This is how I know:
I slipped outside Monday night and snapped that merry honeysuckle, up there. At ten to nine, there was still light enough. A few weeks ago, we were going on bat walks at ten to eight, dark nipping at dusk's heels as we hustled. How times have changed. How I love light late nights.
The garden has lost its particularity. The big Rothko canvases of April and early May, crab apples and cherries and plums and such, have all given way to higgledy-piggledy. It's all about layers, everywhere I look. Layers of color and layers of texture. Species, form, height, scent. Sweet woodruff and ajuga, outgoing pasques and incoming heuchera. It's a high holy jumble. A joy to behold.
Bugs are back, big-time. Zoë's mastered the single-toe swivel-turn ant-squish, and the fly swatter's seen some serious action. (We're mostly peace-loving people around here, but, um, not exactly entirely.) We saw the first cricket, and the first dragonfly, and possibly even the first firefly. We've been tripping over caterpillars and talking up chrysalises and monitoring a gauzy cocoon by the garage. Eight days and counting...
The lone foxglove is all a-bloom. We tried making hollyhock dolls with the dropped petals. We need more practice. Or maybe a hollyhock.
Blankets have been flying off the beds by the day. One by one, under the eaves they go, folded and archived for far-away fall. Duvets remain, for decoration more than anything. We ditched the attic fan, fell in love with the big green box all over again. And to think, I couldn't ID it, eighteen months ago. Now I'm ready to pen an Ode to A/C, a flowery gushy thing that would leave Barrett Browning red-cheeked.
The week's beat has been one whooosh-THUNK! after another, the sound of the kids' artwork sliding down the dining room wall. (Hello, humidity. We didn't miss you at all.) Four out of five of us have gotten summer hair cuts. Even me! Once a year, whether I need it or not. I've been downing iced tea by the glass. Pitcher, actually. Taking the trash out Sunday evenings hasn't felt like cruel and unusual punishment in months. Now there's a change I can cotton to.
I've chaperoned my last field trip, until fourth grade rolls around, anyway. Probably made my last soup, too. And risotto and roast and anything needing sustained heat. Like bread-baking, bleck. We ran out Wednesday, but the mere thought made me groan. We're on official sabbatical, my loaf pans and I (with thanks to Great Harvest, for stepping in while we're sweltering).
I finally found the courage to compost last year's alliums. Seems safe to assume that they'll come back around.
The sun's marching around like it owns the place. Huge bossy hot-bright beams of the stuff. I'd like to say I love it, but that would be a complete and total bald-faced lie stretch. I'm learning to live with it, though, and that's something. Outside, we wilt. Inside, we glow.
We haven't even glanced at long pants in a week. Toes are bare. Knees and arms, also. I've begun the big drawer-and-closet hokey-pokey. Exit sweaters, stage left. Shorts and t-shirts, front and center.
We had our inaugural popsicle of the year. And then, our second, third and fourth.
Bathing suits were pulled on for the first time since September, with shivers the farthest thing from our minds. The local pool opens Monday. In the meantime, a dishpan in surprisingly versatile.
Max is down to single-digit school days. Henry's last day was Thursday, his end-of-the-year picnic, yesterday. Time to cram six bushels of thanks inside a five-by-eight card. Words fail me every year. Brownies, never. At least not these.
These hail from the original Barefoot Contessa, and I've been baking them ten years now, since the book was published. I make them whenever I want to thrill a crowd, or welcome a baby, or express gobs of gratitude. Adjectives and exclamation points are nice and all, but when it's articulate I want, I bake these and these alone. I have every intention of trying others. Someday. But when it really matters, I hate to mess with perfection.
That's a strong stand, I know, on such serious matters. Brownies are like chocolate chip cookies, a deeply personal thing, and I expect there are as many 'perfect' brownies as there are people. I won't presume to know your ideal. I'll just share that mine's an improbable balance of dense intense richness and tender-plush crumb. You know, that particular kind of delicious wherein three pounds (!) of butter and chocolate are held together by barely more than a cup of flour?
Yeah. That one.
You can tuck them into boxes and tie them up in ribbons the color of sunshine, for thanks. Or you can pile them in paper sacks and pass them around at picnics, for instant friends. Heck, eat 'em with coffee and call it breakfast. Works for me. The trappings don't much matter. What matters, to me anyway, is having a simple, deeply dependable brownie in my back pocket, the sort that is so devastatingly good, it's worth turning on the oven, no matter the weather. You may well already have such a gem, and if you're so lucky, good for you (and do tell!) But if you don't, if you're searching for a way to say thanks-a-million, you're sweet beyond words, I just thought I'd share: This is how I do it.
Really Good Brownies
adapted from The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook, by Ina Garten
Yield: 48 brownies
I want to give credit where credit is due: Garten's original recipe is practically perfect. Her proportions, technique and timing are brilliant, and my adaptations serve only to tweak the flavor to my taste. I toast the walnuts first, for that added depth; substitute bittersweet for unsweetened chocolate; and have upped the salt to round out the sweet. If you don't have bittersweet around, you can substitute more chips, with fine results.
One vital note: allow at least four hours lead time. The batter MUST cool before you add the chocolate chips, else all will be lost. I hurried it along once, stirring the chips in while the batter was warm, with disastrous results (the chips melt, the batter never sets, end result: inedible sludge). Also, the brownies must sit at least two hours (preferably four) before slicing. They refrigerate (well-covered) beautifully, and keep well for four days.
My kids prefer these without walnuts; I prefer them with. I'll often leave the nuts out of the batter and sprinkle them over half the pan, pleasing both parties. They won't need advance toasting if you go this route.
Please note this makes a LOT of brownies. Garten says 20. I say 48. You decide.
1 pound salted butter
1 pound plus 12 ounces semisweet chocolate chips, divided (I use Nestle)
6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
6 extra-large or 7 medium eggs
3 Tablespoons instant coffee granules
2 Tablespoons pure vanilla extract
2 1/4 cups sugar
1 1/4 cups flour, divided
1 Tablespoon baking powder
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
3 cups walnuts, toasted (8-10 minutes at 350º), optional
Preheat the oven to 350º.
In a medium bowl, mix together 12 ounces of chocolate chips, cooled walnuts, and 1/4 cup of flour. Set aside.
Butter and flour a half sheet pan (a.k.a. jelly roll pan, or rimmed, 12 x 18 x 1" baking sheet).
In a medium bowl, in the microwave or on the stove, melt together butter, remaining 1 pound chocolate chips, and 6 ounces bittersweet chocolate. Allow to cool slightly (15 minutes).
In a large bowl, crack eggs, and with a fork, stir briskly to loosen. Add coffee granules, vanilla, sugar and salt, and stir briskly to combine. Stir warm chocolate mixture into egg mixture, and allow to cool to room temperature (about 60 minutes).
In a medium bowl, whisk remaining 1 cup of flour and baking powder. Add to the cooled chocolate mixture. Add chocolate chip/walnut mixture, and stir to combine. Pour into the baking sheet.
Bake for 20 minutes, then rap baking sheet firmly against oven shelf or stove top to "settle down" the batter and force the air to escape. Bake another 12-15 minutes, until a toothpick comes out moist but clean. Don't overbake: their magnificent texture depends on getting them out just as soon as they're set. Here are some cues: If your knife returns batter, put them back in. As soon as you see a damp crumb, they're ready. Once you smell them, they're very nearly there. If you're drooling at the oven door, they're probably done, or very nearly. Remember, too, they'll continue cooking once they leave the oven.
Cool thoroughly (2-4 hours, or overnight, well-covered, in the fridge), and slice. If you have one, a dough scraper cuts bar cookies brilliantly. Share freely with friends, family, and teachers.