The past six months have felt like one of those days, haven’t they?
It seems like the world has gone utterly mad, leaving many of us standing around, clutching at our chests in shock and wondering what exactly the hell just happened.
Every day, things seem to get more intense. It’s a looming sense of dread, an unidentifiable malaise so that even if things are going okay in most ways, you still feel anxious and crazy and on edge.
If you are a follower of astrology, you might blame Mercury, which seems to always be in retrograde these days.
If you are a follower of psychotherapy, you might blame your parents.
Or maybe it’s the jerk in front of who Doesn’t. Know how. To drive.
Maybe you have turned the fucker off and then back on and it still doesn’t work.
Maybe your kids are assholes, or your spouse.
Or maybe it’s just you.
Some days, for the love of all things (un)holy, you just want something to work, every day, all the time, without thinking about it.
For you, JUST FOR YOU, I present you with the world’s best brownies.
Don’t get me wrong: there are other plenty delicious brownies out there. But these brownies are utterly impossible to ruin. You can’t cook them too long. You can’t undercook them. You can add pretty much anything you want, and they will still be delicious. And they are done in 30 minutes, start to finish.
Two summers ago we had family in town, and I would make a pan of these every night. We are lucky enough to have a soft-serve ice cream man in the neighborhood; we would buy ice cream and eat it with these brownies every. Single. Night. Some nights the ice cream man was late and the brownies cooked longer; others he came a bit earlier and we were forced to eat them still warm and slightly oozy. All agreed that there was no one good way to make that magic happen – all ways were equally delightful.
Chances are good that you have everything you need in your pantry to make them RIGHT NOW.
If your day sucked, if you just need ONE THING TO GO RIGHT, here you go.
You’re welcome, and I love you.
World’s Best Brownies
Note: See recipe notes for adaptations.
½ cup gluten-free all-purpose flour
1/3 cup cocoa powder
½ tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp salt
½ cup vegetable oil
¾ cup sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 350⁰. Grease an 8”x8” glass baking dish.
In a small bowl, mix together the dry ingredients.
In a medium bowl, mix together the wet ingredients, whisking until the egg and oil are both completely incorporated.
SIDE NOTE: There are those who would argue that the eggs should be beaten separately until they become pale yellow and drizzle off the whisk in a smooth yellow ribbon before adding the dry ingredients. If you have the patience for this, this beating results in a lighter brownie. If not, simply whisk until egg and oil are smoothly incorporated and proceed.
Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and mix completely until there are no lumps. Stir in any additions you choose, then pour into prepared baking dish. Bake at 350⁰ for 22-25 minutes. The center will still be fairly wet, but the edges may begin to pull away from the sides of the pan. Let cool completely before serving.
You can also use regular AP flour. If you are GF and use other GF flour, I cannot guarantee the same results. For best results, please click the link for all-purpose gluten-free flour and check out my very easy recipe. Alternately, if you are in Baltimore city, you can order food from me and add on five pounds of my gluten-free flour, which I will then come deliver to you. I’m just saying.
Vegan? Sub 1/2 cup pumpkin or one mashed banana or 1/2 cup applesauce for the egg. Or get rid of the oil altogether and sub a similar amount of pumpkin, banana, or applesauce. Seriously. It’s really that easy.
Optional add-ins: ½ cup chopped nuts or ½ cup semi-sweet chocolate chips or ½ cup peanut butter or butterscotch or mint chips (or any combination). Dried fruit is also delicious, like ½ cup dried cherries or blueberries.
Cutting back on sugar? Use 1/2 cup of sugar instead of 3/4 cup. Seriously.
I haven’t tried this yet because it seems a bit like gilding the lily, but the next time I make these I am going to throw in some toasted coconut and then frost the cooled brownies with vegan coconut frosting. That frosting, too, is easier than it ought to be: Chill a can of full-fat coconut milk overnight, then remove the solids (save the water for smoothies, or freeze it in cubes and use it to chill juice). Add a wee bit of powdered sugar and whip the hell out of the it with a hand mixer. Frost. #Boom
My particular friend and I were visiting friends Luke and Keveney at Redwing Farm in West Virginia when Keveney mentioned pawpaws in passing; her family grows apples commercially and she mentioned something about someone mentioning pawpaws (this is how my brain works, which is why I write everything down. #Senile).
You know those times when something just lodges itself in your brain and you can’t shake it loose? It’s like a tiny little worm, wiggling its way into your brain, burrowing deep.
For me, this was the pawpaw conversation.
It also doesn’t help when you become a bit like a dog with a bone about it and the little worm in your brain turns into a minor obsession that isn’t really able to be alleviated because the thing you are obsessed about is not really anywhere you can physically put your hands on it. Not yet anyway. So you think about it and roll it over in your mind and in the meantime summer turns to fall and you become aware that, at least for pawpaws, TIME IS RUNNING OUT.
Pawpaws are a very, very strange fruit. They are the largest indigenous fruit tree in North America, but they are tropical. They are the only tropical fruit tree found in a temperate climate, and the tree is deciduous. Harvest time is short, from mid-August to the end of October. They are native to 26 states from the Great Lakes to the Florida panhandle (and even now in Medford, Oregon).
In addition to being very confused about where they should actually be growing in the world, pawpaws are alternately temperamental as hell and ridiculously easy to grow. They can go from rock hard to ripe in 24 hours and once ripe have an on-the-counter shelf life of only a day or two (or a week in the ‘fridge).
But pawpaws thrive in low sunlight and are often found underneath the canopy, which makes them an easy harvest (they can even be maintained as dwarf trees for easiest picking, as the largest commercial cultivator of pawpaws right here in Maryland – Deep Run Pawpaw Orchard – does). The evidence of their ease of cultivation is apparent in the huge groves of trees located along the Susquehanna and Alleghany rivers as well as by the two pawpaw seedlings I currently have growing in pots in my backyard (which were germinated accidentally by a landscaper I met at the Hampden farmer’s market here in Baltimore). Most people who experience pawpaws do so quite accidentally, stumbling upon a grove of wild trees and sampling the fruit (which it should be said is generally a stupid thing to do, randomly sampling something that looks like fruit. #BeCarefulOutThere).
The history of the pawpaw finds First People using pawpaw’s fibrous branches for rope, Lewis and Clark relying on them for sustenance when their food ran out in 1806, and Thomas Jefferson cultivating them at Monticello. John James Audubon perched his yellow-billed cuckoo on a branch laden with pawpaws, and zebra swallowtail butterflies eat their leaves exclusively.
All well and good. History is lovely, but what do they taste like?
To find out, I headed to Two Boots Farm in Hampstead, Maryland. There is a pawpaw festival in Ohio that sounded like it could be interesting, but I didn’t particularly feel like driving six and a half hours to chase down a taste – I will never be Anthony Bourdain (which is good because, turns out, he has become something of a massive douche and pretentious fuck. So there’s that). Two Boots is located just 40 minutes from where I am currently typing this, and their little festival (partnered with Slow Food Baltimore) offered tastings and a tour of their orchard, plus the opportunity to purchase some pawpaws.
I sampled five varieties of pawpaw at Two Boots: Shenandoah, Allegheny, Susquehanna, PA Golden, and a small unknown variety called Wildcard (tasted like bubblegum).
And to be perfectly honest, which I always try to be, I am not sure how I feel about them.
Their texture may be off-putting to some. The fruits, which range in size from the two-inch Wildcard variety to the much larger four+ inch Shenandoah, have a strange custard-like texture (which is why they are often referred to incorrectly as a “custard apple” which has an entirely different botanical name altogether). This texture is broken up by large seeds that don’t separate cleanly from the flesh (I had visions of choking on the seed as we sampled – the flesh clings to the seed like mango strands cling to the pit and I could see myself inhaling a pit).
The taste is like nothing I have ever tasted before. It is most often compared to a cross between a mild-flavored mango and a banana (hence the nickname “Hoosier banana” or “Indiana banana,”which makes me laugh and think about sex in the Midwest, which may or may not be a laughing matter). I found this comparison to be true, with one additional sensation: astringency. If the pawpaw is not completely ripe, the closest part of the peel offers the slight sensation of astringency, as if you have mistakenly licked an anti-perspirant-slathered armpit.
This is not the sensation you want to experience in fruit.
But there is something deeply intriguing about the pawpaw for me, and it wasn’t until I purchased six pounds (three pounds each of the Shenandoah and Allegheny) that I figured out why.
It’s not the taste or the rarity or the fact that preparing pawpaws is a total pain in the ass (see below).
As I looked into the history behind this fruit, I suddenly remembered that my cousin Teddy used to sing “Way Down Yonder in the Pawpaw Patch” to me as a child (when I went by “Suzie” instead of Suzannah). Theodore Litovitz was a cousin but many decades older than me and a true genius. Growing up, he was the only person in my family to speak to me as if what I had to say mattered; he asked deep questions and listened when I answered, even when I was young. Maybe it had to do with the fact that we didn’t see him often, but he never seemed annoyed by what I had to say, never treated me like I was foolish or childish or in the way.
I remember sitting with Teddy on the lawnchairs that looked out over the Chesapeake Bay at his house in Annapolis, talking about school and watching the sunset. He always had time for me. He always listened. I always felt heard.
But he was mischievous and often a pain in the ass himself. Once when I was around six or seven, he told me about a magical chocolate bar he had at his house, one that grew back with every bite. It was late when he started this story, and we were leaving his house after Passover seder for a long drive back home. Thinking I had found a new permanent home with people who not only understoood me but would also feed me what was generally forbidden otherwise and not wanting to leave behind a special article of clothing I had just purchased, I turned to my mother and said, “Bring my long dress.”
That was probably the longest car ride home ever.
So Teddy and the pawpaws and being just slightly troublesome are deeply woven together in a way that makes the nature of my obsession over pawpaws more understandable. As I started to work with them, I found myself slowing down a bit, as one must when dealing with this fruit. Something about working with an ingredient that holds a deeply personal connection as well as a connection to the history of the nation in which I live made the experience of pawpaws more profound for me.
But pawpaws, as with many things worth doing and as previously mentioned, are a bit of a pain in the ass.
Choosing the proper one comes first: pawpaws are ripe when they separate from the tree with no resistance. Their flesh gives slightly, and as they ripen the flesh begins to deepen in color. Of the Shenandoah and the Alleghany varieties, I found the former easiest to work with as they are larger and offer more pulp.
Flavor-wise, pawpaws work best with tropical, mild flavors. In the three recipes I made, I paired them with pineapple, coconut, and fresh corn (the ice cream below, pawpaw fritters with fresh corn, and pawpaw-pineapple chia seed pie). The subtle flavor of pawpaws changes somewhat when they are heated, and I found that cold applications made for the best clean pawpaw flavor.
I started each recipe with a basic puree that can be used immediately or frozen. This puree used six Shenandoah pawpaws and the juice of one lime (lime prevents oxidation). Slice the pawpaws in half and remove the seeds. Place the pulp and the lime juice in a food processor and process until smooth. Press through a sieve, then use immediately or freeze in one-cup portions. Makes two and a half cups of puree.
I did also make a puree with the Allegheny pawpaws, but the same three pounds of fruit yielded less than two cups of puree. Best to eat these in hand.
My favorite application thus far was the ice cream. This ice cream has a subtle, delicate flavor that is not overshadowed by any one of the ingredients, which allows the pawpaws’ complexity to shine through. Plus, it’s easy, which makes the work to get the puree seem less.
Pawpaw Ice Cream With Toasted Cashews
1 cup pawpaw puree
1 can unsweetened coconut milk
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup sugar
splash of vanilla
1/2 cup of chopped cashews, toasted and lightly salted
Combine all ingredients except for the cashews in a large bowl and stir until the sugar is completely dissolved and the mixture is smooth.
Place in ice cream machine and process according to directions.
In the last five minutes of churning, add the toasted cashews and allow them to mix in completely.
Full disclosure: I cannot resist a small bowl of this before it freezes completely. It’s like a milkshake rather than straight-up ice cream. I also like to place this between two gluten-free graham crackers for an ice cream sandwich.
As I worked with them pawpaws changed from an obsessive curiosity to something that connected me to someone I loved dearly and miss terribly. Which foods connect you to a time, place, or person?
Especially when the thing you are starting is somewhat of a secret, kept that way so it can be a big surprise when it’s all done.
But it starts today, no foolin’, and already I am stuck.
Anyone who reads even a blog or two of mine knows that motivation and I have not always walked well together.
This reminds me of the story about Jesus walking with someone on the beach (two sets of footprints) and when times got tough there was only one set of footprints because Jesus was carrying the person. This story makes me a little nauseous (and only a little nauseous because I would like to have a long conversation with Jesus, for real, not praying, like hang out with the man and say what the fuck, Jesus.), but it would be super awesome if motivation would just swoop down and cradle me in loving arms.
Motivation for me is more like a sharp, pointy stick. Or a cattle prod. And that’s no day at the beach.
Especially perceptive people who have read even a blog or two of mine might even recognize that this here blog post itself is really just a clever avoidance tactic. Or maybe not so clever.
Regardless. Here we are. At an impasse.
Sometimes, as right now with The Secret Thing, the issue is just too many choices.
I could literally go in 100 different directions with This Secret Thing, but if I commit to one, 99 of them fall away and become impossible.
And I am on a deadline, so I have basically this weekend to commit.
And anyone who knows me well knows that commitment and I are also not always walking together on the beach either. And commitment is too fucking lazy to pick me up. And super heavy for me, even with all of the yoga.
The answer to this is very, very simple: off to market.
Not only does this allow me to procrastinate, but it also gives me a great excuse to check out the new MOM’s that opened up this very morning in The Rotunda in Hampden. It was, as expected, a madhouse, so much so that any designs of leisurely strolling the aisles looking for inspiration fell away when the doors opened.
The samples. And the fresh mozzarella. And Greek yogurt. And bulk section. And the sheer number of people who really should all be at work and not shopping right now so that I can have the store to myself. #OtherPeopleRuinEverything
But THE STRAWBERRIES.
If we were still in Georgia, I would have already been harvesting the first tender shoots of asparagus and small, juicy strawberries, but here in Maryland not much is coming out of the ground beyond greens and brassicas, and even then only for really good garden planners.
These strawberries weren’t local, but they were organic and sweet and deep, ruby red and sexy as hell.
And on sale.
I bought two clamshells, planning something with the aforementioned Greek yogurt (so thick like vanilla-scented crème fraiche) but then came home to other choices.
Quickly staled gluten-free bread, optimistically baked a couple days ago and not consumed. Four egg yolks leftover from the bread’s mother, also still quietly growing delicious in the ‘fridge. Vanilla beans to spare. Almond milk, bought for another purpose and then forgotten, but still good and unopened.
Sophie’s choice: strawberry bread pudding. Christ on a bike, this was good. The perfect bridge between the sunny, spring-like weather of this morning and the 30-degree temps and flurries forecast for Sunday night. Dollop of the Greek yogurt on top.
Perfect for ignoring the other choices I am avoiding. You’re welcome.
Strawberry Bread Pudding
Hey, man. This is totally unfussy. I am putting amounts here, but really, go with what you have. Leave the strawberries out, or add chocolate chips and a touch of cinnamon. Or maybe dried fruit. Or no fruit. Or whatever. Regular milk. Less sugar. Two eggs instead of just yolks. Whatever. No real choices need to be made until you are damn good and ready.
1 1/2 cups milk (cow, almond, soy. Whatever. Whole milk is the more reliable choice, to be sure, but don’t let dairy hold you back.)
1/3 cup sugar (or more. Or less.)
1 vanilla bean, scraped (or 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract)
pinch of salt (or 1 teaspoon if you like to measure)
2 T. butter
2 eggs (or 4 egg yolks if that’s what you have in the ‘fridge)
one leftover loaf of gluten-free bread, cubed into maybe 3 cups (or stale, gluten-filled french bread, brioche, challah, or….)
1 cup chopped strawberries (or a handful of chips, or nothing)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and butter a ceramic baking dish big enough for your bread and berries. Set aside.
Heat milk, sugar, vanilla bean scraping, salt, and butter until the butter is just melted. Cool if you have that kind of patience, or, if not, slowly, slowly, slowly – whisking constantly – drizzle the hot milk into the eggs in a large bowl. If you do it too fast, you will have vanilla-flavored scrambled eggs. Drizzle slowly, slower than you think, while whisking frantically.
Place bread and strawberries in the buttered dish (I used a high-sided white ceramic baking dish). Pour milk-egg mixture over the bread, soaking thoroughly.
Allow the bread to sit in this mixture for 30 minutes in the ‘fridge. Longer, if you like. This is to soak up some of the liquid so the custard does not “break” (scramble the eggs) in the heat of the oven.
Bake for 30-45 minutes (seriously. Big range), until the custard is just a little tiny bit wobbly (but not raw. GROSS). For more gentle cooking, cook the pudding in a bain marie.
Again, cool slightly if you can, or grab a spoon and eat IMMEDIATELY with unsweetened whipped cream, crème fraiche, or super thick Greek yogurt.