For many, self-isolating has been a period of retreat, of re-centering, of extended periods of boredom, of catching up on TV shows (I recommend Netflix’s Master of None) and watching movies. In my last piece, I talked about using cooking as a form of escapism, something that allows me control and ensures that my loved ones are kept healthy and happy for as long as possible.
But in the last few days, I’ve been thinking about the new pressure that has permeated from inside the domestic realm—the new anxiety of quarantine productivity. On every social media feed, I see two types of people: those who seem to be using this extended period to try new things, like writing novels or learning a new language and those who self-deprecate, who self-ridicule for not being able to concentrate enough to embark on new hobbies, and who view this as some sort of failure. This is something I’ve found deeply unsettling, because I realized that I have that fear too.
Currently, I have a list in my laptop notes of things I want to do, not limited to learning French, writing a play, baking my first loaf of bread (I have no yeast), watching the entirety of The Sopranos, and trying yoga for the first time. All this on top of attending online classes, keeping up with readings, Zoom rehearsals, meetings, and so on. This is really overwhelming stuff in its own right, but for some reason, the confinements of my home have made me, and it appears so many others, much more conscious of trying to overcompensate for our productivity levels. At a time when keeping healthy is the utter global social goal, it astounds me that we’ve found a way to put so much unnecessary pressure on ourselves through yet another format. I offer no real solution to this because it’s something I’m only just beginning to acknowledge and manage, but if you feel the same way I do, let’s turn off our phones for an hour together, and get lost in a book or a TV show or in the kitchen instead. These are things that actually recenter me, and are easily manageable pastimes to help me relax, because frankly, everything seems to be stress-inducing at the moment, and we just do not need it in addition to every academic and civilian responsibility we must adhere to as well.
The big takeaway here is: if you can manage to do things which excite and challenge you, great. But don’t beat yourself up if you can’t concentrate for more than two minutes on reading, or on exercising indoors. Do what makes you happy, and brings you peace, not what your social media seems to constantly coerce you into believing will.
Today’s recipe is easy, soothing, and most importantly, delicious. I’ve been making Nigel Slater’s brownies for years, and will never stray from the simplicity of his ingredient list or method. I have been told by loved ones and strangers that these are the best brownies they’ve ever tried, and for me, that’s enough. I’ve served them instead of cake for my Dad’s 50th birthday, made 60 of them in one day to bring to a family friend’s, given them as a Valentine Day's present (cringe), and this past Christmas they replaced chocolate Yule log for dessert (they’re just…better). They’ve turned me into a bit of a brownie snob, and I’ve outlined his recipe but with a couple of adjustments that I’ve added over the years. I guarantee they will put a smile on anybody’s face, perhaps make you feel like an accomplished pastry chef minus any ounce of effort or skill required.
Really, there is no universe where a combination of butter, sugar and chocolate can’t do wonders for the soul, and I hope they bring you a little sweetness while we sit this thing out.
Nigel (and Ava’s Oh-Shit-The-World-Is-Insane) Chocolate Brownies
Note - so, Nigel and I are British, so we measure in grams. I’m sorry, but I refuse to convert the recipe. Also, in Britain we use something called “golden caster sugar,” which is an unrefined white sugar that is (unsurprisingly) golden in color. It has a taste sort of midway between white and brown sugar, so I’ve suggested a combination here, but if you can access golden (first tell me where please), then use that.
Other important notes - Dutch-processed cocoa is something important to me. It has a deeper and more chocolatey flavour than normal cocoa, which is more acidic and fruity. My additions are all optional, but work to enhance the intensity of the chocolate. 70% chocolate is a necessity!
200g white sugar
100g brown sugar
250g chocolate (70% cocoa solids)
3 eggs plus 1 egg yolk
60g Dutch-processed cocoa powder
60g plain flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
Pinch of salt
Optional additions: 1 tsp vanilla extract, 1 tsp espresso powder, flakey sea salt for the top
Preheat the oven to 355 degrees Fahrenheit, and line a baking dish with parchment paper.
In a bowl, beat the sugars and butter together for a few minutes until pale and fluffy. You can use your hand or a mixer, whatever you have.
In the meantime, set aside around 75g of the chocolate and chop into small chip-sized pieces, and melt the remaining chocolate either in a microwave (stirring every 30 seconds until melted) or in a bowl over a double-boiler.
Break the eggs (and vanilla extract if using) into a bowl, and beat with a fork, making sure to remove any pieces of eggshell. With the mixer running, introduce the egg in small amounts to the sugar/butter mixture.
Using a large metal spoon, mix in the melted and chopped chocolate to the sugar/butter mixture.
In a bowl, sift the flour, baking powder, salt, cocoa powder and the pinch of salt (and the teaspoon of espresso powder if using). Then, fold into the chocolate mixture. Be gentle, and try not to knock out the air.
Pour mixture into your baking dish, smoothing out the top and working into the edges with your spoon (may need some coaxing as it is not runny). Bake for 20-30 minutes, keeping an eye on it. (If adding the flakey sea salt, wait ten minutes and then pull quickly out of the oven and sprinkle over the top). When you think it’s done, pierce the center with a toothpick. The mixture shouldn’t be runny, but there will be sticky crumbs and that is perfect.
Let cool, slice, and enjoy every moment.
Now over to you. Experiment! I’ve swirled tahini into it, but I’m sure peanut butter would be a welcome addition if that’s your thing. Great served with vanilla ice cream, fruit, on it’s own, eaten at 3 a.m. over the sink, on a plate with a fork, or straight out the baking tin with your hands. No judgement from me.
Nigel's original recipe can be found here, https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2004/jun/13/foodanddrink.shopping2 or in his book The Kitchen Diaries. If you're interested, his memoir, Toast, is an excellent and easy read too, and his wholesome Instagram content documenting his garden, travels, and cooking/writing endeavors never fails to make me smile.