Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Cocoa and Brownies

Today was the kind of day that I love: raw, cold and rainy. I've been doing a lot of puttering around and organizing this past week–much needed after two years. Call it delayed fall cleaning or pre-Christmas decorating frenzy (I've promised my boys Friday) but either way, I'll take it (as will my husband). When I clean and organize I do it right: I start with the bookshelves and work inward in the space. Just having my books dusted off, shelves cleaned with Murphy's Oil Soap® (love the smell!), and organized again, speaks volumes for me (hee hee!). PHOTO: Cocoa served in a favorite cup and saucer combo in the Country Fare pattern, originally made by the Zanesville Pottery Company in Ohio before it was bought, and somewhat altered, by Louisville Stoneware. The aqua and chocolate brown combination of color remains one of my favorite colorways. I have collected the pattern for about 20 years after remembering a few pieces in this pattern, and cocoa in them, at my grandparents' New Hampshire farm.

Well, I don't enjoy this kind of weather for days on end–maybe sometimes–as I do welcome the sun. As I have "November in my soul" I rather embrace our four months of November-like winter weather here in Kentucky, especially as we no longer experience the prolonged heavy winters of the Northeast. It suits my natural inclination to burrow in and nest, to not have the excuse of sunshine and gardens to make me feel guilty about wanting to be indoors.

All of our driving rain today–as Aunt Cynthia said, "It's raining bullets out there!"–is heading to the New England in the form of a big snowstorm. [All evening it's been raining so hard that my satellite Internet has been fading in and out–I'm hoping I can post this and upload photographs before bedtime**] I'm thinking of our daughter who is thrilled that they are finally skiing where she works in Vermont and of my mother and my friends all cozy in their New Hampshire houses with their wood stoves going and the snow falling down. Snow days were always a gift back home: a day of quiet when the world outside seemed to surround with more than a soft white blanket, but a needed pause and buffer. Here on our ridge farm we now have fences, even one enclosing a few acres around the doublewide, and it just feels so cozy and safe, even if our gate has a "welcome" sign on it. Add the rain and the wind and it's bliss on a December day.

I once wrote about this phenom in one of my first essays for the former Victoria Magazine and sometime I will reprint it here or include a PDF link to the original scanned article (it is not on-line as yet but I do intend to get links to all of my published articles over the years on my website). That essay spoke of how I organized all of the books at the farmhouse where I grew up, way back in the spring of 1988, and how that process both grounded and reconnected me with the people and places in my life. Then I was nesting before the birth of my oldest child; now I am settling in, finally, to my new life in Kentucky. That's really what it's all about: finding a place for everything and everything in its place–and finding a place for ourselves in the world. One closet, cupboard or room at a time–one book, one person, one experience, one moment at a time.

With the rain and gloom I decided we all needed a massive chocolate infusion! One of my favorite series as a child, and still today, are the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books by Betty MacDonald (who also wrote the classic farm memoir, The Egg and I, about her chicken farm in Washington state). These kinds of, what I call, book memories are what I was reminded of today while I was making homemade cocoa and brownies for my boys when they came home from school:

Mrs. Foxglove was baking brownies. Thick chewey chocolatey nutty brownies. The kind her four children loved. She slid the last pan into the oven, lifted Solomon the black cat down off the kitchen stool where he was drooling up at Alma Gluck the canary, and sat down herself.

It was a very dreary February day. The sky was gray, the snow in the yard was gray and slushy and a cold raw wind was swooshing around the house...The brownies were baking beautifully. She switched the bottom pans to the top shelf and the top pans to the bottom shelf, then closed the door and put the milk on to heat for the children's cocoa.

From "The Crybaby Cure," Hello, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle by Betty MacDonald (1957)

Most of the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle stories (in four collections–illustrated by Hilary Knight, of Heloise fame, and later by Maurice Sendak, with a fifth one added in recent years, reassembled posthumously) start with a cozy domestic scene in a family, with a stay-at-home mother preparing some sort of lovely snack or meal (the books were written in the late 1940s and 1950s post-War era that predates even my own nostalgic childhood). That image of domestic bliss is soon shattered by some kind of childhood malady which eventually requires the mother to break down and call Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, the neighborhood "good witch" and grandmother-to-all who swoops in and solves all sorts of things with magical cures and her innate understanding of the childhood condition. What else would you expect from a woman who lives in an upside-down house filled with treasures, bakes constantly and whose husband was a pirate and buried his treasure somewhere in the back yard? [It goes without saying that she wears an apron and smells of vanilla and baked sugar cookies.]

So you can see that loving children the way she does, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle just naturally understands them even when they are being very difficult, which is of course why all the mothers in our town call Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle whenever they are having trouble with their children. Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle always knows what to do and then of course she has a big cupboard of magic powders and pills and appliances to help cure children's bad habits.
All of this is a usual long-winded preamble to a recipe! Here is my standard, without fail brownie recipe (it only fails if you lengthen the cooking time, unless you like dry brownies) that, if baked properly, replicates "baked fudge." But there is a fine line between underdone and overdone here so beware! Also, these only take a few minutes longer to prepare than a boxed mix but are likely more expensive in ingredients–worth every indulgence in extra cost (unless you buy your Bakers® chocolate and butter on sale, like I do).

If you can't decide between whipped cream or mini-marshmallows, by all means, please use both!

I always make the standard hot cocoa recipe on the side of the Hershey's® Cocoa box (also better than boxed cocoa mixes–and you can liven it up at Christmas with peppermint extract or Schnappe's®). I've probably posted these brownies here In the Pantry before (but I'm too tired to check). If so, here they are again–they are that good:

Brownies "Cockaigne" (from the mid-1970s edition of The Joy of Cooking)

  • 4 squares unsweetened chocolate (1 oz each)
  • 1 stick (1/2 cup) butter
  • 4 eggs, room temperature
  • 2 cups sugar
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 cup chopped nuts, optional (walnuts or pecans are best)
  1. Melt chocolate and butter together on low heat; cool until warmish but not hot.
  2. In the meantime, beat eggs, salt and sugar until light and frothy, preferably with an electric mixer.
  3. Stir in cooled melted chocolate mixture, but not all the way.
  4. Before chocolate is thoroughly mixed, add flour and nuts. Stir just until moistened.
  5. Pour into a 13x9" pan (or large jelly roll pan–although this will require a bit less cooking time and create a thinner brownie) and bake for 25 minutes at 350 degrees.
You can also make substitutions like peppermint or almond extract, or Grand Marnier, for the vanilla. Chopped up candy canes or Andes® or Heath Bar® pieces (all variations I made for a recent bake sale) also work well in place of nuts. You might try Cinnamon Red Hots at Valentine's Day or even a bit of cinnamon in the mix. Otherwise, there is no use messing with perfection!

**NOTE: I am posting this on Wednesday morning, December 9, after our storm ended and the satellite would let me do so–even this morning it is a struggle with the high winds. I miss DSL! There, I've said it. I also have never figured out what "Cockaigne" means, either.


Cathy said...

Cockaigne just means it was one of the author's favorites. I think it was the name of the home they lived in. I think it was the daughter and not the 1st original author.

Catherine said...

I received an email today about what issue of VICTORIA the article was in. I have a list of some of my published articles (needs updating) on my website link (however, I need to have PDFs uploaded on my site of these articles so people can read them there). Here is that link:


The VICTORIA article "Home Fires" that I mentioned in my blog post was in the January 1991 issue and on the very back page of the magazine--wow, a very long time ago! I have another "Chimes" piece that the new VICTORIA magazine editors have purchased that will be out in December 2010 (on a homemade Christmas).

All best for the holidays,


Erica said...

Wanted you to know I snagged your button and its sitting happily on my blog page, thanks for sharing! Erica

Susan said...

Allow me to recommend my favorite: a shot (or two) of Bailey's in hot chocolate.

Mrs. P. said...

I love this post, Catherine. My children LOVED Mrs. PiggleWiggle when they were small children and I LOVED reading the books to them :)


Pattie T. said...

I have no idea how I stumbled upon your blog, but I have been thoroughly enjoying it, the vintage books section in particular. Thanks for bringing back such pleasant memories.