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Cannabis Why were these legendary pot brownies so much harder to make than we thought? A half-baked holiday mystery

Globe and Mail writer Ian Brown inspects a jar of cannabis-infused butter he made to bake brownies and majoun, a Moroccan candy, with David Castellan of Soma Chocolate.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Part of Cannabis and consumers

Should you decide to celebrate both the joyous holiday season and this bright age of legal cannabis by making the most famous pot brownie in history – the iconic “Haschich Fudge” in The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book, first published in 1954 – let me warn you, before we travel a single step further along the narrow pathway of reader-writer friendship: There are a lot of rabbit holes to slip down along the way. And that’s even before you eat the brownie.

My attempt began as a casual idea: find a top pastry chef to make the famous pot brownies of Alice B. Toklas, the lifelong companion and lover of Gertrude Stein, whose house at 27 rue de Fleurus in Paris after the First World War housed the Saturday night salon that kick-started the careers of Matisse, Hemingway, Picasso, Cezanne and Thornton Wilder, among many others.

In her cookbook, Alice B. Toklas (pictured below circa 1902-03) mixes recipes for mostly French dishes with anecdotes about domestic life with her lover, Gertrude Stein.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

You might ask: Why do that? One answer might be: Why not? Does a project have to be “necessary” for some yearning soul to try it? Gertrude Stein, the mama of dada and matron of Montparnasse modernism, didn’t think so. The appeal of modernism has always been its freshness, the way it insists on reinventing the way we see and say and express even age-old ideas. Did Toklas suspect marijuana was equally revolutionary? Is that part of its contemporary appeal? In her attempt to create an “exact description of inner and outer reality,” Stein wrote (often incomprehensibly) about her own extremely subjective experience of existence – about buttons and dogs, and the way a tree “felt” to her when she saw it. The first sentence of a Stein poem called A Carafe, that is a Blind Glass, goes like this: “A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing.”

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Next to that, the brownie redo was hard science. I wanted to celebrate Canada’s open-mindedness by reinventing the most famous edible in the 5,000-year history of cannabis, rebranding it as the Globe and Mail Special Pot Brownie. (I am not immune to postmodern careerism.) And anyway, cannabis is now legal, and legal cannabis might improve the end result – that is, elevate the usually overbaked, poorly mixed, weedy-tasting head-smacker that has until this moment in history sufficed as an “edible.” Because that’s the other problem with edibles, conceived as they were in the dark age of get-as-stoned-as-you-can-while-you-can prohibition: They are usually too strong to truly enjoy.

Those were the reasons I was on the telephone on a recent afternoon with David Castellan, the former pastry chef at Centro and the Oliver/Bonacini restaurant empire in Toronto. He now runs Soma Chocolate with his wife, Cynthia.

Chef Castellan was the perfect person to take on the tired Toklas treat. He knew desserts. He had all the obsessive-compulsive detail-consciousness pastry chefs (and sometimes potheads) are known for. And he knew chocolate inside out – running, as he does, a chocolate-making operation that has earned accolades around the world.

David Castellan of Soma Chocolate, right, gets to work baking with Ian Brown.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

We were discussing a Xerox of the famous recipe on page 259 of The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book. I had not previously read the recipe because the only copy of the cookbook I had been able to find – a 1954 first edition at the Toronto Public Reference Library, one of five libraries in Canada that has one – does not actually list the pot recipe: Its first American publisher, Harper Brothers, censored it. (The recipe did find its way into the first British edition and the second American edition in 1960.)

So I was surprised when David Castellan said, “How are we going to do this? Because this recipe isn’t actually for brownies. It doesn’t even contain cocoa. It’s essentially majoun.”

I have to think it’s a good thing I wasn’t high when he threw me this curveball, because had I been high and run into such an obstacle I would have concluded instantly that the world was ending (which in turn is why I am not high). Majoun! Are you KIDDING me? This is supposed to be a story about brownies! Majoun is a Moroccan candy made of chopped and rolled spices, nuts, dates, figs and butter. The original Toklas recipe, now that I had it in front of me, wasn’t very specific in that regard either, calling for “a handful” of this and that and “a bunch of canibus sativa” [sic] to be “dusted over the mixed fruit and nuts.”

“Obtaining the canibus may present certain difficulties,” Toklas wrote. But this is 2018 in Ontario, where cannabis is now lawful. So I did the only thing an Ontario citizen can currently do to quickly obtain first-rate sativa in Premier Doug Ford’s Land of the People: I went to an illegal dispensary, and bought 15 grams of sativa for $180, tax included. Alice Toklas may be slapdash about her haschich treats, but they are not a cheap date, even today.

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To make the butter for the Toklas brownies, Mr. Brown got a used Magical Butter Machine, essentially a blender mounted in an immersion heater. He also needed clarified butter (which he made at home), some lecithin and sativa cannabis that had been decarboxylated, a process that releases the psychoactive ingredients.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Why does everyone think the Toklas recipe is for brownies?

Because of the movie I Love You, Alice B. Toklas, released in 1968 and starring Peter Sellers as a lawyer who abandons his uptight fiancée and establishment life after a starry-eyed hippie (Leigh Taylor-Young) introduces him to pot brownies. I Love You Alice B. Toklas has a vast cultural footprint for such an insipid movie. The sets and Mr. Sellers are hilarious, especially in his hippie clothes and pageboy wig, as is the famous scene where his parents come to dinner and unwittingly eat pot brownies and start laughing hysterically. (His father insists on playing mini-golf.) But those are the only, er, high points. When Mr. Sellers thanks the hippie chick for the brownies she left in the fridge, she says “Thank Alice B. Toklas. It’s her recipe.” But it isn’t her recipe at all.

Toklas recommends dusting her nut balls with a sprinkling of dried cannabis – which is what Leigh-Taylor Young does in the movie to her instant brownie mix. But eating raw cannabis has almost no effect. Weed lore tells us it is preferable to time-consumingly infuse other ingredients with the resins of cannabis.

Several months earlier, Garyn Angel, an American from Florida, had sent me a Magical Butter Machine. The MB Machine is a device Mr. Angel, a self-described financier, quit his job, Sellers-like, to invent. It’s a blender mounted in an immersion heater. There are other, possibly more elegant cannabis infusers on the market – the LEVO is ascendant these days, at anywhere from $149.99 to $349.99 – but the Magical Butter Machine ($230.00) is the original. It is stout and slightly larger than a downhill racer’s ski boot. I brought it into work, and placed within its reservoir two cups of clarified butter, a tablespoon of lecithin (to aid in emulsification) and 15 grams of sativa cannabis that I had first decarboxylated (per the Magical Butter instructions) by baking it for 30 minutes at 250 degrees Fahrenheit. I clamped the top down and turned it on.

The machine buzzed and whirred and lit a bunch of entirely superfluous vari-clored lights. Two hours later, the butter – which now looked like extra-virgin olive oil – was ready. I felt a little adolescent – the residue of lingering pot stigma – but also adventuresome, and my colleagues were intrigued. I tried to imagine how Gertrude Stein might have described such a contradictory emotional experience in her collection of poems, Tender Buttons (which some scholars insist was early code referring to Stein’s and/or Toklas’s nipples and/or clitori): Cannabis is no longer splendor. A not winter coat color. If it is not dangerous then a pleasure. Supposing there was no astonishment, supposing this was not so new to us, then what, then what? But even that’s too comprehensible and on-the-nose to be genuine Steinese, as its fans call her writing.




At the Globe and Mail headquarters in Toronto, Mr. Brown combined the ingredients and baked it in the machine to produce an olive-oil-coloured cannabis butter.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail




The publisher of The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book originally wanted Toklas to write a memoir of her life in France with Stein. But as Toklas pointed out, Stein had already written The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. In the charming Autobiography, the only book Stein wrote in a completely accessible style, and her only bestseller, she uses Toklas’s point of view to write about their adventures in France and also about herself, the “Gertrude Stein” who “Toklas” then describes over and over again as an unsurpassed genius.

“What I could do,” Toklas told her publisher instead, “is a cook book. It would, of course, be full of memories.” The Cook Book has never been out of print, and Toklas certainly needed the money. After Stein’s death in 1946, her family swooped in and reclaimed most of the drawings and paintings Stein had willed to Toklas (which included Picassos and Matisses). Many were gifts from the artists, originally; others Stein picked up for as little as $50 apiece (about $700 in today’s dollars.)

The Cook Book itself is a readable but eccentric curation of mostly French dishes (Toklas was a bohemian Julia Child long before Child introduced Americans to French cooking in her own famous cookbook in 1961). The recipes are separated by anecdotes of domestic life at the Toklas-Stein households in Paris and in the countryside near Bougey, where Stein and Toklas – a pair of lesbian Jews – survived the Nazi occupation of France. (Janet Malcolm, in her excellent book Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice, claims they were protected by the odious Bernard Faÿ, a Catholic anti-Semite and Gestapo collaborator who nevertheless took pity on them. Toklas tried to get him released from prison after the war and later converted to Catholicism, decisions that have not enhanced her posthumous reputation.) Toklas tested her recipes on her guests in Paris, including the ultradiffident playwright Thornton Wilder: Toklas once asked him if he wanted light or dark meat, and he had to ask his sister which he preferred. Various dishes in the book are named after various artists. “Bass for Picasso” came to be after the cubist’s doctor put him on a strict no-beef diet. The late-blooming and often-impoverished Matisse almost gets himself permanently disinvited from the house by asking the maid what’s for dinner and only then wangling an invitation.

The famous haschich recipe turns up in a chapter called “Recipes from Friends.” Some Stein and Toklas scholars (of which there are still many) suspect Toklas may not have read the recipe carefully – the chapter, these critics believe, was added to the book at the last minute to help Toklas complete her manuscript on time.

Toklas attributes the recipe to Brion Gysin, a painter and writer whom William Burroughs credited with co-inventing the cut-up or collage system of writing that made Burroughs famous. No one believes Stein and Toklas used cannabis. But by the time the cookbook appeared, the mystique that Stein and Toklas did so much to promote had become a set of established notions – including the now Trumpian idea that artistic elites think they’re more intelligent than everyone else, and that they live the life of libertines. In fact, Alice and Gertrude – who was no liberal: She disliked Roosevelt and the New Deal, supported Franco in the Spanish Civil War and thought Mussolini was more dangerous than Hitler – led an almost hilariously bourgeois life centered on two mainstays: good food, and good art. They referred to each other as the Driver and the Cook.




Equipped with the cannabis-infused butter, Ian Brown and David Castellan carefully balanced their other ingredients to improve on the Toklas brownie recipe.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The ingredients for David Castellan’s new and improved Toklas brownie were already laid out on a movable butcher’s block table when I arrived at the Soma Chocolate factory. Next to them was them a copy of The Alchemist’s Cookbook: Moroccan Scientific Cuisine by Ahmed Yacoubi. Two bars, or 112 grams worth, of Soma’s Aracana chocolate, a dark, shiny, sugarless treat that was 100-per-cent ground cocoa beans, sat next to a 56 gram pile of crumbled 70 per cent Bachelor’s Hall chocolate from Jamaica, a slightly sweeter chocolate with raspberry notes – although, as Chef Castellan admitted, “with a brownie, you do lose a few top notes.”

David Castellan grew up in his mother’s Italian bakery in Sudbury, where, in those days, “there was not a lot to do, and more or less pot and hash were common.” Today, however, at 51, “it’s not really part of my life.” The tricky part, he insisted, was moderating the strength of the brownie. “Because usually in everyone’s life there has been an incident of overdosing. And that usually puts people off.”

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Precisely 225 grams of unsalted butter sat in a bowl; Chef Castellan replaced half of it with the Magical Butter Machine’s marijuana-infused butter, and began melting the butter and the chocolate together with a teaspoon of kosher salt in a metal bowl over a portable, plug-in element. He never wasted effort, never seemed rushed or frantic. Vanilla; sugar; butter; eggs; flour; a teaspoon of Madagascar vanilla: everyday ingredients, but he seemed to handle them with quiet respect. He had tricks, too. He buttered the bottom of a cerulean blue Le Creuset baking dish with pot butter, not regular butter – “so we get a little … ” he said, replacing the end of his sentence with a gesture and pushing the palms of his hands out in front of him. Bounce? Cushion? The feeling was clear without being precise: He was obviously channeling Gertrude Stein. He measured a piece of parchment paper so precisely he could have been fitting a bespoke suit.

But he was still concerned about dosage. “You have to eat a predetermined one-inch-by-one-inch piece to calibrate the strength,” he instructed me. Irresponsible cad that I am, I did not do this. It was only later that one of my colleagues in the office described herself as having been “absurdly high” for an entire evening on a quarter of a single Toklas-Castellan brownie. The highlight of the experience occurred when she and her (also brownied) husband went online and madly bought $500 worth of bed linens. When the linens arrived the next day, the couple deemed the sheets so hideous they had to be returned immediately.

While the brownie baked, Chef Castellan tackled the majoun. The kitchen was calm and cool and suffused with the watchful grey light of an overcast day. But Toklas’s recipe was as loose as some of Picasso’s late drawings. Chef Castellan piled figs and dates and peanuts and almonds and ground spices (see recipe) into a hill and asked for a French (i.e. not serrated) knife and started chopping. “This would be a good day’s work in Morocco,” he said, remembering teetering piles of majoun he had seen in markets in Tangier. The potency dilemma was still bothering him. Toklas called for “a dusting” of cannabis and “a big pat” of butter. “How much is a pat of butter?” the chef asked. Google said four to five grams. “So a big pat will be seven grams?” Seven grams of the pot butter went into the majoun, which was then kneaded and cut and rolled into 20 walnut-sized balls that were placed prettily in tiny pastry cups in a box. They did not look dangerous.

There was one small half-ball left over. Alice Babette Toklas claims in her cookbook that she has heard the hash fudge balls are both “absolutely without effect” and “potentially lethal.” She calls them “the food of Paradise – of Beaudelaire’s Artificial Paradises,” and suggests they “might provide an entertaining refreshment for a Ladies Bridge Club or a chapter meeting of the Daughters of the American Revolution … Euphoria and brilliant storms of laughter; ecstatic reveries and extensions of ones personality on several simultaneous planes are to be complacently expected. Almost anything Saint Theresa did, you can do better.” St. Theresa is the patron saint of bodily illness.

I ate the half-ball on an empty stomach when I got home that evening. I cooked my supper and proceeded to watch the American midterm election returns. I had no trouble following the details. I didn’t feel high so much as ever so slightly shifted in my outlook – I was aware of my awareness, and faintly grateful. I also understood what CNN’s Wolf Blitzer was saying, for the first time in my life. I now think of Mr. Blitzer as St. Theresa of the TV. It was fun. But I wouldn’t have described the effects as revolutionary.

When the baking was done, Ian Brown and David Castellan had a box full of walnut-sized balls of majoun and a pan of brownies.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail




Here’s a funny thing: The more you know about Stein and Toklas, the more you want to know. They’re not your usual hipster art couple; something more complicated compels our interest in them. Stein, a vast and voluble egomaniac, seems to dominate the tiny and always less popular Toklas, who was barely five feet tall and sported what MFK Fisher, the food writer, unkindly called “a real moustache.” In fact Toklas was as vain as Stein: dyed her hair into her eighties, loved well-tailored suits and dramatic hats. She had a voice, the poet James Merrill observed, “like a viola at dusk.”

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Stein needed her, desperately. Stein spent her days walking, talking, looking at pictures, driving the pair in their car on jaunts all over France and writing (mostly at night; she never revised). Everything else made her nervous. Toklas did everything else. She typed manuscripts, dealt with publishers, kept house and filled it with flowers, did the shopping and (especially) polished Stein’s image. Behind this shield of lopsided friendship they nourished artists, wrote books, survived the war and the Nazis (by which time they were already in their early sixties) and lived celebrated, complicated lives. They fought and sometimes didn’t speak for two days at a time: Toklas was frequently jealous, and often banished Stein’s friends (most famously Hemingway, who admitted he lusted after Stein). Stein – as brave as she was on the page – was nevertheless terrified of Toklas’s edicts. We never really know how a coupling works, and that mystery is part of Alice and Gertrude’s Jack Spratt appeal. Stein made fun of Toklas’s “writing,” and Toklas enjoyed it when American visitors asked if Stein’s writing was just an elaborate joke. But Stein wrote incessantly about Toklas, about the push and pull between them. The poem – I think it’s a poem – Cooking in Stein’s Tender Buttons is all Alice: “Alas, alas the pull alas the bell alas the coach in china, alas the little put-in leaf alas the wedding butter meat, alas the receptacle …”

Domestic life – objects of comfort, and writing about them – was "very central to Stein and Toklas,” Carol Bruner, a retired professor of literature at the University of Oklahoma told me over the telephone not long ago, by way of speculating why Toklas, a non-user, included the hash recipe in her cookbook. “Food, marijuana, they were kind of an accessible vision. I heard a grad student say once that food was the only vice she could afford. So these vices of Stein and Toklas were means that the average person could access.”

When Toklas died in abject poverty in 1967 at the age of 89, she was buried next to Stein in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Toklas’s name is engraved on the back of Stein’s gravestone. You can’t mourn one without acknowledging the other. They could not (or would not) openly declare their lesbianism or their Jewishness (not a single mention of the latter in either the Cook Book or The Autobiography), and so forged an identity out of their unorthodox exiled but always compelling togetherness. That togetherness was far more original, and lasting, as a legacy than either the effects of marijuana (which never changes the symptoms of life, but only masks them) or Stein’s self-admiring writing, which is after all much less well known than the recipe. But when Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas were together, no one owned them. The rest of us have the consolation of the brownies.




Video: Behind the scenes for Ian Brown’s great Canadian bake off

See how Ian Brown and David Castellan went about making their pot brownies, and what happened to Globe videojournalist Timothy Moore when he sampled the result. The Globe and Mail

The recipes

The Globe and Mail

The Globe and Mail Alice. B. Toklas Pot Brownie, as re-invented by David Castellan, CEO, Soma Chocolate Factory

Ingredients
  • 112 grams (two bars) Soma Arcana chocolate
  • 56 grams 70 per cent Soma Bachelor’s Hall chocolate
  • 122 grams unsalted butter
  • 122 grams cannabis-infused butter (cannabis should be decarboxylated prior to infusion)
  • 160 grams flour
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 cups white sugar
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 1 tsp Madagascar vanilla
Preparation
  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  • Melt butter, chocolate and salt over low heat in a small bowl. Stir in vanilla.
  • Break eggs into a bowl with sugar. Then beat eggs and sugar mixture with an electric mixture for at least four minutes, until smooth, light and pale.
  • Combine chocolate, eggs and flour with a spatula until just combined.
  • Grease a 5 by 9 inch Le Creuset baking dish with leftover pot butter.
  • Line dish with a strip of parchment paper, covering the narrower end walls but not the sides.
  • Fill dish with brownie mix, but do not overfill.
  • Bake on the middle rack at 350 degrees for thirty minutes. When a toothpick inserted into the middle of the brownies comes out clean, the brownies are done. Do not overbake.
  • Let cool on a shelf until completely cool, at least three hours. 
  • When completely cool, cut into 12 or even 18 portions. Brownies can be stored, covered, in the fridge, for two weeks. They can also be frozen.
Recommended dosage

The brownies are very strong. Recommended initial dose is 1/8 of a brownie, and no more than ¼. Wait an hour after initial ingestion, and longer if eaten on a full stomach, before upping the dose.



Fred Lum

Globe and Mail Haschich Fudge (aka majoun), from The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book, as adapted by David Castellan, CEO Soma Chocolate Factory

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Ingredients
  • 1 tsp whole black peppercorns
  • 1 whole nutmeg
  • 3 whole sticks of cinnamon
  • 1 tsp whole coriander seeds
  • 1 handful pitted dates
  • 1 handful dried figs
  • 1 handful shelled (and blanched, if you prefer) almonds
  • 1 handful shelled peanuts
  • 1 cup icing sugar
  • 7 g cannabis-infused butter (cannabis should be decarboxylated prior to infusion)
Preparation
  • Place the peppercorns, nutmeg, cinnamon sticks, and coriander in an electric spice grinder until finely ground.
  • Heap dates, figs, almonds and peanuts in a pile and chop them with a large chef’s knife, mixing them together and rechopping until largest pieces are pea-sized.
  • Combine icing sugar and cannabis-infused butter.
  • Knead ground spices, chopped dried fruit and nuts and sugared cannabis butter together until evenly combined.
  • Roll kneaded and mixed paste into a thin but even log 12 to 15 inches long.
  • Cut log into walnut-sized pieces.
  • Roll pieces into even, walnut-sized balls.
  • Place balls into small pleated candy cups, and place cups in a small shallow box for presentation.
Recommended dosage

The majoun is less intense than the brownies, but be cautious anyway. “It should be eaten with care,” Toklas insists. “Two pieces are quite sufficient.” Most people will find one ball adequate. As always, begin with half a piece, and wait an hour before adding to your dose.

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If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

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