happy 58th to the one who taught me to keep it in the bowl

I do not have my mother's brown eyes, her small, slender fingers, or her perfectly curving silhouette. She is endlessly patient, kind to a fault. I do not take after her. "We're sure who the father is, we're just not so sure who the mother is," my parents used to joke. But before we write off her X-chromosome genes as entirely recessive, we must consider all of the evidence.

My affinity for turkey and chopped liver sandwiches, the tendency to wash my hands far more often than necessary, and my love of breakfast for dinner, I clearly owe to her. It is from my mother that I learned how to eat an artichoke, how to sop up the runny yolk of a fried egg with toast, and how to turn up my nose at corned-beef that is sliced any thicker than paper thin. When I was a child, Mom would ask me everyday, "How does it feel to be Jessica today?" Then, she would listen. And in so doing, she taught me how to listen, how always to make space for the other person in the room. Mommy mine, I could not be more grateful for this fine inheritance.

On the occasion of her 58th birthday, I'd like to celebrate some of my dear Mommy's lesser-known qualities: There is, for example, her unparalleled, two-step method of purse-rummaging. At cash registers the world over, she reaches deep into the mouth of her purse, and grabs hold of every credit card, business card, and receipt within reach. Her hand emerges with a motley stack that smells faintly of spearmint gum. Then, with the dexterity and speed of a Vegas dealer, she fans and shuffles until the sought-after card rises to the top of the deck. I've never seen a woman rummage so gracefully. And this birthday portrait would not be complete without mention of my mother's odd susceptibility to foreign accents. In mere thirty-second conversations, she has been known to take on the lilts, drawls, and cadences of her interlocutors. To be honest, it's a little disturbing. But also strangely endearing.

My earliest memories in the kitchen are with my mom, baking - as she dubbed them - "After-Preschool Brownies." I would measure, pour, and even work the mixer. I did the best I could, but my four-year-old "best" inevitably involved some runaway batter on the counter. Mom never said, "don't make a mess." She preferred a gentler, kinder directive: "Don't forget to keep it in the bowl."

I remember these brownies as the richest, most chocolaty things I had ever tasted. I was just a few years out from having started on solid foods, so they probably were. This morning, I learned that what passes for an intense dessert in preschool takes a very different shape on the palate a couple of decades later. They resemble more a good, simple chocolate cake than the sinfully decadent dessert most often associated with the name "brownie." But I'm not complaining. Over a warm, After-Preschool Brownie and a glass of milk, I got to thinking. When, exactly, did we enter the age of the extreme brownie? Must every brownie earn its title with a full pound of chocolate, cacao powder to boot, a clever twist of mint or caramel, and a sheet of chocolate frosting? After-Preschool Brownies are this question's best answer. Somewhere between cakey and fudgy, these brownies provide a smooth, solid hit of chocolate - nothing more, nothing less. They are pleasantly two-toned, with a dark and moist interior and a crackly light-brown crust. After-Preschool Brownies are mild and understated in a brownie world that's gone all glitz and glamour.

To all of you readers out there under the age of five, I heartily recommend this recipe as an excellent first brownie. Any grownups looking for a lower-key brownie that doesn't leave you groaning on the floor in a state of sensory overload, you might want to give this recipe a try, too.

Dear readers, if you happen to see a woman today with a faux southern twang rummaging around (ever so gracefully) in her purse, please give her a big birthday hug for me. As for you, dear Mommy, happy birthday. I love you.

After-Preschool Brownies
Adapted from the Kitchen of Mom

I gave this recipe a bit of a face lift with the help of high-quality chocolate, the addition of salt, and a reduction in sugar. We always left out the walnuts in Mom's kitchen, so for the sake of posterity, I left them out, too.

4 oz. bittersweet chocolate (I used Scharffen-Berger 70%)
2 sticks butter
4 large eggs
1 ½ c. granulated sugar
¼ t. salt
2 t. vanilla
6 T. flour
1 c. toasted, chopped walnuts (optional)

Heat oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease a 13”x9”x2” pan.

In a double boiler (or metal bowl) set over barely simmering water, melt the chocolate and the butter. Stir occasionally.

While the butter and chocolate are melting, crack the eggs into a glass, measure the sugar into one bowl, and whisk together the flour and the salt in another.

When the butter and chocolate have melted, remove from the heat and allow to cool slightly. Meanwhile, beat the eggs, sugar, and vanilla on high speed for about 4 minutes, until the mixture is thick and light in color.

Stir a bit (a few tablespoons) of the egg mixture into the warm chocolate to lighten. Then, beat the lightened chocolate into the egg mixture. Mix in the flour and the salt. The batter will be liquidy, but will firm up as it bakes.

Pour the batter into the pan, and bake for 20-25 minutes, until just a few crumbs cling to a toothpick inserted into the center of the pan. If you prefer a more fudge-like brownie, remove the pan from the oven closer to the 20 minute mark. For cake-like brownies, leave in the oven for up to 25 minutes. Do not overbake.

Allow to cool in the pan until they are not quite room temperature. Cut into squares, and remove the brownies to a cooling rack.


chocolatecup said...

awwww. that was such a sweet tribute. moms are the best really:)

Judy said...

My main parenting regret was not cooking and baking with my girls when they were growing up. I was to impatient, too much of a perfectionist - and I ended up losing so many priceless memories. I intend to make up for it with any grandchildren I am honored to be blessed with!

Jennifer said...

WOW!!!! Yummy brownies!
I truly enjoyed the childhood story! :)

Muneeba said...

The simplest brownies are still my favorite. And yours look just right .. uh oh, now I'm craving these .. and it's only 9 in the morning!

Amanda said...

I wish my mom would have spent more time baking with me after school. It's a nice way to unwind and get to know your kids. I fully plan on doing that with mine,whenever I have them... Hope your mom has a wonderful birthday.

Gretchen said...

What a lovely tribute to your mother! But did I miss something in this recipe? When do you add the flour to the batter?

Jess said...

Thanks, chocolatecup. Yes, moms are pretty swell.

Judy, I know what you mean about perfectionism getting in the way of things. But I'm guessing that, if not in the kitchen, you created many wonderful memories in the other rooms of your home. Maybe you could cook with your girls now. I'm 29 years old, and I still love cooking with my mom.

Jennifer - Thank you! I appreciate your note.

Muneeba - Well, these might actually be suitable for breakfast fare given their mellowness. People eat chocolate muffins for breakfast, right?

Amanda - You're right, kitchen time really is special. Thanks for the birthday wishes, which I'll pass along to my mom.

Gretchen - Thank you for your kind words, and thank you, thank you for catching my mistake! I've fixed up the recipe, so hopefully everything is now clear.

momMe said...

Thank you for my beautiful birthday gift. The first bite I took brought back wonderful memories of taste, texture, and times past. Remember making holiday cookies? I'm still picking sprinkles out of the cracks between the kitchen boards. Cooking with you then and now is truly joyful, and now I'm learning from you. Love you sweetie!!

Sneh | Gels Kitchen said...

aahh you are a good daughter :-)

Lovely brownies!! Perfectly cracked too :-)

Shannalee said...

Beautiful tribute, Jess. I was crying when I read it and then even more when I read your mom's response here. You guys are adorable.

Jen said...

Wishing a very happy birthday to your mama! This post is lovely.

Jess said...

Mom?! Mom!! Fancy meeting you here! I'm so glad you popped in. It just wouldn't have been a proper party without the birthday girl. Seriously, Mom, thanks so much for bravely posting your first comment. (I know from experience that it can feel kind of scary.)

Sneh - Thank you. My mom and I were just discussing the other day how much we like those crackly tops.

Shannalee - You're very sweet. I love having a place like this to celebrate the best people in my life. (I have a feeling you're with me on this one.)

Jen - Thank you. I'll pass along the birthday wishes.

bferry said...

this is great -- and i think i'll have to try this recipe.

Jess said...

bferry, hello! I'm a big fan of your work, and it really made me smile to see your name pop up here. Thank you for stopping by. See you over at the blue hour.

Jessica said...

This sounds like the perfect brownie...maybe I'll serve it on the last day of preschool!

Laurel said...

Not scary at all. Enjoying the brownies with those who are up close and personal and with everyone out in cyberspace --- what a great party!! Sure beats an e-card! Can't wait to be in the kitchen with you again.

Jess said...

Jessica, that sounds like a lovely idea!

Glad to hear it, Mom.

ellen said...

Hello Jessica,

Can't think of a better gift for your mother ... I love your writing, recipes and photographs. When I read your vignettes, I feel like I'm sitting around the table with you, enjoying your always great conversation. Only thing is, I always leave hungry!

Kerstin said...

Aww, what a sweet tribute to your mom. I love reading about family recipes. The brownies sound perfect!

Jess said...

Ellen, hello! It means so much to me that you are reading Sweet Amandine, and I'm thrilled that you chose my mom's birthday to post your maiden comment. (Can a comment be "maiden?" Like a voyage?) Thank you for your very kind words. You have known my mom for a lot longer than I have, so your approval on this birthday "gift" is really worth something.

And Kerstin - Thank you for reading, and for your sweet note.

Rosiecat said...

Aren't brownies the best? I cannot agree with you more about the brownie tragedy of our age. While I enjoy some chopped nuts or a splash of mint extract in my brownies, I can do without the frosting and extreme decadence that seems to accompany most brownies these days. Let's start a revolution and bring back the simple chocolatey joy of a homemade brownie!

PS Your mom sounds like a real keeper!

Jess said...

You said it, Rosiecat! (And yes, I think I will keep that mom of mine around.)

Carolyn's Mom said...

You are an inspriation, Jess. I've had you in my thoughts and prayers for the last year. I've also been a fan of your blog since tasting Kasey's lemon tart,[yes, it was me, who posted that time, and not Kasey's roommate]. I'm glad your year-long ordeal is almost over. Consider me one more mom who's routing for you.

-K said...

Thank You! This will be perfect to bake with my 4-year old this week, and "Don't forget to keep it in the bowl," will surely we uttered by this mom. Thanks to you and your mom for the inspiration.

Jess said...

Carolyn's Mom - Hello! Yes, Kasey set me straight on the identity of the mysterious lemon tart commenter. It means so much to me that you're reading, and that you leave a note from time to time. I've certainly needed more than my usual share of mothering this year. Although we've never met, I truly appreciate having you as another "mom" in my corner.

K - I hope that you and your 4-year old thoroughly enjoyed the brownies, both the baking and the eating. I'm sure that my mom will be thrilled that her gentle directive lives on in your kitchen.