Wednesday, March 30, 2011

You'll-Never-Buy-A-Mix-Again Brownies

Never is a very bold statement. In general, I don't like the word never. In my head, never sounds like the premature death of possibility--or an easy excuse. As in: "I will never lose weight." Or "I will never be able to travel outside of the continental United States."

Clearly, it's easier for some people to realize certain dreams than it is for others.  It's easier for an ectomorphic teenage cross-country runner to get in shape and lose weight than it is for a sedentary, middle-aged office worker. Easier for someone with a trust fund to jump on a plane to Santorini. But often when people say, 'I never,' what they really mean is 'I am personally scared that this goal will take a great deal of hard work that I'm not willing to invest in this objective.'

However, I am willing to acknowledge that there are some 'nevers' in my life:

1. I will never become an Olympic-level figure skater or gymnast (even a rhythmic gymnast, much as I loved 
twirling those little streamers in third grade).
2. I will never buy eight-tracks for my 2XL again.
3. I will never make a 'mix tape' for a friend again.
4. I will never buy Aqua Net again.
5. I will never go to the Soviet Union again, because the country doesn't exist anymore.

When I was fifteen, I was chosen to be a 'Friendship Ambassador' to the Soviet Union. This was during the waning days of glasnot and perestroika. The idea of 'never' was being challenged daily--as in the Berlin Wall was never supposed to come down. I traveled through the Soviet Union for three weeks--Russia and Belorus--and had the surreal experience of hearing, just after leaving 'White Russia' that the nation had declared itself independent.

Some memories of my journey mark me as a foreigner traveling in Russia. I saw the waxy corpse in Lenin's tomb, preserved with a kind of a saintly reverence. I recall being asked to say a few words at a memorial for some of the dead Soviet soldiers of World War II. I remember smoking unfiltered cigarettes and drinking vodka on a homestay with a Russian family over cheap caviar served on crisps and sour cream.  (Bless my sturdier teenager constitution!) I remember hearing a lecture from a man who had survived the Great Patriotic War, and navigating the complicated procedures of shopping in Russia (which involved waiting in several lines simply to buy a box of shortbread).

I also remember, however, feeling incredibly isolated from the other American kids on the trip. I had some stupid dreams, having watched Doctor Zhivago way too many times and read way too much Chekhov, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky, that this was a Great Experience. Clearly the real point of it all was to have something cool to put on the college resume, and to have unsupervised sex. Which most of the kids were doing, given that they spent quite a bit of time trying to skip out of required day trips and events to either canoodle with their bf or gf of the day, or cry on the shoulder of a friend because bf or gf was cheating. I wasn't above the college resume or the sex thing, of course. But the only guy interested in touching me at the time was a gypsy boy who tried to pickpocket me and steal my cassette player.

I was quite snotty about how little my fellow 'ambassadors' seemed to care about the world around them. But really, we had all caught the same, obsessive disease so common amongst teenagers. They were obsessed with themselves, and so was I--obsessed with how much I was 'not like' other people.

I returned, part of me exhausted and feeling as if I had experienced something monumental, the other part of me feeling lonely and estranged from people my age. However, after waiting nine hours in a Moscow airport, mercifully not held up in customs when one girl in the delegation tried to smuggle several Russian soldier's uniforms (traded for Levis), I suppose I should have been grateful for small favors...

Speaking of which, given the stringency with which I apply the word 'never'--you should make these brownies. They are made with typical 'pantry staple' ingredients, and they don't even require two different kinds of chocolate to put together. I know some people have a fondness for the box taste but these are so easy it's almost not worth going to the store to pick up the Duncan Heinz. They're also pretty much close to 'idiot proof'--I've made them with white whole wheat flour, all-purpose flour, even brown rather than the specified granulated sugar, and they disappear instantaneously whenever I bring them over someone's house or to a party. The following recipe is how I usually make them.
Easy Cocoa Brownies


1 2/3 cup organic white sugar (I used Florida's Crystals)
3/4 cup melted butter
2 tablespoons room temperature water
2 large eggs, beaten
2 teaspoons real vanilla extract
1 1/3 cup white whole wheat flour
3/4 cup Hershey's Special Dark cocoa powder (unsweetened)
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
(Optional) 1/4 sea salt to sprinkle on top of the brownies


1. Preheat oven to 350F. Line an 8X8 pan with foil, allowing some to hang over both sides for easy removal.
2. Mix sugar,  butter, water, eggs, and vanilla extract in one bowl. Sift flour, coca, baking powder, and 1/4 teaspoon sea salt in another bowl and fold into the wet ingredients.
3. Pour into the pan (batter will be fairly thick). Sprinkle sea salt on top of the brownies and run a butter knife through the mixture to incorporate the extra salt slightly into the batter.
4. Bake for 20-25 minutes.
5. Cool for an hour and refrigerate for at least another hour--preferably overnight--to make brownies easier to cut.

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