“ Smile, and the world smiles with you; cry and you cry alone”, wrote author Stanley Gordon West. I’m not sure I entirely agree with all of this, but it is true that when you smile, it seems to elicit smiles from other people. In fact, smiling is one of those activities that we all indulge in on a daily basis but seldom give any thought to, which is a pity as it’s a rather fascinating bit of human behaviour. For example, did you know that babies smile in the womb, but once they are born it takes them about 6 months to learn to smile again? Or that in our closest living primate relatives, there is no equivalent to smiling? There is teeth-baring – but this is a sign of aggression rather than contentment, and nobody knows how this aggressive display changed into the human smile of happiness. Or did you know that there is actually a scientific name for a fake smile (the Pan-American smile, involving only the muscles around the mouth) as opposed to a genuine smile (the Duchenne smile, involving muscles around the mouth and eyes)?
Through the ages though, the question that we have debated far more extensively is what actually makes us indulge in the activity of smiling, also known as the eternal search for happiness. It’s become fashionable these days to say that the simple things in life no longer make people happy. Whereas previous generations of children might have been happy with a bedtime story and a teddy bear, now kids aren’t happy unless they have X-Boxes and the latest iPads. So what a pleasant surprise it was to read a survey in this morning’s paper revealing what really makes kids happy today.
The top end of the list was full of things like playing with friends, spending time with mom or dad (mom ranked higher than dad!), birthday parties, cuddles, and (curiously) new shoes. Playing on the iPad did make the list, but somewhere in the 20s as I recall, and definitely behind “getting pocket money”! There was also a list for adults, and the list there was topped by spending time with one’s kids, which outstripped even winning the lottery as a smile-generating activity. It was a surprisingly simple and curiously heartwarming list to read, and it made me think back to our recent holiday in South Africa and the days we spent at my brother’s beach house with my darling nephews. They are pretty typical of their generation: tech-savvy, always on Mom’s iPhone or iPad, and prone to saying things like “Star Wars is the best thing that ever happened to me, Aunty Jeanne!”. But the activities that generated the most enjoyment during our stay were the giant jigsaw puzzle of a Gauguin painting that we were all slightly addicted to building, and going to the beach for a swim. No batteries required. Possibly rumours of the decline of normal childhood have been somewhat exaggerated.
A sure-fire way to make my colleagues smile is to walk into the office carrying chocolate brownies. Sure – I bring baked goodies in fairly regularly – from gingerbread cookies to muffins to the occasional cake – but somehow none of these have the smile-inducing capabilities of a brownie. Maybe it’s the heady waft of cocoa that escapes as I open the tin; maybe it’s the obviously gooey texture telling you “I am not diet-friendly!” – who knows. All that matters is that they are easy to make and they boost the smile quotient among my friends and family by about 300% ( a very exact scientific conclusion that I have reached after years of empirical research ). My go-to brownie recipe is one containing cream cheese (that I also used for these chocolate peanut butter chip brownies) – it’s easily customisable, super-easy, and the cream cheese seems to give the brownies an extra moistness.
I got the idea for the choc mint flavour not only as a life-long fan of choc mint chip ice-cream, but also as part of my never-ending struggle to try and clear some of the less-visited corners of my kitchen cupboards. Lurking in the back of the baking basket was a packet of Andes Creme de Menthe chocolate mint baking chips that I must have brought back from the US like 3 years ago and then promptly forgotten about. Oops. Never being one to pay too much attention to “use by” dates, I threw caution to the wind and used them in this recipe, and they were perfectly good, imparting a distinct minty flavour to take the edge off the rich chocolate. Sadly, I can’t seem to find them for sale here in the UK, not even from American Soda which stocks all manner of other baking chips. As a substitute I would suggest Quality Street mint flavour Matchmakers in the UK, or Peppermint Crisp bars in South Africa – just chop them into small chunks. And then bake, serve, and sit back to wait for the avalanche of smiles.
Other things that fellow-food bloggers are making with chocolate:
- Margot’s strawberry & chocolate sponge cake
- Jamie’s chocolate gingerbread macarons
- Michelle’s chunky chocolate Cheerio bars
- Barbara’s Pinot Noir chocolate brownies
- 230g butter (softened) plus a little extra for greasing
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 1 cup dark soft brown sugar
- 90g cream cheese
- 3 large free-range eggs
- 1.5 tsp peppermint essence
- 1 cup plain flour
- ¾ cup cocoa powder
- ¼ tsp baking powder
- ½ tsp salt
- 1⅔ cups (1x283g package) mint chocolate chips (I used Andes Creme de Menthe chips, sadly only available in the USA. In the UK, substitute finely chopped chopped Quality Street Mint Matchmakers; or in South Africa substitute finely chopped chopped Peppermint Crisp)
- Pre-heat the oven to 170C. Grease a 5cm deep baking tin or oven proof dish about 30cm x 20cm.
- Using an electric mixer, cream together the butter, sugar and cream cheese. Add the eggs and peppermint essence and beat well to mix.
- In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, cocoa, baking powder and salt. Stir the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients thoroughly until everything is moist and well-mixed, then stir in the choc-mint chips.
- Pour the mix into the prepared baking dish and bake in the middle of the oven for about 40 mins or until a skewer inserted in the centre comes out almost clean (a little bit of gooeyness is desirable, so don’t over-bake!).
- Allow to cool for 10 mins or so, then cut into squares with a sharp knife and carefully remove from the dish using a spatula.
- These brownies are delicious warm or cold and will also keep well for a couple of days in an airtight container.