I think it's high time we got back to the down and dirty we're all so familiar with here at Fleur d'Elise, and I don't mean in a Def Leppard sort of way. I'm talking about chocolate, dear readers, and lots of it. I've spent weeks entertaining Bing cherries, sweet potatoes, pears, some boozy peaches, limes and even a butternut squash thrown in the mix for good measure. But I think I've had my fill for the time being, and with autumn creeping ever closer, it's becoming more and more difficult to rationalize my produce selections as being necessary because it's still summertime. Chocolate knows no season.
Now if you really want to curb your chocolate cravings, which have most likely been bubbling up inside you like Vesuvius threatening to overthrow everything from your kitchen to Pompeii, you mustn't settle for a Tootsie Roll or a Hershey bar or a chocolate glazed doughnut. Oh no, you can't pussyfoot around with cravings like these. You need depth of flavor, good quality chocolate with a high percentage of cocoa and a modest dosage of sugar. You need something fudgy, thick, dense and rich. What you need is a brownie.
I went on an anti-brownie box mix blitz about this time last year where I insisted on purchasing speciality brownie cookbooks and spending all my spare cash on decent chocolate and sea salts all in the name of my homemade, no holds barred chocolate demands. I baked a different recipe nearly every night for two weeks - a recipe from a co-worker called Grandma Goldstrom's Brownies that were incredibly rich but too dense to fall under a brownie category, they were more like fudge; a pan of blondies chock full of butter brickle and toasted walnuts, and even a dark chocolate brownie pudding, all in search of the ubiquitous chocolate fix. It comes to this: brownies should not be cakey. Cake is cakey. Brownies are more of a hybrid between a block of fudge and a dense cake, but never fluffy or light on the tongue. And I'm certain I've been to Timbuktu and back trying to find the perfect recipe that rides the fence between cake and fudge but still offers up a deep chocolate flavor to calm the volcano. I think I'm pretty darn close.
Homemade brownies were a turning point in my baking life - I'd never presumed anything to be wrong with a slab of box mix brownies straight from the pan with a scoop of vanilla ice cream dribbling down the sides. But oh my, I can admit when I'm wrong. Once you've gone down the homemade lane, you won't ever go back. Brownies from the box are oily, slickish, greasy, sugary and don't pack enough chocolate flavor to curb the craving without eating twelve of them in one sitting. Even if you try to slip by and technically call them homemade thanks to the back of the Baker's Chocolate box, their brand of "chocolate" is little more than a waxy, super-slick nub of brown plastic.
But these? Oh these were amazing. I'm in love with my new Baked book and their brownie recipe that has won the hearts of millions - including Oprah, which I guess is a big deal to some people but of no consequence to me. The picture boasted a deep chocolate, fudgy brownie with a promise not to be too cakey nor too fudgy. The craving hit me like a ton of bricks - all the tarts, cakes, malted blondies (soon to come) and boozy after dinner drinks to be had in that blessed book would just have to wait in line, these brownies were mine.
The trick is not to overmix the batter at any stage - particularly with the eggs and flour. Overwhisking the eggs into the chocolate will aerate the batter too much and you'll end up with chocolate cake; overmixing the flour into the chocolate and egg batter will give you a tough, too dense brownie. You can be a real fancypants and sprinkle some fleur de sel sea salt over the top for an extra boost in achieving maximum chocolatey-ness, but these are delicious as is. The chocolate is punched up a bit with instant espresso and a dose of dark chocolate cocoa powder that makes for one amazing chocolate experience. So say it : I will not make boxed-mix brownies again. Out loud. Say it. There, doesn't that feel nice?
A few humble tips for successful brownie baking:
The Oven: Most ovens are off by a good 10 degrees – crazy, right? If your oven runs hot, it will definitely over-bake your goodies. A decent oven thermometer will run you about $10 and is a good way to tell the true temperature of your oven. It just hangs inside on the rack so you can take it in and out as needed.
The Time: Brownies are pretty unforgiving if you leave them in the oven even just 2 minutes too long. The center will not be totally set when the timer goes off – you will have a few clumps of moist crumbs stuck to your toothpick, as long as they’re not goopy-raw, it’s time to take them out. They’ll continue to cook a bit while they rest in the pan and they’ll turn more fudgy as they cool.
The Pan: Avoid metal pans at all costs when it comes to brownies – they conduct heat too quickly and you’ll end up with brownies that bake too fast and the edges get too crunchy and the center can become dense. Use a glass 13X9 pan instead.
The Eggs: It’s a pain to let these come to room temperature, but it really makes a huge difference in the finished brownie. I bake on the fly so I rarely wait for stuff to come to room temperature – so between you and me, I sometimes put the eggs (in their shells) in the microwave for 10 second to take the chill off. How’s that for lazy baking? Yes, I did leave them in too long once and I had some lovely soft-boiled eggs for a snack. Don’t let that be you. Also, don’t over-whisk them into the batter. The more you whisk, the fluffier they get, and the lighter, cakier your brownies will be. Some people like it this way, but I say if you want chocolate cake, make a chocolate cake.
The Flour: It is so, so tempting to keep mixing until all white specks are gone – resist, my friend! When you pour the batter into the pan, you should still see flecks of flour throughout the batter. Don’t whisk until it’s totally smooth, you’ll end up overdeveloping the gluten in the flour which creates a tough, dense brownie. (The same is true for cakes and cookies, too.) A few lumps of flour here and there are okay.
The Baked Brownie
Adapted from Baked: New Frontiers in Baking
1 ¼ c. flour
½ t. salt
2 tablespoons dark cocoa powder
11 ounces dark chocolate, coarsely chopped
2 sticks unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 teaspoons instant espresso powder
1 cup sugar
½ cup brown sugar, firmly packed
5 large eggs, at room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla
Preheat the oven to 350F. Grease the sides and bottom of 9×13 baking pan.
In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, salt and cocoa powder together.
Put the chocolate, butter and instant espresso in a large bowl and set it over a saucepan of simmering water, stirring occasionally, until the chocolate and butter are completely melted and smooth. Turn off the heat, but keep the bowl over the water and add the sugars. Whisk until completely combined; then remove the bowl from the pan. The mixture should be room temperature.
Add 3 eggs to the chocolate mixture and whisk until combined. Add the remaining eggs and whisk until combined. Add the vanilla and stir until combined. Do not overbeat the batter at this stage or your brownies will be cakey. And remember, cake is cakey. Not brownies.
Sprinkle the flour mixture over the chocolate mixture. Using a spatula, fold the flour mixture into the chocolate until just a bit of the flour mixture is visible.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top - sprinkle with a pinch of fleur de sel or crunchy sea salt if you like. Bake in the center of the oven for 30 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through the baking time, until a toothpick inserted into the center of the brownies comes out with a few moist crumbs sticking to it. Let the brownies cool completely, then cut them into squares and serve.