I first tasted buttermilk brownies WAY back in the day, some 20 years or so ago. Back before my European travels and before I began writing professionally, in my “other life” as an optician. It has been nearly that long maybe 16 years) since I have had a pan of these fluffy, light, extra moist, chocolatey delights but with my birthday coming up in September — I had a sudden nostalgic hankering.
WARNING: I’m going to go off on a trip down memory lane now, if you like that sort of stuff, join me. If not, scroll down to the actual recipe below.
What’s an Optician?
For those who don’t know: An optician is the person who helps you pick out your glasses, who measures your pupil distance and fits and adjusts your glasses to fit well, when you pick them up. Some, like I was, are certified, which means they learned everything there is to learn about glasses (and contacts) spent two years working in the field and then took the boards to be certified. I also used to cut lenses, apply prism, dye lenses, polish edges and create grooves in the edge of lenses for your rimless frames and, as a girl who complained many times in high school about how most of us would NEVER, EVER use algebra in our REAL lives after high school — I used algebra every day in order to make and order these glasses. Yes, life is ironic.
I will make no bones about it — I was good at what I did. At the end of that career, I was managing a multi-million dollar optical practice and I regularly sold multiple pairs of glasses to customers, many times totaling over $5000 per visit. One can only do this if 1) they absolutely know their shizz and 2) they absolutely have the consumer’s best interests in mind. People won’t drop that kinda dough on glasses if what you’re selling them isn’t truth and totally worth it.
What does this have to do with buttermilk brownies?
It was in this former life, this former career that I became acquainted with the buttermilk temptress, at the hands of a co-worker named Mary Wesson. Working in physician offices is always the same — there’s always someone bringing snacks for some occasion. Donuts at morning meetings, mid-afternoon coffee runs, cake at birthdays, take-out lunch meetings — you get the picture — food abounds. At the time, I worked for the largest practice in Modesto, it employed 8 opticians, 4 front office staff, 1 office manager and 4 physicians. The office would have gone out of business if they supplied the snacks every birthday. 😉 So they devised a plan to get around it. Each member of the staff would be in charge of 1 person’s birthday. All our names were put into a bowl each year and we’d draw them out. My first year there, Mary Wesson drew my name.
She brought chips and seven layer dip and other snackings but she’d also found out that I loved chocolate in the weeks before my birthday and she set out to make her special buttermilk brownies for me. One bite and I was hooked. I’d never had a brownie like this — in fact, it shares almost nothing whatsoever in common with the likes of a traditional brownie (which, I also adore!) It was a cake but not, a brownie but not, an almost melt-in-your-mouth experience that had me raving all day — and eating more than 1!! (A big feat for me as I’m a huge believer in, “one is enough for anyone.”) For as light and moist as the crumb of this brownie is, the frosting is as rich and gooey and chocolatey as can be. They are inextricably linked and each bite must contain both in order to achieve sheer bliss. (See, I told you I liked ’em.)
I asked Mary for the recipe but she declined to give it. She said, “I’ll make them again and I promise, you’ll get to taste them again.” Because I showed so much appreciation for them, Mary went around the next year, finding out who had picked my name and she traded them to get me. She did that every year for the four years I worked there. In fact, in year two she started the tradition of making 2 pans. One for the office and one for me to take home (secretly, she’d hand it off to me at our cars so no one would get jealous.) And every year, I raved and every year I begged her for the recipe — but she never budged. She liked making them for me, she liked having an appreciative audience and making someone’s day with her baking. It wasn’t just the unmistakably wonderful taste of her brownies — Mary was someone special. The kind of person who made you feel like you were special just being around her. She was kind to a fault. Sweet, silly , ever-patient and just a touch naive — but in the best of ways.
Mary was one-part of a duo that adopted me at that workplace (the other was the hilarious, Carol Burnett-esque, Carol Cassidy) — I called them “the mamas.” They took me under their wings and wanted to look after me and take care of me. They laughed with me, as if I were their own kid. They thought I was irreverent, too old before my time, a bit of a sass but most of all they saw my heart and they thought I was a hoot! We had some of the best times together (actually everyone there during my first three years was something special — a dynamic that just could not be replicated.) I often think back on my years there fondly, because of these people. What Mary put into those brownies, besides buttermilk, was pure heart. Never underestimate the power of the secret ingredient.
At the end of year four with SVA, I was ready to change my life. Adventure was calling me and I decided to move from California’s steamy central valley to the misty wet skies of Portland, Oregon. At my going away party, Mary brought brownies — one pan for the office, one waiting for me at the car for our trip. Along with the second batch was the recipe, handwritten in the pages of a Victorian-style, floral-covered notebook, that was otherwise blank, save for her inscription inside a heart, drawn in gold ink. She gave me a hug, wished me well, to keep on writing and cooking. She told me, “Save the recipe for special occasions.”
Over the years, I took the recipe out and re-read it. I copied it to a recipe card and put it in with my others. But I never made a batch. I don’t know why. I love them to bits. But it never felt right. It wouldn’t be Mary making them. So, I’ve passed by it many a time, on my way to my granny’s lemon meringue pie or my mama’s chicken and dumplins recipe and whenever I see it, I smile and I think, “I should make those some time soon.” But I never have — until now.
Why Now? Why Gluten-free?
I started working at SVA, 1 year after my mother had a nearly life-ending hemorrhagic stroke in her brain stem and a few months before one of my dear friends, Bonnie Canida (someone who helped me through that difficult time with my mom) succumbed to cancer, one month before my birthday. It was an emotional time for me. I am the eldest in my family and was juggling a lot. Worrying about my sisters (5 and 6 years younger and just finishing high school), trying to arrange rehabilitative care for my mom and desperately trying to convince my father to seek help for his drinking problem. I was also, still a newlywed (having just been married 5 months before my mom’s stroke.) I was only 23 years old.
This, is why “the mamas” took me under their wings.
My mother was 43 when she had that life-altering stroke that left her wheelchair bound and dependent on others. This year, I turn 43 and to say that I’m scared would be an understatement. I AM scared but also a bit sad, I worry about being here for my little one, who is just entering first grade this year. I am taking stock and imagining myself in my mom’s place, how I feel at this age — nearly, the same as I felt 15 years ago, give or take a few aches and pains and a bit more wisdom (I hope!) — so unready for what befell my mom. I also feel determined. Determined to NOT have it happen to me — though, we never know what life will bring. Which is why, I’m also determined to let those I love know it, to enjoy it while I have it and to make those special occasions — now. Because that is all we’re truly guaranteed.
The brownies are gluten-free because my health journey has led me to eschewing wheat and gluten, reducing overall carbs, eliminating dairy (I still eat butter and parm) and to eating lots of whole, organic foods. It also has me watching my sugar intake now — though not quite with this recipe. This time, I made the recipe full-force (sans gluten.) It tastes just as I remembered it and as I ate one, I thought of Mary, and Bonnie and most especially my mom and the ways in which, they each mothered me over the years. I am grateful.
Though, I’ll still save the recipe for special occasions, I think next time can come a bit sooner. I also intend to play with the recipe to reduce the sugar (2 cups granulated + a box powdered is A LOT!) For now, they’re perfect for that every 20 years kind of special occasion.
You’ll need that time to work off the calories. 🙂 Happy Eating!
MW’s Buttermilk Brownies with a GF Twist
- 1cup water
- 1 cup butter
- 1/4 cup cocoa powder
- 1/2 cup buttermilk
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 2 eggs (beaten)
- 2 cups sugar
- 2 cups Gluten-Free all-purpose flour blend (I use trader Joe’s)
- 1 tsp baking soda
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Bring just to a boil, the first three ingredients, mixing well as it comes to temp. In the meantime, put the dry ingredients together in a bowl. Remove the now to temp, cocoa, water and butter mix from heat and let cool to warm, whisk in the buttermilk, eggs and vanilla. Pour into the dry ingredients and mix well. Pour it into a well-greased 9 x 13 brownie pan. Bake for 15 to 18 minutes on top rack or until done.
- 1 stick of butter
- 1/4 cup cocoa
- 1/3 cup buttermilk
- 1 box powdered sugar
- 1 tsp vanilla
Bring first three ingredients to boil, mixing well. Add powdered sugar and vanilla and whisk until smooth and well-mixed. Frost while still warm and gooey. It will set as it cools.