Brownies still win points in popularity

Fudgy treats, rather than caky ones, a favorite for many

October 09, 2002|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

What could be more perfect than a brownie?

Easy to make and even easier to eat, these chocolaty treasures are divine when served warm out of the oven with a glass of frosty milk, and heavenly as the decadent centerpiece of an ice cream brownie sundae.

Because they're moist but not messy, they are the ideal treat for lunch boxes, bake sales and potluck dinners.

"Just smelling brownies baking brings back that sense of home and comfort," said Bruce Weinstein, author of a new cookbook, The Ultimate Brownie Book (William Morrow & Co., 2002, $16.95). "People have childhood memories of this."

In the book, Weinstein gives a brief history of this all-American treat, noting that the first published recipe for a brownie appeared in 1896, in the Boston Cooking-School Book. That recipe had no chocolate, but was made instead with molasses. The first chocolate-brownie recipe appears in the 1906 edition of the Fanny Farmer Cookbook, he writes.

Brownies never seem to go out of style, but that doesn't mean they are immune to trends. One of the newest brownie variations is to add cocoa nibs, a fairly new product made of coarsely ground cocoa beans. These add an adult taste, because they are slightly bitter as well as sweet, and they don't melt, so they add a bit of crunch to the finished product.

Other variations include blondies, which have a nonchocolate base, as well as cream-cheese brownies, peanut-butter brownies, raspberry brownies and more.

Weinstein's book even has recipes for sweet-potato brownies, cornbread brownies and chile brownies.

Although new variations are constantly being introduced, the preferred brownie texture seems to be going in a single direction - toward more fudgy brownies.

"What I've seen over the past 15 or 20 years is that more people do prefer the fudgy brownie over the caky brownie," Audrey Langenhop, a certified executive pastry chef at York Technical Institute in Pennsylvania.

Alice Medrich, who opened the famous Cocolat chocolate shops in Berkeley, Calif., in the 1970s, agrees. "I don't know anybody anymore who said they like caky," said the two-time winner of the coveted James Beard "Cookbook of the Year" award.

"I think that over the last generation or so, brownies have gotten way more chocolaty and less sweet at the same time."

Medrich has come up with two specific methods for achieving the ultimate dense and fudgy results. One technique calls for baking the brownies at 400 degrees instead of the usual 350 degrees for 20 minutes, then cooling them in an ice bath.

She takes them from the oven when the sides start to pull away from the pan, and places the pan in a freezer or container of ice water. When the brownies are cool, she lifts them onto a cutting board and cuts them into squares.

"They rise less high and get denser, with a little crust on top," she said. "I tested the recipe baked in the conventional way side by side with that technique and it actually tasted more chocolaty."

The other technique, which she discovered while working on her forthcoming book, Bittersweet, calls for placing the pan of brownie batter in the refrigerator for several hours before baking.

"It will be transformed," she said. The brownie will be richer, and will have a glossier, better-looking crust, she said.

Weinstein agrees. Several of his recipes call for rapping the pan against the oven rack about halfway through the baking time so the brownies become more dense.

Pam Klink, the pastry chef at the Belmont Conference Center in Elkridge, splits the difference between the caky and the fudgy fans, creating a brownie that seems to please both.

The conference center holds many meetings, and brownies are a regular feature of the afternoon coffee breaks. After tinkering with many brownie recipes, Klink settled on one that uses cocoa powder instead of melted chocolate.

This decision may shock her fellow pastry chefs, she said, but it sure pleases her customers. "They still have enough crumb to them so that people who like cakelike brownies instead of fudgy brownies still like them," she said.

Weinstein offers several guidelines for brownie-making, whether they are fudgy or caky: Melt chocolate very slowly, usually in a double boiler; toast nuts first if you are using them; and spoon the batter evenly in the pan instead of dumping it into the middle and then smoothing to the corners.

"In the end, making it with high-quality chocolate, making it with butter, making it with ingredients that you know ... nothing comes close to that," he said.

Fudge Brownies

Makes 16 brownies

8 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus additional for the pan, room temperature

9 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped, or semisweet chocolate chips

2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped

2 large eggs, room temperature

1 large egg yolk, room temperature

1 cup sugar

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

2/3 cup all-purpose flour, plus additional for the pan

1/2 teaspoon salt

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