The walnuts that give the confection texture compose the top layer and are coated with a light glaze. The recipe says it’s an apricot glaze but a fruity taste is hardly noticeable.

I chose Michael Ruhlman’s,  Make Ahead Brownies recipe as a guide for Atiya’s 15th birthday brownie for two reasons:  he claims the recipe is as “easy to make as pancakes” and his recipe yields a big half sheet pan. I quickly learned that the abundant size came with other considerations. For example, an equally big bowl and muscles are needed for mixing. I tried mixing the batter in the stand mixer while pouring the melted butter. I ended up with a melted butter shower all over the countertops and floors. It was a messy unpleasant clean up.

The next time I baked these brownies, I learned my lesson and stirred the batter in my largest bowl with my very own elbow grease. This was one of the few cooking instances where technology did not enhance the experience. Beware of technological shortcuts.

The brownies are wonderful: intensely chocolaty, fudgy, dense and delicious at any temperature.

I love the simplicity of the measurements that can be easily halved by the math-challenged like me. Look to Ruhlman’s recipe for details and his introductory narrative.

Ingredients (the amounts are NOT gentle suggests)

  • 2 cups flour

I have Pillsbury brand flour, last year 2016 Gold Brand flour was recalled due to e.coli. How does e.coli get into flour? We take the neutrality of flour as a given. Consider the dangers of anything processed.

  • 2 cups cocoa powder

I was sad but not surprised to learn of chocolate’s high carbon footprint. I used Hershey cocoa power and have no idea about the environmental and social impact of their chocolate sourcing or production.

  • 1 teaspoon salt

The power of salt, like water, can easily be overlooked. It makes me think of the fairytale about a king who asked his three princesses, “How do you love me?” To his satisfaction the first answered, “Like honey, father,” and the second answered, “like sugar, father.” To his great disappointment the youngest princess answered, “like salt, father.” Years later when she served him a meal without any salt, the king understood the value of salt.

  • 8 eggs

There are so many fun books dedicated to eggs now. This recipe comes for Michael Ruhlman’s Egg: A Culinary Exploration of the World’s most Versatile Ingredient.

  • 4 cups sugar

In addition to the notorious history of sugar production tied to slave labor, the detrimental role of sugar for human health, makes it a treat with a high cost.

  • 4 teaspoons vanilla extract

What a magical ingredient! Every time I open a jar, I have to take a whiff of the sweet spice.

  • 1 pound (4 sticks) of butter

How many cups of milk does it take to make a stick of butter? This is definitely a luxurious recipe. One I probably would not make in Dhaka, unless there was a super special occasion like a birthday.

  • 2 cups of chocolate chips

Chocolate chips have an odd birth after the 1938 invention of the chocolate chip cookie at the Toll House Inn by Ruth Wakefield. Legend has it that WWII soldiers from Massachusetts shared their care package cookies with their fellow soldiers and the cookie became popular on warfront and then the home front.

Mix dry ingredients. I like to add two teaspoons of espresso powder.

Mix eggs, sugar and vanilla. Add the melted butter in a small steady stream while whisking or the eggs will get scrambled. You may have to take breaks. I did.

Add dry to wet. Mix gently scraping the sides and the bottom of the bowl.

Pour batter on a parchment lined baking sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 20-25 minutes.

The sheet of brownie emerges from the oven, unconvincingly done, gooey and soft. The surface will still look wet and slightly cracked. The best thing to do is let it cool. If you cut into it, the chocolate will ooze. This is the HARDEST part about this recipe: waiting. After what seems like an eternity your cooled and better yet, chilled brownie will be easier to cut into squares. Eat, share and freeze for later.

The simple sweet has a complex and even bitter history that reaches back to the chocolate of the Aztecs and forward to a group of women discussing the Chicago World’s Fair to introduce America’s productive power to the world. The story of the brownie is deeper than its shallow flat form. The brownie eaten at birthdays, received in care packages, shared with friends, eaten alone in consolation becomes a part of your story. The decadent and luxurious confection between cake and candy comes at a high cost to the environment and to your health. Brownies only make sense when shared with others as a treat, in small bites of unhealthiness to celebrate the dark sweetness of living.

How to eat brownies?  Make a lot; share even more, like any guilty pleasure.

Thoughts? Questions? Comments?

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