I’ve got brownies on the brain. At work we make a lot of brownies, and this week we’ve gone into a bit of brownie overdrive. There could be worse things I suppose – I’d much rather make hundreds of brownies than hundreds of tuna mayonnaise sandwiches, for example (but that may be because I can’t stand tinned tuna). So here I go with another topic which may cause controversy among the foodies (and non-foodies) out there – the perfect chocolate brownie. Actually, a little controversy would be good – let’s get a bit of a discussion going…
I will say up front that I love brownies, and for oh so many reasons. Little squares of chocolatey goodness almost daring you to take a bite… and another… and another. Growing up in Canada, brownies have always been part of my awareness, right up there with chocolate chip cookies. I don’t think that’s the case here in the UK though – I asked people of my generation (the late 60s/1970s kids) and they remember them as being something sort of exotic and American, if they remember them at all from childhood. These days in the UK they’re not uber-trendy like cupcakes are at the moment, but I think there’s almost been a quiet underground revolution that’s made brownies popular, but in an understated sort of way. Pretty much everyone seems to like brownies but specialist brownie shops aren’t popping up all over the place. Understated – I like that. We feature brownies on many of our menus and cake platters and they always seem to disappear rather quickly. I like that too!
I turned to that trusty source Wikipedia to find out the origin of the brownie. It says “A chocolate brownie is a flat, baked square or bar introduced in the United States at the end of the nineteenth century and popularized in both the U.S. and Canada during the first half of the twentieth century. The brownie is sliced from a type of dense, rich chocolate cake, which is, in texture, like a cross between a cake and a cookie. Brownies come in a variety of forms. They are either fudgy or cakey, depending on their density, and they may include nuts, frosting, cream cheese, chocolate chips, or other ingredients. A variation that is made with brown sugar and no chocolate is called a blondie.”
So what do other sources have to say? How about something a bit more British… The Oxford Companion to Food does not have any brownie related entries, so that tells me something. It has entries on exotic Indian foodstuffs and alfonso mangoes (smile), but no brownies. Makes sense I suppose given British history and the influences on the food here. My 1953 edition of The Joy of Cooking has 4 brownie recipes (as well as some other hilarious recipes, but I won’t get into that now). That also fits with what Wikipedia says about the geographical origin of brownies.
So what exactly does “perfect” mean when it refers to brownies? I guess in the end it all comes down to the palate of the beholder and individual preferences. To me it’s all about 3 things:
- Simple – simple to make and simple by design. I like brownies that can be made in one pan (with young helpers doing the stirring), and without any sort of electric mixer – melt some butter and chocolate in a saucepan, stir in the rest of the ingredients, pour into a baking pan and cook. Dead easy. In terms of the product itself I also like to keep that simple. I don’t like icing on my brownies (and the way I make them it’s just not needed), or cream cheese. A dollop of mascarpone on the side is a bit heavenly though. A few chocolate bits or dried cherries/cranberries mixed in or sprinkled on top are nice but not essential. Nuts? Sometimes. I’m partial to ground almonds in mine. I’m not crazy about walnuts so generally don’t use them. Pecans – a nice alternative.
- Chocolatey – that’s the whole point, isn’t it (unless you’re making blonde brownies of course). In my world brownies pack a real chocolate punch and pack much more of a chocolate punch than a cake does. In the batter I definitely prefer chocolate as opposed to cocoa, although sometimes I do like just a bit of cocoa in it to add some extra chocolateyness.
- Gooey – in the cakey versus gooey debate I will always side with the gooey contingent. I can’t see the point in a cakey brownie – a cakey brownie is just a cake, isn’t it? I like brownies that are so gooey you can eat them straight out of the freezer. And I will confess that I have tried that on more than one occasion. More than twice even…
Brownies are easily adaptable, and in so many ways. I often make mine gluten-free, and find they are one of the relatively few baked goods that don’t suffer at all in terms of taste or texture when you make them gluten free. I generally use a combination of ground almonds and some sort of gluten free flour (either a blend, or rice flour) and love the result. In terms of flavours, in summer I like to throw some fresh raspberries on top before baking, and at Christmastime I like to do a twist on the traditional chocolate brownie – orange and spice with a hint of chilli. Orange extract, cinnamon, ginger, and some chilli powder result in something that has all those nice flavours of the season, with just a bit of a kick to finish.
Another thing I love about brownies is that they can be dressed up or kept simple. Kept simple they can be the sweet treat at the end of a picnic or savoured with a coffee to give you that mid-afternoon pick-up. Dressed up with some nice red berries (or a raspberry coulis) and mascarpone cream they turn into a simple, but elegant dessert. For events like birthdays or even weddings, a load of brownies served in the form of a stack or mountain, interspersed with some chocolate dipped strawberries can make a fun finish to a meal or even an alternative birthday or wedding cake. I’ve seen it done!
I made brownies at home the other day with my two helpers. I think the boy was about 2 ½ the first time he “helped” me make them and the results were amusing. I didn’t think it was possible to get more batter on the boy than in the pan, but that’s what happened. I’ve got photos somewhere – I must dig them out. Now he’s become quite an accomplished brownie maker and the girl has become quite adept at tasting the batter. It’s great, actually – one of them can do the measuring and one makes best attempts at stirring, and I just sort of supervise, help with the stirring, and clean up. Funny how little feet exit the room when I mention that it’s time to clean up…
I think that’s about enough of me waxing lyrical about brownies. It wouldn’t be fair of me to go on and on about them without leaving you with a recipe to try, so below I’ve given you the recipe for my favourite chocolate brownies, and a gluten-free variation as well.
Gooey Chocolate Brownies
- 300g dark chocolate (between 50% and 70% cocoa solids – sugar adjusted below to compensate for different types of chocolate)
- 300g unsalted butter
- 450g caster sugar (use 450g if your chocolate is closer to 70% cocoa solids – use closer to 400g if your chocolate is on the sweeter side; can also use brown sugar for a slightly different taste)
- 6 large eggs
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 100g ground almonds
- 100g flour (any kind of flour – do feel free to use rice flour or a gluten free blend) OR 25g cocoa powder and 75g flour
- Optional additions: a few handfuls of dried morello cherries, dried cranberries, chopped nuts or chopped chocolate
Preheat oven to 160 degrees Celsius/325 degrees Farenheit. Line a pan with baking parchment. I use a pan that’s about 21cm x 27.5cm (8 ½ x 11 inches) but if you want a brownie that’s thinner or thicker you can adjust the pan size accordingly.
Chop the butter into chunks and put into a large saucepan. Break the chocolate into pieces (if it isn’t already) and add to the saucepan. Melt the butter and chocolate over low heat, regularly stirring. Once the mixture is almost melted, remove from heat and continue stirring until the melting is complete. Pour in the sugar and mix until combined. Add eggs, 1 at a time, stirring after each addition until completely mixed in. Add vanilla extract and stir until combined. Add almonds and flour and stir until just combined. If you’re adding any dried fruit or chopped chocolate that will be inside (not on top of) the brownie, do it now and stir it in.
Pour the batter into your prepared pan. Sprinkle over anything you’re putting on top. If small children are helping you, now’s the time to march them over to the sink and hose the batter off of small fingers and faces. Put the brownies into the oven and bake for approximately 40 minutes (for the pan size given above). The baking time may be a bit more or a bit less – if you can smell chocolate, they’re done. It’s a simple but effective rule. If you can smell chocolate at the 35 minute mark, take them out of the oven. If you can’t smell it at the 40 minute mark, give them another 5 minutes. The smell is key. The brownies will be slightly wobbly in the middle when you take them out of the oven but you want that. They will continue to set as they cool.
Cool completely before cutting because they will just fall apart on you if you try and cut them when warm. Trust me, I’ve tried and learned my lesson. I generally stick mine in the fridge before cutting them. Cut into appropriate sized pieces (I’ll leave to you what you consider to be “appropriate”) and store in a tightly sealed container in the fridge or freezer. I won’t bother discussing shelf life because I doubt they’ll last long enough to even make that an issue!
If you like these brownies, you might want to try these peanut butter chocolate ones.