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Recipes and Stories

3 April 2020: Finding Comforts in Isolation


As we move into a third week of isolation and face that it's not going to end any time soon, we're all looking for comfort in this time of uncertainty wherever we can find it. Someone asked if I was cooking more—and actually, I'm not: we but rarely eat out and I cook every single day.


But what I cook has changed. I don't bake a lot, especially not sweets, except around the mid-winter holidays. But warm baked treats are a comfort—if you have flour—and I do, having just filled my flour canister up for a seminar I'd been asked to do on bread in the Bible. Social distancing orders caused the seminar to be postponed, but it meant I had a reasonable supply of flour on hand when hoarders stripped our grocery's shelves, so I've actually been baking a little.


A couple of days back, Timothy asked if I would make Congo Bars. It opened a floodgate of warm, deeply comforting childhood memories. They were just what we needed.


In case you're not familiar with this mid-twentieth-century treat, Congo Bars (or Squares as I knew them in childhood), are a blond brownie studded with chocolate chips and pecans. They were a specialty of one of my favorite aunts, Margaret Queen Snelgrove.


As any Southerner who's reading this already knows, family relationships down here are endlessly convoluted, and sorting them out is not helped by the fact that most of us have "aunts," "uncles," "Big Mamas," "Maw-Maws," "Paw-Paws," and "Grannies" who aren't related to us by blood—at least, not in any way that's ever acknowledged.


Margaret was one such "aunt." She wasn't my mother's sister, but her best friend—and yet I never knew her as anything but "Aunt Margaret." Because my siblings were brothers, her two daughters were as dear to me as any sisters could have been. If you're Southern, you already understand, and if you're not—well, never mind. Explaining it would take way too long.


Anyway, Aunt Margaret taught home economics and was a terrific old-fashioned Southern cook and baker. We could always count on having this bar cookie when our families got together.


The reason for their being named Congo is lost to time. There are several folk explanations, some more complicated than explaining about Aunt Margaret, but the most plausible is that they are named for Congo Square in New Orleans. But as the Bard put it, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. And these are a comfort no matter what you want to call them.


I've only had two—if you don't count the handful of chocolate chips that were left in the bag, the batter scraped from the sides of the bowl, and the scraps trimmed from the edges of the bars.


Aunt Margaret's Congo Squares


I used to assume that the reason Aunt Margaret always had these on hand when we got together was for us children, since we all loved them, and she loved spoiling us. It was only while I was working on my baking book that my mother confessed that the real reason was because she knew they were Mama's favorite.


Makes about 2 dozen


¾ cup (6 ounces or 1-½ sticks) unsalted butter, melted

2¼ cups light brown sugar, firmly packed

3 large eggs, well beaten

2¾ cups all-purpose flour

2½ teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

6 ounces (1 cup) semi-sweet chocolate chips

1 cup lightly-toasted pecans, broken up or roughly chopped (see note below)


1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat it to 325° F. Lightly butter and two 7½" x 11" pans (that's what Aunt Margaret used) or one 9" x 13" sheet cake pan. In a large mixing bowl, stir together the butter and sugar until smooth. Stir in the eggs one at a time, mixing well until they are smoothly incorporated.


2. Whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt in a separate bowl or sift it onto a large sheet of wax paper or into a separate bowl. Gradually stir it into the batter, a little at a time. By the end, the batter will be fairly stiff, like cookie dough. Fold in the chocolate and pecans.


3. Scrape it into the prepared pan, even it out with a spatula, and bake in the center of the oven for 25 to 30 minutes, or until lightly browned and set in the center. A toothpick or cake tester inserted into the center should come out clean. If you like slightly gooey bars, take them out when the tester comes out mostly clean, but with some clumps clinging to it. The smaller pans will cook more quickly and produce slightly thinner cookies than the bigger sheet pan. Cool the cookies in the pan on a wire rack, and then cut into 24 uniform squares.


To toast pecans for this recipe, spread them on a metal pie plate, small rimmed baking sheet, or round layer cake pan and put them in the preheated 325 degree oven for 8-10 minutes, stirring a couple of times, until they're lightly toasted. Transfer them to a cool pan or plate and let them cool before adding them to the batter.


To butter and flour a cake pan: lightly rub the inside of the pan (bottom and sides) with butter. Add a tablespoon of flour and tilting it around, gently shake and tap the pan until the butter is evenly coated with flour. Turn out any remaining flour.


Recipe and some text adapted from Damon Lee Fowler's New Southern Baking (Simon & Schuster), copyright © 2005 by Damon Lee Fowler, all rights reserved.

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