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Alice Medrich's Cocoa Brownies


Darlings, I have an apartment! With real walls, ceilings, windows - windows! - and a balcony looking at rooftops. The balcony is currently filled with snow drifts, but does that matter? Not one little bit. It features largely in my nighttime fantasies in which pure golden sunlight drifts down from the heavens as I sit outside in the morning on that balcony, drinking tea and feeling blessed. Around the corner from the apartment is an Italian wholesale grocery store and a lovely greenmarket on Tuesdays and Fridays (here some summertime photos of said market that might make your eyes hurt what with all the sunshine and the green leaves). Plus the Charlottenburg Palace is in spitting distance. I interpreted these three things as auspicious signs that I should take the apartment. Doesn't that sound sensible? I sign the lease in two days and move next week. Next week!

All in all, these past few days have felt wonderful. An apartment to call my own, the acceptance of my health insurance application (making the black ice all over Berlin's sidewalks feel just a little less treacherous), and the discovery of Alice Medrich's cocoa brownies. Yes, I did just put a brownie recipe on the same level as finding a home. With good reason. These brownies can bridge cultures. They can make people fall in love. They can bewitch you into making them twice in two days. They are powerful, killer brownies.


Furthermore, they are a piece of cake. I mean, all you do is melt butter, sugar, cocoa and salt into a coal-black, grainy sludge in a water bath. Then you beat in vanilla extract, two eggs and a fillip of flour. The batter looks like silk. And that's it. A monkey could make these brownies. A small child could master them.

The first time I made these, on Friday, I underbaked them. The middle was oozy and gooey and when I brought them to a party, people fell upon them. And can I say, there's something sort of deeply satisfying about seeing one of America's greatest exports, the humble brownie, being so fervently appreciated. Like I said, culture-bridging. I got all warm inside.


The second time I made them, on Saturday, I brought them to a somewhat more intimate gathering. In which, err, I was hoping rather hard to show off my baking prowess. This time, I baked the brownies a little longer. The centers were now all purely fudgy, without any goo, but with the same deep, dark chocolate flavor and that alluring chew. Ooh, they were spectacular. Certain eaters present ate three brownies in one go, making me feel all warm inside, too, but of a distinctly different order.

Apartment, insurance, brownies. I'd say it was a pretty great week.

Best Cocoa Brownies
Makes 16 larger or 25 smaller brownies

10 tablespoons (141 grams) unsalted butter
1 1/4 cups (280 grams) sugar
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (82 grams) unsweetened cocoa powder (natural or Dutch-process)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 large eggs, cold
1/2 cup (66 grams) all-purpose flour

1. Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 325°F. Line the bottom and sides of an 8×8-inch square baking pan with parchment paper or foil, leaving an overhang on two opposite sides.

2. Combine the butter, sugar, cocoa, and salt in a medium heatproof bowl and set the bowl in a wide skillet of barely simmering water. Stir from time to time until the butter is melted and the mixture is smooth and hot enough that you want to remove your finger fairly quickly after dipping it in to test. Remove the bowl from the skillet and set aside briefly until the mixture is only warm, not hot. It looks fairly gritty at this point, but don’t fret — it smooths out once the eggs and flour are added.

3. Stir in the vanilla with a wooden spoon. Add the eggs one at a time, stirring vigorously after each one. When the batter looks thick, shiny, and well blended, add the flour and stir until you cannot see it any longer, then beat vigorously for 40 strokes with the wooden spoon or a rubber spatula. Spread evenly in the lined pan.

4. Bake until a toothpick plunged into the center emerges slightly moist with batter, 20 to 25 minutes. Let cool completely on a rack. (Deb suggests putting the cooled pan in the fridge or freezer for a while, which helps if you want clean lines when cutting the brownies.)

5. Lift up the ends of the parchment or foil liner, and transfer the brownies to a cutting board. Cut into 16 or 25 squares.

Florence Fabricant's Chicken Baked with Lentils


This week marks my sixth week of apartment hunting in Berlin. I took a break the week between Christmas and New Year's and again when I was felled with the stomach flu. But besides that, looking for a place to live has become my new job. And, boy, do I hate this new job. Ooh! With vim and vigor. But who wouldn't? No one, that's who. I can practically see you all nodding your heads in agreement when I say that apartment hunting is the pits. Let me tell you, I'd rather be doing the most mind-numbing data entry in a windowless room than trudging up yet another set of stairs. But as I am 32 years old and I cannot live in my mother's apartment, pulling things out of a suitcase every day, for the rest of my life, I persevere. And I muse upon the fact that I've now spent more time looking for an apartment here than I did in all of my almost ten years in New York City. Ain't that a kick in the head?

Never mind! Instead of complaining, let's talk about nice things, shall we? Like some of the things that make me happy here.

1. Eating Nutella on fresh, yeasty rolls for breakfast. Who over the age of 10 still eats Nutella for breakfast? Well, me. It is delicious, obviously. And can I tell you something scandalous and wonderful? All of my pants are loose! Turns out eating Nutella on a regular basis is great for your waistline.

2. Buying tulips for peanuts. The proximity to Holland, I suppose, makes cut flowers incredibly cheap here. I bought a dozen tulips for my mother the other day, the fancy, frilly kind, for less than 5 euros. Peanuts! And just wait until the ranunculus (ranunculii?) start coming into stores. Fresh flowers every day!

3. Listening to NPR Worldwide on the radio, 104.1 FM to be exact. Hearing Renee Montagne's and Steve Inskeep's familiar voices from my old mornings in Queens during the day in Berlin is strange and lovely at the same time.

4. One word: soccer. Every week.

5. Despite missing my friends in New York and my old life and my awesome, awesome city, I feel peace in my heart here. I'm supposed to be here, even with this apartment hunt and the never ending ice and snow and the cold apartments and the gray skies. I'm home. And that feels good.


You know what else is good? Florence Fabricant's prosaically named Chicken Baked with Lentils. (That may have been the worst transition in the history of this blog. Forgive me? My artistic juice is currently on the lam, though fortunately my mojo seems to have returned.) Lentils and radicchio flavored with sage and cumin, chunks of ham and a splash of vinegar are the stars in this easy braise of golden brown chicken legs. So much more sophisticated than the name indicates, no? And yet it's still easy enough to work as a weekend lunch or a weeknight dinner.

The other day, after a morning of seeing apartments with my mother gamely in tow, now that she's in town for a few weeks, I decided we had to take a break. We needed a hot meal and respite from the icy streets. And I needed to focus on something other than apartments. My obsessive mind needed calming, needed to simply dice onions and boil stock, rather than have another conversation about renovation costs, look at another floor plan, or contemplate another compromise.

So I set about cutting up celery and onions, thin-slicing radicchio, browning cubes of bacon and chicken legs and trying to find my center, not to sound like a total yahoo. And it totally worked! I found it! Turns out it was in the kitchen all along. What a surprise, I know.


Basically, you make this deeply flavored base for the dish, using bitter radicchio, mellow bacon, herbal sage, a kick of vinegar, earthy cumin, and onions and celery for good measure. Then you stir in lentils and lay browned chicken legs (or just thighs, whichever) on top, and cook the lot in the oven for an hour, until the liquid is mostly absorbed, the lentils are plump and bursting with flavor, and the chicken is so moist and tender it practically slides off the bone onto your fork in one fell swoop.

It's not much to look at, I suppose, from the point of view of an aesthete. But as with a lot of peasant food, I think its beauty is special precisely because you have to look twice to see it. Once you do, it's hard to avoid. The gravel-like lentils, shining like little planets in the sky of the plate. The golden tones of the chicken, skin puckered and delicate as a lace shawl. The chunks of bacon, rosy-hued and glowing with flavor.

Florence says to serve this with mashed potatoes, but it was so hearty we found it didn't even need a side. Just a deep plate, a big fork, an appetite, and a hankering for comfort. Delicious.

Chicken Baked with Lentils

Serves 4 to 6

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1/4 pound pancetta or bacon, in one slice, diced
3 pounds chicken thighs, 6 to 8 pieces, patted dry
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 cups finely chopped onions
1/2 cup finely chopped celery, about 1 rib
4 cloves garlic, sliced
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 cups finely chopped radicchio, about 1/2 head, cored
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons minced fresh sage
2 cups lentils
3 cups chicken stock, more if needed

Heat oil in a 4-quart ovenproof casserole. Add pancetta and cook on medium until golden. Remove. Season chicken with salt and pepper and add, skin side down. Sear until golden on medium-high heat, working in two shifts if necessary. Remove from pan. Heat oven to 300 degrees. Pour off all but 2 tablespoons fat from pan.

Add onions, celery and garlic, cook on medium until soft and translucent. Stir in cumin. Add radicchio, vinegar and sage; sauté briefly. Add lentils, stock and cooked pancetta.

Return chicken to pan, bring to a simmer, cover and place in oven. Cook about an hour, until lentils are tender and most of the liquid has been absorbed, but not all. Lentils should be saucelike but not soupy. Add a little stock if needed. Check seasoning, adding more salt and pepper if needed, then serve.