Growing up, my house was all about food. My mother was an adventurous chef from the time I can remember, and my sisters ran various catering ventures together and apart. When they left for college, I inherited one of these operations and was finally promoted from perennial sous-chef to the top spot. I cooked little dinner parties in people’s apartments and laid out buffets in their country homes. I baked for a little gourmet store, and people ordered baskets of cookies from me. Around the same time my father, who had for years confined his interest in cooking to the eating end of things, was persuaded by a group of his pals to sign up for a series of cooking lessons with a top-notch Italian chef. He went off to class each week with his little man friends, and returned each time clutching a sheaf of recipes and a new list of absolutely essential kitchen tools that he needed to purchase. “I don’t know HOW,” he was heard to mutter on the weekends, as he galloped in gourmet fashion around the kitchen, recreating some divine something from that week’s class and encountering yet another scandalous gap in my mother’s batterie de cuisine, “you people have cooked in this kitchen for this long.”

This was amusing. Among the must-have items purchased at the chef’s insistence (and not incidentally, purchased from the chef himself) was a little iron rotisserie device used to roast game birds in the fireplace (did I mention that he taught these classes in Manhattan?) and which had a little bell in it that rang as you (or the landless serf on your Tuscan estate that you assigned to monitor it) turned the crank. Even without this essential tool, my mother had fed us handsomely for many years. The only action the rotisserie unit purchased by my dad ever saw was as a plaything for my mechanics-obsessed little nephew, who called it the “dinger-dody” and spent many happy hours winding its little brass handle and listening to the ringing bell. No hen, partridge or grouse ever sullied the spikes.

One Saturday, midstream in a complex recipe for that night’s dinner guests, my dad discovered he was either lacking an essential ingredient or out of time to perform some hidden task in the steps that had been laid out for him in the recipe. One of us said, as we sometimes very gently did, well, you don’t really need to use that, or do that, or here, why don’t you substitute this. “HOW DO YOU EVER LEARN THAT?” he wailed. How, he wanted to know, do you acquire the inner compass that lets you know what is extraneous, what can be modified, and what can be substituted for any given ingredient or step in a recipe? I don’t remember what we told him, exactly. I hope we were kind.

The short answer to his question is: by doing it over and over. My dad stopped cooking not long after the classes ended, and retired to eating. But even people who stay in the kitchen develop similar mental roadblocks to certain areas of the menu. I, for example, make terrible pie. But I digress.

Last week I had lunch at the achingly gorgeous home of a dynamic and fabulous person, who has a high-powered job in the city. She whipped in from New York, and barely had her jacket off before she threw together in approximately five minutes a salad with an absolutely perfect vinaigrette, set a gorgeous table in an immaculate home of her own design (she had designed it earlier, of course--not that day), and confessed to the fact that she could not and would not bake. Anything. Ever. “If it has flour in it,” she said, “I pretty much know I have to buy it.”

Mindset, mindset.

“I know, “ said my Connecticut hostess, “that I just need to set aside a day to try to get a handle on something, not try to do it when I am rushed to get to a dinner party.”

To this I say: brownies.

Brownies are a great way to cultivate a fondness for baking, because the result is almost always edible and the variations are endless and the skills are basic and the time commitment is brief. Because they are tasty and easy, you are motivated to make them again. Furthermore, they keep well, the necessary tools can be found in even a minimally-furnished kitchen and almost everyone loves to eat them. If you can make good salad dressing and good brownies, it's safe to say you can win Houseguest Of The Year in many beachfront towns and ski resorts.

In college, one of my sisters had a friend, legend has it, who could make brownies like MacGyver, with whatever you had on hand. Unsweetened chocolate, but no butter? Plenty of cocoa and butter, but no eggs? She had some mental slide rule that allowed her to endlessly adjust and convert and end up with the desired result: a pan of hot brownies. Sadly this person has faded from our lives, and did so before I could perform a Vulcan Mind Meld. But once you grasp that the main action in a brownie is the chocolate/fat/sugar interaction (this is why brownies are not health food, and there is no point in pretending otherwise), you begin to see how you can shimmy a little this way or a little that way and still get a tasty outcome. If you don’t want to grasp anything except a hot brownie, skip to the recipes below.

brownie pointers:

  • The essential ingredient is the parchment paper. Make your negotiations elsewhere.
  • Nothing beats hot brownies, except brownies that have sat for a day or two. These are great if you need to bake now for something that is happening later.
  • Under-baked brownies are better than over-baked brownies, so check often towards the end of the cooking time. Unless you burn them completely, however, brownies are pretty forgiving in terms of done-ness.
  • Because so little flour is required to hold things together, brownies can be made gluten-free with no decline in tastiness perceptible even to the gluten-tolerant. I like millet flour because it is more finely ground than rice flour (hence no grit) and is neutral in flavor (GF flour mixes can be slightly bitter.)
  • Once during a brownie emergency the only cocoa I had in the house was a fancy tin of spicy French cocoa that someone had given us that had chile and cayenne in it. Oh, my. That back bite of heat made the sweetness more manageable in a way that was pretty well-received by the public. If no one has given you a tin of fancy French cocoa, then just throw in a pinch of pure ground chiles (not chile powder, which has salt and other spices in it) and a pinch of cayenne, and it will be just as if someone had.
  • I made them once with peanut flour, to similarly positive reviews.
  • Obviously you can change up any nuts you might add without adjusting anything else, and get a totally new flavor that way, or add a tablespoon of instant espresso powder and create a rocket-launching dessert.

Each of these recipes makes a 13 x 9 pan of brownies, which is a lot. You can halve the recipes if you like, but you can also freeze brownies or make instant friends by giving them away, so why bother?

cocoa brownies

Adapted from Alice Medrich’s Bittersweet

One skill (stirring) and only one bowl to wash!

  • 2 ½ sticks unsalted butter
  • 2 ½ cups sugar
  • 1 ¾ cups unsweetened cocoa powder (natural or Dutch-process)
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 4 cold large eggs
  • 1 cup flour

Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 325°F. Line a 13 x 9 pan with a piece of parchment paper. Really. These are too sticky to handle any other way. You don't have to get fussy with the lining of the pan--just tear off a sheet long enough to come up the short ends of the pan and plop it in there.

Place the butter in a medium heatproof bowl and set the bowl in (not over) a wide skillet of barely simmering water. Once it is halfway melted, add the cocoa, sugar and salt. Stir until the butter is melted and the mixture is smooth and hot enough that you don't want to keep your finger in there longer than you need to to test it. Remove the bowl from the skillet and set aside to cool for a few minutes.

Stir in the vanilla with a wooden spoon. Add the eggs one at a time, stirring vigorously after each one. When the batter looks thick, shiny, and well blended, add the flour and stir until you cannot see it any longer, then beat vigorously for 40 strokes with the wooden spoon or a rubber spatula. Stir in any nuts you feel moved to add. Spread as evenly as possible in the lined pan.

Bake until a toothpick plunged into the center emerges slightly moist with batter, 30 to 40 minutes. If you don’t have any toothpicks and aren’t up to whittling one, the edges should look firm and crisp and the top will have a light brown layer on it, and the center should be set, but not too set.

Let cool in the pan on a rack, then grasp the parchment to slide the giant brownie to a cutting board. The sharper the knife and the cooler the brownie, the easier they slice.

chocolate brownies

Adapted from The Silver Palate Cookbook

It’s hard to explain the difference between these and cocoa brownies. These are not as chewy and somehow richer, and involve more utensils and methods but are still pretty darn simple. They slice neater, if that matters.

  • 2 sticks unsalted butter
  • 4 oz unsweetened chocolate
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 c sugar
  • ½ cup flour
  • 1 tsp vanilla

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, and parchment-line (in a parchment-less pinch, you can just butter and flour the pan) a 13 x 9” pan.

In a double boiler (or a bowl set over a pan of hot water), melt the chocolate and butter together until ¾ melted. Remove from heat and stir until completely melted and smooth.

Beat the eggs and sugar with a whisk or hand beater until thick and pale yellow. Add the vanilla and fold in the chocolate. Combine gently and thoroughly. Gently fold in the flour and pour into the waiting pan.

Bake about 25 minutes, or until the center is just set. Cool before slicing, as above, if you can bear it.