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When she has the kitchen all to herself, Phyllis Grant of Dash and Bella cooks beautiful iterations of what solo meals were always meant to be: exactly what you want, when and where you want them.
Today: Find beauty in the mayhem. This weeknight-friendly, deceptively simple take on a chocolate brownie will help.
Friday morning. I stare at twelve duck legs, two frozen lamb shanks, and twenty sausages. I don’t quite believe it, but by Sunday night, in order to celebrate multiple family birthdays, this pile of meat will morph into an enormous pot of French stew. I open my recipe journal from this time last year to find notes on how to make a cassoulet. It was so delicious that I want to replicate every last detail. I search and search. I finally concede that I didn’t write anything down. I burst into tears. I’m on my own.
Saturday morning. The beans are simmering with salt pork. The duck legs are smothered in salt and garlic and bay leaves. The lamb is seared off. I am making shit up as I go along, but I am optimistic. While bashing garlic, anchovy, and tomato paste into a purée, I start thinking about the post-cassoulet dessert. It must be chocolate. It must be elegant.
Saturday afternoon. My hair reeks of meat. The dishes are climbing. My legs are cramping. I fly up into a handstand. My son cackles as my cooking clogs go flying across the kitchen. I’m not laughing. I exhale out an upside-down rant.
Dash. What am I going to do? The oven isn’t big enough to accommodate both the duck confit and braised lamb and they both take five hours so they must enter the oven together or I will not be able to make dessert tonight and it needs be done so I can assemble the cassoulet in the morning.
Whatever, mom. It’s just food.
I float down.
Come here. Sit in my lap. It’s not really the food that’s upsetting me. It’s just the fact that another year has passed. And parents are broken records about time. And how it flies.
What’s a record?
I’ll tell you later. Will you help me? Let’s take the racks out of the oven and try to make this cassoulet work.
Late Saturday night. Miracle of miracles, all cassoulet components are braised, simmered, confited, browned, and refrigerated. More than anything, I want to be handed a martini, picked up and carried to bed, and given a vigorous leg massage. But no one is offering. And I still need to come up with dessert. I have this nagging desire to make flourless chocolate cakes with molten centers but I haven’t taken them on in years. I don’t even know where to start. I spy my cupcake pan and that’s all it takes to slam my fancy chocolate fantasy down to earth. I know what to do. Those perfect Alice Medrich brown butter brownies that I made a few weeks ago will save me. I pull the details up on my phone. I’m relieved. I double her recipe, spoon the batter into cupcake molds, and hide a chocolate chunk surprise deep in the middle of each.
Sunday morning. I layer the beans and the lamb. I press the grilled sausages down into the mix. I crown the dish with duck confit. I top it all with a bread crumb, parsley, and duck fat crust. I sigh with delight. I start doing dishes.
Sunday afternoon. I actually have time to make a cup of coffee. I look at the brownie cupcakes and worry that I’ve made a mistake by baking them individually. They look dry. I sacrificially decide I should try one. I warm it up and pry it open. I can’t believe the beauty. I can’t believe the deliciousness.
Sunday evening. I watch my family eat the cassoulet. Much like the year before, I’m gobsmacked by the power of certain foods to slow people down. I warm up the brownie cupcakes and serve them with crème fraîche. We light three birthday candles: one for my dad, one for my husband, one for my daughter. We hold hands around the table, making a few wishes, saying goodbye to another year. My husband says this is one of the best chocolate desserts you’ve ever made but it’s a crime that you’ve served it without vanilla ice cream. I give him the finger under the table, but I agree.
Late Sunday night. I climb up on my kitchen counter, finish off the brownie cupcake scraps, and start taking copious cassoulet notes for next year. A text comes in from my brother. It’s a video of his son high on my cupcake brownies, unable to sleep, and singing about how Batman smells and Robin laid an egg and yada yada you know the rest. I text back, hilarious. But what I’m really thinking is wow, how very beautiful.
Makes 12 cupcakes
1 1/4 cups unsalted butter (2 1/2 sticks)
2 1/4 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups unsweetened cocoa powder (natural or Dutch process)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3/4 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon water
4 eggs, chilled
2/3 cups all-purpose flour
1 3/4 cups walnuts, chopped finely
1 cup chocolate chips (bittersweet or semisweet)
Photos by Phyllis Grant