Several years ago, a friend offered to bake “the Cadillac of pot brownies” for my mother as she coped with the effects of chemotherapy. It was an act of compassion, made possible by medical-grade marijuana procured from my friend’s then-boyfriend, a doctor, and made extraordinary by the addition of Irish butter, Valrhona chocolate and the baking skills of my friend, a trained pastry chef.

Today, so much has changed, as cannabis has been legalized, to varying degrees, in a steadily growing number of states and Washington. In many places, you no longer need a friend with medical connections and pro-level skills to acquire excellent edibles: Plenty of high-end bakeries and dispensaries can meet the demand, not to mention delivery services for those isolating at home.

“Traditionally, people haven’t cared about how edibles taste,” says Diana Isaiou, proprietor of American Baked, a Seattle-based edibles bakery, and author of “High Tea,” a forthcoming book about sweet cannabis-infused edibles, including a particularly gooey brownie. (The original publication date, April 20, was delayed until September due to the coronavirus outbreak in China, where many books are printed.) “People’s attitudes are slowly changing.”

Increasingly, the worlds of gourmand and ganja have been colliding. Before the pandemic, diners could attend private high-end “cannabis dinners” or, in West Hollywood, restaurants allowing on-site cannabis consumption.

Luckily, they can learn to DIY via cookbooks such as “Bong Appetit” or the TV show of the same name, online tutorials from the likes of JeffThe420Chef or the Instagram stories of Monica Lo, a.k.a. Sous Weed. Of course, the functional ingredient matters — but consumers want edibles to be appetizing, too.

Humans have been eating cannabis for centuries, with the first recorded instance in China nearly 1,000 years ago, Robyn Griggs Lawrence wrote in her book “Pot in Pans: A History of Eating Cannabis.” While many cultures emphasized the nutritional and medicinal aspects of the plant, in Persia, where alcohol was prohibited, it was valued for its psychoactive effects. One way it was consumed, Lawrence notes, was rolled into majoun format: a Persian confection made using dates, nuts, cardamom and other spices.

That sweet crossed over into Western consciousness when American expatriate Alice B. Toklas took on the task of writing a cookbook. Battling hepatitis and in need of money at 74, Toklas reached out to her far-flung friends to contribute recipes. As a joke, Brion Gysin, a Canadian artist, poet and novelist living in Tangier, Morocco, sent a recipe for “Hashish Fudge.” The recipe bears a resemblance to the majoun (not fudge or brownies), calling for “a handful of stoned dates, dried figs, shelled almonds and peanuts,” plus sugar and butter, rolled into balls.

“Toklas either never bothered to read Gysin’s recipe in her haste, or didn’t know what cannabis, which Gysin spelled canibus, was,” Lawrence says. The “fudge” made it into the British edition of the book when it was published in 1954, though editors in New York kept it out of the U.S. edition. The scandalous recipe appears in the second edition released in the 1960s, probably based on the recipe’s popularity overseas.

The recipe morphed into brownie form thanks to “I Love You, Alice B. Toklas,” a 1968 Peter Sellers movie, Lawrence says. In the film’s pivotal scene, Nancy, a beautiful hippie with a butterfly tattoo, dumps her cannabis stash into the bowl of an electric mixer along with milk, eggs and a box of fudge brownie mix. The “groovy brownies” became part of the plot, and the pot brownie was born.

That may be entertaining on screen, but it’s a terrible way to make a delicious pot brownie, Isaiou says. If you want the latter, she adds, you need to know one word: cannabutter. And you should live in a place where making it is legal.

In brief, cannabutter is butter that’s infused with cannabis that’s been toasted to activate the THC (a process called decarboxylation, or “decarbing” for short). Some cooks simmer butter and water mixed with cannabis on the stove top, while others prefer to sous vide; Isaiou favors a rice cooker for this step. The infused butter is cooled and strained; Isaiou goes an extra step and clarifies hers to a gheelike consistency. A second option is to mix cannabis extract into butter or another fat. (Note: In some states cannabutter is available for purchase, but for those who have time on their hands, it’s not a difficult project.)

Of course, pot brownies don’t have to be complicated, says Jessica Nelson, who runs the Fresh Fork Chef Services in Baltimore, which hosts cannabis dinners for patients with medicinal marijuana clearance.

Nelson favors a spiked variation on celebrity chef Alton Brown’s Cocoa Brownies, to which she adds espresso, a sprinkle of flaky sea salt and, of course, cannabutter. Yet, she also notes that among home bakers of edibles, Ghirardelli’s Double Chocolate Brownie Mix is a favored starting point.

Either way, “you should definitely start with a good recipe,” she says.

She credits medicinal marijuana activist Mary Jane Rathbun for emphasizing that same point: that pot brownies should taste good.

Although Rathbun, or “Brownie Mary,” never revealed her top-secret recipe, she was famed for baking dozens of pot brownies daily in her San Francisco kitchen and gifting them to those suffering from cancer and AIDS. She fought for the legalization of medical marijuana until her death in 1999.

In 1996, she co-authored a cookbook with fellow activist Dennis Peron: “Brownie Mary’s Marijuana Cookbook and Dennis Peron’s Recipe for Social Change.” Conspicuously missing: her brownie recipe.

While the recipe she described as “magically delicious” may be lost to history, critics at least are certain that her version was an actual brownie, not a majoun. In Lawrence’s book, she points to a 1992 incident in Sonoma County, where Rathbun was arrested by the Drug Enforcement Administration and local law officials while making brownies at a friend’s house and charged with felony possession. The officers reported confiscating 20 pounds of high-grade cannabis, along with 50 pounds of flour and sugar, 22 dozen eggs and 35 pounds of margarine.

Any ardent baker will identify with her outrage; Rathbun was insulted that the police suggested she used margarine in her precious brownies. “The narcs may not know any better,” she fumed, as reported in her obituary in The Guardian, “but that was the finest quality butter.”

Newman is contributing spirits editor at Wine Enthusiast and author of several books, including “Cocktails With a Twist.”

NOTE: The Washington Post does not condone illicit drug use, so this recipe should be made only by those who live where it is legal do so. This recipe uses 1/4 cup cannabutter, which should have 263 milligrams THC. This means each 2-inch brownie square has about 11 milligrams THC.

Storage Notes: The brownies taste even better the next day and keep well if tightly wrapped. They can be refrigerated for up to 1 week or frozen, tightly wrapped, for up to 3 months. The cannabutter can be refrigerated for up to 1 month or frozen for up to 1 year.

Ingredients

  • For the cannabutter:
  • 10 grams cannabis
  • 4 cups (960 milliliters) water
  • 2 1/2 sticks (10 ounces/284 grams) unsalted European-style butter
  • For the brownies:
  • 1 stick (4 ounces/113 grams) unsalted butter
  • 1/4 cup (57 grams) cannabutter
  • 12 ounces (340 grams) bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
  • 1 cup (213 grams) packed light brown sugar
  • 3/4 cup (150 grams) granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 4 large eggs
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 3/4 cup (90 grams) all-purpose flour

Step 1

Make the cannabutter: Position the rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 250 degrees. Line a large rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Using your hands or kitchen shears, break the cannabis into small pieces or grind it coarsely in a food processor. Place the cannabis on the baking sheet. Place the baking sheet in the oven and toast the cannabis for 30 minutes, until very dry.

Step 2

In a medium saucepan over medium heat, combine the cannabis with the water and butter. Bring to a boil, then decrease the heat so the mixture is at a very low simmer and cook for 3 hours, infusing the butter. Check and replenish the water as it evaporates — it is important to keep an 1 inch or so of water on the bottom of the pan as it cooks. Remove from the heat and let cool for about 30 minutes.

Step 3

Strain the mixture through cheesecloth or a fine-mesh sieve placed over a large bowl, pressing on the solids to extract all the butter and liquid from the cannabis (discard the spent cannabis). Refrigerate the liquid for at least 45 minutes, until the butter has solidified. Then, lift the solid layer of butter from the murky water and discard the water. Using paper towels, pat the butter until dry. Use immediately, or cover and refrigerate, or freeze until needed. Label that the container contains cannabis.

Step 4

Make the brownies: Position a baking rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Lightly butter or spray a 9-by-13-inch baking pan.

Step 5

In a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan over low heat, melt the butter and cannabutter. Add the chocolate and stir until it has just about melted. Add the brown sugar, granulated sugar and salt, and stir until thoroughly combined. Remove from the heat, set aside and let cool slightly. The chocolate should melt from the residual heat.

Step 6

In a large bowl, whisk the eggs until foamy, then whisk in the vanilla.

Step 7

Whisk the warm chocolate mixture into the eggs. (If the chocolate is too hot, it will scramble your eggs; you should be able to touch the chocolate with your fingertip and not be uncomfortable.)

Step 8

Whisk the flour gently into the egg mixture just until combined, and no clumps of flour remain (do not overmix). The batter will be thick.

Step 9

Pour the batter into prepared pan. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until the top just starts to crack and is glossy. Remove from the oven and cool completely on a wire rack before cutting. Be sure to mark that these have cannabis in them.

Adapted from “High Tea: Cannabis Cakes, Tarts and Bakes” by Diana Isaiou (Smith Street Books, September 2020)

Tested by Rebekah Yonan; email questions to voraciously@washpost.com.

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Nutrition

Calories: 218; Total Fat: 13 g; Saturated Fat: 8 g; Cholesterol: 46 mg; Sodium: 110 mg; Carbohydrates: 23 g; Dietary Fiber: 2 g; Sugars: 17 g; Protein: 2 g.