How to bake brownies and improve intercultural understanding

Britain and the United States have a special relationship, and in the interest of strengthening it I’m offering you a brownie recipe. Recipes not only build intercultural understanding, they’re entirely noncaloric. Even if we never try them–and let’s face it, most of us don’t–reading them fills us with an unreasonable hum of calorie-free happiness. 

And since this is a calorie-free post, we’ll go for the richest one in my considerable stash of brownie recipes. 

But before I go on, a word about the special relationship: The thing that makes it so special is that Britain knows what it is and the U.S. doesn’t. In Britain, it’s known as the special relationship. In the U.S., it’s known as um, what?

It’s a bit like one person being in a marriage and the other one not. You don’t get more special than that.

But it does mean that the two countries really could understand each other better. So let’s not start with the hard stuff, like whether we’re talking about a relationship, a quick fling, or an open marriage. Let’s start with food, because everybody needs to eat.

Looking west from a British beach. The U.S. is out there somewhere.

By way of unnecessary background, brownies are (a) American and (b) much admired in Britain. The village I live in has an underground economy that runs on favors and I negotiate my way through it (mostly) in brownies. I know, I’m reinforcing a stereotype and I shouldn’t, but it’s so easy this way.

Brownies are also (c) much  misunderstood in Britain, where you can call anything edible, rectangular, and brown a brownie. Then you can hide it under ice cream, whipped cream, and chocolate sauce and no one will think it’s strange. Or–with all that stuff running interference–notice what the brownie itself tastes like.

Or be sure it’s there at all.

Having said that, the recipe that I promise I’ll get around to eventually is British and comes to you by way of a beachside cafe in Trebarwith Strand. The place has, tragically, changed hands, but before that happened it sold a fantastic brownie, which didn’t come buried under a bunch of irrelevant foodstuffs.

And what’s better, it sold a booklet with a handful of recipes, from which I’ve taken this. 

By way of further unnecessary background, the only part of a recipe that can be copyrighted (she said defensively) is the way it’s written. The proportions and methods? Can’t be done. So this is fair game.

Being British means the recipe’s metric. So if you’re in the U.S. of we-use-cup-measurements A., sorry, sorry, and sorry. Over here in the Olde Worlde, you weigh your ingredients. In milllithingies, which are more reliable than using cups and liquid ounces because they stay the same from country to country, which cups and so forth don’t. 

I’d translate the millithingies for you, but you don’t want a recipe where I’ve been turned loose with the numbers. Really, you don’t. Lord Google can manage it for you if you feed him the millithingies one by one.

The recipe doesn’t include whipped cream, chocolate sauce, or chopped broccoli to top the brownie. It doesn’t even have frosting. Good brownies don’t need frosting. So the brownies this makes won’t be beautiful, but they will be good.

Trebarwtih Brownies

200 grams butter (salted, unsalted, deep fried, whatever you’ve got)

350 grams dark chocolate (in Britain, 70%; in the U.S., never mind; settle for dark)

250 grams dark brown sugar (or light brown; I can’t be bothered keeping both on hand)

3 eggs 

1 tsp. baking powder

70 grams flour ( in Britain, that’s plain flour)

Melt the butter and chocolate together over a low heat. Beat the eggs and the sugar together and stir them into the melted chocolate mix. Sift the flour and baking powder together–or if you’re as lazy a cook as I am, just whisk them together. I can’t tell the difference. Stir them into everything else. 

Oil a square pan and line it with baking paper or greaseproof paper, which may or may not be the same thing but do the same job. If you cut the paper so it overlaps the pan on two sides, you’ll be able to lift the brownies out neatly. If you don’t line the pan, you’ll end up with some delicious brownie hash. Which is not to be confused with hash brownies. 

Scrape the batter into the pan. Lick the scraper. Do not, under any circumstances, share.

Bake at 160 C. if you have a fan oven or 180 C. if you have a regular one, or 350 F. if you’re in the U.S., which doesn’t speak Centigrade. Depending on the size of your pan, bake for somewhere between 40 minutes and an hour. My pan’s 8 ¼ inches (21 cm) square and the time leans toward a full hour. Stick a knife into the center to see if it’s done. If the middle’s set or just a bit gooey, that’s fine. If it’s disgusting, that’s not so fine: Stick it back in the oven. 

I know. I used to count on recipes being exact–or at least pretending to be exact. When they didn’t work out the way they were supposed to, it was reassuring to think that someone somewhere was certain and any changes were my fault. 

Any changes aren’t your fault. Either they’re mine or that’s just how life is. Or how baking is. But we’ve already agreed that you don’t have to actually bake these. Baking is what causes calories.

Does our relationship feel more special now?

A perfectly ordinary cheese scone recipe

Nothing (except possibly moaning or rain; or curry) is more British than scones, so let’s take a break from moaning about the coronavirus for a scone recipe. Recipes aren’t  what I do here at Notes, but what the hell, who’s watching?

You will need: 

An oven

A rolling pin

A kitchen, which will, now that I think about it, probably come with an oven, so skip the first item on the list.

A bunch of other stuff that we’ll get to in time.

I only mention all that because I’ve read enough recipe blogs to know that you can’t just give readers the recipe and shut up. You have to fill space. You have to build some kind of excitement. If you don’t do that, readers won’t think they’ve gotten their money’s worth, even though it’s free. And of course, you have to insert photos showing the ingredients gathered lovingly in a spotless kitchen, the process broken into seventeen simple steps, and the resulting whatever-it-is looking so beautiful that cagey readers will suspect you shellacked it. 

A wonderfully appealing and ever so slightly out of focus illustration: Every baking project ends in dirty dishes.

You also have to claim that your recipe makes the world’s best-ever whatevers.

How many bests can this crowded planet hold? How many best-evers does eternity have space for? Look, I think the recipe’s good or I wouldn’t bother you with it, but it’s just a recipe. I’m sure someone else’s is just as good, or better. The world’s full of recipes. Let’s not kid ourselves that this one (or anyone else’s) going to make our lives perfect or our kitchens immaculate. It’s food. Food is lovely stuff, but once you eat it, it’s gone. 

Okay. I’ve filled the requisite amount of space. Here’s the recipe.

Cheese Scones: makes 6 to 8

Ingredients:

Flour (that’s plain flour if you bake in British), 1 ½ cups 

Baking soda (bicarbonate of soda if you’re British), ½ teaspoon

Cream of tartar, 1 teaspoon

Salt, ½ teaspoon

Butter (cold), 1 – 2 tablespoons. / ½ – 1 ounce

Sharp cheddar, about 4 ounces, grated

Milk, just enough to bring the dry ingredients together

 

Heat the oven to 200 centigrade or 400 Fahrenheit. They’re not exact equivalents but try not to think about it. While we’re at it, I used an American-size cup measure, which is a bit different than a British one. The recipe’s forgiving enough that it won’t matter. I don’t bake stuff that isn’t forgiving.

Put the dry ingredients in a bowl. I mention the bowl to keep you from gathering them neatly on the floor, which is the other obvious choice. Take a whisk if you have one and whisk it through the bowl (and yes, its contents) a couple of times. This is the lazy cook’s way of not having to sift anything ever again. If you don’t have a whisk, just mix everything together. I doubt anyone will know. Or sift the dry ingredients if it makes you happy. For all I know, it really does make a difference. 

Cut the butter into the dry ingredients. I was taught to do this with two butter knives, one in each hand, which is about as useless a way to break the butter into small chunks as anyone ever invented. These days, I use a pastry blender. Pastry blenders are wonderful. Or you can do it the British way and rub the butter and flour between your fingers until they blend. 

Grate the cheese and stir it in, then stir in the milk, a little at a time, just until you have a dough instead of a bunch of stuff that doesn’t cling together. Don’t add more milk than you have to or unspecified bad things will happen to you, the most likely of which is that your scones will be tough as an old shoe.

Roll the scones out on a floured surface until they’re, um, yeah, just about thick enough. Maybe ¾ inch. Then cut them into rounds. If you don’t have a reasonable size scone / biscuit / cookie cutter, use a glass. Or cut them into any old ragged shape that suits your fancy. They’ll taste the same. Smoosh the leftover bits together, roll them out again, and cut a few more. Repeat until you get to the last one, which never does look as neat as its brethren and sisteren because you have to shape it with your fingers.

Bake 12 to 15 minutes on a greased cookie sheet (I think that’s a baking tray if you’re British), or line one with baking paper. 

They’re best with butter. They’re plenty good without it.

There. You haven’t thought about the virus since we started, have you? 

Sorry–I ate mine before I got the camera out.

Okay, I’ll play fair, briefly. This photo’s supposed to sit in the empty space just above it, but I couldn’t convince it there.

My thanks to April Munday, who mentioned cheese scones in a comment, convincing me that I had to bake some, and to Arlingwoman, who wrote enough about grits to convince me that posting a recipe would be a good idea. If you want to blame someone for me going semi-off topic this way, blame them. If you don’t want to blame them, go visit their blogs. They’re both worth your time. 

Messing with British Baking: Chocolate Chip Cookies

Since moving to Cornwall, I’ve made it my mission in life to mess with the Britishness of British baking. Not because British baking is bad. It isn’t; it’s fantastic. Have you eaten shortbread? Or scones? Or pain au chocolat? Or—wait a minute, that last one’s French, isn’t it? (And in case you’re not familiar with the stuff, it’s not pronounced like the English word pain, it’s closer to pan, and it’s basically a croissant with chocolate inside. Mmmm.)

So okay, we’re not talking about a tradition that goes back, unmixed and unmessed-with, to Alfred the Intolerable. British cooking has done what pretty much every culture does: it’s adapted, stolen, borrowed, and claimed as its own whatever bits happened to work—so much so that now people ask, with an almost straight face, “What’s more English than curry?”

How am I carrying out my mission? I’m baking, and I’m feeding my friends and neighbors. It all sounds so harmless, doesn’t it?

Irrelevant Photo: Fountains Abbey

Irrelevant Photo: Fountains Abbey

So here’s my recipe for chocolate chip cookies, because chocolate chip cookies are even more American than Mom and apple pie. They’re probably more American than the flag. The recipe’s in imperial measures. (Shouldn’t we start calling them American measures, by the way? The empire’s gone and—does any country other than the U.S. still use them these days?  And I’m not sure how many people know what imperial measures means.) But back to my point, I’m not going to try translating it into anything sensible like the metric system because the last time I did lost three weeks of my life and didn’t get it right anyway. So forget it. Besides, what’s more American than an irrational and antiquated system of measuring that we inherited from a country that’s since abandoned it and which we will fight to the death rather than give up?

Am I off the topic yet?

The recipe was adapted from one my friend J. found in the Duluth, Minnesota, News Tribune. The introduction explained that the more sugar a cookie has, the more it spreads out in the oven. The original minimized the sugar, which suited me because my chocolate chip cookies had been turning into chocolate chip wafers and I like a thick cookie. I’ve cut the sugar back even further and substituted oatmeal for some of the flour. If that sounds healthy, don’t kid yourself, they’re lethal, but you can increase the sugar if you like. I’ve left the amount a bit vague (a scant ¼ cup, in one place) for exactly that reason. Not to mention because I’m exactly that sort of cook—a bit vague, probably even a bit scant.

If you want the cookies to turn out well (and why would you make them if you didn’t?), you have to find really good dark chocolate—preferably chocolate chips. In the U.S., that means semi-sweet—none of that milk chocolate mess. In the U.K., I’ve had a battle to find good chocolate chips. For years, all I could find were brown waxy things that tasted like buttons that had popped off an old-fashioned shoe. If that’s all you can find, don’t buy them. Chop up chocolate bars (I’ve used 70% chocolate) with the back of a knife and make chocolate chunk cookies, but chunks of chocolate bars don’t keep their shape the way chips do. They’re good but not the same. For some time now, friends have kept us supplied with American chocolate chips, which is a real luxury, especially when you look at the cost of postage, but recently I’ve discovered that Dr. Oetker’s make decent chocolate chips, even if they come in itty bitty bags and are overpriced. In the U.S., you can buy chocolate chips in industrial-size bags. We’re seriously serious about chocolate chips.

If you’re in other countries, I have no chocolate chip advice to offer, but I do know this: If you open the bag and taste them and they don’t taste like much, they won’t get any better when you stir them into the batter and bake them.

The recipe makes an insane number of cookies. (I did warn you that, as a cook, I’m a bit vague.) I freeze whatever we don’t eat on the first day and take them out when we have company. They’re good frozen. Maybe even better. Honest. I discovered this the time I hid them from myself and—surprise surprise—found them. And ate them on the spot.

 

Chocolate Chip Cookies                               

1 c. whole wheat flour

2 1/3 c. plain white flour

1 ½ c. rolled oats (any thickness will do)

2 tsp. baking soda (that’s bicarbonate of soda)

2 tsp. salt

12 oz. (that’s 3 sticks if you’re American) butter

Scant 2/3 c. brown sugar

Scant ¼ c. white sugar

4 eggs

2 tsp. vanilla

Lots of dark chocolate chips  (about 2 ½ c.)

 

Cream the butter and sugars. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, and the vanilla. Mix in the dry ingredients, then the chocolate chips. Drop spoonfuls onto greased cookie sheets, leaving some room for them to spread out.

Bake 9 – 11 minutes at 375 F.,  or 185 c., or 165 c. with a fan oven.

Cool 2 minutes or more on baking sheets before removing.