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. 

Recipe links: scones, clotted cream, and other good stuff

I’ve run a series of posts about food, in response to which Jean at Delightful Repast sent me links to recipes, all for several things that have either I or someone leaving a comment mentioned. I thought I’d pass them on for the benefit of anyone out there who cooks. Or who knows someone who can be bribed or strongarmed into cooking.

Clotted cream. A number of people asked what it is, so here you go–make your own.

Scones. Because what’s clotted cream without a scone and jam?

English muffins, which Jean swears are just called muffins in England, although I’d swear I saw them sold as English muffins once at the Co-op.

Crumpets, which I can’t think of anything to say about. Except that I’m ending that sentence with a preposition and, yeah, it’s okay: The English language likes to end sentences with prepositions. (I tried to maneuver “with” to the end of that sentence, but I can’t do it.)

Teacakes, a.k.a. toasted teacakes, but you have to toast them before you can calll them that.

And finally, a brandy-soaked British fruitcake. This works for Christmas and for weddings, although not if you’re in the U.S., where wedding cakes are cut from sponge rubber and then iced elaborately.

Wishing you a happy but belated Pancake Day

Pancake Day came and went quietly this year. It’s a holiday I never heard of before I moved to the U.K. and it’s such a quiet one that I’d been here a couple of years before I even noticed it.

Pancake Day is also known as Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent starts. Traditionally, anyone who kept Lent gave up everything fun, and that put a lot of pressure on that last pre-Lent day. So New Orleans went wild with Mardi Gras and still does. Brazil cut loose during Carnival and keeps right on doing it. And the British? They eat pancakes.

Does this country know how to throw a party or what?

Screamingly irrelevant photo: This is from New Zealand and has nothing to do with anything. Nice, isn't it? Photo by Ida Swearingen

Screamingly irrelevant photo: This is from New Zealand and has nothing to do with anything here. Nice, isn’t it? Photo by Ida Swearingen

The logic of Pancake Day is inescapable. People were supposed to give up eggs, milk, and sugar during lent, so they used them up the night before by making pancakes. What were they supposed to do with the eggs the chickens went right on laying and the milk the cow kept on giving? Because cows and chickens don’t care if it’s Lent. They don’t believe in any religion, and even if they did biological processes are hard to control But what do I know? I’m Jewish and I’m an atheist, and if that isn’t enough I grew up in New York, where we didn’t keep a lot of cows or chickens. So I’m not an expert on this stuff. In fact, I thought all a person had to do during Lent was give up one thing, like orange bubble gum or blue frosting. But maybe that’s a toned-down modern approach.

Anyway, these days Britain’s long on tradition but light on traditional religion. So it substitutes eating pancakes for emptying the cupboards of all the good stuff and entering a somber season in a sugar-free, egg-free, lactose-free condition. And even I can get behind eating pancakes, although not on a fixed day every year, which accounts for me being late with this post.

So let’s talk about pancakes. They never go out of season.

British pancakes—at least the ones I’ve had—are more like French crepes, which is to say, thin. I first tasted them when a neighbor borrowed some flour because he had to make pancakes that night–it was Pancake Day–and in payment he brought us each a pancake, with lemon (I think) and (definitely) sugar. They were good. I can’t think of a bad thing to say about them. But sometimes a person just wants a thick ol’ American pancake. So be warned, I’m leading up to a recipe. Because no matter how good British pancakes are, I believe in the American version. What can I tell you? Talk to me about food and I’m capable of unreasoning patriotism.

I’ve seen British food writers offer approximations of American pancakes and they have some strange ideas about how we make them. One adds vanilla and honey but no baking soda or baking powder. Which is why she has to beat hell out of the egg whites. Another beats hell out of the whole mix until it’s thoroughly blended and lumpless, which is a good idea if you’re making a cake but not so great if you want pancakes, because they need a lumpy batter.

Why the food writers don’t just look in an American cookbook I don’t know, but here’s my recipe.

Pancakes

Serves 2 moderate eaters; for enthusiastic eaters, double the recipe and eat the leftovers cold and straight from the refrigerator

1 cup (4 oz.) flour

1 tsp. sugar

½ tsp. salt

¾ tsp. baking powder

½ tsp. bicarbonate of soda

1 egg

½ cup (or more) buttermilk (or plain milk with about 1 tsp. of cider or white vinegar added*)

1 Tbsp. (½ oz.) melted butter

Optional: blueberries, peaches, or raspberries

Put the dry ingredients in a bowl and whisk them together. That’s instead of sifting. I’m a lazy cook and this works. Beat the egg into the milk and add it to the dry ingredients. Add the butter. Stir until just barely mixed, leaving some lumps. Add more milk if you need to until you get a thick but pourable batter. The thinner the batter, the thinner the pancakes will be.

Stir the fruit in last.

Heat the frying pan (or several pans, which will let you cook them faster) over a medium-high heat until a drop of water bounces (in theory; I usually settle for it sizzling madly). Add a bit of oil or butter and spread it with a spatula. If you’re using a non-stick pan, you don’t need much; if you’re not, you’ll need more and will have to add more before each new pancake. Pour in a ladleful of batter. I generally make my pancakes a bit bigger than CD-size. but you can make smaller ones if you like. Hell, you can shape them into the letters of the alphabet if you want, but they’ll be hard to flip. Don’t put a cover on the the pan. Bubbles will rise and then break, signaling that the bottom’s probably done. Sneak a look and if it’s brown, flip the pancake. Leave the second side on the pan long enough for the center to cook through.

You may need to adjust the heat as you go. If the pancakes burn, turn it down. If they don’t brown, turn it up. You’d probably have figured that out without me saying it.

You can feed them to the ravening hordes as they get done of keep them warm in a very low oven until they’re all cooked and you can sit down yourself.

Serve with butter and maple syrup. Or if you’re in a Lenten kind of mood, with plain old yogurt, which is surprisingly good with them.

 

*The milk will curdle when you mix in the vinegar. That’s fine.

Serving Texas hamburgers in Cornwall, part 2: the definitive recipe

I already told you that the only ingredient in a Texas hamburger is beef, and that’s true but I may have oversimplified things. So I’m going to give you the full, formal recipe. Don’t leave here without it.

Before we get down to business, though, I need to explain that the difference between a Texas hamburger and any other kind of American hamburger.

Cornwall; Madron Holy Well

Screamingly irrelevant photo: Tree at Madron Holy Well, near Penzance. The tradition of tying cloth to the tree goes back to pre-Christian times, when it was believed to cure illness. Exactly why people do it today is anyone’s guess. Maybe to cure an illness; maybe to brush shoulders with something ancient or add their bit of cloth to something compelling. I was tempted, because it is compelling, even though I don’t believe it can cure and wasn’t sick to begin with.

People don’t notice regional differences in countries that aren’t theirs, but if you live there, they matter. A California burger comes with lettuce and tomato, and if you live in California it’s just called a hamburger. It’s the rest of the country that calls it a California burger. And a Texas burger? It has one ingredient no one else can match and it has its own cooking method.

The ingredient is attitude. A Texas hamburger has it, and much as I love other parts of the country we just can’t rival Texas for its outright and usually charming bullshit. Without the good ol’ Texas bullshit, what you have is a plain ol’ American hamburger. That’s not bad, but it isn’t from Texas.

If you’re not from Texas can you do Texas bullshit? Probably not. Many and many a year ago in a queendom surrounded by the sea, we were trapped across a table in a broken-down train with an Englishman who lived in Texas and thought he’d learned the trick. What he’d learned to be was loud, self-important, and obnoxious. What he hadn’t learned was charm. It was a very long wait for that train to get moving again.

What do I recommend, then? A) Invite a Texan and turn her or him loose, B) offer your burgers to a group of people who don’t know about the secret ingredient and won’t miss it, or C) call it an American hamburger. Do not, under any circumstances, try to substitute a low-cost bluster for Texas bullshit. You’re better off without it.

And the cooking method? You cook the burgers outdoors, on a hot grill, and you cook them, at most, medium rare. When the burger’s almost done, put the top half of the bun on it. This spreads the grease on it. Wild Thing assures me that’s good.

The grill has to be hot, so the outside gets seared and dark. If you’re using charcoal, Wild Thing tells me you have to let the coals get white hot. Tossing a bit of water on them will release some steam and heat everything up. It’ll also bring a little drama to the process. She uses a gas grill, and she buys hardwood chips, soaks them, and tosses them into the grill to give the meat a smoky flavor. Oak is good, but any hardwood will do. Pine won’t.

What about the folks who can’t bring themselves to eat their burgers rare? We-e-ll, it’s up to you, of course. I suspect Wild Thing’s becoming a bit of a missionary about this, but the fact is that she did re-grill the hamburgers that were brought back to her. Whether she can bring herself to do it a second time is anyone’s guess.

So here’s the recipe. Be sure to get the proportions right:

Texas Hamburgers

Good ground beef

That’s it. Nothing else. Not even salt and pepper. No eggs, no bread crumbs, no shoelaces. Don’t (as I’m sometimes tempted to do) buy cheap ground beef, telling yourself the fat will cook out. Get the good (for which you can read more expensive) stuff, divide it up, pat it into shape, and grill the hell out of it. Put it on a bun, put some ketchup on it, and eat it.

And remember, you got the recipe from a vegetarian.

True Lemon Drizzle Escapes the Comments Box

Belladona Took sent a link to a traditional lemon drizzle cake recipe, and it deserves to be let free of the comments box so anyone who reads only the posts can find it. It uses plain flour, so it should translate reasonably well to any country. Judging from the comments on the recipe I published, no two readers share any single measuring preference, so I’ll warn you that it’s measured in cups and so forth and let you decide in the privacy of your own kitchen whether it makes sense to follow the link.

In case it changes any minds, 4 cups of flour equals a pound, so you can still weigh it.

http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/Lindas-Lemon-Drizzle-Cake-51159200

Enjoy. Or run like hell. It’s up to you. Thanks, Belladona.

Autumn in Cornwall

Irrelevant Photo: Wild Blackberries Ripening in the Hedge