For the last week I have had acute Christmas anxiety. So I made brownies. Christmas brownies. The best brownies, possibly, that you will ever taste.
When I say ‘Christmas anxiety’, I don’t mean indecision over which cheeses to buy, or what to wear for Christmas Day, or even whether I’ve bought particularly rubbish presents (although, also all of those).
I mean constant low level worry, interspersed with moments of sharp fear; non-specific worry that means I jump at small noises, and descend into paroxysms of panic when I realise that a small item on my to do list has not been done. Almost inexplicable and certainly disproportionate. It makes me feel like I am in an ironically slow version of Speed in which I cannot slow down, I cannot stop. I cannot catch my breath.
I cannot write. I cannot read. I cannot sit still. I long for peace, and to shrug off responsibility, but I cannot think about Christmas without also thinking about all the things I have to do. I don’t even really want to cook: the last week have seen me form a worrying dependency on frozen chicken kievs. This is not sustainable.
I’m not really sure why this strikes in the particular way that it does as Christmas approaches. Certainly I find that hangovers make that anxiety so acutely worse that Christmas parties and work knees ups bring with them a party bag containing my own personal raincloud that I then carry with me for the following week. But it feels like a paralysis that goes beyond hangover, a listlessness to counter the manic Christmas approach.
But then I think back to this time last year. I was in the middle of prosecuting a difficult trial, that had run on several days past its estimate, meaning that my expensive train tickets went to waste, that my Christmas break disappeared before my eyes, as I sat in an increasingly empty court, and a very empty flat, waiting for the jury to return its verdict. And I think: Olivia, get a grip. This year, I am heading home to the bosom of my family for a whole week. I am going to eat Quality Street and read books and talk to my cat. I’m going to see some of my closest friends. I’m going to calm down. But now, in the last few days before I do that, I’m going to make brownies.
Brownies have no patience for your hangover or your panic or your anxiety. They don’t care that you may be in the midst of an existential crisis. They don’t care that you’ve stopped caring. They require attention, and timekeeping; they need energy and focus. But give them that, and these brownies will pay dividends.
I tread old ground when I say that so often brownies are a sore disappointment. There is nothing worse than a mealy brownie, one that crumbles into sad dust in your hands. Perhaps more controversially, I’m equally unimpressed by brownies that tout gooeyness when what they mean is ‘raw’. This brownie is no disappointment: it straddles cakiness and fudgeyness in that very particular way that a true brownie should. If you aren’t left licking fudgey smudges from your fingers, then you’re not doing it right.
This is not, however, a brownie for the faint hearted. If you are someone who balks at butter or looks askance at piles of chocolate, this is probably not the recipe for you. It is rich, intensely, darkly chocolatey, but also bright and cheering from the orange zest, with an aromatic and Christmassy background from the spices, hard to detect beyond a can’t-quite-put-your-finger-on-it festive note.
It is not, however, sinful. It is not dirty, or naughty, or bad. It’s just a bloody good brownie. Definitely the best one I’ve ever eaten – and, if Sophie Loren owed her body to spaghetti, I owe mine to brownies.
The fragile shell of a brownie – the best bit, I think – so delicate that wayward fingertips can lift it accidentally, leaving incriminating fingerprints across your traybake, is actually a very thin layer of meringue. The trick then to a crisp brownie is to beat your eggs. Take your anxiety and beat the hell out of those eggs. Whisk them and whisk them and whisk them. Whisk them like nothing else matters, because at that point, nothing else does matter.
The base here is Felicity Cloake’s brownie recipe, which I’ve christmassed up with the spice and orange and pecans, and fiddled a little with the chocolate and cooking times.
Like Felicity’s, this recipe uses Alice Meldrich’s magical ice bath technique to ensure that the centre is sticky and luxurious without being raw, with a very slightly longer and cooler bake because I prefer deeper, denser brownies than her recipe produces. When the brownies come out of the oven, cooked at a higher temperature and for a shorter time than is traditional, the tin is plunged into an ice bath to arrest the cooking, meaning that you end up with the platonic brownie: fudgey and moist and soft in the centre, with a thin layer of cakey crumb, encased in a proper, crisp shell.
It goes like this:
Anxiety Brownies (with orange and spice)
Makes: 16 gorgeous chunky pieces
Takes: 2 hours (including an hour’s cooling)
Bakes: 30-35 minutes
- 250g 70% cocoa chocolate
- 1 orange, zested
- 250g butter, room temperature
- 300g caster sugar
- 3 large eggs, plus 1 extra egg yolk, lightly beaten
- 60g plain flour
- ½ tsp baking powder
- Pinch of salt
- 60g good quality cocoa powder
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 100g pecans, chopped (optional)
1. Pre-heat the oven to 180C, and line a 23cm x 23cm baking tin with baking parchment (I do this by using two long strips the width of the tin and crossing them over one another so that they overlap one another and overhang the tin on all four sides). This tin needs to be metal or silicone if you’re going to use the ice bath method: don’t use a glass container is what I’m saying, because it’ll shatter.
2. Melt the chocolate by using a double boiler: place the chocolate in a heatproof bowl over a pan of simmering water. Don’t allow the water to touch the bowl. Remove from the heat as soon as it has melted.
3. Place the butter and sugar in a large bowl. Zest the orange directly into the same bowl. Beat the butter and sugar and zest together until they are pale and fragrant and fluffy.
4. Add the melted chocolate to the creamed butter and sugar.
5. Add your eggs and egg yolk, one by one. This is the important bit. If you have a stand mixer, use it. If you have a handheld electric whisk, use it. If you have neither, steel yourself. Beat the eggs on the highest speed you can without splashing mixture all over yourself for five minutes. Time yourself: five minutes is always longer than I think. If you’re doing it by hand, you probably need to add a couple of minutes onto that. I’m sorry, but the end product really will be worth it. By the end of the allotted whisking time, the mixture should be silken, and slightly paler than before, and more voluminous.
6. Sieve into the mixture the flour, baking powder, salt, cocoa powder, and both spices, gently folding them in, along with the chopped pecans.
7. Spoon the mixture into the tin, and bake for 30 minutes if you like your brownies particularly gooey, and 35 minutes if you prefer them on the cakier side. I do them for 32 minutes because I’m contrary. The usual test of a cocktail stick coming out clean doesn’t work with brownies, as the interior should be sticky and fudgy even when properly baked, so trust me and have faith in the timings. 5 minutes before the brownies’ time is up, fill a dish larger than the brownie pan with as much ice as you can muster and a little water. Make sure the level does not exceed the height of the brownie tin.
8. When the brownies are ready, remove the tin from the oven and plunge them immediately into the ice bath. Leave the brownies for a full hour. Do not touch them.
9. Lift them out of their tin using the baking paper and cut them gently but firmly with a large knife into 16 pieces.
10. TA DAH!
Icing on the Cake
These brownies don’t need anything. They are stand alone perfect. Mostly I keep them to myself. I try not to share them. But sometimes when I’m feeling particularly benevolent, I wrap them in greaseproof paper, tie them with ribbon, and give them as Christmas gifts. Because I’m pretty sure that eating these brownies is almost as anxiety-relieving as making them. And I can’t imagine a better Christmas gift than that.