February 28, 2012 § 3 Comments
I remember the best brownie I ever ate the way you might think back upon a first kiss or a particularly good holiday: tenderly, with a hazy sense of unreality, and a slight melancholic yearning for something that will never be repeated in quite the same way again. It’s that same rose-hued nostalgia that spawns paella-pan purchases before the last of the Mediterranean sand has left the crevices of your flip-flops. The memory blossoms over time, fed by rainy day-dreams and nine-to-five routine, until it takes on a mythical, mystical presence, gobbling up all other holidays, or kisses, or brownies before they have their own time to bloom. All fairy tales unleash such a monster.
The aforementioned brownie also belongs to a holiday. Late November, touring through the lyrical landscapes of the Lake District. Ill-prepared for off-season rural life, we floundered in inappropriate footwear in the village, eating toast and drinking strong tea while trying to figure out which bus would convey us and our excess baggage the two miles or so to our abode for the night. We made a shamed, desperation-tinged call for help, which brought to our rescue the amused farm owner and his jeep. Into the back went our rollaboards, along with the hay, and muck, and sheep. We, in the front, were equally sheepish.
And then, lo, it happened. In our room a small china plate, atop of which sat two, farm-appetite-sized hefty brown squares. The tops had the dull parched-earth crackle which first piques the interest of one who has studied the ways of the brownie, and who then hopes that the dry cakiness is confined to the brownie edges, permeating the perfect few milimeters for chewy protection. Such relief as the cracks part to reveal a dense, moist, fudgy interior, in this instance studded with uneven chunks of craggy chocolate. We, shameful, ill-prepared town mice, ate them with the relish of one who has completed a three-day hike with naught but Kendal Mint Cake for sustenance. The brownies did not last long; their memory persists.
All brownies since that day have struggled to compete. I had a brief flirtation with a nougat-flecked version in Cambridge, served large and warm with a dollop of cream. It was good but showy, and I wanted the kind of homespun recipe that generations pass to one another, scribbled on a fading index card in florid script. Finally, last week, I turned out a batch that held their own space against nostalgia and expectations, that demanded a second, and then a third slither just to check that they really were that good. Might this be the one, the keeper?
Here’s the thing – the brownie recipe I tried, which comes from the Baked boys’ first book, is pretty famous (you know, like Oprah-ordained famous) and I can’t believe that I hadn’t tried it before. Indeed, I’m pretty sure that I had, but for whatever reason it was only on this round that I saw their true beauty. The recipe makes a lot of brownies, around 30 non-farm-worker sized ones, so be ready to freeze some, have friends on hand, or be on a week-long sugar high. The surface has modest crackle but where these brownies beg to be remembered is in their inner texture: fudgy but firm, super moist, and dense with a hint of coffee-tinged intensity. They are irresistible warm from the oven but on days two and three they sing from the rooftops. I asked Ollie, my faithful judge of such matters, if he thought they were the best brownies I had made. His sage response: “The best brownie is the one that’s in front of you when you want brownie”. We ate another slice.
The Baked Brownie
Adapted from Baked: New Frontiers in Baking, by Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito
1 1/4 cups/150g all purpose flour
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp dark unsweetened cocoa powder
11oz/310g dark chocolate (60 to 72% cocoa solids), coarsely chopped (I used 60% Callebaut on this occasion)
1 cup/2 sticks/225g unsalted butter, cut into 1 inch pieces
1 tsp instant espresso powder
1 1/2 cups/300g granulated sugar
1/2 cup/110g firmly packed light brown sugar
5 large eggs, at room temperature*
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
* The instruction for the eggs to be at room temperature is so that they don’t overly cool the batter when they are added, which can lead to the butter to resolidify and be less evenly distributed. If you have forgotten to take your eggs from the fridge but you are ready to bake, fill a bowl with warm (not hot) water from the tap and place the eggs in their shells in the water. You might have to replace the water a couple of times as the eggs will cool it right down. This should bring them up to room temperature without cooking the eggs – just be careful that your water isn’t too hot.
Preheat the oven to 350F/170C. Butter the sides and bottom of a 9 by 13 inch glass or metal baking pan.
Take a large glass or metal bowl (this will eventually hold the whole batter, so do make sure it is a large one) and place in it the chopped chocolate and butter, and the instant espresso powder. Place the bowl over a saucepan of simmering water, ensuring that the bottom of the bowl does not make contact with the water. Stir occasionally until the chocolate and butter are fully melted, smooth and glossy. Turn off the heat but keep the bowl over the water and add the sugars. Whisk until completely combined and then remove the bowl from the pan. The mixture might still be quite warm – leave it to reach room temperature.
While the mixture is cooling, whisk together the flour, salt and cocoa powder in a medium bowl.
Add three eggs to the cooled chocolate mixture and whisk until combined. Add the remaining eggs and whisk until combined: do not overbeat at this point, or the brownies will be cakey. Add the vanilla and gently stir until combined.
Sprinkle the flour mixture over the chocolate batter. Using a plastic spatula or metal spoon (not a whisk), fold the flour mixture firmly but gently into the chocolate until just a bit of the flour is visible.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake in the centre of the oven for 30 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through the cooking time. The brownies are ready when a toothpick inserted into the centre comes out with a few moist crumbs sticking to it. Let the brownies cool completely, then cut them into squares. You can keep them tightly covered with plastic wrap at room temperature for 3-4 days, or you can freeze them for a month or two.