Brownies, Introspection, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

I’ve only ever shared my brownie recipe with three people—my mom, my brother, and a boy I liked last winter.

While my mom has a knack for all things culinary, she’s never been the baking type—she’s much more content leaving me to it. She claims the cream cheese pound cake I make is the best baked good she’s ever had, and I will wear that badge proudly.

My brother is ten, so he hasn’t really touched a baking tin aside from when I ask him to help me count scoops of flour or hold the tray steady. But he’s such a sweet tooth that honestly? I give it about four more years before he starts exploring the wonders of the oven and pantry.

The boy I liked last winter promised to treasure my recipe, which I’d sent him after we both revealed that we were baking enthusiasts. It was kind of nice—to have someone who delighted in the things I said and sent, be it a heartwarming text or a brownie recipe. The simple things. We even made each other baking playlists… and aren’t Spotify playlists just like, the epitome of modern-day long-distance romance?

I’ve done some thinking since then—since the boy, who we’ll call J, told me excitedly that he’d try my recipe the next time he baked. We’d grown close fast, quickly skipping the awkward small talk. We’d texted every day, each conversation more intimate than the last, and I’d thought, hey, cool. This is a nice emotion for a change.

But naturally, we can’t have good things. J stopped replying to my texts one day, without any preamble or warning—he simply vanished. I wasn’t that torn up about it—we never got anywhere, anyway, and there were like two continents between us, after all. But that doesn’t mean I forgot him.

But I digress. This is a blog post about brownies. So where was I?

Ah, yes. I’ve done some thinking since then.

Brownies are cool because they’re a relatively easy thing to make. Cookies, you have to make sure the texture is right with all the types of materials you use—use the wrong sugar, and you won’t get the fluffiness you like; use the wrong butter, and you’ll get a crunchy cookie instead of the chewy one you wanted. Cake, you have to prepare ahead of time and ready yourself for a challenge—the only cake I baked turned out of the tray in pieces, the two-turned-four layers slathered together with cream frosting. 

At least it tasted good.

But brownies? Easy as pie.

I’ve only ever shared my brownie recipe with three people, and I’m not ready yet to share the whole thing with rest of the world, but it won’t take a genius mind to piece together a cohesive picture with the rest of this piece.

The first step to brownies, to any baked good (except for, like, tarts?), is flour. All-purpose flour, to be exact—it’s in the name, after all, the real Jack-of-all-trades in the BCU (Baking Culinary Universe). And there’s a sort of poetic satisfaction to flour, isn’t there? By itself, it has no flavor, no color, no spice. No one ever eats a pastry and goes, “Wow. Wow, this flour is really good.” It’s always the chocolate or the vanilla that gets that credit.

But you can’t get anywhere without flour. And it’s not entirely absent in the end product’s taste—namely, the texture. Some people don’t sift their flour, and it causes clumps in the batter that typically vanish by the time the oven dings, but there’s definitely a noticeable difference in the texture. Unsifted flour, in my experience, causes a certain chalky texture, like the sugar and cocoa powder hasn’t been properly incorporated.

I’d like to think my life is pretty sifted, so to speak. There’s a few clumps—anxiety, worries about college, constant social burnout—but overall, I think I’m pretty set for a smooth future.

Then the butter, melted over the stove until fully liquidized. Once, I tried mixing in softened butter with the dry ingredients, being too lazy to get out a little pot—and I’m not sure if this was the exact reason, but the brownie turned out to be more like fudge. If I knew chemistry, I’d probably be able to say for certain, but thankfully, I am sane, and I don’t like chemistry.

Every time I cut a log of butter in half and melt the entire half, I die a little inside, very literally, because the cholesterol content in that is insane. But the butter is half the batter—without it, there would be no batter, since the recipe doesn’t call for milk—so copious amounts of it is required… it’s just really not ideal. Kind of funny how that’s how life works, too. 

Is it ridiculous that I’m turning brownies into an allegory for life? Maybe.

The way I see it, there’s two possible interpretations for the butter.

Either A) Sometimes we’re forced to do things that are unpleasant, such as studying, in order to get to a certain ideal end result, or B) We do stuff that we know isn’t beneficial, that’s not good for us—we stay up late to read a novel, we procrastinate homework to watch YouTube, we sneak bites of the food Mom’s cooking even though she told us not to. We do all these things, and they’re technically bad for us—but without them, life would be just a bit incomplete.

I think I like the second option more. 

Maybe it’s because I’m more of a romantic, but I like the idea that there’s no such thing as a dictionary-definition “perfect” life. Because if there was one, it wouldn’t be really happy, would it? 

A dictionary-definition “perfect” life wouldn’t involve staying up until 5 A.M. with your friends on call, laughing hard enough to wake up the entire family; it wouldn’t involve eating ridiculously indulgent foods that would be enough to kill a Victorian-era peasant with a bite; it wouldn’t involve best friends that offer arson as a viable option to problem-solving. It wouldn’t involve slowly falling in like, so to speak, with a boy you only just met.

But life is made out of those small unplanned moments, however unconventional they may be, and that’s pretty beautiful, isn’t it?

After melting the heart-stopping amounts of butter, I mix the sugar in. Once again, the amount of sugar that goes into a batch of brownies is disgusting. The sugar to flour ratio is practically 1:1. But that’s the whole point of a brownie—that it’s so sweet you forget all the pains of the world in that one bite. (When you can’t have actual therapy, you’ll take what you can get.) 

Honestly, a brownie with too little sugar is like a LEGO instruction manual without the LEGOs: You get the idea, but that’s all you get. 

Leaving the sugar and butter to simmer on the stove, stirring periodically to make sure nothing burns, it’s time to combine your dry ingredients. 

You already have your flour—now you need the chocolate. The cocoa powder used should have no sugar on its own, or else the amount of sugar in the butter mixture would have to be altered—my go-to preference is Hershey’s cocoa powder, dark and bitter and aromatic.

See, what’s funny about cocoa powder is that it’s very much unpleasant on its own. When I open the container, cocoa dust swirls around in an unleashed fog and I inevitably inhale it like a variant of cocaine that is neither white nor trippy, so I guess it’s not really cocaine at all? Screw it. Cocoa powder is bitter and dry (being powder) and makes me cough, but it is the integral key to the fine art of brownie-making for obvious reasons. Despite its unappealing color and a flavor that tastes like coffee grounds, we’d be lost without it.

Speaking of coffee grounds, one nice extra ingredient I like to add to the mix is espresso powder. I learned the trick from YouTube videos—by adding instant espresso powder, it’ll emphasize the richness of the chocolate. Cool, huh? 

While I will admit I’m a caffeine addict, I’ve never been one for the bitter taste of black coffee, much less espresso. I only take black coffee when it’s the only option available, or when it’s a life-or-death situation and I need to get into the mindset of Five from The Umbrella Academy. So the first time I added espresso powder into my brownie batter, I was apprehensive about how strong the bitterness might be—I was sharing this with my friends, after all, and they’re no fans of coffee.

But the espresso… well, how do I put this? It turned out being the bass of the song, so  to speak. It brought out all the layers of flavor. The chocolate, the dash of vanilla, even the buttery aroma. And I think it serves as a nice parallel to how bitter experiences can bring out the good memories. Everything has to work together—the sweet and the not-so-pleasant—in order to truly form a cohesive, rich end result; for without the bitterness, the picture would be incomplete.

It goes both ways, though, I’m afraid. Now, I associate the taste of brownies with espresso—they go hand-in-hand in my mind, after all. But, and full respect to espresso-lovers here, it’s kind of unfair for something as heartachingly sweet as brownies to be grouped together with something as unpleasantly bitter as pure espresso powder.

Which brings me to my unsubtle connection with my personal memories. As Seth Meyers would say, “That’s a segue!”

One of my favorite science-fiction books is Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I like how absurd it is, I like the fact that it’s space-themed, and I reference the 42 joke probably a bit too much to be considered sane. There’s plenty of pleasant experiences to be associated with the book—I recommended it to one of my best friends, I stayed up all night once playing the text-based game adaptation, and I have a battered copy of it I took from our classroom that I thumb through every month or so. It’s very much a classic in my heart.

One fateful night last winter, though—circling back to the start of this blog article—J had been having problems falling asleep. It was easy to notice, since we’d been talking well into 7 P.M. my time, which equated an all-nighter (and then some) for him. I felt bad, so I, in a stroke of genius, offered to read to him on call until he fell asleep. A glorified bedtime story. The book I chose, unfortunately, was Hitchhiker’s Guide.

So now, when I glance over at my worn paperback copy, there’s a small tug in my brain. The spark of a memory that isn’t unpleasant but isn’t entirely welcome, either. It’s the feeling of an emotion that was never quite there to begin with, not unlike the feeling that comes with remembering a story you once started but abandoned halfway. Only this time, the story left you.

Talk about bittersweet, yeah? Maybe I should ease off the espresso.

The final dry ingredient you’ll need for your Big Bowl o’ Powder is baking powder. Pro-tip: If you only have expired baking powder lying around—dump some of that in hot water and see if it fizzles. If it bubbles up and fizzes, you’re good to go. If it just sits there, sadly, a small clump of moistening white powder in the middle of a tiny puddle… You should go for some groceries.

Then, it’s egg time. Throw in a couple of eggs to the dry ingredients—since if you add them to the still-hot butter-sugar mixture, they’ll end up cooking—and mix it up, getting something clumpy and dry. Slowly mix in your butter-sugar mixture, and you should end up with a dark brown batter with the consistency of melted chocolate.

A sprinkle of salt to get an additional layer of flavor. I used to be confused about the idea of putting salt into baked goods—the confusion is justified if you think about it, y’know? —but it serves the same purpose as the espresso powder. The salt just makes it pop, despite saltiness usually being a more aggressive flavor, far less friendly than sugary sweet, and I dunno, maybe it’s because the age-old platitude of opposites attract actually works in this context.

(Opposites attract? Opposites complement?)

A dash of vanilla extract for that signature aroma. I personally use vanilla paste, since it was somehow easier to come by than extract for me, and it works perfectly and even adds to the visual, with little black flecks speckled in the batter. Vanilla is great, because just like the espresso and salt, it only takes a bit to add a lot; and unlike the espresso and the salt, it’s adding sweet to sweet, pleasure to pleasure.

I like to think of vanilla as the crowning jewel, the cherry on top, for the brownie batter. It’s unadulterated indulgence in a teaspoon, a concentrated drop of mouthwatering fragrance. Just like how there’s always the best part of my day, the best day of my life, the vanilla just adds that one final touch.

And finally, chocolate chips—or chopped chocolate pieces, whichever you prefer. Add them in to your heart’s content. Go on. No deeper picture here with the chocolate, not if you don’t want there to be one—there’s nothing more straightforward than the simple pleasure of chocolate. Mix it all up, fold the chocolate in.

Congratulations! You’ve created basic brownie batter. This is what most brownie batter should end up looking like—pretty plain and standard at first glance. But if you dip a finger and sneak a taste of the batter, which I only recommend doing if your hand is clean and with the guarantee that you’ll wash it right after, you’ll find exploding flavors of buttery chocolate and vanilla undertones—and is that a hint of coffee, a hint of salt?

It’s a symphony of flavors, each more bursting than the last, and if you pulled a Remy the Rat you’d find all the colors of the rainbow exploding before your eyes. Because that’s what’s cool about baking and cooking—it’s basically alchemy!

A mouthful of flour or cocoa powder would make for a terrible experience, and so would sucking a pinch of espresso powder or salt straight from your fingers. Vanilla extract, too, is not exactly an ideal beverage, and you certainly wouldn’t want to just eat a raw egg. But thinking about how it all turns out… it’s kind of poetic, isn’t it? The idea of making something beautiful, something remarkable, out of things that are very much unremarkable on their own. 

So the next time your heart is left wanting, think of it as your own personal dash of espresso powder in the batter that is the grand scheme of things. The next time you’re doubling over in laughter, shaking so hard your stomach aches, remember that those moments are the sweet ones, the ones that will stay with you and define you; and when you’re simply there, not quite doing anything or feeling anything at all, remember the base of tasteless flour that serves as the foundation for everything else.

When the oven chimes and the scent of heady chocolate has long filled your house, don’t forget to use oven mitts to remove your brownies before they overbake. And when you finish cutting the brownies into perfect squares, remember that brownies always go best with ice cream.

I’ve only ever shared my brownie recipe with three people. But now you know.

Bon appetit, dear reader. Hope you enjoy.

— Quinn

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