Okay, so here’s a departure from my usual missive.
I have a fail safe, delicious recipe that was passed down to me from my grandmother. I still have her handwritten version, which stays in my recipe file because I have it committed to memory. But I treasure it, because my maternal grandmother was amazing in the kitchen. And many of my memories of her and my grandfather are centered around food.
My grandparents on my mother’s side left Australia to return to the United States when I was 6. I was devastated. Although my grandfather could silence me with the lift of one eyebrow, and my grandmother had a shout that could chop wood, I adored them both, and reveled in my role as the oldest grandchild (in Australia).
The day they flew out I was inconsolable. My parents had even promised we would go to the pancake restaurant near the airport afterwards, as a treat. I cried through my pancakes, even though they were usually my favorite, and well into the afternoon. My Mama and Papa were gone.
The next time I saw them I was a much older and wiser seven and a half (the ‘half’ matters when you’re seven). My parents, my sister and I went to the U.S. for Christmas in Pennsylvania, and then a road trip down the east coast, through the south, all the way to new Mexico. It would take us several weeks, and we would travel in my grandparent’s motor home.
My grandmother would step into the tiny kitchen every dinnertime and make a delicious dinner for 6 on two hot plates, with a mini fridge and a micro oven. Even at the tender age of seven and a half, I knew that this was impressive.
Best of all were the pies. PIES! In that tiny oven. She made that perfect, flaky pastry from scratch, a feat I have never attempted even though I am on the eve of my 40th birthday. (It is on my list.) Cherry was – and still is – my favorite, but I have only had one pie in my life that was as good as hers (in California last year at a tiny diner in the middle of nowhere).
Lunch times were simpler affairs. Sandwiches, chips and pickles. As she taught me how to do that fancy playing card shuffle and play gin rummy, I munched on salami and mustard sandwiches, Fritos and massive dill pickles. I felt so ‘American’, and I was her little mate again.
Through the years I ate at her table, although not as much as I wish I had. Some of my favorite recipes – and some of my favorite dishes cooked by my mother and my aunties – are hers. My mother and I still hope to one day get her recipes out there – Mama’s recipes.
I have been baking her brownies for nearly 30 years, having tried other recipes and never being as satisfied with results. Last weekend I broke out the brownie pan for the first time since my move to the U.S. I bought all the ingredients, noticing how much finer the sugar is here, and calling my mother in Vegas to ask the difference between bleached and unbleached flour. Hershey’s cocoa powder replaced the Cadbury’s I have used for the past 20 years in Australia.
On top of the different ingredients, I was contending with a new oven. Anyone who bakes will tell you that an oven can be ‘fast’, ‘slow’, or even cook unevenly. I had yet to learn my new oven, hence why I opted for the fail safe brownie recipe.
I made them, baked them, and pulled them out of the oven ahead of the allotted time – just in case. I had a frown on my face as Ben walked over, commenting on how good they smelled. “They’re burnt,” I said, immediately thinking of what else I could take to our friends’ house later that night. “Really? They seem okay,” he offered, helpfully. The frown stayed, as I noted the dark color, and stuck a skewer in the middle. The skewer came out wet, meaning that they weren’t done yet. Hmmm. Burnt on the outside, uncooked inside.
I turned down the oven and stuck them back in for a few minutes. I would wait and see. Hershey’s cocoa is much darker than Cadbury’s – maybe that was it. I took them out, allowed them to cool, and cut off a corner. Delicious. I took a bite to Ben, who agreed that they were good. And they were – just different. The cocoa, the sugar, and whatever else is different about American ingredients had made a completely different brownie to what I was expecting.
In fact, because this recipe was created by my grandmother – and she was American – I think the ones I made on the weekend were closer to hers than any I made in Australia. When I served them to a group of experts (Americans) later that night, they were well received.
So, off the back of all that, I think I will keep Mama’s brownies as my signature baked treat. Oh, and I can still shuffle cards really well, but can’t remember a thing about gin rummy.
Here’s the recipe:
1/2 cup cocoa powder
1/3 cup margarine, 1/3 cup butter
Melt these together on a low heat. Remove pan from heat. Add the following:
2 cups sugar
4 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla
Mix well. In a separate bowl, mix together the following:
1 1/2 cups plain unbleached flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
Add the dry ingredients to the wet, and mix well with a wooden spoon. When combined, pour into a greased brownie tin and bake on 350F for about 30 minutes. Allow to cool in the pan before cutting and serving.