Better Than Brownies (#tbt)

In the “First Course” column of yesterday’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel food section, editor Nancy Stohs ran a story about a brownie recipe from “Miss Petey” that was so popular with readers that it was published several times over the years, its first appearance being April 10, 1958.

The recipe originated with Eleanore Peters, longtime cook and kitchen manager at the Lakeside Children’s Center (formerly the Milwaukee Orphans’ Asylum), who was profiled in a feature article that day. Known as “Miss Petey” to the boys who lived there, she was loved not only for welcoming the children into her kitchen to help peel potatoes or perform other tasks but also for making delicious desserts—especially her brownies, which were always the boys’ first choice when asked what they’d like to have.

The photo that accompanied the recipe in yesterday’s paper caught my eye and sparked a memory. Those brownies looked exactly like the ones my mother used to make from scratch, a childhood favorite.

But they weren’t Milwaukee’s Miss Petey’s brownies. My mom’s recipe came from my great-grandmother, a tiny Baptist schoolteacher I can barely remember, who lived in Newcomerstown, Ohio. I’ve written about her before. She was the one who made hot cocoa in a pan on the stove for her husband every winter’s evening before bed (including weekends) after he returned from feeding the coal furnace at the elementary school where he was the janitor. I was very young when we’d go to visit my great-grandparents, so I have only fragments of memories associated with them.

My great-grandfather was an ardent amateur photographer who kept his camera and gear in the trunk of his car so that if he saw a photograph-in-the-raw, he’d be ready to pull over, set up his tripod, and capture that fleeting image.  Once when my mother was visiting them as a girl, my great-grandfather caught wind of the fact that hanging around with reporters in the local newspaper office was none other than Cy Young! (The great baseball player after whom the award was named. His hometown, as a matter of fact, was Newcomerstown—just as it was also hometown to legendary Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes. Go figure 🙂 ) My great-grandfather grabbed my mom and hustled right over so that she could meet him. Then, of course, he also took Cy Young’s picture and asked for his autograph. My parents still have both photo and autograph, framed and mounted in a side-by-side matting, on display in their home.

My great-grandparents’ Newcomerstown house was as ancient as they were. I remember a huge brass bed in their upstairs bedroom and heavy, velvet curtains hanging in all the doorways. These curtains must have been the fashion in the mid-twentieth century, judging from what I see in old movies  The light switches on the walls, next to dark woodwork, had little push-buttons, one higher than the other, in place of the usual lever you flip up and down. Under the stairs in the basement was a “root cellar,” where they actually did store “root vegetables” like carrots, potatoes, and onions in bins all winter long. There was also one of those evil-looking wringer washers down there, and a washboard, too.

There were chicken coops out back. My great-grandparents lived in town, but the backyards on their block bordered a farmer’s field, so there was a bit of a rural feel. Plus lots of people kept their own chickens then. My mom remembers my great-grandmother picking out a chicken for Sunday dinner and then chopping off its head. Have you ever heard someone with too much pointless energy described by the expression “running around like a chicken with its head cut off”? Apparently chickens really do just that. (I’ll spare you additional details.)

My great-grandfather wore dentures, so when we had corn on the cob for dinner, my great-grandmother would stand the ear of corn on end and then slice down each side, producing long strips of kernels that hung together in their gridded array instead of falling apart into separate pieces like you’d find in cans of corn. I was fascinated. Now I make a BLT salad in the summers (bacon, lettuce, tomato, with a mayonnaise dressing) that I top with squares of corn-on-the-cob kernel grids just like the ones my great-grandmother used to slice off for my great-grandfather.

But, finally, back to my great-grandmother’s brownies. Her recipe’s title is “Better Than Brownies,” and the frosted, fudgy squares truly live up to their name.  I compared her recipe to “Petey’s Brownies” in yesterday’s Journal Sentinel and found they are very similar. If I wanted to make a project out of it, I could bake both and conduct a taste test. But I think I’ll just stick with our old family recipe—tried and true, and full of memories.

Here it is, my great-grandmother’s “Better Than Brownies” recipe, slightly revised in format and incorporating modern technology (i.e., a microwave instead of a double boiler).

Throwback Thursday’s “Better Than Brownies”

  1. Melt 4 Tbsp cocoa (or 2 squares of unsweetened chocolate) with ½ cup shortening in a large, microwave-safe bowl. Let cool slightly.
  2. Beat in 1 cup sugar and 3 eggs (1 egg at a time).
  3. Add ¾ cup CAKE flour and 1 tsp baking powder (NOT baking soda), sifted together. If you don’t have a sifter, stir the flour and baking powder together thoroughly in a separate bowl first before adding to the brownie batter. (Note: CAKE FLOUR is sold in BOXES labeled as such and is found in the baking aisle somewhere near the regular all-purpose flour. Swans Down is a widely-known brand.)
  4. Add 1 cup chopped nuts (walnuts or pecans), if desired.
  5. Pour batter into greased pan (9 x 13 inch) and bake at 325º for 35 minutes.
  6. Remove from oven and let cool completely.

To make the frosting:

  1. Melt together 2 or 3 Tbsp cocoa with 3 Tbsp butter in a microwave-safe bowl.
  2. Add ½ tsp vanilla.
  3. Mix in powdered sugar (approx. 1 pound) and enough cream (or milk) to produce the desired consistency.
  4. Spread over cooled pan of brownies.
  5. Refrigerate in the pan until nearly ready to serve. Then slice into squares and remove individual brownies onto serving plate.

About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. I also volunteer with a Milwaukee homeless sanctuary, Repairers of the Breach, as chair of the Communications and Fund Development Committee.
This entry was posted in Food, History, Life and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Better Than Brownies (#tbt)

  1. Sally Cissna says:

    Wow! Your great Grandparents living style sounds so close to MY upbringing in Central Wisconsin in the 50s. We had chickens that we ate, but we’d get chicks and then have people that were willing come help with the “harvest” when they were old enough. We’d have enough chicken in the freezer to last all winter. We also had a cold cellar where mom kept carots and rutabagas and other root veggies in big crocks filled with sand. And she cooked from scratch. Her family over the years owned two bakeries. Her parents had one in Woodstock, IL and her aunt and uncle had won in Jefferson, WI which is still owned by their grand or great-grand children. So she could bake! Great memories.


    • The sand is such a great idea! Maybe I’ll try that with onions. It might help keep them from molding.

      Your childhood sounds so idyllic! But I also know that farming is a LOT of work. Sometimes I think that the MSOE work ethic owes not only to Oscar Werwath but also to all the farm kids who made up much of the student body for so many years.


  2. What wonderful memories!! And a great story!


  3. mworfolk says:

    What lovely reminiscences. I really enjoyed reading this–reminds me of listening to my parents and grandparents talking about their childhoods. And bonus: a brownie recipe to try 🙂


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