One morning, about two weeks after September 11, 2001, my mom did something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. My sister and I were eating cereal at the kitchen counter before school, and like every morning, my mom had The Today Show on the tiny kitchen TV. That TV was almost always on when she was in the kitchen, the hum of All My Children in the background while she made lunch, Oprah while she prepared dinner, Jeopardy or Seinfeld right before we sat down to eat. No one, including her, was ever really watching it. Those weeks after 9/11 were the exception, though. We couldn’t peel our eyes away from the TV, despite the fact that we had already seen the same footage over and over and over again.
Finally, one morning, when the plane flew into the tower for the thousandth time, my mom marched over to the TV and said, “Enough.” She switched the channel to PBS, sat down at the counter with my sister and me, and we watched Sesame Street until it was time for school. That became the new tradition. Despite the fact that I was a sophomore in high school, I looked forward to watching Sesame Street every morning with her. It made my world feel calmer, safer.
There is a fine line between staying informed and becoming obsessed. There comes a point where all you are doing is watching—absorbing violence and disaster and sadness and feeling totally helpless to stop it. I’ve been feeling that way lately, I’m sure a lot of you have. After my last post, which was my heaviest and most personal in the history of this blog, I think we need a break. Taking a break doesn’t mean burying your head in the sand and denying that the world is terrifying and completely out of control right now. It just means taking a break. Shutting it down. Resetting in the most shamelessly brainless way.
The Babysitter’s Club books are a reset button for me. Will I regret admitting this to you later, when I’m trying to sound smart and write about James Joyce? Definitely. But I mean it. These books are so brainless that I was embarrassed to read them even as a third-grader. I had to sneak them home from friends’ houses or hide in the library in order to read them. These books, with their simple plot-lines and inane chatter, imbued me with a brain-buzzy kind of calmness.
Recently, on a particularly overwhelming day, I impulse-bought Babysitter’s Club Book #43: “Stacey’s Emergency” at a used book store. The dilemma in the book is this: Stacey loves chocolate, but Stacey has diabetes so she cannot eat chocolate. Ignoring her diagnosis, Stacey steals Ring Dings from Claudia’s house and stuffs them in her purse, she eats chocolate bars in the privacy of her bedroom, foams like a rabid animal while making fudge at a babysitting job, and (ROCK BOTTOM), even shoves M&M’s in her mouth in the bathroom of a commuter train. Eventually, Stacey gets really really sick because, you know, cause and effect.
Unlike the news of the world, THIS is a problem I can get my head around.
My totally inappropriate response to finishing this book was to immediately get up and make the chocolatiest brownies I could muster. I’ve been trying for years to make brownies that are better than (or as good as) the ones you get from boxed mixes, and this is the one. They are chewy and dense, the brown butter adds coziness and depth, and the pecans a give them a perfect crunch. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend “Stacey’s Emergency” but I would recommend that you shut your brain off and go make these immediately.
2 ½ sticks of butter, cut into cubes (plus more for greasing pan)
2 ½ cups sugar
1 ½ cups unsweetened cocoa powder
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 large eggs, chilled
2/3 cup + 2 Tablespoons unbleached cake flour
¾ cup roughly chopped pecans
Pre-heat oven to 325°F. Butter an 8×8 baking pan and line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper, leaving about 2 inches of paper overhanging on each side (this makes it easy to lift the brownies out). Butter the parchment and set pan aside.
In a medium saucepan, brown your butter until deeply golden-brown and fragrant. Remove from heat and immediately whisk in sugar, cocoa powder, and vanilla until mixture is smooth and shiny. Allow this mixture to cool for about 3 minutes before adding in the eggs, one at a time, stirring between each addition until each egg is incorporated.
Transfer this mixture to a mixing bowl and add flour. Stir with a wooden spoon for 60 strokes.
(A reader let me know that when she did this by hand, her brownie batter was very very thick, but in her kitchen aid it came out just like the pictures. I didn’t have this problem, but do feel free to throw everything in your mixer–just be sure not to over mix. Thank you, Liz!)
Pour batter into baking sheet, sprinkle with pecans, and bake for about 1 hour, or until a tester inserted into the center comes out clean. Lift brownies from pan using parchment handles and transfer to a cooling rack to cool before cutting into 6 large brownie or 8 medium-sized brownies.