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Posts Tagged ‘brownie’

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Toad-In-The-Hole, an egg, sausage, and rosemary dish baked inside Yorkshire pudding batter. My recipe was a gift from a Manchester, UK reader, and it’s so deliriously satisfying that I will never make another.

Hygge (pronounced like a tugboat’s horn: HOO-gah) is a old Danish word that’s difficult to translate into English. My best definition: It’s the well-being that results from surrounding oneself with comfort, safety, and, if Pottery Barn has anything to say about it, off-white bouclé throw pillows.

I’m not knocking Pottery Barn, mind you; once I learned about hygge, I realized my own North Star has been leading me toward the concept all my life, including my love for that store’s aesthetic, which is totally doable without the price tag. The New York Times recently advised people who were seeking hygge to take the following as a Step One: ‘Go home, and stay there.’ A fair starting point.

As someone who can get overwhelmed easily—a door prize from my childhood—I will probably always gravitate toward hygge. The photos below show some of my favorite things to eat to feel soothed and safe, but this is really a way of life, if you can swing it—a way to live more civilized life.

My methods (and you’ll have your own, and I would love to hear about them):

-Using only wooden, glass, or ceramic dishware. Plastic and metal are a no-go.

-Yoga every morning.

-Serving my most I’m-glad-you’re-here dessert to guests: a hot, fresh, fudgy brownie, a blop of melting homemade ice cream on top, served in a bowl.

-My fireplace, which is gas, but still way cool.

-Changing the feel of my place with every season; most recently, a fresh Christmas tree in my bedroom and vintage Advent calendars from my neighbor, long gone and much missed.

-Breathing in fresh cold air after a snowfall, and wearing my best snowball-making mittens from when I was 12 (I didn’t get much bigger).

-Foraging.

-Traveling on my bike as soon as it’s warm enough to, as much as I can.

-Getting virtually all of my furniture secondhand so it has a little soul to it. I find it in antiques stores, from friends, and from garage-sale lawns. I refinish it to make it my own, and sew my own pillows and curtains. (Not really good at it, but they hold together.)

-Vanilla extract made from vanilla beans and local vodka. Laundry detergent made from Borax, washing powder, and Ivory soap. Fresh herbs wrapped in cheesecloth and hung to dry.

-Reading the delicious essays in the weekend Times.

-Cooking from scratch. (Making sausage bread next. Yowza, and stay tuned.)

-Hanging my own work on the walls of my place—photography, drawings, and pebbles I’ve collected from all over the world.

-Very thick hot chocolate made with great-quality semisweet chips, milk (or make it with half milk, half cream, if you want to see me genuflect), and a smidge of cornstarch.

-It’s astonishing how much clutter stresses people out. I shoo it right out the door so it never has a chance to put up its feet.

-Relaxing in ten-year-old L.L. Bean flannel pajamas and blogging, like, say, right now.

-Laughing really hard with friends.

-Bringing a little bite of something good to share when I visit someone.

-Cooking to ABBA, or classical music, or the Mamas and the Papas, or The Cure. Any music.

-Celebrating Chocolate Day every third day (to stave off migraines), and eating organic dark chocolate on my favorite little 1960s-era plate that once belonged to my aunt.

-Opening the windows and leaving them open as soon as I can every season. I am happiest when the indoors feels as much like the outdoors as possible.

-Living where the ocean mist rolls down the streets on foggy mornings.

-The hiss and bubbling of old radiators.

-Feeling the charged energy in the air on Mischief Night and Christmas Eve.

-Reading fairy tales, different versions of each, and then studying the analyses of each. Scrumptious.

-Freshly laundered cotton sheets, a down comforter, and a cool, dark bedroom. A horizon I’m heading toward very soon.

Peace & love.

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Hot homemade sourdough bread with melting Kerrygold butter.

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Shepherd’s pie, properly made with lamb. The UK knows from hygge, even if it’s not their word. Chronically gloomy skies demand it to preserve the sanity of the people.

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Maple cream tart.

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Local apples on a reclaimed vintage farm bench.

 

 

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Mozzarella in carrozza, a grilled-cheese sandwich that’s battered before it’s fried.

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I think I put five pounds of apples in this dude. An avalanche of fruit every time I sliced it.

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Did the research: I can’t have chocolate more than every four days. If I do, I get on the express train to Migraine City. It’s a fairly new caffeine intolerance that does not have me aflutter with happiness, but there it is. First world problems. And I have a reader out there who can’t have cocoa at freaking all, so I’m not whining.

Having realized this, Day Four is a lovely day. One I cherish. One I don’t fritter away on crap chocolate. I’ll have a third of a bar* of the good stuff, or a great-quality chocolate chip cookie, or a great brownie. That last gave me the incentive to find the best in the state. This I sweated through, dauntless, because I am a hero, and heroes don’t do the daunt.

Some like their brownies cake-like. Others like them with a bit of moisture, what the English call ‘squidgy.’ I’m an easy sell; either is fine.

The one up top is the clear king thus far. It’s from The Flaky Tart in the Atlantic Highlands, the bakery that kindly sells my marzipan creations, but it rules nonetheless, I promise you. Thick, very dark, and (most importantly) not too sweet. It’s a European’s brownie.

Below is my favorite downtown brown. It’s at The Grateful Deli. A little on the sweet side and with chocolate chips, neither of which are a requirement for me, but delicious—squidgy and unfussy.

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Next is one of the varieties sold at Whole Foods, sourced from an outside bakery. You all know I’m not a bells-and-whistles girl (dolling up food is often done to disguise poor quality underneath), but I liked these toasted coconut brownies even better than the plain. Wonderful, not sweet, and cakey.

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There are actually two places where one can buy a brownie in my little town of 500 residents, because we have our priorities in order. This is from the second place: Cravings. A peanut butter and chocolate brownie with peanut butter chips on top. This will be a noble choice for my next fourth day: Thursday. I’m stoked.

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*I have to ration amounts as well. This took more research. But when you believe in something, by golly, you make it work and suffer the migraines. This post would be sponsored by Imitrex if the stuff worked on me.

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I just ate a chocolate chip cookie after going though the basket until I found the softest. I didn’t pull the Charmin bit because I only buy soft cookies, nor because I’m a really original narcissist who marks her territory by way of finger dents through Saran Wrap.

No, I did it because my jaw’s been on the fritz this week, and I can’t do any heavy-duty chewing. This happens. I was diagnosed with TMJ disorder in 2000. Google can tell you more, but the layman’s description is I’m a tooth grinder, and it takes a toll on my jaw. The cookie was really good, and I’m thanking my lucky stars, because I was starving and it was the sole soft cookie in the basket.

When you have this condition, being under stress often means pain—a little or a lot, depending on the stress in question. Many teachers have given me many ways to chill and to relieve the soreness.* It’s something I just plain manage. And with all of the problems in the world, especially of late, I’m not whining. It just led my brain to some connections.

As a kid I hated any food that was lumpy. Ix-nay on nuts in candy bars or brownies. Fie on chunky peanut butter and chunky tomato sauce. Ice cream had to be soft, the gooshy kind out of the machine. I didn’t even like chicken or beef on the bone.

Hindsight being what it is, I know why. It wasn’t because my jaw was acting up. That happened much later. I was stressed a lot, so I think I just wanted my food to be one less hassle.

And probably not surprisingly, the inclination toward smooth sailing back then went beyond food. This girl wanted simple, predictable, and routine…across the board. That’s common with very young kids, but I hung in with that a lot longer than most. If I couldn’t get smooth, I felt compelled to make it happen…or to tune out entirely.

Mind you, this is not to say smoothness is bad all the time and in every case. Sometimes it’s great. For some, it’s always perfect, and I bow to that. One should have what one wants. But for me it got old. I’d been stifling myself and didn’t even know it. For me, smoothness is fine. Too-smooth, though = too confining.

Things slowly started to change. I had the most delectable hors d’oeuvres here and there of a world that was bigger than the one I was in. A big friend here, three big teachers there. Travel, which can’t help but expand the old worldview. I started asking a lot of questions, talked to people without wanting to burrow into my very well-worn, self-conscious hidey-hole. I got normal answers and I got weirdo answers. I threw it all against the wall of my mind to see what stuck. Laced up my adventure boots. Even my laugh got bigger. It was crazy.

And you saw this coming: I started to eat stuff I’d never eaten before. Lumpy stuff. I ate walnuts in muffins. Grew to adore tomato sauce made with just skinned plum tomatoes. I was on chunky peanut butter like Homer on a doughnut. Spare ribs were cheerfully gnawed. I only wanted hard ice cream and only with a bunch of stuff in it—Moose Tracks, Cookies & Cream, Cherry Chocolate Chip. I’d switched out too-smooth for a crazy quilt of nubbly, and things were Finally Good. Life sparkled like a vampire.

Then whoops, the ancient stress I hadn’t resolved clobbered me. And food imitating life, I mellowed back down again. I had to—I was too spooked to do otherwise, and besides, my stomach wouldn’t let me eat much. Anything with power was strictly off the table, literally and figuratively. After about five years of these boring shenanigans, you’d better believe I went after it all—travel, adventure, FOOD—like a feral dog. And still do until I need a break, or my jaw cuts in for a slow dance.

Going smooth from time to time—this works for me. Sitting on the sand and watching the tide go out. Floating to the bottom of a really, really well-made vanilla ice cream, with only like four ingredients in it. Or when basic stress and my jaw sucker-punch me for a while and I have to soften my diet, as my oral surgeon says. I guess the Tilt-A-Whirl that’s been been my life was setting me up to figure out what’s the best way to get at all of it. A little gorge here, a little smooth there. Maybe I should be shooting less for a crazy quilt than the throw** I’m sitting under as I write this. I love this thing. It’s fleece on one side and nubbly faux fur on the other. It ain’t the fleece that makes it awesome and it ain’t the nubbly. It’s the both.

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*If you’re in the same boat, please Google myofascial release technique.

**Is it me or do I write about this throw a lot? Last week. Over a year ago. It’s totally that great.

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Whenever I tell people I’m a food writer they always assume I have Food Network standards, or that I’m a gourmet cook. And God knows I hate to be a buzzkill, but here I go.

Re: the first allegation—while the Food Network does hire some decent people, they also have no problem bringing on hacks who can decorate, or swear, or mug like rock stars, but not, you know, cook. In too many cases, shock value is what goes; the food, let alone the quality of it, is almost incidental.

Re: the second—that’s very nice of you, but still no. I’m actually way more boring than that. All I really care about is quality ingredients, prepared in a simple way that shows off how awesome they are. Ta dah. As opposed to the chef wrecking them as a sacrifice to his own ego. Can I please just eat without you handing me your resume with every bite?

Serenity now.

The following review isn’t for chain restaurants. They’re not about quality cooking; they’re about sticking to a formula. It’s for the independents that have gotten off track, or are new to the business, about to open a burger place called Berger’s Burgers Burgers and Burgers, and muse, ‘Wouldn’t a sushi bar look JUST FABOO in that back corner?’

Well—happy to help—it wouldn’t. And segues right into my first point.

1) For the love of all that is righteous, pick a cuisine. One.

Have you ever been to an Irish restaurant in the US that didn’t feature veggie fajitas on their menu along with shepherd’s pie?* Me neither. Restaurants and trying to please everyone are as cliche a pair as Rogaine and a Corvette. Be known for doing what you said you’d do, and doing it very well. I know a sock hop joint in South Jersey that’s known for their grilled cheese sandwiches (thepopshopusa.com. Count ’em—30 kinds of grilled cheese. Looky above for the one I got, the Haddon.). They’re freaking amazing at it, as evidenced by the happy customers who stand on line to get in without complaint.

2) Don’t throw flavors around like you trained at Chez Panisse.

Sometimes restaurants know how to combine unexpected flavors, and the results are successful. Other times it’s as if the kitchen staff wrote down every conceivable flavor on the planet, and some on Jupiter, tacked them to a wall, and then everybody did a shot, then started winging darts at the flavors.

‘Woo hoo—we’ve got two new flavors for our fish tacos! Let’s see…we’ve got…cilantro! And……..huh. Nutter Butter Swirl.’

Other times it’s clear they’re just cleaning out the fridge. That’s when they add ‘vinaigrette’ to throw us off the trail. Genius move.

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You forgot the applesauce and the bottom of the Hellmann’s jar.

3) Quit mailing it in.

Tomatoes. It’s high season. Buy local ones, for crying out loud. They’ll cost more than the pink ones that taste like wet tube socks, but people will remember how intensely flavored the tomatoes on your sandwiches were. They’ll be further impressed that you source locally (people do want to hear this today) and will be back, begging for it. Go ahead and charge more. We’ll pay it because it’s worth it. Promise.

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Juicy, runny, and worth licking off your arms.

Then there was the time last month when a bunch of us went out after a show. I asked the server what was on tap for dessert. My friend Tom started laughing and said, ‘You just want to see a dessert menu so you can mock it.’

But I’m hoping it’s good. I am! I’m genuinely rooting for you, hoping there’s somebody in the kitchen who’s making something yummy from scratch. I would be thrilled to order it, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised at times with wonderful treats in restaurants. (That’s homemade Italian ricotta cheesecake below, from Portofino in Tinton Falls. Best I have ever eaten, anywhere. And it came just as you see it, with the lightest ever powdered-sugar snowfall.)

But oh yeah, I’ll cheerfully mock the dessert menu if I sense everything they offer is frozen, and/or was borne of a paper pouch, and/or otherwise tastes like it’s full of fake and acrimony. And wouldn’t they kind of deserve it?

Can we all agree that cake mixes uniformly blow? The real thing is chocolate, butter, sugar, flour and eggs. A five-year-old can swing that. $9 for something they shook out of a box is a fat no.

If your brownie’s essentially a little square of lab ingredients, I don’t care that on top of it you recreated the left wall of Taylor Swift’s walk-in closet in royal icing. Get the brownie right first.**

Whenever I order dessert out I always ask for it without all of the glitterati. This inevitably makes the server a little twitchy. With a big smile she assures me that the toppings are scrumptious. I am resolute. Then she scampers off to tell the kitchen her customer wants to see what the Toll House pie looks like in its birthday suit. They’ll panic, and, collectively twitchy now, they’ll press their little noses up against the kitchen door’s windows to inhale in short gasps as they watch me eat it. And maybe they’re inspired to mix together some butter and sugar.

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*By the way, authentic shepherd’s pie is made with lamb. No shepherds in it. Just sheep. (Made with chopped beef it’s called cottage pie. No cottages in it. Cows.)

**I wrote about this in my bora bora post when I said restaurants hand you a dessert covered with goo, betting you’ll be too impressed by this quaking, amorphous blob to notice they’re stiffing you and giggling about it in the kitchen. Hasn’t changed yet, and stoicism is such hard work on my part. Get with it, people.

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I’ve been doing a lot of observing lately. And not to go all Dragnet on you, but just the facts, as I’ve witnessed, are:

1) Kids today have never eaten a brownie made from scratch. This kind of freaks me out. Or a cookie, or a cupcake, for that matter. How can I make such an assertion? Well, I work with a lot of kids, of all ages, in theatre. During the run of every show I’ve done since 2009, I’ve treated the cast and crew to some sort of homemade sweet. And when they bite into whatever it is I made, their eyes go all saucery. They make loud, happy noises that invoke the names of traditional deities. Sometimes they jump up and down.

One kid shoved a cookie into his mouth and said, ‘Seven.’

‘A seven on a scale of one to ten?’ I asked.

‘No—this is my seventh one,’ he said.

It’s not that I’m some wild baking talent. I just use real ingredients, with no chemicals, and put them together. They simply aren’t used to it.

A couple of summers ago a teenager took a bite out of one of my Kahlua chocolate chip brownies and asked if there was fruit in it. There wasn’t, but I used organic chocolate, and the flavor was so pure, so undiluted, that he might well have been tasting the ambient flora and fauna from the tropics where it was grown. Who knows.

A few weeks ago I offered another young actor a chocolate brownie. He loved it, and I asked him if he had ever had one made from scratch. He looked at me quizzically, then asked, “Oh, you mean with like eggs and flour?” That’s the bad news—that he had to think about what ‘scratch’ meant. But the good news is now he can say he knows the difference between homemade and from a mix.

Which leads me to my second point:

2) People my age aren’t cooking.  When it comes to variety of ingredients and availability, and still more choices within those categories (including free range, organic, all natural, and so on), people today have the greatest food options the world has ever known. There are even several networks devoted entirely to food shows—how to cook it, how to plate it, how to eat it—and they’re making money spatula over fist. Someone‘s watching.

And yet, despite this abundance and our clear interest in food, why is it so many people, kids and adults alike, still think making something from scratch means starting with a box or a series of pouches and assembling? What gives?

Conversely, I’m noticing many people my parents’ age (born +/- 1940s) are cooking. Not all of them, mind you; people who were not inclined to cook in their youth probably aren’t going to want to spring for a Viking range in their later years. But the ones who have been cooking all of their lives, who you’d think would want to rip off their aprons forever and just sink into their goldenrod-colored recliners with an order from Quizno’s…aren’t.

My mom belongs to a garden club in the town where I grew up. Once a month, one of the ladies takes on the task of providing lunch and dessert for the 20 some-odd members. Mom was telling me all of the wonderful things a lunch hostess had brought recently. I asked where she had bought it.

She hadn’t. She made it: hearty sandwiches of chicken and curry, side dishes, and a homey apple-caramel cake. The ladies loved it—and thought nothing of the fact that their hostess didn’t have it catered. That really struck me, that someone would elect to cook for others, to have fun doing it, to take pride in doing it. It did not occur to her, or to the other members, otherwise.

After lunch, they all complimented the hostess and asked her to share her recipes. People used to do that, too.

I thought back to all of the gatherings I have been to in the past few years, all of the dinner parties, barbecues and celebrations given by friends and family my age or thereabouts. I can think of only a couple of instances in which the hosts prepared any part of it, and only one in which they prepared all of it. I can understand not wanting to cook for a huge crowd; you’d have to be a lunatic to work that hard. But some casual get-togethers included just five or so people total.

What happened? Did we take a wrong turn at Albuquerque or something and forget how to chop carrots? Or did we never learn?

Man alive, this is depressing.

The above photo cheers me up. It’s grape jelly made from scratch (for real), and it was made by my friend’s grandmother. I call the flavor ‘Granny grape.’ Granny is in her eighties and lives outside Pittsburgh in a house that’s blessed with a Concord grape vine growing out back. Every year in late summer she makes grape jelly, pours it into old Smucker’s jelly jars, and labels the flavor and the year with those little half-inch labels you get from the drugstore.

And this thought further cheers me up: I’m reading about dinner clubs that are springing up all over the country, with no goal loftier than cooking together and enjoying what you make. Maybe I’ll start one of my own. I think this is a step back in the right direction.

Granny would approve.

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Irish car bomb cupcakes...the real thing.

I was all set to write about Meyer lemons when another idea popped into my little brunette head and I couldn’t shake it: Guess what I’m learning? Relationships or food, it doesn’t matter—what you get out of them is what you put into them.

Last year I was living at Square One—a notoriously topsy-turvy place, as everyone in the human race knows. And you’d think it would be at the highs, at the far-seeing vistas at the top of the roller coaster, that I would have gained the most knowledge, the most useful information I could take away from the experience. But for me, paradoxically, it was the lows that taught me the most. Once the dust (and tears) cleared, little glimmers of wisdom curled up all around me on the sofa, perching on the cushions and boxes of Kleenex. Sometimes they were comforting, sometimes not, but bless their little hearts, each set me on a healthier path.

This is one of them: Just as you can’t get a decent batch of brownies out of chocolate buttons from A.C. Moore and Splenda, you can’t get a satisfying relationship out of someone who doesn’t have the tools to give. Ingredients are everything. Across the board and without exception.

You know me. I’m the first one to say if you want something to be good, you have to start with the right stuff. No skimping, kids! I’m the poster child of real butter, chocolate that doesn’t taste like your driveway, creamy organic milk. But it took a perspective shift to hit the point home outside of the kitchen.

I’m reminded of an experience I had at a party years ago when someone had made a cake featuring an elaborate piped design. A fellow party goer saw it, nudged me and remarked, “Look at that! You’ve been outbaked.” But the cake was from a mix, and the icing was shortening and other assorted fakery, not butter and sugar. It was pretty unnerving that that cake had made the grade to that party goer…before she had had a single bite. What you bake might be pretty, but come on. Looks are far less important than how it tastes. I don’t care how you gussy it up and I don’t care how you slice it. Bullshit ingredients deliver a bullshit brownie. Or cake, in this case.

On to people ingredients. Start with someone who shows honesty, a good heart, courage and open ears (for simplicity’s sake, just glue all of the characters from The Wizard of Oz together, and then some) and you have the makings of a great relationship, whether romantic or platonic. It’s a lock. Then, when disagreements happen (when and not if—they’re inevitable if you’re both honest), you’ll get past them easily because the other qualities are in place. Better than that—you’ll be closer for having solved the problem together.

I’m not blaming people who, by genetics or happenstance, are missing the chip to be honest, or caring, or open-minded. Me, I’m missing the chip that allows me to be even marginally competent at math (and bio, while we’re at it. I never got above a D). But they probably don’t bring enough to the table to make the relationship mutually nourishing. Good ingredients are all.

Enough yammering. Go eat a brownie. And not a Betty Crocker one, for God’s sake. A real one.

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the best brownie you can buy on the jersey shore is at a little place you’d miss if you blinked, so I’m here to tell you not to. (to be fair, you could miss the whole town; it’s in loch arbour, the tiny village that 194 residents call home).

the place is the grateful deli, a cheerful, family-owned operation. on the counter are the brownies. they are not covered with icing or insipid colored sprinkles. and they are not perfect squares that look like they’ve been cut by ex-military animatrons. but if there’s anything I want to do with my writing, it’s to show that there is beauty in imperfection, especially when it comes to food. this brownie is honest home cooking that just happens to be sold at a deli in a teeny town. it looks like it, and it tastes like it. you’ll be glad.

I have a few really stellar brownie recipes in my arsenal. one is kahlua brownies. the other, called super fudge brownies, is from a 20+ year old mrs. fields cookbook, back when she scorned the use of transfats. consumption of both varieties have inspired numerous marriage proposals, so let’s just say I know from a good brownie.

they usually fall into two camps—fudgy or cakey—but if you factor in what is sold at many local bakeries and franchises, you need to add in a few more, far less palatable camps. these often contain chemicals, or they don’t have a true chocolatey flavor, or they’re dry. but more often than not, they taste like they come from a box. and quelle surprise, there’s a really good reason for that.

on the other hand, the bag into which austin (on-the-ball, young grateful deli cashier) put the brownie is nicely butter stained when I get it back to my house. always a good sign. plate, business end of a fork, go.

this is fudgy, sticky. smears the bottom of the plate in a really appealing way. sticks to the fork so you have to work it off like icing. the flavor is wildly deep, intense, unabashedly chocolatey. someone did not scrimp on the quality of the ingredients. you can’t snarf this brownie; it’s just too rich. and that’s coming from someone who really likes chocolate. those who like or need to pace themselves with real chocolate may choose to save half for when they get the munchies later that night while watching the daily show. jon would totally approve.

oh, tip: this brownie requires cold milk, and I don’t say that just because I never bothered to grow up and it’s my choice of beverage with anything chocolate. you want milk and not coffee or anything else because milk’s cold, clean smoothness counters the brownie’s dark richness. they play nicely together. perfection may not be beautiful, but balance is.

here’s how lame I am: I meant to take a picture of the brownie I bought yesterday, but after a few bites I was so deep into the chocolate vortex that I forgot. so I had to go back and get another one today. I know, you’re all crying in your beers for me.

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