Baking, especially baking bread, is one of those activities that is perennially nerdy-cool, like knitting or discussing artisan teas. If you’ve ever talked with rhapsodic satisfaction about your sourdough starter, you’re a part of it. But you’re not the first.
Elizabeth Bishop was one of the earliest to recognize the proto-hipster qualities of baking from scratch, after the 1920s inventions of Betty Crocker mixes and Wonder Bread made it unnecessary. “My part-time work at present seems to be baking bread,” she wrote to Robert Lowell in 1960, adding presciently, “it sounds food-faddish I’m afraid.”
Although she was always an occasional baker, making treats for cake sales and birthdays, it wasn’t until landing in Brazil in 1951 that Bishop made it a habit. Her trip, which began as a travel fellowship, turned into a 15-year stay, and she soon became a very popular neighbor thanks to one of her signature recipes: brownies.
The earliest published recipes for brownies appeared in Chicago and New England the early 1900s, but according to Bishop they hadn’t made it to South America by the 1950s. Her version was an instant hit. “Since Brazilians are mad about anything chocolate … I have been requested to bring along 4 dozen brownies (something I’ve introduced to Brazil) and a large chocolate cake,” she writes to Lowell in the fall of 1957. “You see how innocent our lives are here—just making money and eating sweets.”
There’s an intimacy about baking, which might be why I always like to celebrate Valentine’s Day with homemade desserts. But reading from the correspondence between Bishop and Lowell is just as romantic to me – no bodice-ripping, but plenty of wit, flirtation, and the kind of tenderness that bespeaks a very deep love.
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Bishop’s brownie recipe has never been published before, to my knowledge, but her recipe lives among her papers in the Vassar Special Collections. I’ve included it here as she wrote it, and have added notes below in case you’d like to reproduce it for the Robert Lowell in your life.
(Sourced from The Elizabeth Bishop Papers at Vassar College, courtesy of Vassar Special Collections and Sarah Stone)
4 squares bitter chocolate (or about a cup of cocoa)
1/2 cup butter
2 1/2 cups white sugar
1 cup flour
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 cups chopped nuts
Melt the chocolate and butter together – or, if you use cocoa, melt along with half the sugar and a little water. Cool slightly and beat in eggs and rest of sugar.
Sift in flour, add vanilla and nuts and beat. The batter is fairly stiff – doesn’t run much. Spread about <——————> this thick in square pan.
Bake in a slow oven – about 45 minutes to an hr., depending on pan, thickness, etc. They should be dry on top, just pulling away from edges, but still rather damp in the middle. Cut in squares in pan and remove with spatula.
This makes chewy brownies – for a harder kind, use brown sugar and an extra egg – or half brown sugar – Can be made thicker and used hot with whipped cream on top for a desert [sic] –
1) Although Bishop offers the cocoa option, the extra fat content of chocolate gives you a richer, fudgier brownie, especially in a recipe that has so little butter in the first place. I used 6 ounces of unsweetened chocolate.
2) Although my sugar-shock alarm starts going off above 2 cups of sugar, in this recipe it’s the measurement for the nuts that really stymies me. 2 cups of walnuts and it would make a good trail mix, but a brownie? Not so much. I cut it down to 1 cup, and felt good about it.
3) Bishop asks for an square pan, presumably an 8×8, but to accommodate her (admittedly vague) measurements, I used an 8×11 and cooked for 40 minutes. For thicker brownies, use an 8×8 and bake for 45-50 minutes.
4) What is a “slow oven” anyway? Convention says 300-325°F; I baked mine at 315°F, because I like them gooey inside.