Fried chicken and gooey brownies: How I made my new house smell like home

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen
Cozy kitchen

I wanted the house to smell. I wanted it to hit you in the face when you opened the door. 

I wanted it to smell good, of course. Maybe like bread and brownies and fried chicken. Something other than cleaning spray and cats and dampness, which was what our apartment had smelled like, even with the essential oil diffuser doing its best to spread the scent of orange blossom. 

In August, I accepted a job in Nashville and spruced up my Asheville home of 15 years to ready it for sale. By late September, the house was under contract. We shipped our belongings to Nashville, gave away what wouldn't fit in the moving truck and then crossed the mountains to live in an apartment we rented online, sight unseen.

For three months we would live in that apartment, buying ourselves some time to find a more permanent home in a crazy market while my husband looked for a job. Apartment living was exciting to me because someone else takes out the trash and mows the lawn. Also, as far as I could tell, there were no bears, which is a big deal when you're moving from a place where they routinely knock over your garbage and stand on your car

With those perks, I could certainly live with the fact that the apartment was on the bottom floor, faced north and was always dark, weirdly hot and damp, even when it was cold outside. But the smoke detectors and I would eventually have some issues. 

I arrived in Nashville with our daughter. We ordered burgers and milkshakes from the restaurant across the street and watched a movie projected on the blank wall, then camped out on the concrete floor on piles of blankets and sleeping bags.

My husband, drawing the short end of the stick, drove up the next day with two yowling adolescent male cats, requesting upon arrival literally any restaurant that served really stiff drinks.

By the third night, all I wanted was to cook something nice. I grabbed some thick-cut pork chops from the neighborhood butcher, poured myself a glass of wine, and nestled the chops in a hot skillet.

The smoke detectors promptly scared me half to death.

I was not alone. The next few minutes were a blur of fur and claws as the cats, Bean and Bowie, tore through the apartment wide-eyed, knocking over plants, records and books. We opened the windows and waved towels around until the noise stopped. It was all pretty funny. At first.

The next day, as I was roasting tomatoes at a heat that approximated a Tucson summer sidewalk, I joked about setting off the smoke detector again. Except I actually did, and the cats again flung their bodies in all directions. My daughter somehow slept through the whole thing. 

We quickly learned that we could not cook anything at high heat in the oven or on the stovetop unless the exhaust fan was roaring, the doors and windows were all open, and someone stood at the back door trying to keep the cats from escaping while waving their arms around like an air traffic controller in an attempt to circulate the air. 

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For the next three months, we boiled pretty much everything and ate a lot of takeout. For most people, that would feel like a vacation. But for me, cooking is a happy place. There's a certain zen to it. I can zone out, problem solve and create at the same time. It's helped me feel in control during times when I wasn't, including the onset of the pandemic. Moving to a new city counts, too. 

But adventure is adventure, even if it's a little uncomfortable. We found our more permanent spot and have been slowly moving our things out of the apartment. I will miss that trash service.

The first night in our new house, we ordered pizza because that's what you do when you move. The second night we ordered some fantastic Chinese food. But on the third night, I bought another batch of bone-in pork chops and cooked them almost aggressively, searing them until the house filled with the scent of browned meat. 

Last night, I fried chicken and let the grease spatter a bit without worrying about the smoke. I put it in the oven to finish, and I walked outside into the winter air and closed the door. Then I walked back inside just to get a fresh take on the smell of fried chicken, the gooey brownies my daughter and I had baked, and butternut squash roasting to a sweet golden brown. Finally, it smelled like home. 

Gooey welcome home brownies with sea salt.

Gooey welcome-home brownies

These are my take on the famous Katharine Hepburn brownies. Hepburn believed brownies should be mostly chocolate, contain very little flour and turn out super gooey. I agree.

These are incredibly easy to make and remember, so if you, too, have little ones at home, you'll enjoy making these together. Hepburn's recipe calls for 1 cup of toasted walnut or pecan pieces, but I skipped that.

Ingredients

1 stick of butter

1/2 cup of unsweetened cocoa powder (I used Hershey's)

1 cup of sugar

1/4 cup of flour

Pinch of salt (I used a generous pinch of Maldon sea salt crystals)

2 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Instructions

Preheat the oven to 325. Melt the butter over low heat in a small saucepan with the cocoa and stir until smooth. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside to cool for a few minutes.

Meanwhile, grease an 8X8 square baking dish. In a mixing bowl, whisk together the sugar, flour and salt.

Add the melted butter and chocolate to a separate mixing bowl. Whisk in the eggs one at a time. Add the vanilla. Then slowly add the flour and sugar mixture to the chocolate mixture while stirring until just combined. 

Pour batter into the baking dish and bake until set but not overly firm, about 30-35 minutes. Center should remain gooey. Let cool completely before serving. Garnish with more sea salt if desired. 

Mackensy Lunsford is the food and culture storyteller for USA TODAY Network's South region and the editor of Southern Kitchen.

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Reach me: mlunsford@southernkitchen.com