Writers on the Range: The way mom used to make them
I always tell people that my husband married me for my mother’s brownies. She was famous for them. When she died, I listed the Rebekahs as one of her organizations. A member kindly told me that she was not actually a member, but that since she always brought a pan of brownies to the funeral dinners the organization hosts, they were proud to consider her an honorary Rebekah.
I can’t remember a time that her brownies were not a major part of her considerable culinary repertoire. The chocolaty scent rose from her oven, luring us in like the Pied Piper. She scolded me for cutting away the perfect crusty edges, leaving an island of brownies adrift in the middle of the rectangular cake pan. She had to hide a batch made for a special occasion, for they were her hallmark at church carry-ins, potlucks, company meals, and, of course, those funeral dinners.
Sometimes, in a fit of thriftiness, she experimented. I remember once she tried substituting bacon grease for some of the oil, but this smelled the way you think it would and proved unpopular with family members used to the real thing. Her attempt to use three squares of unsweetened chocolate instead of four likewise proved unpopular, but less so than the bacon grease. We blessed the day when she decided that the original recipe was best left unaltered.
These were the brownies that she carried out to countless brandings, dockings and cattle gathers. When my Mom delivered a hot lunch to a cowboy crew that had been riding since before dawn, hands would ride for miles to eat her stew, her rolls, her salad, but mostly, her brownies. They were soft enough to melt on the tongue, but sturdy enough to tuck into a vest pocket for a mid-afternoon snack. There was never a crumb left in the pan.
This recipe is forever known among family, friends and local cookbooks as “Laura’s Brownies.” So imagine my surprise while thumbing through her recipe file, old cards stained with oil and worn around the edges, when I found a printed version called “Betty Crocker Brownies.” It had been clipped from the back of a box and taped onto the card. I couldn’t have been more surprised if I had found adoption papers with my name on them, in place of a birth certificate.
Come to think of it, she never actually said that it was her recipe, or one handed down from the Mayflower days through her family, who were genuine Pilgrims. I wouldn’t have been startled to learn that these very brownies were served at the first Thanksgiving, but no – I had just assumed. But the brownie recipe was created during the post-World War II homemaking boom, when brides stayed home and experimented with recipes on the backs of boxes.
Whatever the origin, these brownies are associated forever in my mind, and in the minds of many others, with my mother. And perhaps they truly are her own, because even though I make these brownies using exactly the same recipe and under the same conditions that my mother did, they never turn out like hers. I never seem to achieve that perfection, the nirvana of biting into that first steaming bit of chocolate.
In honor of her generous spirit, the recipe accompanies the online version of this column. I hope you too, can make them as good as she did. They will be on the table, alongside Gram Nut Cake (and my mother-in-law’s famous pecan pie-also not as good as hers) at Christmas dinner.
Sharon O’Toole is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She ranches and writes near Savery, Wyoming.
Place a double boiler pan over a pan of boiling water. In it, melt together
4 squares unsweetened chocolate
2/3 cup vegetable oil
In a mixing bowl, mix
2 cups sugar
1 and 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
Mix in the chocolate-oil mixture.
Add 1 cup chopped nuts, unless you are preparing them for my nephew Joe, who doesn’t like nuts. In that case, mix the nuts with only half the batter. Pour the batter into a 9-by-13-inch baking pan. If half your batter is nut-free, be sure to keep it separate, on one side.
Bake at 350 degrees for about a half hour. A toothpick should come out clean if it is inserted into the brownies. Voila.
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