Sunday, March 8, 2015

Brownies: Then and Now

Brownie Battle

Max challenged me to a double-shot this weekend -- homemade-from-scratch pancakes and brownies. From scratch -- not really a stretch here but when you get into a food habit, it's sometimes hard to break. The boxes get thrown in the cart as a matter of routine. But that's how it happened -- neither box was in the cart at checkout. When I came home from shopping empty handed Max said, "Why don't you just MAKE it, you know, from stuff at home?" Challenge accepted!

Making things from scratch also serves an environmental purpose -- no packaging waste. Each purchased pancake and brownie mix has not only a cardboard box but a plastic liner as well. That cardboard may break down eventually but that plastic never will. With growing awareness for reducing plastics, this was an even greater motivator to return to the basics. Plus, excellent recipes for brownies are pretty much everywhere!

I knew there was a basic brownie recipe in the Notebook somewhere because I'd flipped past it dozen of times or so. Being that practically everyone now makes brownies from the ubiquitous box (my brand of choice being Ghirardelli) AND Pinterest I didn't give the possibilities of Mid-Century-Modern brownies much thought.

Modern brownies were on my mind, though, since I'd just read an extensive article on the perfect blondies (brownies sans chocolate) in the March 2015 issue of Cooking Light and had also just pinned a David Lebovitz brownie recipe to my Pinterest. I was feeling brownie-competent…which was good because as with many Notebook recipes, there were no instructions listed for this recipe…

Note the recipe written with fountain pen!

The Recipes

Alice's Brownies is the official title of Grandma's recipe. Though I am not sure who Alice might be, I don't think she was a regular or even lived nearby -- her name doesn't make it on the luncheon or bridge club rosters in the back pages of the Notebook. The entry is early, near the front, so it would be the late 40s, early 50s.

Helene's Brownies are, surprisingly, French. Lebovitz remarks in his September 25, 2014 blog post brownies are the one thing French bakers indeed do NOT do well. He notes French brownies are usually fairly dry…that is, until Helene came along...

7 ounces (200g) bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup (60ml) water
4 ounces (115g) butter, salted or unsalted, cubed
3/4 cup (150g) sugar
2 tablespoons flour
4 medium or large eggs
2 tablespoons unsweetened dessicated coconut flakes (see Note)
1/3 cup (65g) chocolate chips

1. Preheat the oven to 350ºF (180ºC.)
2. Butter a 9-inch (23cm) springform pan then dust the bottom with cocoa powder (or a bit of flour), then tap out the excess.
3. In a medium saucepan over low heat, melt the chocolate, water, and butter together, stirring constantly, until smooth. Remove from heat and stir in the sugar and flour, then the eggs, one by one.
4. Mix in the coconut and chocolate chips. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until the center feels just about set; err on the side of underbaked a little if you want a creamy center.
5. Let cool, then slice into wedges.

Brownie Basics

So most brownie recipes, including the two recipes above, proceed with similar ingredients and similar fashion --  first, the butter and chocolate are melted together, usually in a double boiler or saucepan. Then the sugar and eggs are added plus any liquid, then the dry ingredients and, finally, any additional flavorings or nuts. No mixer required as long as you have a sturdy wooden spoon. Scrape into a baking pan, bake at 350 and there you have it!

Brownie Batter…mmmmm…...

Chocolate, Please

Before there were artisanal, organic, and other fine chocolates there were just a few basics -- Baker's brand and Hershey. That was about it. Squares, cocoa powder, and chips, semi-sweet and unsweetened. Grandma's notation said "2 sq. chocolate" and I knew what she meant -- baking chocolate. Baker's brand chocolate was always the one we had on hand growing up but hardly ever used. Wrapped in silver (or was it gold?) foil and tucked away in its little orange/brown cardboard box it was the chocolate we DIDN'T eat. I don't recall it's use in any particular recipe either. I didn't have any Baker's on hand for these brownies but I knew one square equaled one ounce so it was an easy switch to semi-sweet morsels which I did have in the pantry. But a paltry two ounces of chocolate in an entire pan of brownies?

Helene knocked the chocolate out of the park in her recipe -- a full seven ounces plus the extra 1/3 cup of chips Lebovitz threw in the batter. How would the two stack up?

Cakey vs Fudgy?

Alice called for a quarter-cup of milk in her brownies. After a quick Google search I discovered the milk creates a cake-like brownie whereas the extra eggs in Helene's provide more fudginess to the recipe. So not only were we battling recipes we would be battling concepts….Cake-like verses Fudgy.

Alice's Brownies
Helene's Brownies


Though the base recipe in both was conceptually the same, Alice added vanilla and optional nuts while Helene added dried, unsweetened coconut (I miraculously had this on hand, purchased from the bulk foods shop!) I pulverized in the mini chopper. Time to bake!

Brownie Pan vs Springform Pan

Round metal cake pan for Alice
In the Cooking Light test kitchens the staff discovered blondies baked in metal pans baked more evenly and with less browning than those in Pyrex, glass, or dark-coated pans. I'd just last week tested this theory on a box (!) of Ghirardelli brownies and even though they were brownies and not blondies, the staff was spot-on. My boxed mix turned out tender, moist brownies with no extra dark or "crunchy edges". I converted to metal brownie pans right then and there. Into the oven!

Springform pan for Helene

The Result

Alice's brownies were good -- tender, cake-like, moist. The milk added a pale caramel color to the finished product -- almost a blondie! The amount of chocolate by today's standards was minuscule resulting in a German chocolate-style brownie or even Texas sheet cake without the prerequisite frosting. A topping was what Alice needed here -- frosting or glaze may very well have been implied and something Grandma or Alice would have added without a second thought. Max preferred Alice's brownies over Helene's, even without toppings.

Move over boxed mix -- Helene's brownies were a slab of chocolatey goodness was like a molten lava cake or flour less chocolate cake in texture and taste. It's what I personally have been looking for in a brownie for quite some time. I didn't find it in the Notebook but the journey led me to super dark chocolate bliss…..mmmmm…..brownies…..

The blogging world has changed in my absence, especially food blogs…it's time to relaunch and revitalize the Mid-Century Modern Woman and her Notebook! More coming soon on that front...