What the world needs now is … dessert.
I know, I know, maybe that’s exactly what we don’t need. Or maybe we do need dessert, just divided into sensible portions, like half the brownie pan. (Please understand, I’m not actually endorsing eating half a pan of brownies at once, unless you have plenty of milk.)
My mom didn’t make dessert especially often, maybe a couple times a month. The things she made most frequently were brownies and fruit crumble or crisp. The apple betty recipe in her old “Better Homes and Gardens Cook Book” is marked “Excellent!!” with the page number circled and starred. The fudge brownie page is marked with instructions for doubling the recipe.
Mom didn’t make them for special occasions or to mark festive milestones. She made them for us, just because she loved us. Well, honestly, sometimes she made them for herself because life is hard and demands a double recipe of brownies.
The point is, the part of life that’s worth celebrating is the stuff that happens every day — sitting around the table, looking at the faces we love (or are irritated by, depending), talking about nothing much and laughing at jokes we’ve probably heard before. This is the good stuff. It’s not especially memorable — who looks back fondly on a random Wednesday evening in 1987? — but it is important, because those unremarkable times are when we’re cementing the relationships that matter.
This year, we’ve seen far too much of some people we love and not even remotely enough of others. There are cherished faces missing around the table. I suggest that we remember those we love, present and missing, by making something simple and sweet, just like the mundane but incalculably precious days we share with the folks who matter most to us.
Brownies and apple betty aren’t unique or complicated recipes. You can find them in most any cookbook and in a zillion iterations online. Make your own version or make whatever easy dessert you love — cherry cobbler or banana pudding or a boxed chocolate cake. I’m going to make the fudge brownies and apple betty straight from Mom’s “Better Homes and Gardens Cook Book,” 1968 edition, because that’s the cookbook Mom used but also because I like the funky, vividly colored pictures of recipes like beef fondue and something called a “meat-macaroni supper.” What an era!
Truth time: I’m not great at brownies. I made frosted cake brownies once, and they were like chocolate spackling. I’ve been making fudge brownies since I was a kid, but things often go awry. One time I forgot the eggs and they crumbled to bits. Another time I forgot the flour and the result was a sort of warm chocolate frosting. (Oh, yeah, we still ate it. Don’t be ridiculous.) One time I added a tablespoon of salt because I got mixed up with the baking powder in another recipe; it was a two-for-one mistake, since the brownies call for neither salt nor baking powder. (Nope, we didn’t eat those, but we sure thought about it.) This time, though, I nailed it!
Cream 1/2 cup butter or margarine with 1 cup sugar and 1 teaspoon vanilla. Beat in 2 eggs. Blend in 2 1-ounce squares of melted unsweetened chocolate (or the equivalent in unsweetened cocoa powder, which works out to 6 level tablespoons of cocoa melted with 2 tablespoons vegetable oil or butter). Stir in 1/2 cup flour and 1/2 cup chopped walnuts. (Mom’s brownies were always nutless, but nuttiness may be more appropriate for 2021. Try hazelnuts, pecans or even butterscotch chips.) Pour into a well-greased 8-by-8-inch pan and bake at 325 degrees for 30 to 35 minutes. Cool and cut into 16 squares. There’s no need for frosting; these babies are rich enough without it and just need a glass of milk or strong coffee, if you’re eating brownies for breakfast, as one does. If you make a double recipe, Mom says to bake for 55 minutes.
I’ve always made apple crisp (with rolled oats) instead of apple crumble, because I like the texture of a crisp, but after trying this recipe, I might never bother with crisp again. Mom was 100 percent correct in her assessment that this dessert is excellent.
Mound 4 cups sliced tart apples or 1 1-pound, 2-ounce can of pie apples, drained, in a 9-inch pie dish. Avoid the temptation to sweeten the apples because the topping is quite sweet, a perfect counterpoint to the apples. Mix apples with 1/4 cup orange juice. Combine 1 cup sugar, 3/4 cup sifted flour, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg and a dash of salt. Cut in 1/2 cup butter until mixture is crumbly. Spread loosely over apples and bake at 375 degrees for 45 minutes or until apples are tender and topping is crisp. (I pre-cook my apples for 5 minutes in the microwave to ensure tenderness.) Serve with ice cream and joy.