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Brownie Points

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When faced with the uncertainties of impending motherhood, food blogger Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen found control in the kitchen. 

I know how normal women prepare to go into labor because I’ve read about them on the Internet. They “nest”: scrubbing the baseboards, cleaning out cabinets, and getting the carpets steam-cleaned. They fill their freezers with lasagnas and other easily reheated foods that will sustain a new family during those hectic postpartum days. At the very least, they pack hospital bags and read What to Expect When You’re Expecting.

I did none of those things. Sure, there were moments in the final weeks of my pregnancy when I looked around and thought, “We should really unpack that last box from the move” or “Maybe I should write a birth plan that’s more elaborate than ‘Please, just give me the drugs.’” But instead I went into the kitchen and made brownies.

They weren’t just any brownies. They were the most perfect brownies I knew how to make: fudgy, bittersweet beauties studded with chocolate chips, flecked with sea salt, and swirled with cheesecake batter. I packed them between layers of waxed paper and tucked them into the freezer in an airtight container labeled “For Labor & Delivery Nurses.”

“Why?” you ask. Because I was terrified. I didn’t know how to give birth, and everything I’d heard sounded terrible. I didn’t know how to be Mama; all I’d read were tales of exhaustion and weeks passing with no time to shower. I know that some women charge at the unknown with a plan — or at the minimum, they buy a pack of burp cloths. But I could only deal with uncertainty in my own way, which was to make sure that everyone would have something rich and comforting to enjoy with their afternoon coffee.

I realize that cranking out baked goods for others — during a heat wave, in a tiny kitchen, when I was, in fact, the size of a refrigerator — sounds awfully selfless, but I’m no martyr. It was really about me. Some people stress eat; I stress bake. At the time, recipes made a lot more sense to me than the endless on-line debates about homeopathic colic cures and co-sleeping. I may not have been an expert on baby-led weaning, but in my kitchen, I knew what I was doing. When I beat two sticks of butter with two cups of sugar and four eggs, I could be confident that perfect yellow-cake batter would result.

It’s no surprise, then, that I didn’t stop with brownies. The morning after my first bake-a-thon, I woke up panicked, not with the thought that I could go into labor that day and didn’t yet own a single swaddling blanket, but with the realization that some of the nurses might not be that into chocolate but shouldn’t be denied a box of homemade baked goods from the girl in Delivery Room 4 who was clearly deserving of extra TLC. So I made snickerdoodles because I’ve never met a human being who doesn’t like a tender, buttery vanilla cookie rolled in cinnamon-sugar and baked un-til it smells like everything great in the world. Those went into the freezer, too. Then I realized we’d probably have a lot of visitors at home in the early weeks, and I wouldn’t have time to make my usual coffee cakes, so I made some scones. And then a date-nut spice loaf.

And then I ran out of time. I don’t remember every detail of my days at the hospital, only that nothing — not a single thing — was as terrible as I’d imagined during those fretful nights in the kitchen. Motherhood was more intuitive than I’d expected; diapers and swaddling blankets were easily procured, and not reading those books hardly prevented me from knowing how to soothe my frightened new- born, because who else knew my own baby better than I?

That newborn is 3 now, and in a way, my freezer looks more grown-up, too. I cook less to avoid an uncertain future than to plan for one. If I’m making half-day Bolognese sauce, I make a double batch and defrost the second one during a busy week. If there’s too much arroz con pollo, I’ll freeze the leftovers; finding them a month later, when nobody is in the mood to cook, is as thrilling as happening upon a forgotten Christmas gift hidden in the back of the closet.

Still, the kitchen remains my retreat from daily dramas, be they preschool applications, tantrums, or potty training. Granted, the stockpiles of oat- meal pancakes I now tend to make and freeze during stressful moments aren’t quite as decadent as salted fudgy cheesecake brownies, but eating them on weekend mornings, as I sit on the park bench watching my toddler spin by on his tricycle, is a feeling that’s hard to beat.

To get the Cheesecake Swirled Brownies recipe, visit Smitten Kitchen. The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook (Knopf) will be released Oct. 30.

Photos by Deb Perelman

Comments (4)

  • I just baked a chocolate cake and the middle came out a little gummy. The cake made from scratch includes oil in it, could this be the problem?

  • Author Comment:

    Hi Monica, it sounds like your cake may have been a little bit underbaked. You can test a cake for doneness by inserting a toothpick or a piece of raw spaghetti into the middle of the cake. If the cake is done, the toothpick should come out clean, with no gummy bits of batter stuck to it. The texture of a cake will also even out somewhat after it’s had a chance to cool for a couple of hours.

  • I’m a regular reader of Deb’s Smitten Kitchen blog. Her recipes always sound delicious, and her son is precious.

  • I love this! The imminent arrival of unplanned No 4, has me baking & growing seedlings for my first baby shower. I couldn’t turn up empty handed, it’s the stress bake thing. So being no 4 , baby stuff not on the agenda, was asked by the organisers what i wanted… A blender/mixer… Never owned one, & my midnight-2am baking shifts were taking a toll on my soft ligaments in my hands. Tried recipes are standard double batch, the effort lasts longer than 5 mins, with 3 mini men in the house.
    So I have picked up the beautiful planetary machine, it is almost too beautiful to see the light of day, & with the generosity of beautiful friends I can also get a cast iron casserole pot. (4.7L) with the hope that these items will not only see me thru the growing family, but to also cook meals when they move out, & return with dirty washing & hungry bellies… Now thinking those brownies (mega batch) would do well to go with the thank you cards for the baby shower.And surplus for the hospital staff… X

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