The perfect brownie

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 17, 2011

By Kim Ode
Minneapolis Star Tribune
While there is no day that isn’t improved by eating a brownie, something about a summer day makes brownies taste even better.
Maybe it’s because they travel well to picnics. Or because they’re a perfect blank canvas for swirling in a whim of caramel, peanut butter, marshmallows and more.
Purists, though, may be happy to know that the basic brownie recipe actually has changed little since Fannie Farmer first came up with the bar cookie in 1906. Basically, it’s a chocolate cake with a greatly reduced amount of flour.
Still, two brownie camps have emerged: cakey or fudgy, with the difference being the amount of flour in the recipe.
Cookbook author Shirley Corriher, the foodie biochemist and author of “BakeWise” and “CookWise” cookbooks, says there’s yet another division, between those who like a shiny crust and those who don’t. The delicate, crisp crust results from not only blending beaten eggs into melted chocolate, but vigorously beating them, creating a meringuey effect when baked.
If you want more of a matte finish — and a less-brittle brownie — don’t beat, just blend, according to Corriher.
As far as adapting a recipe to be cakier or fudgier, the simplest fix may be increasing the number of eggs in the recipe, thereby reducing the proportion of flour in the batter. The accompanying recipe offers the best of both worlds, the brownies veering toward a cakey texture on the day they’re baked, but settling into fudginess if left overnight, especially if refrigerated. To make them even lighter and cakier, increase the number of eggs from four to five. For gooier brownies, use only three eggs.
A few more tips for the best brownies ever:
• Alice Medrich, known for her recipes for all things chocolate, says that refrigerating the brownie batter overnight, in the pan and covered tightly, improves the flavor. She also often opts for bittersweet chocolate instead of the unsweetened chocolate called for in many recipes.
• For an even fudgier flavor, substitute brown sugar for white sugar, or go half-and-half.
• It’s often difficult to tell when brownies are done, but it’s always better to underbake than overbake them. Amy Scherber of Amy’s Bread in New York City says that once the edges feel slightly firm, even though the center seems soft, the brownies are finished.
• Brownies are easier to cut when chilled, or at least cooled completely.
• Brownies are best eaten on a summer afternoon while on a blanket spread under a shade tree on a lakeshore. OK, that’s not really a tip, because you already know that.
Homewood Brownies
Makes about 3 dozen.
Note: This recipe is from an old church cookbook, but closely resembles many recipes for less-cakey brownies, including the one for basic brownies from America’s Test Kitchen. It’s prepared entirely in a saucepan, so no mixer is needed — just a little muscle.
1/2 C. (1 stick) butter
1/2 C. shortening, such as Crisco
3 squares (1 ounce each) unsweetened chocolate
11/2 C. flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
4 eggs
2 C. sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
1 C. chopped walnuts, if desired
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Melt butter, shortening and chocolate in a pan over low heat. Remove from heat and cool slightly. While chocolate is cooling, whisk together flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl.
In another bowl, beat together the 4 eggs. Beating steadily and briskly, ideally with a whisk, add the eggs 1/4 cup at a time (or in four steps) beating each time until well combined.
With a spoon or spatula, stir in sugar and vanilla, then add dry ingredients, mixing until well combined. Add walnuts, if desired.
Scrape batter into ungreased 9- by 13-inch pan. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes. Do not overbake. Cool completely on wire rack before slicing.
Turtle Brownies
In a microwaveable bowl, combine 36 unwrapped caramels and 3 tablespoons of milk or heavy cream. Heat uncovered on high for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring occasionally, until smooth. Drizzle over batter and sprinkle with chopped pecans, then bake as directed.
Peanut-Butter Brownies
Slightly warm 1/2 cup peanut butter, smooth or crunchy, then drop spoonfuls over the batter. With the tip of a knife or chopstick, lightly swirl the peanut butter through the batter and bake as directed.
Minty Brownies
Add 1/4 teaspoon peppermint extract to the batter, then stir in 3/4 cup chopped mint-flavored chocolate pieces. Bake as directed.
Cherry Brownies
Add 1 cup of dried cherries to the batter before baking. For a more grown-up taste, soak the cherries in a little brandy or kirsch for about an hour before draining and adding to the batter.
Rocky-Road Brownies
Drop spoonfuls of marshmallow creme over the batter and swirl with a knife. Scatter some chopped walnuts over the batter and bake as directed. Or, bake brownies as directed, then remove from the oven and sprinkle with chocolate chips, miniature marshmallows and chopped nuts. Return brownies to the oven just until the marshmallows start to melt.
Ginger Brownies
Stir 1/3 cup finely chopped crystallized ginger into the batter and bake as directed.