The Best Cream Cheese Brownies

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)


Bad Mommy Chocolate Pizza

I’ve been thinking a lot about the weightiness of motherhood given the combustible reactions received recently by two controversial mommies. The Wall Street Journal printed an excerpt from Amy Chua’s new book,“Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” in which she extols the superiority of the Chinese, and very strict, mom. Among the list of things Ms. Chua prevented her daughters from doing, in the name of building a superior human being, were: having sleepovers, having playdates, watching TV, performing in school plays, and choosing their own extracurricular activities. Yikes. Major news outlets and blogs jumped on the story and, not surprisingly, Ms. Chua was a very busy lady last week clarifying her position with an appearance on the Today Show, a return to the Journal etc. Google her and you’ll get hundreds of news results.
While the embers of the Asian mother fire were still aglow, Gwyneth Paltrow and her GOOP newsletter managed to insult mothers from a totally different angle. GP decided to share her own juggling tips as well as those of two fellow working moms, venture capitalist Juliet De Baubigy and designer (and Paul’s daughter), Stella McCartney. All three provided a snapshot of a day in their lives to illustrate how they were able to successfully multi-task.

Now, if any of these women had given the credit to their household help that is undeniably due, I think the accusations of elitism and tone-deafness would have been tempered. Unfortunately, that was not the case. Gwynnie seems to be bearing the brunt of the outrage which is kind of unfair. It was Ms. De Baubigny's helpful hints which caused me to gasp, “you must be kidding.” If you’d like to experience a surge in blood pressure, click here. If not, here are some ways the venture capitalist makes her day a little easier: “I’ve found that having a trainer come to my house on a Monday really motivates me.” But on cardio days at the gym she says, “I bring my iPad and use the Flipboard app to curate my social media.” Okay, huh? What does that even mean? Curating (the most over-used word in 2011) is something a curator does at a museum. (And if I hear it used in any other context I may scream.) Let’s not forget the blow-outs, make-up lessons, obsessive list and label making, bulk gift and card buying, and taking of stock. “Did I spend my time in the right meetings? Have dinner with my family at least 3 times during the week? Did I read to [my kids] at least 5 times in the last 7 days?” I can’t decide if I’m nauseated or exhausted or both.
Obviously, being a mother is really hard. Most women I know, whether they can afford help or not, just struggle to do the best they can, much of the time falling short (in their minds) and wishing they had more to give. Do they really need (in the disingenuous name of being “helpful”) other know-it-alls to remind them just how much they are failing, how much more they should be doing? No.

So in the spirit of having fun, I babysat for my nieces last week. Who else but an aunt would think it is totally fine to 1) make a chocolate pizza and 2) to make it at 5pm when she’s supposed to serve supper to her charges at 6pm? No one.
It was post-pizza and pre-dinner when I appreciated the juggling my sister does, sans paid help. Niece 1 wanted to take her bath while Niece 2, who skipped the terrible two’s only to embrace the terrible three’s, refused not only to bathe but also to put on her pajamas. After my pleas provoked a primal scream I parked her in front of the TV, because I believe in rewarding bad behavior. I also wanted to save my ear drums. Then there was yelling from Niece 1, still upstairs swimming in her tub. “I’m lonely,” she said with a face only a monster could resist, so I sat with her while she demonstrated her underwater breath holding.

I nuked the leftovers they were supposed to eat and served them in front of the TV which earned me the second, “you are the best aunt!” of the night. (The first was when I let them eat one pack of the M&M’s that were supposed to go on the pizza). Reminder: I’m their only aunt. After cleaning up in the kitchen I returned to the TV room where neither had touched a bite of her pasta. “I don’t like this,” Niece 1 sneered, “there are hard pieces.” She caught me. I had totally scorched the wagon wheels and thought if I hid the crunchy bits she wouldn’t notice. Niece 2 ate two bites of her pasta and then begged for milk. I saw my opening: with a little bribery, milk for pajamas, everything seemed calm and good. Niece 1 was still on the couch watching something or other (see how well-supervised she was?) while Niece 2 and I “doctored” her chronically ill Ugly Doll upstairs.
Because the girls have a tendency to hide cordless phones I had to run downstairs when the phone rang. My sister would be home in three minutes. Click. Just then Niece 2 yelled from upstairs. I sprinted to find her standing in her doorway having had an accident which in turn caused me to scream. I put her on the potty, way too late, ran back downstairs where Niece 1, the expert on really everything, met me in the kitchen to boss, I mean instruct, me on accident-cleaning protocol. And so, with paper towels and cleanser strewn in the hallway, a running bathtub and a soaking wet youngest daughter, my sister and brother-in-law walked in the house mid-mayhem.
The lesson is that there is no way a mother (or father or aunt) can control the uncontrollable. It doesn’t matter how many times you type on your P-Touch label maker, buy birthday presents six months in advance or make your kid play the violin. Accidents are going to happen and you might as well try to have some fun.

I’m sure that the Tiger Mother and GP et al would disapprove of this chocolate pizza, thinking only a bad mother would serve their children something sure to make their blood sugar spike. But they would be missing out on all the fun. It is great to make with kids and you can be as experimental as you like. You can swap out the Nutella for jam or peanut butter, use dried fruit, your favorite candy etc. Your kids won’t eat dinner but you’ll be "the best mommy,” at least for one day.

Bad Mommy Chocolate Pizza
Adapted from Giada's Family Dinners, by Giada De Laurentiis, 2006
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1 pound homemade (see Note below) or purchased pizza dough
2 teaspoons butter, melted
1/4 cup Nutella
1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1 pack (1.69 ounce) M&M's
1/2 cup crushed pretzels
1/3 cup mini-marshmallows

Position the oven rack on the bottom of the oven and preheat to 450 degrees F.
Line a heavy large baking sheet with parchment paper. Set aside.
Roll out the dough to a 9-inch-diameter round. Transfer the dough to the prepared baking sheet.
Using your fingers, make indentations all over the dough. Brush the dough with butter, then bake until the crust is crisp and pale golden brown, about 20 minutes. Immediately spread the Nutella over the pizza then top with the chocolate chips, M&M's, pretzels and marshmallows. Bake just until the chocolate begins to melt, about 1 minute.
Yield: 8 wedges
NOTE: Remember the dough made for the chocolate pretzels? Now is the time to use the other pound. Click here for a reminder.


I Love New York Black and White Cookies

There is a fine line between cozy and claustrophobic, a lesson I learned the hard way during December’s mega-blizzard. My plans were simple; I would take advantage of the accompanying quiet of a city emptied of most of my friends and spend the holiday week getting some writing done. The only exception would be Christmas weekend when I would go to my parents’ house on Long Island for movie going and over-eating fun.

Word of the coming blizzard had begun, but like most New Yorkers I don’t ever believe it’s going to be as bad as they say. We are so used to the hyperbole of our newscasters that they’re a little like the boys who cried wolf. How many times have I stocked up on “supplies,” thinking I’d somehow be trapped in my 14th floor apartment until the big thaw, only to find an inch of black slush coating the sidewalks? Enough not to panic when Janice Huff (everyone’s favorite meteorologist) starts breaking into local programming every 4 minutes to update us on the storm warnings. Not to mention that even in a blizzard the well-stocked deli at the end of the block is always open (I think Mrs. Kim, the hardest working woman I have ever seen, must sleep there—if she sleeps at all).
So on Christmas day I wasn’t really thinking about the storm and just enjoyed baking oatmeal lace cookies, seeing True Grit and eating my mother’s amazing turkey sausage lasagna. What could be bad? I’ll tell you what could be bad…the next day the heavens opened and dumped a foot of snow on Eastern Long Island faster than you can say “the Long Island Railroad has suspended all service” (my intended transportation home that day.) And that’s when the realization Mother Nature was making a point sunk in. At first I thought, no big deal, I have my computer and can still get done what I’d intended. No chance. I became transfixed by the TV, waiting for news that everything was back to normal, that roads were cleared and trains were running. I was transfixed for four days.
And the thing is, when I go out to the house in the winter I never do anything anyway. I wear the old clothes from 1985 that are still piled up in the closet (an extra large Connecticut College sweatshirt anyone?), plop on the couch with a stack of magazines, cook with my mother and watch movies. Who needs to go outside? But somehow, because that choice was no longer available to me, I found myself staring out the window, wanting to be let out like a dog. That was when I wasn’t staring at News 12, the local 24 hour newschannel.
By the time I made it back to town that Wednesday I was so starved for the city streets I did something that really only a moron would do two days before New Year’s Eve: I went to Times Square. I know. It was an incredibly stupid move. I did have a reason though. My assignment? To procure a pound of orange M&M’s for Niece Two’s 3rd birthday party. My destination? M&M’s World. Have you ever been to that place? Words can’t capture the chaos, the noise, the junk for sale and the fire hazard of cramming thousands of people (most of whom would be better served scratching a visit to a candy mecca from their itinerary) into the tri-level store. After at first politely saying, “Excuse me” in my attempt to get to the Wall of M&M’s, (where every color has its own dispenser in both plain and peanut) I completely gave up any pretense of politeness and became an animal. No really. I took both hands and literally pushed people out of my way, only to look off into the distance when they whipped around to see who had just shoved them. “Who me?”

And why didn’t anyone warn me about the force with which the M&M’s come streaming out when you pull that lever? $25 worth of M&M’s later I continued my pushing and shoving until I was safely back on the subway headed home. Yes, I found respite on an uptown 1 train.
But the best thing happened when I walked into my building. I’d received a package from my dear and generous friend Laura: The Gourmet Cookie Book! I’d been secretly hoping someone would buy it for me and lo and behold someone had. The book is great, with a cookie recipe deemed “the best” for every year since 1941. Reading it is a crash course in culinary history. I urge anyone who cares about that stuff to pick up a copy.
Bells went off when I saw the winner for 2005. What is more New York than a black and white? The recipe suggests you make them mini-sized which frankly I didn’t want to do because I am lazy. Did I want to ice 60 cookies? No. I wanted to eat them. So I made some with my two-teaspoon scoop and some with my tablespoon scoop. The size is up to you. While I was icing them, sloppily as you will see, I thought they looked a little different than I’d expected. That would be because I was in such a rush that I spread the icing on the round side instead of the traditional flat side. So what? That’s New York too—we march to the beat of our own drum and don’t care what anyone else thinks.

So this week when Janice started warning us again about the approaching mega-storm I took her seriously. I suffered the throngs at Fairway, stocked up on supplies and went to sleep to the dulcet tones of snow plows—Mayor Bloomberg’s version of a mea culpa after the screw-up of his last storm clean-up. When I woke up, the sun was shining brightly and a mere 5 inches was already being shoveled in front of my building. Still, I’m choosing to stay in my apartment, eating my black and white cookies. I love New York.
I Love New York Black and White Cookies
Adapted from The Gourmet Cookie Book, 2010 Conde Nast Publications
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1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1/3 cup well shaken buttermilk
½ teaspoon vanilla
7 Tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
½ cup granulated sugar
1 large egg

2 ¾ cups powdered sugar
2 Tablespoons light corn syrup
2 teaspoons lemon juice (NOTE: if you don’t like your icing to be too lemony omit the juice and replace with water)
½ teaspoon vanilla
4-6 tablespoons water (or more if you omit lemon juice)
¼ cup unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa (I used Droste)

Put oven racks in upper and lower thirds of oven and preheat oven to 350. Line 2 cookie sheets with parchment paper and set aside.
Whisk together flour, baking soda and salt in a bowl.
Stir together buttermilk and vanilla in a cup.
Beat together butter and sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer on medium-high until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes.
Add egg and beat until thoroughly combined.
Reduce speed to low and add flour mixture and buttermilk mixture alternately in batches, beginning and ending with flour mixture. Mix just until smooth.
Depending on your desired cookie size use either a teaspoon (for really mini), 2 teaspoon sized scoop (for 2-inch cookies) or tablespoon (for 3-inch cookies) and drop batter onto cookie sheets, about 1 inch apart.
Bake, switching positions of sheets halfway through baking, until tops are puffy, edges are pale golden and cookies spring back to light touch, about 6-9 minutes depending on size.
Transfer to wire rack to cool.

Site together powdered sugar, corn syrup, lemon juice, vanilla and 2 Tablespoons water in a medium bowl until smooth. If icing isn’t spreadable add more water a ½ teaspoon at a time.

Transfer half of the icing to another bowl and stir in the cocoa.
The icing will become very stiff so add water, ½ teaspoon at a time (I need 3 teaspoons, just FYI) until the chocolate icing is the same consistency as the vanilla.

You will be frosting the cookies with the vanilla first so place a damp paper towel on the surface of the chocolate and wrap that bowl in plastic until ready to use.
Using a small offset spatula (if you don’t have one you could probably use the back of a spoon but I urge to buy one. They are great and cost under $20. While you’re at it pick up the large size too. Best for icing cakes) spread white icing over ½ of the flat bottom of the cookies.
Then starting with the cookies you iced first, complete the job by icing the other half with the chocolate icing.

Yield, 60 mini OR 30 small OR 20 medium cookies


Clean Start Almond Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies

I’ve never been big on New Year’s resolutions, probably because they are almost impossible to keep. Sure, I can manage to watch my expenses, read more New Yorker and less In Style, and throw away the take-out menus for awhile. But ultimately, I slip into old, comfortable habits and I’m back where I started. Of course we’re all capable of change but the desire has to be so, so strong in order to override the hardwiring that has kept you doing the same things forever.
But still, the concept of turning over a new leaf is an appealing one as is “out with the old and in with the new.” Which got me to thinking about cleanses. A few weeks ago the New York Times published a piece about the rise in popularity of juice cleanses with lots of doctor’s pooh-poohing (I know, I know) their necessity. The body is self cleaning, they insist. And although I subscribe to that thinking I am curious about submitting one’s system to a realignment of sorts. I would imagine a cleanse might shake-up my food thoughts, help me pay attention to the food I’m taking in and lead me towards taking control of my snacking issues. I also know there’s no way I could survive one. Drinking only juices, or following a strict diet of any kind, would only make me obsess about what I was missing and I don’t want to fetishize any food stuffs.
On the other hand, one of my goals in life overall is to be more mindful. I am so routinized that I rarely stop to take in, well, anything. I tread the same streets, see the same people, and of course, eat the same things. Day after day.

In many ways I like keeping my house stocked with a consistent group of staples; it just makes for fewer choices to have to deal with. I also know I am not pushing myself to try to cook new things in new ways. But this dilemma is nothing compared to my snacking. My in-between meal nibbling is really a problem and not because of anything to do with weight. It's a problem because I’m not even enjoying the nibbling. It’s completely mindless. If there’s an open bag of Pretzel Crisps on the counter I’ll grab a few on my way to unloading the dishwasher or I’m unwrapping a dark Hershey’s kiss while I’m talking on the phone or I’ll help myself to a handful of almonds before I take out the garbage.
The other day I popped a double dark chocolate raspberry truffle (from the Godiva extravaganza I got as a Christmas thank you) into my mouth without thinking. And I wasn’t even hankering for a chocolate fix. This was bad. When I reached the point of not noticing or remembering what I’d eaten the self loathing started to take hold. Something had to give.
So I decided to deny myself. Just for one day I would abstain from eating any gratuitous sweets. I opened my garbage can and in went a box of stale Mallomars, the truffles, two containers of freezer burnt Haagen-dazs, one Ferraro Rocher hazelnut chocolate, three dusty Rolos and half a bag of Pepperidge Farm Ginger Men. As I was twirling the twist tie around the bag I had second thoughts about the truffles and pulled out the box from the refuse. Something about chucking an almost full box of Godiva chocolates seemed, I don’t know, disrespectful. Instead I shoved them in the back of a drawer and took the trash out to the chute.
The next morning everything went fine. I went to the gym, had my cereal, fruit, almond milk medley and was feeling on track. Then at about 11am my mind started in on me. My taste buds were screaming for just a tiny taste of dark chocolate. So I went outside and ran some errands I didn’t need to run and came home in time to make lunch—the same thing I have every day: arugula, sliced turkey, tomatoes, fennel, pear and a bit of avocado tossed with oil and vinegar, a half a piece of toasted whole wheat pita bread with a thin slice of cheddar cheese and a clementine. But no accompanying sweet. I was so unhappy. So I made a cup of chai tea thinking I could trick myself into believing I was having dessert. What a fool I was. And now I was even more miserable and could not stop thinking about chocolate. This was not the realignment I was hoping for. And I wasn’t surprised. It’s like the yearly Yom Kippur fast. I don’t have moments of clarity or atoning, I’m just hungry and cranky.
As my shaking hand started to open the drawer where I’d “hidden” the truffles I knew I was in trouble. So I decided to compromise. I had recently spotted a magazine called Clean Eating and went on their website to see what was deemed to be clean. To my happy surprise there was a recipe for a cookie that I thought might snap me out of my miserable funk and keep me from feeling like I’d given up completely. I mean if the magazine considered the cookies to be ‘clean’ couldn’t they be part of my sweets ‘cleanse?’ Worked for me.
These Almond Butter Chocolate Chip cookies totally hit the spot and helped me down from the ledge. They're butter-free and wheat-free and call for Sucanet, which is whole cane sugar that retains a molasses-y undertone. If you don’t want to welcome a new kind of sweetener into your life you could go with light brown sugar, just don’t be mad if the clean police try to arrest you. They're soft and chewy, not too sweet with an abundant, overall nutty flavor. Meanwhile, I’m feeling virtuous and very clean. And tomorrow I’m buying a new box of Mallomars.
Clean Start Almond Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies
From Clean Eating, November 2010

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1 cup unsalted almond butter, stirred well
¾ cup Sucanet
1 large egg
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
3 ounces very dark chocolate (70% or higher would be great) chopped into small pieces

Preheat oven to 350, line two cookie sheets with parchment paper, set aside.
In a medium bowl, stir together the first 5 ingredients until blended.
Stir in chocolate.
Drop dough by rounded tablespoon onto baking sheets.
Bake for 10-12 minutes until lightly browned.
Let cool on baking sheets for 5 minutes before transferring cookies to wire rack to cool completely.
Yield: 24 cookies