Poet and former Chocolate Maven bakery owner Judyth Hill explores brownies as a religious experience.
I got famous for them, brownies,
adding nuts and all my attention,
nine years of my life, to the batter.
The recipe reads:
Stir with all your desire to be a poet.
Break twenty-seven thoughts about God, children,
and post-graduate degrees.
Beat 'til thick with ambition.
Fold in longing and chocolate, hot as the tar roof
on 101st and West End.
Mix just 'til you remember all the words to Mac the Knife,
Add nuts and the words Jonathan wrote on the boxing gloves
I got for Christmas:
Words from Catullus, Odi et Amo:
I hate and I love.
You ask how that can be.
I know not, but I feel the agony.
He gave me sporting equipment a lot, though I don't do sports.
He always remembered to add the words.
I do words.
I do brownies.
I do variations on brownies, cantatas of brownies,
Sonatas of brownies, quintets of fudge
And short compositions featuring chocolate as if it were a bassoon.
Perhaps I am the Picasso of brownies.
My blue period, the year I cried over every batch.
The way the one-eyed woman can eat a brownie
and still be in my painting—a trick I discovered
and it became a genre.
Perhaps I am the Seurat of brownies, dots of primary flavor
deep, sweet, salt, an illusion adding up to the spectrum of dessert.
I am the Einstein of brownies,
discovering how the more chocolate you eat, the later it gets.
Discovering how Poem x the Speed of Light squared = Brownies.
Discovering that mass, brownies, and time are infinite.
Discovering that the energy of the universe will go into each pan,
and it's still just brownies.
Maybe I'm the Martin Buber of brownies.
Climbing ten chocolate rungs to grace.
Or the Albert Schweitzer of brownies,
giving brownies to everyone,
whether they need them or not.
What if I'm the Donald Trump of brownies,
building a cocoa empire.
Blocks of fudge, whole towers of semi-sweet,
bittersweet and Swiss, bullions of brownies,
chips of profit and loss. Or Lenny Bruce,
hilarious and obscenely chocolate.
Chocolate so good it's dirty,
and we can't talk about it here.
Perhaps I am the Chanel of brownies,
designing a brownie for every outfit
accessorizing brownies with shoes and bags,
the suit, a rich dark color that goes with everything.
Isak Dinesen had a farm in Africa; I had a bakery in Santa Fe. Chocolate Maven was, first of all, a place. Several places, in fact. I fulfilled all my girlish equipment fantasies, including a walk-in fridge—and at the drop of a landlord’s hat, moved it all. Three times. Maven began, and we beautifully parted, each to our own ways, exquisitely fittingly, on the Avenue of the Holy Mother: Guadalupe Street.
My hands know dough. My body knows do. Always did. Still does. And my heart? Ahhhh, that’s the story of Chocolate Maven’s origins… and the Maven I still privately am. Nowadays, I bake only for love, though thinking back, that was always Maven’s Secret Agenda.
Selling the Maven, I feared the re-occurrence of that familiar voice inside my head, “Multiply the recipe times 100; you can make so much more in the same time…”
To be safe, I sold every piece of baking equipment, even my adorable 575-watt, vavavvoom Kitchen Aid (a fatal attraction) and went back to my beginnings: large wooden bowls, smaller stainless steel (a woman needs her metal), a few Rubbermaid scrapers, okay, the big ones, large and small whisks, and wooden spoons. Plus three heavy-duty cookie sheets, the sine qua non of decent cookies, some aprons; other than that, nothing, nada. Well, cake, loaf and muffin pans….
I tried to resist, lest I be seduced by the siren’s lure of flow and dough…
I am a recovering baker: Hello, My name is Judyth and today I baked a blueberry pie, a couple loaves of brioche, uhn, maybe some coffee cakes, a triple batch of chocolate chippers…well, there’s always tomorrow….
I’m over it. I am ready to admit: I bake (I can’t believe I’m outing myself) for fun. Constantly. Because, it turns out, I love mixing, stirring, measuring — thinking in sugar, flour and vanilla.
I never start a baking day by going to the store. That’s a straight line to burn (get it?)-out. Waking in my sunny house, I take my cup of seriously creamed Bewley’s Irish Breakfast outside, sit in the surround song of doves and jays, and make a grateful peace with the day; let my listening sink deep in.
Then into the kitchen. Music: mixing Clapton, Ella, Billie, & Bessie, Hamza El Din. Maybe a well-toasted bagel with a schmear. Or an English.
I get happy. Then, I bake. I go for it: like Ali boxed, like Dickinson wrote, like Seurat painted. Pointed and precise.
My practice and pleasure was to move, balletic, through ingredients and processes. I baked with attention and intention. I baked from inside, with tremendous joy, and calm speed. Still do. Because it pleases me to please.
When that forcefield of the delicious moves from my hands to the table, then there’s you. And that is good. Mysterious, how the transmogrification of flour to food equals an us. Lover and loved. Pretty simple really.
I was always like this. I was born with a caul. I mean, a Call. 1-800-HowDoYou-MakeThat?
This began with Nana’s mother, my Grandma. Grandma left her family, the wealthy Dreyfuses of Alsace-Lorraine, 13 sisters and brothers, to visit America, to educate and culturize herself.
Bad girl energy runs brook-clear in my family. She fell passionately in love with a young American Jew, Albert Steiner, a garmento in NYC and never went home. She was the only one of her family to survive the Holocaust.
I was told that I was the one like Ella. She spoke German, Yiddish, Hebrew, French, English and pastry. I remember the soft powdery dough of her upper arms, her sighing, quiet voice as, swaying, eyes closed, she made the B’orucha over Shabbos candles. She’d gesture the candlelight up and in. I didn’t understand, and in the same way, she never actually baked with me. I was part of a mysterious process of Jewish transference.
Santa Fe chef Katherine Kagel told me that all her family brought to America was one silver spoon and stories. “That’s what we Jews have,” Katherine said, “Our inheritance is stories.”
Grandma’s story became my inheritance, my gift. Somehow, I was like her, I could bake.
Lifers begin with our sleeves rolled up by Somebody Bigger, hair tied back, hands washed for us, slippery soap rubbed between and around small fingers by larger ones, then, the cookbook opened; the card taken from its box, and the words, “First, you…” Soon, when I baked something, whoever tasted it went verklempt. That was it: the ability to thrum the heart/head/body strings all at once.
After college, I wondered: what’s a Sarah Lawrence poetry/religion major with a minor in Existentialism and Depth Psychology to do? It’s obvious. Waitress.
I did. But couldn’t help noticing that I would make the Boston Cream Pie filling thicker, less cornstarchy; the apple pies needed cinnamon — you get my drift. When the baker left to Live On The Land, I was tying on her apron as she headed out.
You know how that goes, right? Everyone loves your stuff; even perfect strangers tell you, Wow, incredible, you should open a bakery….So I did.
I discovered I adored procedure and process, knew in my bones task and order, ingredient, measure and the very subtle means of mix.
I hadn’t the foggiest how to run a bakery. Lacking an MBA from anywhere, I turned the Maven into the “Yeah, Sure” school of business… when anyone asked us for anything, I said “Yeah, sure.” Then learned how. I told my Dad that I truly appreciated all my years of swanky higher ed, but what I really needed was a degree in small appliance repair.
Then it happened. By accident. I was practicing with chocolate, one of the most dynamic and complicated substances in the Cosmic Periodic Table. I was using my recipe mandala mode: Open every cookbook you have to a recipe for the thing you’re seeking to make. Take the best ideas from each, while creating a composite sub-structure of the wet/dry world, the flour-to-leavening ratio, the shortening/sugar story, etc.
I was doing this, while listening to music, so my brain takes my heart along for the ride, when I wrote the recipe that put us on Santa Fe’s culinary map. I thought my way into it. Oy, I admit it, I developed my Inner Brownie.
The fudge espresso brownie was positively the last word in chocolate for years in Santa Fe. Our process was to start each day with a double batch. Those 12 pans set the day’s tone and pace — the emotional and psychic barometer for the baker’s settling into the work.
The recipe is outwardly simple; the fascinating mystery has to do with the shine. The pans come out of the oven with a sumptuous aroma; the tops literally gleam. This was my dream recipe: moist, thick, impossibly rich, slightly chewy and very fudgey. I’ve never understood cakelike brownies: a brownie needs to be a delirious experience of moist and melt, swimming in the heady sensual assault of chocolate.
But the mystery of the shine…I saw bakers brush the tops with oil, to absolutely no avail. We discussed the many possible factors; bottomline, the shine was an elusive element in the recipe’s equation.
Believe this: Even without the shine, these brownies are still an Ur-Chocolate experience.
I always secretly thought it had to do with joy. That the making with a joyous heart made the brownies shine.
All you add is the happiness.
Now I get to close the deal on my many years making and selling these brownies: the giveaway.
Make this recipe. Make it again and again. Practice holding your mind, heart and hand in the center of making. Set it to the swing of your best mood: rock, pop, showtunes, jazz, classical, choral. Weep when you need to. Laugh as called or uncalled for, as thy will.
Bake the dharma path all the way:
All ingredients assembled in your baking space.
Measuring tools present; stacked neatly.
Allowing only the thought and picture of the tasks immediately at hand, drop down into brownie.
Trust in the clean, sure act of baking; it’s very pure and very pleasurable.
Hang with the physical and verbal vocabulary. Attend to the subtly correct meanings of blend, combine, stir: each a very different graduation of mix.
Get completely sensate.
Then, enjoy this: The brownies will always be beyond the beyond of fabulosity. But you will be watching the shine, your own personal gauge of a more profound scale of measure. u
Judyth Hill is a stand-up poet, living at Rockmirth, her 111 acre Eco-Arts Atelier in Northern New Mexico. Her six published books of poetry include “Men Need Space” and “Black Hollyhock, First Light”; she is the author of the internationally acclaimed poem, “Wage Peace,” and was described by the St. Helena Examiner as “Energy with skin.”