Hello, With Maple Whole Grain Brownies

We’re introducing ourselves with a recipe here at Real Zest. I’m Sarah Gilbert; I’m a writer, a mother of three, a military wife, a cooker of real food, a committed urban gardener, a keeper of chickens, a photographer, a believer in a God who honors every creation, every person, every land and water, every bumblebee.

I do it right, I do it wrong. I live by my convictions — in real food, ancient wisdom, unconditional love, labor that’s unlabored, inconvenience as a value — and backslide, a lot. I want my boys, aged eight, five and three, to eat deeply of life and know everything about food.

I want them to streak into each day full of joy and raspberries plucked straight from my front yard and whole grains and organic maple syrup and real, raw milk from a farmer whose name I know, whose toddler I’ve met and made smile. I want them to name eggplants, kiwi fruits, and several varieties of watermelon without hesitation and with their best eye rolls.

I want them to tell you, of course, this is a weed (it’s burdock, DUH), this is what we want, need! in the garden, this is mama’s favorite flower (the peony, I’ve explained it, drawing the bloom in bud, showing them the red shoots unfurling in springtime, setting the leaves side-by-side with those from a rose, see?). I want them to hear poetry in their heads when they ride their bikes, read the books before they see the movies, watch every sunset and exclaim!, get in fist fights only over unkindness.

They get some of it, believe some of it, get one thing right but not the other. “I was about to tell them I didn’t need a bag!” says Everett, coming home from Plaid Pantry (really?), having spent his allowance on Apple Jacks, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, cotton candy in a bag. I sent him with a tote bag, at least, this one thing, I’d begged. To get my goat, he asks “please, with a million tons of high fructose corn syrup on top.”

The boys find the compost and recycling bins when we’re at other people’s house; they beg for cheap plastic guns even though I’ve explained how the Chinese factory builders blow up mountains; they identify St. John’s wort in the alley and know which blackberries are the sweetest. Everett saves the seeds from all the fruits he likes, so I can plant them, plum and cherry and apricot and orange, indiscriminate, wrapped in napkins. Monroe and Truman pick me tiny little blue forget-me-nots and the leaves of mock plum trees and every wild berry they can reach.

There are a lot of fist fights. I’ve seen some of them, Everett standing up to a bigger boy who was cruelly mistreating his little brother, I’ve seen others where no one’s honor was present for upholding. I’ve been shamed by other parents, brought before principals so many times I’m greeted at most of the elementary schools within four miles, learned the inner workings of the district’s behavioral education system better than just about anyone. There is an unwavering sense of fairness and unfairness in this household, kind and unkind, good guys and bad guys: our members do not, universally, hew true.

We try.

My husband, Jonathan, a sergeant in the Army Reserves, is in Kuwait for a year and we’re trying to make him treats. The boys and I stand by the counter one afternoon, making brownies for daddy and for us. I put a little bit of sugar in them — they’ll need enough to preserve the treats as they travel the 10,000-and-more miles to Camp Arfjan — and Truman says with longing, “I wish there was such thing as healthy sugar.”

“I know,” I say, and we make a double batch. The boys will need something for breakfast, after all.

Maple whole grain brownies, with a little bit of sugar

  • 1/3 cup fair trade cocoa (cocoa is one of those tropical crops that can be produced right, or really, really wrong; go for the best, fairest stuff you can find)
  • 14 tbsp unsalted butter (1 cup less 2 tbsp)
  • 3 tbsp coconut oil (or use all butter)
  • 3/4 cup maple syrup
  • 1/4 cup organic sugar (sugar’s another crop that has much poverty, environmental destruction, and enormously inhumane treatment of native peoples to its credit. use with extreme prejudice)
  • 3 eggs (if you don’t have your own chickens, use four — my ladies lay extra-jumbo eggs)
  • 2/3 cup rye flour (spelt, barley, and buckwheat would be good substitutes)
  • 1/3 cup white wheat flour (or use a soft whole grain flour, like whole wheat pastry flour or spelt)
  • 1 pinch sea salt
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1 tbsp liqueur of your choice, if desired (I make a lot of liqueurs and don’t drink much — for this recipe, I love nocino, the Italian green walnut liqueur)

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare a rectangular glass or ceramic baking pan (roughly 9″ x 13″) by greasing the inside with coconut oil. It spreads beautifully with your fingertips. And is good for licking off, afterward.

In a saucepan, mix the cocoa, butter and coconut oil. Over low heat and with a small whisk or a wooden spoon, mix until the butter has melted and the mixture is of a smooth consistency.

Pour mixture into a medium bowl and add maple syrup and sugar. Mix well.

Add eggs, one at at time, beating in well. Pour in flours and sprinkle on salt (if you use your fingertips, you’ll spread it evenly so you don’t have to mix it into the flour in a separate bowl — who has time to wash all those bowls?). Mix until just combined; add in the vanilla and, if desired, liqueur.

Pour batter into prepared pan so that it is roughly even. Bake for 20-30 minutes, until center is set and no longer looks like pudding.

Remove, cool, cut into small small squares and save as much as you can for your husband. If required, make another batch.

Images: Sarah Gilbert

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9 Responses to “Hello, With Maple Whole Grain Brownies”
  1. Anna

    Sarah — thank you for so graciously and beautifully sharing your philosophy with us. Your writing leaps off the page and I find myself longing for days past when we too as children, were taught such things by my own mother — from naming flowers and weeds to acting with dignity and grace…its nice to know these beliefs and values still do exist and continue to be instilled in our youth. Be sure to look in the mirror and recognize the majesty and beauty of your choices and what they are bringing to the world!

  2. Lovely post, lovely words, and DELICIOUS recipe! Kudos, Sarah! You have set the bar high for the recipe introduction, and I cannot wait to read more of ‘em.

  3. PJ

    These sound delicious; I can’t wait to try a gluten-free modified version. I’ll make them tomorrow to take for a weekend get-away.

  4. This was delicious to read…not just the recipe but your convictions and expressions of what your meaning of family and life is. I am SO looking forward to reading and learning more from you.

  5. This is stunning, Sarah. Absolutely stunning.

    “I’ve seen others where no one’s honor was present for upholding”

    Looking forward to much more,


  6. Else

    This is marvelous!

    I made brownies every Saturday night with my mother as a child. Thanks for a wonderful introduction!

  7. Beautiful, beautiful! Thanks for a great introduction, Sarah! Happy Birthday and welcome to Real Zest! =)

  8. Such a wonderful approach to food and parenting. Your boys are blessed to have you as a mother. And thanks for the kick in the pants regarding sugar. Local maple syrup is a great alternative, though I am still uncertain about honey. What are your thoughts on that?

    • Julia, I’m a huge fan of honey (and it’s far more local for me, living here in Portland, Oregon — there’s local honey everywhere :) . I’ve been thoroughly evangelized by urban beekeepers and believe, as a result, in its amazing health benefits & in supporting local beekeepers. I usually bake with honey and the boys have toast w/honey almost every day: it’s a staple!

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