With this week’s Oscar nominations the journey to Best Everything is in full swing. The Golden Globes, NY Film Critics Circle and Critics’ Choice Movie Awards are behind us. The Sundance Film Festival is underway. The Screen Actor’s Guild and Director’s Guild Awards are this weekend, then we’ll have the Film Independent Spirit Awards on February 26th with the big Oscar show on Sunday, February 27th. The various associations use their own lingo (“outstanding”) but they all mean the same thing: their awards are for “the best.”
Movies aren’t the only thing we’ll be celebrating these next few weeks. Who could leave out the big showdown between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers? Who will get to sport that hideous, enormous ring, proving that he is “the best?”
I want to know who decided being “the best” is best. We live in a culture obsessed with contests and extremes. Every facet of our lives is judged good, better, best (or bad, worse and worst). People, Harper’s Bazaar and E! all decide who tops their best-dressed lists. Each year the Times tells us “the best” wine to serve with Thanksgiving dinner. Reality shows let contestants duke it out to determine who will be “the best” Top Chef, Survivor, Amazing Race-r. Where does it stop? And who is to say?
My issue with deeming things “the best” comes from a resistance to being told what to think or how to feel. I’ve been arguing with my father for years over his refusal to use the phrases, “In my opinion,” or “I think that,” or “If you ask me” before he delivers his strong points of view. When you are raised in an environment of proclamations and hyperbolic statements it takes years to realize, wait, this is one man’s opinion and mine, although different, is as valid. One person’s “the best” could be another's “the worst.”
Meanwhile, I think there is real risk in awarding someone with “the best” of anything at too young an age, even if it’s material. In college I used to look at the guys (yes, they were all guys) zipping around in shiny BMW’s and wonder, where will they go from here? You’re only 20 years old and you’re already an arrogant luxury car owner. Will you just go higher and higher in the numbered series until you hit 7 and have nowhere to go? Then what? A Bentley? An airplane? Will you ever be satisfied?
Then there are the young people who peak so early there is no way to sustain their young success. Take Tatum O’Neal. (By the way, I cannot WAIT for the upcoming docu-series where Ryan and Tatum “attempt to reconnect.” Thank you Oprah.) An Oscar at 10 years old didn’t exactly set her on a path to future bests.
All this is to say being “the best” is perilous business. Once you get there how do you continue to do your best? How do you redefine it so you never rest on your best-ness? I don’t know that you can. There will always be someone better at something than you. Maybe not at that exact moment but give it time, competition will come. As my grandmother used to say, “There’s a new Miss America crowned every year.”
Food magazines are constantly claiming to have unearthed “the best” in everything that swims down our gullets. The cover of this month’s Bon Appetit screams “BEST-EVER BROWNIES.” With one look I knew they weren’t “the best” because they are loaded with walnuts. Strike one and you’re out. I dislike walnuts in any scenario and I don’t believe in letting nuts interrupt my brownies. So clearly, this recipe would not make my best-of list. But that’s just me. There may be someone who adores walnuts, whose mouth doesn’t itch when they eat them and who likes the dense fudginess of a brownie to be disrupted by a crunch. That’s why I think there should be sub-categories for anything crowned “the best.”
Maybe Bon Appetit’s brownies are “the best” in the “nutty” category. I won’t bother to find out but I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. There should be “the best cakey” brownie (again, not a big fan but I know there are committed followers out there), “the best iced” (I think icing is overkill but I’ll always fondly remember the Sara Lee foil pan of my youth) and “the best fudgy.” Fudgy I know something about and I give the award to the Barefoot Contessa’s Outrageous Brownies. But there is another riff that I only recently baked after a friend asked for something cheesecake-y and something chocolate-y for her birthday dinner. I combined the two requests and made cheesecake brownies. What a welcome addition to my brownie repertoire! The tang of the cream cheese plays so nicely against the sweetness of the deep chocolate. They are indeed rich and creamy so bite-sized are in order. They would definitely win “the best” in the “cream cheese” category.
And although I have yet to fill out my Oscar ballot completely I know one thing for sure. Colin Firth is “the best” actor. And I will not qualify that statement with an “In my opinion,” “I think that” or “If you ask me.” It’s my screed and I’ll make an exception if I want to.
The Best Cream Cheese Brownies
Adapted from Ready For Dessert, David Lebovitz 2010
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6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces
4 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped
2/3 cup sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1/2 cup flour
1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup chocolate chips
8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
1 large egg yolk
5 tablespoons sugar
1/8 teaspoon vanilla extract
Line a 9-inch square pan with foil, making sure it goes up all four sides. Use two sheets if necessary. Butter foil lightly and set aside. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
In a medium saucepan, melt the butter and chocolate over low heat, stirring until smooth. Remove from heat and whisk in the 2/3 cup sugar, then the eggs.
Stir in the flour, cocoa powder and salt, then the vanilla and chocolate chips until fully incorporated. Pour into prepared pan and spread evenly with a spatula.
In the bowl of an electric mixer (hand-held or paddle) beat together the cream cheese, the yolk, 5 tablespoons of sugar, and vanilla until smooth.
Scatter eight dollops of the cream cheese mixture on top of the brownie mixture.
Using a dull knife or spatula swirl the cream cheese mixture with the chocolate batter. The batter will look marbleized.
Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until the batter in the center of the pan feels just set.
Place pan on a rack and let cool completely. Lift out the foil and peel it away. Cut the brownies into small squares.
Yield: 16 brownies (or more if you make them mini)