Tuesday, February 14, 2012

In which I pretend I am Pioneer Woman

Truth: Box-mix brownies are always better, right?

Right?

Right?

Wrong.

I thought box mixes were best. I even had my favourite kind: the Ghiradelli kind. Then I was converted.

A week ago, I met my sister for tea. As I left, she offered me a brownie that she'd made from a recipe; she assured me the recipe was as good as - better than! - Ghiradelli. My policy is never to refuse free chocolate, so I took it. Even while I was clinging to the plastic baggie, though, I voiced doubts that a brownie from a recipe could measure up to a box mix brownie.

I ate it. A few days later, I looked up the recipe and shared it with someone else. Then I brought brownies to work today for the Writing Center tutors.

And now, I share the recipe with you. The original title is "Classic Fudge-Walnut Brownies," but that's boring, so I have renamed them: "Better than Ghiradelli Brownies":


Ingredients:
  • 3/4 cup flour
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa
  • 1/2 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • dash salt
  • 1 cup bittersweet chocolate chunks, divided
  • 1/3 cup fat-free milk
  • 6 TBSP butter, melted
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1/2 cup chopped walnuts, divided (optional)
You can, of course, leave out the walnuts if you so choose. Looking back over the recipe, I think I may have even left out the (gasp!) baking powder. Baking is a remarkably flexible task.



Steps:
  1. Preheat oven to 350 Fahrenheit.
  2. Lightly spoon flour into measuring cups; level with a knife. Combine flour and next 5 ingredients (through salt) in a large bowl. Combine 1/2 cup chocolate and milk in a microwave-safe bowl; microwave at HIGH 1 minute, stirring after 30 seconds. Stir in butter, vanilla, and eggs. Add milk mixture, 1/2 cup chocolate and 1/4 cup nuts to flour mixture; stir to combine.
  3. Pour the batter into a 9-inch square metal baking pan coated with cooking spray; sprinkle with remaining nuts. Bake at 350 for 22 minutes (mine were in the oven for 17 minutes) or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out with moist crumbs clinging. Cool in pan on a wire rack. 

Tips:
  • Don't leave out the baking powder. Or do. Leaving out the baking powder worked okay for me.
  • Cut the brownies into small pieces; they're very rich, so a little bit will give you a quick chocolate fix.
  • Don't overbake. I overbaked the last batch of brownies I made; instead of fudgy brownies, I got crumbly, sandy brownies. It's much better to under rather than overbake. 

Happy baking!



Thursday, February 9, 2012

As I start prepping to teach Four Quartets to my students, I am reminded (again) of why I like Eliot.

I find him comforting.

The Poetry

T.S. Eliot is perhaps best known for being hard to understand. He deserves this reputation. I find him hard to understand. But even when I was tearing my hair out because of a thesis on his work, his poetry spoke of peace in the middle of trouble. I share his wisdom with you now.

Eliot, having finished a passage that (apparently) describes the end of the world, concludes this about his poetry:
That was a way of putting it--not very satisfactory:
A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion,
Leaving one still with the intolerable wrestle
With words and meanings. The poetry does not matter.
It was not (to start again) what one had expected. 
As difficult as his poetry is, T.S. Eliot is the superstar of modern poetry. Yet even Eliot has his bad days. To him, his poetry (however widely acclaimed) is "not very satisfactory" and is in fact "worn out". Eliot has poured his heart into his writing, only to find that the finished product disappoints in its clarity and creativity. He has aimed for an Oscar candidate poem and produced a Hollywood reboot poem.

Even the act of writing poetry is difficult for Eliot: he calls it the "intolerable wrestle / With words and meanings." To a poet, writing is desperately important, but that doesn't make it fun. Writing is not fun for Eliot; it's "intolerable" - in other words, something akin to self-imposed torture. In Four Quartets Eliot has something he needs to say, and he needs "words" to communicate this "meaning", but the words will not come.

And they don't. The words never come. Eliot simply "start[s] again," editing and re-editing through another two and a half books until the Four Quartets are finished.

This is why I like Eliot.



The Application

Like Eliot, I frequently find whatever I have been working on to be "not very satisfactory." This blog, for instance: I spent more than an hour writing this tiny little devotional-thing on Eliot (and I just used the word 'devotional-thing' in a sentence to boot). And still, this post does not say quite what I want it to say.

Like Eliot, I also find that my projects involve an intolerable, unending wrestle. Teaching, for instance:  I teach the students, they get confused, I re-teach them and they learn, and then in the next unit they get confused again. For me, teaching is perpetually an "intolerable wrestle" to make knowledge clear.

A student today, faced with a lower grade on her summary than she wanted, shrugged and said, "I'm not a very good writer. This is hard for me." She too has experienced what Eliot describes: even to her, what she has written is "not very satisfactory". Writing takes a long time for her; it is the "intolerable wrestle / With words and meanings".

In other words, everybody is disappointed by what they produce. Everybody finds that their projects are harder or more discouraging than they expect them to be. And Eliot, Superstar Poet, gently reminds us that everybody feels exactly the same way at some point. In other words, we are not alone in our troubles.

And then he reminds us to simply "start again" and continue on until we're done.

"For us," Eliot writes, "there is only the trying. The rest is not our business."

Come to think of it, that's a pretty biblical idea:
Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:1-2).