Critiques, Cravings and Conundrums From the Madison Food and Dining Scene
Dec 6, 2009
12:08 PMSmall Dishes
Gloria in Excelsis Brownies!
Forget the frumpy Christmas cookies—you’ll get more than your fill at the office anyway. This time of year, glitter and glitz run rampant. It’s time for brownies. Homely they may be but they never fail to satisfy. First and foremost, they are chocolate. I was one of those people who liked chocolate even before the medical community began touting its health benefits. I always feel better knowing that something I crave is good for me, but of course I would eat it anyway.
Neither a cake nor a cookie, brownies launched a type of baked goods—bar cookies—that today come in endless flavors and renderings. But the brownie will always reign supreme. All-American to be sure, a claim is that they premiered at the 1893 Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. Society matron Bertha Palmer asked the chef of her family-owned hotel—the Palmer House—to whip up a dessert for box lunches given to ladies attending the fair. The result was the brownie. The original recipe which includes walnuts and an apricot glaze is still made at the hotel today. The first published recipe was in Fanny Farmer’s Boston Cooking School Cookbook in 1906. This recipe calls for two squares of Baker’s chocolate. In the beginning, brownies tended to be more like cake and less like fudge.
I have to give credit where it’s due. I started contemplating brownies—which I knew would result in making at least one pan—when a friend of mine on Facebook, the author of a biography about Katharine Hepburn (Kate by William J. Mann, Henry Holt and Company), mention he had just made her brownie recipe. Next to Alice B. Toklas, Miss Hepburn is probably the most famous brownie maker around. Her recipe originally appeared in a column by Liz Smith and has been reprinted many times and become enormously popular. I’ll confess, I didn’t end up making Kate’s brownies—as moist and chewy as they are—but the recipe that follows. But I could just as easily made another—most brownies have their own particular qualities.
Brownies are simply unsweetened chocolate, flour, butter, eggs and sugar. Recipes that contain more eggs and flour will be more cake like; those with less, more moist and chewy. Whatever your preference, be sure that you don’t over bake them. The center should be just set and puffed. Test the brownies for doneness by inserting a toothpick halfway between the center and the side of the pan—it should out clean or with just a few crumbs—the batter should not be liquidy.
The more chocolate, the denser and fudgy they will be. Cook’s Illustrated magazine did a taste test with brownies concocted from various brands of chocolate. The two that scored highest were Nestlé and Baker’s. Many of the imported and premium baking chocolates, especially Callebaut, surprisingly ranked at the bottom. The magazine speculated that the preference was because so many people have grown up eating brownies made with Baker’s chocolate. Some people make brownies with cocoa, but they are prone to dryness and lack intensity of flavor.
And, okay, I will admit it: Brownies made from a mix aren’t awful. In fact Saveur magazine (January/February, 2001) listed Duncan Hines brownie mixes as “10 Things We Always Buy at the Supermarket.” I have a friend who replaces the water with coffee, adds a couple of tablespoons of unsweetened cocoa and then shamelessly (and successfully) passes them off as homemade. But whatever you do, don’t decorate your brownies with those little colored sprinkles!
Not My Grandmother’s Brownies
9 ounces bittersweet chocolate
4 ounces unsweetened chocolate
1-1/3 cups (2 sticks plus 5-1/3 tablespoons) unsalted butter
1½ cups granulated sugar
6 large eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
Preheat oven 350 degrees.
Butter 13- x 9- x 2-inch pan and line with baking parchment.
In the top of a double boiler slowly melt chocolate over barely simmering water.
In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter until soft and fluffy. Gradually beat in the sugar; continue beating until well combined. Beat in the eggs on at a time. Beat in the vanilla extract.
In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, salt and baking powder.
Once the chocolate is melted, move the top of the pan from the hot water and let it cool slightly. When the chocolate mixture is lukewarm, slowly beat it into the butter-sugar-egg mixture. Mix until smooth. Now slowly beat in the flour mixture until just combined.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 25 to 30 minutes. Cool on a wire rack before cutting.
Makes 18 brownies.