Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Best Brownies

Today's title is really intended to make me giggle a little. I'll explain why. Ever so long ago, I picked up a thin, spiral bound cookbook entitled Hershey's Chocolate Cookbook (original name) in the bargain section of a bookstore or something like that, and it became one of the first cookbooks I ever purchased. I don't think it was the first, but I can't be sure. I was aiming so high, I know.

Anyhow, I tried very few recipes from that book, because most of them seemed silly or pretentious, like the cover picture. There was, however, one or two good recipes in there. I recall making the chocolate mousse several times for friends, and I've probably made the basic brownie recipe in there at least 50, if not 100, times. It was called Best Brownies, and I believed the title when I made them. I'd never made brownies from scratch before then, and I pretty much gave up boxes after I tried them. (With the exception, of course, of the Hershey's brownie mix at Costco.)

They were so easy to make, and tasted so buttery and good. Of course, I wasn't as picky then, but it was still a good recipe. It went like this: melt 1/2 c. butter. Stir in 1 c. sugar, 1 t. vanilla, and 2 eggs. Whisk together 1/2 c. flour, 1/3 c. cocoa, 1/4 t. baking powder, and 1/4 t. salt. Stir into butter and sugar. Spray an 8" square pan, pour in the mix, and bake at 350˚ for 20-25 minutes.

How long did it take you to read that? It took slightly longer to toss it together. In fact, I usually turned the oven on and would get the ingredients ready just before the oven was preheated, so the whole process took 35 minutes start to finish. Tops. Not including cleanup. Maybe 5 more minutes for that. It's no wonder I became addicted to brownies, and everyone I knew asked me to make them constantly.

As wonderful as all that sounds, 15 years later, I realize that those brownies were good but not the absolute best brownie ever. I needed to find that. A homemade brownie that is everything I want. The trouble is, I want it all. In searching and testing recipes, I came to understand there are two main categories of real brownie lovers: fudgy and chewy. Not "fudgy and chewy" but "fudgy" and "chewy". I'm in the third, often overlooked camp. "Fudgy and chewy". Is there a reason I have to choose one over the other? Well, that was the question. That was the reason for the research, really, otherwise it would have been easy.

And that's not all. I have more requirements. I wanted a cocoa-based recipe, because I'm going to share it with some kids I'm teaching to cook next month (more on that another time), and most people have cocoa at home in their pantry, but I think most people don't have unsweetened or bittersweet chocolate handy for melting, and I'm giving them this recipe with the hope that they will continue to cook at home. Also, because I am so very demanding, I wanted a nice thick brownie, because I prefer thick brownies, that is excellent in flavor and texture and depth of chocolate all by itself but also is terrific with chunks of dark chocolate or toasted walnuts or pecans in it. I'm a chocolate chunk girl myself, but once in a while I prefer the nuts. But the brownie shouldn't need that.

And one more thing. (I warned you that I am so terribly picky.) It shouldn't have frosting. It should be exquisite enough that frosting would do absolutely nothing (except for maybe bad things) for the brownie should you attempt to add it.

So, here's the list:
1. Fudgy
2. Chewy
3. Cocoa-based
4. Thick
5. Deep chocolate flavor
6. Not too sweet.
7. Delicious. Really, really delicious. Enough that I'd call it the Best Brownie.
8. Great with the addition of chocolate chunks or toasted nuts (or possibly both?).
9. No frosting.

Before I go on, let me stop and thank all of you who contributed your recipes. They were all very good. I think I attempted them all. Even the beloved Zingerman's Magic Brownies (fudgy, chocolatey, delicious, but not chewy). And before you go thinking you should attempt the same kind of intense testing I did, I'll warn you: it temporarily ruins your sweet tooth. I know that sounds like a good thing, but I really want to love a cookie when I bite into it. Still, it was fun. I was very critical and probably ate about 2 brownies from every batch, tops, except the winner. I gave several away, which no one seems to mind. They were, after all, all quite good brownies. And I couldn't have done it without another expert taster: my husband. I don't know, though, that the tasting had the same effect on him — he didn't get tired of trying the brownies.

So, here's the final result. Ooh, I'm so excited to have this recipe at long last! It's like some crazy dream come true, like I just stole the precious ring or something. It might not be far off, really. If we could get world leaders to bake these for each other, there might be world peace after all. Well, I'm getting ahead of myself. One thing at a time.

Though my instructions are always lengthy, the steps are quick and easy, and you will probably have the brownies in the pan before the oven is ready. (Oddly enough, the instructions in my notebook state only the following: 350˚ 8" square 30 m.) It's really important to learn how to tell when the brownies are done, though, for just the right consistency, so you'll have to forgive my lengthy treatise on the subject but pay close attention and it should work out for you!

Please, if you like brownies, try this recipe. And if you do make them, let me know if they meet your exacting standards.

To view a printable version of this recipe, click here.

The Best Brownies*
my version, of course

12 T. unsalted butter
1 c. cocoa (I use natural-process, but haven't experimented much with Dutch-process)
2 c. sugar
3 eggs
1 T. vanilla
1 c. flour
1/2 t. table salt
1 1/4 c. bittersweet chocolate chunks (optional)
1 1/4. c. toasted walnuts or pecans (optional

Preheat the oven to 350˚. Spray an 8" square metal or stoneware pan with Pam or whatever you've got on hand (but Pam works best!). Set aside. (Glass pans are not ideal here. If you use one, I have no idea how long the brownies will need to bake, but glass will cause the brownies to bake slower and don't conduct heat evenly.)

Melt the butter in a medium microwave-safe mixing bowl for about 1 minute, until completely warm so that it's quite hot (but not boiling...there's no need to overdo it). Whisk in the cocoa immediately until the cocoa has completely melted and the mixture is smooth. (Not only will this prevent clumpy cocoa, but melting the cocoa makes sure that the full flavor is brought out.)

With a wooden spoon, stir in the sugar until evenly combined, then completely stir in the eggs and vanilla. Set a small sieve over the top of the mixing bowl and add the flour and salt to the sieve and sift in. Completely stir in the flour until there are no white bits left. Stir in any optional ingredients you may be using. If you're going to try chocolate pieces and nuts, you may want to back off to 1 cup each. Use a rubber or silicone spatula and spread the batter evenly (it will be very thick) into the prepared pan.

Bake 32-37 minutes. Brownies are done when they have pulled away from the sides and, more importantly, when they feel slightly firm and crusty when pressed gently in the center. A toothpick in the center will still have crumbs, but a toothpick inserted one inch from the edge should come out clean. And the best sign of all that they're done: you can smell them throughout the house. It's odd, but the smell of baked food is at its peak just as it is finally done, and two minutes before it's overcooked. If they go too long, the edges will turn a darker brown and begin to burn a touch. (They're quite forgiving if this happens, though. Just cut the edges off and no one will know.) Remove to a cooling rack to cool, and cool completely before cutting. For the cleanest edges, chill the brownies completely in the refrigerator or for a short while in the freezer before cutting.

I prefer to eat my brownies a bit cooler than room temperature. You can chill them and remove them from the refrigerator half an hour or so before serving. Or you can serve them warm with ice cream and hot fudge sauce. Store leftovers in the pan, covered with a dishtowel, at room temperature, for up to a day, covered tightly in the refrigerator for about 3 days, or freeze in Ziploc bags and pull them out when needed. (They stay very fresh in the freezer; I highly recommend this method.) Enjoy.

*Note: this recipe can easily be doubled and baked in a 9"x13" pan. The baking time will probably increase a bit, so note the instructions on how to tell when they're done. I also quadrupled the recipe, with no chocolate chunks or nuts, and it fit (though just barely) in a half sheet pan (17.5" x 12.5"). I baked it at 325˚ for 55 minutes, and they were great. And well-received.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Testing, testing...

Over the last 36 hours, I've tested 3 brownie recipes, trying to get a cocoa-based brownie that is just right for me. Chewy, chocolaty, melt-in-your mouth, and just exciting enough with the basic ingredients. Over the last year, I've probably tested 8 or 10 different recipes. What I really want is a base to build off of. I like a thick brownie, loaded with chunks of chocolate and occasionally some nuts, but I need to get the basics right first. And I want a cocoa-based brownie because pretty much everyone has cocoa in their house, but we don't all keep stashes of unsweetened or bittersweet chocolate for melting. So the recipe would be great for sharing. Which is what I love to do with recipes, of course!

So I've tweaked and tweaked, and hopefully I'm on my last tweak. If you see a brownie recipe here in the very near future (oh-hopefully 24 hours!) that will mean this last tweak was just right. I know it sounds like a delicious feat, but it's actually a bit difficult to figure out exactly what's just not quite right with this recipe or that brownie. I think, perhaps, that I am very close.

I've mentioned in the past that I love the box of Hershey's brownies you can sometimes find at Costco, which is, in fact, Betty Crocker Supreme triple chunk brownies. (I think it's Betty's, but it's definitely from whatever company makes the Supreme line of brownie mixes.) They're very good if you make them with melted butter instead of vegetable oil. One of the best brownies out there, really. But I want my own recipe. Call me vain. Or cheap. Or crazy.

Well, honestly, it is a labor of love. I do love chocolate, and I have no trouble admitting it. Brownies are one of the best forms of chocolate. For proof, I could present at least two, maybe three people that I know who don't like chocolate but will eat a brownie any day and enjoy it. Brownies are definitely one of the world's most beloved treats. At least America's.

Anyhow, when I get all this figured out, I'll pass along the recipe. And by figured out, I mean I'll have a recipe that will be delicious, irresistible, and adaptable to whatever you like adding to your brownie. And delicious plain. (I once had brownies with chunks of peanut butter cups in them. You can probably guess how good they are, and how guilty I felt afterwards!)

Hope you hear from me soon! Happy summer cooking!