Until recently, I thought I’d witnessed all of San Francisco’s characters. A cornucopia of clichés like the granola hippie nudists wearing nothing but Chaco Sandals and Prince Albert piercings, or the Lulu Lemon housewives pushing strollers holding shopping bags instead of babies, or the Hedge Fund Managers in three-piece designer Italian suits bicycling through rush hour with one pant-leg strapped mid-calf– but this was different. It was new and fantastic! I believe the French would call it “superbe,” and that’s exactly what Polly was– amazing. She’s the infamous Castro baker of pot brownies, and in my opinion, the one individual who most embodies the free-spirited, all-inclusive, joy-loving and mildly illicit essence of this wonderful city.
Who is this pot brownie baker? I’ll tell you. She’s Polly, a middle-aged single woman who lives one floor above her 75-year-old mother in a Castro Victorian. Dressed in colorful elastic-waist skirts, a t-shirt, and either Birkenstocks or Crocs, she has rings on every digit (sometimes two per finger or toe), and a large Magnolia (or Lilly) barrette to hold her long spaghetti-thick gray hair away from her Caribbean-Sea-blue eyes and pearly whites. Like a glass of Delaware iced tea, she’s gentle, sweet, and totally refreshing. But don’t let her charm deceive you, she was one of San Francisco’s first Occupy Wall Street protestors and I get the impression she’ll cut a bitch if she has to. When she isn’t knitting scarves for trees or studying Wicca in the park, she drives a taxicab in the city on Mondays and Tuesdays so she can spend Wednesdays baking delicious pot brownies, which you can buy on Thursdays and Fridays.
But she doesn’t have a formal storefront and you’ll never find her walking around Dolores Park shouting, “ganja treats!” When you purchase her wares it’s much more intimate than that. You can only buy her pot brownies from her Castro apartment between the hours of 6pm-9pm on Thursdays and Fridays. During those hours her door is unlocked and open to anyone looking for tasty and potent pot brownies that are fresh baked and rich like fudge. I found out where her apartment was from friends and loyal customers who suggested I bring a bottle of champagne (any kind) on my first trip, because. “Polly loves her bubbly.”
Upon entering the unit on the second floor, I first noticed the brightly painted nude (possible self-portrait?) on the wall along the narrow hallway typical of the Railroad style apartment. I’d like to think it took my breath away, but that was probably from the stairs. Or it could have been the strands of blinking white Christmas lights on the ceiling that led us towards the airy, well-lit and eclectically decorated living room in back.
It was one of those older apartments—the kind everyone in San Francisco wants, but doesn’t want to maintain— I could tell it had been built in the early 1900’s from the way the hard wood floors creaked with the pressure of each step; announcing to the hostess and her guests that someone new had just arrived. Every wall in the living room was painted a different pastel as if the Easter Bunny swallowed stood in the middle of the room, swallowed a stick of dynamite and blew up! High-gloss white paint caked on the floor molding, doorway, window trims, and built-in bookshelves signaled they’d never been stripped and sanded before, which gave the apartment this fabulous vintage lesbian Burning Man character and charm.
Dispersed among unmatched vintage furniture and fairy sculptures dipped in glitter (some with feather wings and some without) were a handful of pot brownie patrons, each engaged in their own conversations with obnoxiously long glass cobalt blue champagne flutes dangling on their every word.
“Welcome,” a women said, coming from the kitchen with a strand of glitter in her hair, and a rainbow-colored Hibiscus flower perched on the side of her head like a giant spider trying to suck out her brains. It was Polly. It had to be. Speechless, and unsure of the protocol, I held out my bottle of Korbel and hoped my friends hadn’t led me astray. “Oh, thank you.” She said, “That’s so sweet. Well I’m Polly, feel free to take a seat and make yourself comfortable. We’ve got samples out for you to enjoy.”
I wedged myself awkwardly between the armrest and a hairy “silverback” (which is gay slang for older hairy gay male) in leather chaps and a bolo around his neck. I kept one eye on him at all times, scared that with a single shift, I’d be swallowed by his butt cheeks, only to be found when he got up off the couch like a Far Side cartoon. With my other eye, I noticed the Waterford crystal platter on the coffee table and the rows and rows of half-inch cubes of pot brownies samples. Each row labeled by a handwritten placard with the different flavors of pot brownies: mocha, Mexican Chocolate, almond, plain, blondie, and chocolate peanut butter. Then my ears remembered the words, “samples for you to enjoy,” and if you know me, you know I have a problem when it comes to free samples. Let’s just say there’s a reason I’ve been escorted to my car by Costco security on a busy Saturday morning. It’s not a buffet kit! Lacking the restraint I needed I tried one of each flavor. I figured that’s what any smart shopper would do, and before I knew it, two hours had passed.
That’s when it dawned on me. This was the modern day equivalent of the old French style bohemian salons, where communities came together to celebrate diversity and the arts. Only instead of Gertrude Stein pouring me some absinthe, it was Polly the purveyor passing around her pot brownies. The brownies had kicked in, and I welcomed the heat radiating from my core. The warmth was growing to the point where I could feel it in every pore. I sounded confident and wise as the words of our conversation flowed from my mouth without hesitation. I talked about politics with a High School AP Chemistry teacher named Jason, and about how crazy the San Francisco real estate market is with Rebecca, a social worker who manages a needle exchange near Golden Gate Park and is trying to buy a house in the city. Some customers just came to buy while others stayed for the company. Everyone I spoke to was rich with their own convoluted backstories and justifications for being there.
“And for my new friend,” Polly said, gently resting her hand on my shoulder and taking care not to startle me. I got lost in the moment and her aroma of cocoa butter and red Swedish Fish. “Honey?” she asked again, sounding a little irritated I’d been dilly-dallying and drinking all her champagne.
“I’ll take a baker’s dozen please.” I said, standing up to find my wallet. This can’t be a rare occurrence for her, I though. It’s not like they’re not coming over and getting high or anything? But I had to go anyways and I asked for, “A variety pack if you can.” And Polly went into the kitchen to prepare my order.
While giving myself a once over in the reflection of her window, I asked Rebecca about the pot brownies. “How much is a single portion?” I asked.
“Uh, well it depends on each person, but I think a good rule of thumb is three samples is about one dose.” [About a third of a whole pot brownie]. It took me a moment to pull out my mental abacus in my inebriated state, and I realized my greediness with the samples had led me to ingest a triple dosage of pot brownies.
Holly crap! And I handed Polly some money in exchange for my Marijuana Mrs. Fields sampler and left her place, only to enter my version of hell—an intense case of the munchies mixed with a bout of indecisiveness. And for me, there’s something about the entire experiences that just screams “San Francisco!”
Browned Butter Brownies with Pecans
This recipe is my take on the Cocoa Brownies with Browned Butter and Walnuts from the February 2011 issue of Bon Appetit. The differences: I use whole-wheat flour and pecans instead of walnuts. You can use whatever type of nuts you want, but the whole-wheat flour is just a great way to maintain a hearty nuttiness in each bite that is almost necessary for balance with the richness of the cocoa, butter, and sugar.
- Nonstick vegetable oil spray
- 10 tblsp (1 ¼ sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch pieces
- 1 ¼ cups sugar
- ¾ cup natural unsweetened cocoa powder (spooned into cup to measure, then leveled)
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 2 large eggs, chilled
- 1/3 cup plus 1 tblsp whole-wheat flour
- ½ cup roughly chopped pecans
Preheat the oven to 325° and position a rack in the bottom third. Line an 8x8x2-inch metal baking pan with aluminum foil, pressing the foil firmly against the pan bottom and sides. Make sure it’s flush with the pan corners too or your corner brownies will not come out square. Use large enough pieces of foil to get at least a two-inch overhang beyond the rim of the pan. Coat the foil with a nonstick spray and set aside.
Melt the butter in medium saucepan over medium heat. Continue cooking and stirring often, until the butter stops foaming and browned bits start to form at bottom of pan. This should take about 5 minutes.
Remove the butter from the heat and immediately add the sugar, cocoa, 2 tsp water, vanilla, and ¼ tsp salt (generous is fine). Stir briskly with a wooden spoon (not necessary but I prefer wooden) to blend everything completely. Let the mixture cool for 5 minutes (mixture should still be warm, but not piping hot). Add the eggs to hot/warm mixture 1 at a time, beating vigorously to blend after each addition. When the mixture looks thick and shiny, add the flour and stir until everything is blended.
Beat vigorously for 60 strokes and then stir in the nuts. Transfer the batter to the prepared foil-lined pan, trying to create an even layer on the bottom.
Bake the brownies for about 25 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out almost clean (a few moist crumbs attached is fine). Remove the pan from the oven and let it cool on a rack. The brownies will be really soft when they first come out, so do your best or refrain from digging in before they’ve had a chance to cool for at least 20-30 minutes.
Using the foil overhang, lift the brownies from the pan. Cut the square into four even strips. Then cut each strip crosswise into four brownies. DO AHEAD Can be made 2 days ahead. Store airtight at room temperature.
- A high quality cocoa powder is a must, because you’re not actually putting an chocolate in these brownies and you want to achieve a super chocolaty taste. I use Ghirardelli cocoa baking powder.
- I’ve made these with roughly chopped macadamia nuts too, and they were equally irresistible.