Baking is a handy skill. There are good reasons to spend time this way. One reason is mental because you need to measure and time things accurately. Another is physical because there is beating, stirring, or folding ingredients. It is also meditative because while things are in the oven you can muse about important matters as you clean up the mess. There are sensory and emotional elements too. Whatever is in the oven smells great, creates memories, and tastes better than anything from the store.
My reasons for enjoying baking evolved over time. In the beginning, it satisfied an insatiable teen-aged sweet tooth. I convinced myself that large batches of homemade cookies were “healthier” than Coca Cola and candy bars. Later, it was an expression of love for a growing family.
There were no appetizing sweets when we lived in Cyprus and Asia in the 1990s. Imported Oreos or Chips Ahoy were available only in the form of stale crumbs. Fig Newtons were occasionally purchased, but only after squeezing the package for freshness. I kept the family in cookies, muffins, and coffee cakes for years. Baking was also useful for saying thank you to friends for a kindness or favor.
When our children were very small, there was a storybook called Five Minutes’ Peace by Jill Murphy. I’m not sure they remember it. It was really for mothers, which is why I remember it. An elephant named Mrs. Large tries to claim five minutes of peace from her three rambunctious offspring. Of course she never does. They always want to see what she is doing. They follow her into the bathroom while she is bathing, into the kitchen while she tries to read the newspaper or drink a cup of tea. She never claims a full five minutes by herself because they want her undivided attention. At one time or another most mothers of young children fantasize about a bit of quiet solitude away from family routines.
Once, an artist friend in Cyprus gave me such a gift. We lived in Nicosia for three years in the early 1990s. Most of that time, an Italian friend, Fabio, painted landscapes while living in an ancient stone house in a small Greek village. His art was inspired by Cypriot village life, the countryside, or the sea. He also loved to cook and talk about food. But he did not bake. He kept himself trim with rules about portions, particularly sweets. He always took “a bite” of something sweet while drinking his strong Italian coffee. One bite. Never more.
I enjoyed strong coffee, with or without a bite of something on the side, so we got along fine. He knew I had a young family with the usual busy demands. He also understood I enjoyed being on my own. One time, when he planned to be in Nicosia for the week, he asked if I would like to stay by myself in his village home for a couple of days. I jumped on the opportunity for an overnight getaway.
The house was built in old-Cypriot style. A high stonewall with a wooden door opened onto a cobblestoned open-air courtyard. Each of rooms of the house faced directly onto the courtyard. On one side was the kitchen and living room. On the other side was the bathroom and two bedrooms, one atop the other. An open stone staircase led to the upper bedroom. Olive trees, cactus, succulents, herbs and flowers were in clay pots or scattered about in earthy plots of garden.
The house walls were at least two feet thick. A sunny windowsill over a stone kitchen sink held ripening tomatoes, drying herbs and smooth rocks that looked like translucent eggs. There were many decorative blue glass “eye” amulets scattered around to ward off bad spirits. I settled in and went exploring.
The house nearby begged for archeological excavating. It had crumbled into abandoned ruins long before.
Minor foraging produced two mud-encrusted baskets and some tiny tea glasses. They cleaned up nicely. I fixed a simple meal in the primitive kitchen: eggs with fresh tomatoes and herbs, village bread and wine. From the open window above my bed, I stared at the stars and breathed in cool night air before falling asleep.
Driving back to Nicosia the next day, I considered the gift of restorative time Fabio had bestowed. In an old fashioned house in a dusty village, I had a rejuvenating adventure with myself.
A thank-you was in order. I decided to bake something to challenge Fabio’s portion control principles. There are brownie recipes and then there are brownie recipes. Brownies Cocaine can sideswipe almost anyone with its dark chocolate-y decadence.
A day or so later, I brewed some strong coffee and placed six squares of Brownies Cocaine on a plate. Fabio was invited over. While I recounted spending time grooming the courtyard garden, re-arranging windowsills, scavenging rubble in the abandoned house next door, and a blissful night of sleep, he silently ate brownies. Until the plate was empty. That day our coffee klatch was a rule breaker.
Fabio returned to the ancient stone village with extra brownies. And I returned to family life with memories of a quaint dusty courtyard and house that offered me more than five blessed minutes of peace.
- 3/4 C. butter
- 1 1/8 C. unsweetened cocoa [a good European brand, if possible]
- 2 T. oil
- Melt these ingredients together slowly, over low heat, stirring continuously. Set aside to cool.
- 6 eggs, at room temperature
- 1/4 t. salt
- 3 C. sugar
- 1 1/2 t. real vanilla extract
- Beat the eggs, salt, sugar and vanilla together.
- 1 1/2 C. flour
- Add flour by half cupfuls, folding each one in.
- Stir in cooled chocolate mixture quickly using only a few strokes.
- Bake 350F. [180C.] 25 minutes in greased 9×13 pan. Cool before cutting.
- Sprinkle with confectioner’s sugar.