Brownies. What defines them? In recent years they’ve become ubiquitous here in the UK and to be honest, most of what you see is ersatz. The brownies you see this side of the Atlantic tend to be either slabs of barely cooked, oozing, molten, chocolate fudge bordering on the grotesque, or a thin-ish, cake-ish slice of dark chocolate-ish cake with an identity crisis. Iced brownies are a complete travesty so let’s not even go there.
The brownies I recall from summers spent in New England were neither gooey nor cakey. That’s just a false dichotomy folks. They were also nowhere near 5 cm tall, as seems to be the current vogue here, nor did they contain 500 g of sugar – I’m looking at you Nigella – in one single traybake. A fast-track to diabetes if there ever was one…
While I love the sour cherry (and cherry booze) tang of the Valhalla brownies in my own cookbook, I prefer to eat the Valhallas as dessert, with a hefty scoop or two of sour cherry ice cream.
Brownies should be a treat anytime of the day so I’ve recently been pondering the deeply existential question of what exactly is a brownie? And without coming across all Linnean on you, classification means something. Felicity Cloake wrote a great piece in the Guardian researching the methodology of brownie baking which you can read here, and although I found her research comprehensive and useful for deconstructing the basic technique of good brownie baking, I wanted to know more.
Turning to Mama Johansen’s annotated and much-loved 1965 edition of the classic American cookbook The Fanny Farmer Cookbook, I discovered that Ms Farmer listed brownies under the quaintly spelled Cooky Bars section. Farmer herself has actually been credited with inventing the brownie as far back as 1896 simply by drastically reducing the amount of flour in a chocolate cake recipe. It created a dense bar, akin to a cookie - see where I’m going with this?
These chocolate hazelnut brownies are the result of the first part of my research and to my mind, perfectly rich, chewy and not too sweet, much like really good chocolate chip cookies (see my post earlier this year on the Quest For The Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookie). Brownies should have a light flaky crust and you should be able to slice them without getting chocolate goo all over your décolletage. The secret I discovered is using icing sugar for a smooth, chewy interior and baking at a lower temperature. I use cocoa powder but for the next batch of research on pure chocolate brownies I’m going to give unsweetened cacao a go.
What do you think? Am I barking up the wrong tree here – do you have a perfect brownie recipe that’s foolproof? Would love to know.
Makes 12 brownies
- 125g butter
- 75g cocoa powder
- 175g chocolate-hazelnut spread
- 2 whole medium eggs
- 1 medium egg yolk
- 150g icing sugar
- 50g flour
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- ¼ tsp salt
- optional for a deeper flavour: 1 shot espresso (purists will scoff at this though)
- 50g halved or chopped toasted hazelnuts, also optional
Preheat the oven to 150 C. Line a 15 cm x 30 cm brownie tin or a 20 cm x 20 cm square baking tin with two sheets of baking parchment, lined perpendicularly. This makes it easier to remove the brownies from the tin after they’ve been baked.
Melt the butter and add the cocoa powder along with the chocolate hazelnut spread. Stir to mix together and set aside while you assemble the rest. In a medium bowl place the eggs and icing sugar, lightly whisk with a fork or whisk to break up the eggs and mix the sugar in but don’t whisk until fluffy. Add the chocolate-hazelnut butter mixture, stirring so that this incorporates with the egg and sugar mixture. Add the flour, vanilla extract and salt (and coffee and/or hazelnuts if using) and stir a few more times. It should look like a very dark, treacle-y mixture.
Pour this into the prepared tin and bake on the middle shelf of the oven for 20-22 minutes. If you bake the brownies in a 20 x 20 cm tin they will be a fraction thicker than in the longer rectangular tin so they may need 2-3 minutes longer to bake through. The brownies will be quite thin, only 1 inch or so thick so they don’t need much baking time but keep checking after 18 minutes. It’s always better to slightly underbake brownies as they cool in the tin after you remove them from the oven and this extends the baking process. Also the chocolate flavour is more intense if you don’t bake the brownies all the way through.
Allow to cool completely before slicing.