Baking can be a handy skill. There are several things to like about it. It’s mental because you measure and time things accurately. It’s physical because it involves beating, stirring, or folding ingredients together. It’s meditative because while things are in the oven you might as well read or mull something over in your mind. Or get busy and clean up the mess, which goes back to being physical. There are important 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. At 16, I was baking cookies regularly, convinced it was “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 Asia. Imported Oreos or Chips Ahoy were available only in the form of stale crumbs. Fig Newtons were an occasional purchase, but only after surreptitiously squeezing the package to make sure they were fresh. I kept the family in freshly baked homemade 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 even 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, Fabio lived in an ancient stone house in a small Greek village. His lifestyle inspired him to paint oil canvases of Cypriot village life, or the countryside, or the sea. He was a good Italian cook and loved to talk about food, but he did not bake. He had quirky rules about portion sizes, particularly sweets. He always took “a bite” of sweet while drinking his strong Italian coffee. One bite. No 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 the city for the week, he asked if I would like to stay in his village home for a couple of days. “Yes!” was the only response. I planned an overnight getaway for a few hours of peace.
The house was built in old-Cypriot style. A high stonewall with a wooden door opened onto an open-air cobblestoned courtyard. The rooms of the house were not connected to each other. Instead, they faced 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. The wide stone windowsill in the kitchen held ripened tomatoes, drying herbs and smooth rocks that looked like translucent eggs. There were decorations in the form of blue glass “eye” amulets 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 with holes in the bottom. They cleaned up nicely. I fixed a simple meal in the primitive kitchen: eggs with fresh tomatoes and herbs, village bread and wine. Before falling asleep, I stared at the stars from my bed under an open window.
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 quiet, rejuvenating, solo adventure.
A big thank-you was in order. I wanted 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 small serving plate. Fabio came to my apartment and listened as I told about grooming the courtyard garden, re-arranging windowsills, scavenging the rubble next door. He silently ate brownies until the plate was empty. That day was a rule breaker. Fabio returned to the stony village with extra brownies for other coffee breaks.
And I returned to family life with fond memories of a quaint stone courtyard 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. vanilla extract [Good vanilla is key to all great baking]
- 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, if desired.