Brownies must be one of the most useful, adaptable baked goods known to man. At a pinch, I’d say that it’s due to the fact that:
- Everyone (well, almost everyone) loves chocolate
- On a good day, they can be mixed and shoved in the oven in under 15 minutes, and
- They’re a cross between a dense, dessert-style fudge cake and a transportable cookie or slice.
The last point has meant that in recent years, brownies have transformed from being just a mid-morning coffee snack to an acceptable addition on fine dining dessert menus, commonly à la mode with lashings of clotted cream. They’ve even entered the wedding sphere, either as the official wedding cake or dressed-up cake pops with icing tuxedos. However, despite their mass popularity, there’s an outstanding point of contention that has spawned many a poll in cyberspace:
Fudgy Brownies vs. Cake-like Brownies.
Now, for me this isn’t even an issue. As you can probably see from my photographs, I like them dense, fudgy and intensely chocolatey, with a slight crackle of crust on the top. Eaten warm with ice cream, the brownie becomes a molten, smooth chocolate dessert, studded with toasted nuts. Pretty much heaven in a bowl.
Anyway, regressing from my chocolate moment… I do respect that there’s an element of the population that finds the fudge consistency intolerable. For those of you who prefer a lighter, cake consistency, I’ve written some adjustments in the ‘notes’ section which should help with the transformation. However, the rest of this post is pretty much centred around my version of the perfect brownie: dark with 70% cocoa content, dense with cocoa butter and infused with the earthy flavour of toasted walnuts.
The recipe below is the product of many months of trawling through recipe books and internet pages claiming to have the ‘best’ recipe for brownies. These have ranged from light cocoa based, sugary concoctions to flourless cakes and dense nausea-inducing ‘Slutty Brownies’ baked with Oreos and chocolate chip cookie dough. Now, even though the latter has the temptingly inappropriate tagline ‘…oh so easy and more than a little bit filthy’, well… I’ve decided that I’m a brownie purist. Sometimes the original, unadulterated version is all you need.
As you’ll see below, my recipe for brownies contains organic 70% dark chocolate, toasted walnuts and smattering of milk chocolate chips, lovingly coated in real dairy butter. On this particular occasion, I also had the privilege of using the most beautiful free-range eggs I’ve ever seen, generously supplied by our lovely friend Helen and her partner Dirk. I can’t get over the variations in colour, from soft blue to green to speckled peach. They’re definitely photo-worthy, both in and out of the shell.
My husband introduced me to Helen, his classmate and friend, at an end-of-year gathering last year. By the warmth of a bonfire, we drank red wine and ate hot baked potatoes laced with chilli beans, cheese and sour cream; absolutely delicious, made even better in wonderful company. I don’t remember the last time I felt so comfortable at someone’s house I didn’t know… it’s definitely a tribute to both Helen & Dirk’s hospitality. Since then, Helen’s become our official lemon and egg supplier. Thanks Helen, you’re going to be getting a supply of lemon curd very soon!
So, read on for what I’ve found to be my favourite brownie recipe. I’m not going to say it’s the ‘best’, as that’s entirely subjective, but for me it’s absolute perfection: gooey and fudge-like in the centre, with a light golden crust and a touch of bitterness from the high cocoa content. Brownie goodness in it’s purest form… no Oreos required.
- 140g unsalted butter
- 200g dark chocolate (preferably 70% cocoa, I use Green & Black’s Organic)
- 150g light brown sugar
- 2 tsp natural vanilla extract
- 2 whole free-range eggs
- 1 free-range egg yolk
- 80g plain flour
- 50g walnuts, lightly toasted, chopped
- 50g organic milk chocolate (I use either Cadbury baking chips or chopped Green & Black’s Organic Milk)
- Sifted organic cocoa powder, to dust
Preheat your oven to 160 degrees C (320 degrees f). Grease and line the base of an 18cm square slice tin with baking paper, then set aside.
Chop your chocolate and butter into small, even pieces then melt them together in a heatproof bowl over a saucepan of barely simmering water. Use a spatula to stir the mixture frequently, and when the mixture is almost smooth, remove it from the heat and allow it to cool (the residual heat will melt any remaining small lumps).
In a separate bowl, combine your eggs, egg yolk, sugar, vanilla and a good pinch of salt. Add the egg mixture into the cooled, buttery chocolate and mix well with a balloon whisk. Sift in your flour, and continue to mix thoroughly until smooth and glossy. Stir in your toasted walnuts and chocolate chips.
Pour your mixture into the prepared tin. Smooth the top with a spatula, then tap the tin a couple of times on your bench surface to remove any air bubbles. Bake for 40-45 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out with only moist crumbs attached (as opposed to sticky, liquid mixture).
Allow the brownie to cool in the tin. There should be an even, light brown crust on the surface with a few cracks. When cooled, turn it carefully onto a chopping board and remove the greaseproof paper. Cut it into whatever size pieces you like (I cut it into 16, as they’re pretty rich) then dust the lot with sifted organic cocoa.
These brownies will keep in an airtight container (in the fridge, if you’re in a warm climate) for approximately one week. I usually stack mine with a layer of greaseproof paper in between. Alternately, you can wrap and freeze them for up to 2 months.
- The texture of a brownie is directly related to the ratio of fat (butter and chocolate) to flour. As mentioned previously, I prefer mine as fudgy as possible, however if you prefer a more cake-like consistency, there are adjustments you can make:
- Add in about another 20g of flour (100g in total) to firm up the mixture. Test your batter consistency: it should be slightly more rigid and less glossy.
- You can also remove the melted chocolate (thereby, removing the cocoa butter) and replace it with about 3/4 cup (80g) of unsweetened organic cocoa. To compensate for the bitter quality of the cocoa, you’ll also need to increase your brown sugar to around 250g. Leave your flour as per the original recipe, at 80g.
- Slicing: The denser your brownie mixture is, the more difficult it will be to cut after baking. To make life easier for yourself, I’d recommend leaving the brownie to cool in the tin completely prior to cutting (yes, you can!!), and wiping your knife between cuts with a cloth rinsed in hot water. The latter avoids an over-accumulation of moist, sticky brownie crumbs, which ruins your cutting surface.
- Avoiding ‘split’ chocolate: overheating chocolate can result in ‘splitting’, or separation of the cocoa solids from additional fats. Split chocolate both looks and tastes grainy, so to avoid chocolate disaster I’ve recommended a ‘double boiling’ method in this recipe (i.e. a heatproof bowl over a pan of simmering water).
- However, despite the indirect heat, double boiling adds an extra element of risk: water. If any condensation or splashes of water get in your mixture, it can also result in the chocolate ‘seizing’ (solidifying unevenly) or splitting. To avoid this, try and keep the simmering heat as low as possible (there should just be bubbles forming on the water surface) whilst making sure that your bowl and cooking instruments are dry before use.
- If preferred, you can use the microwave your butter and chocolate on low in a microwave-safe bowl. Restrict the cooking to short (20-30 second) bursts, stirring at each interval. Remove your mixture when there are still a few small solid pieces remaining; the residual heat will finish off the melting process.
- Flour substitutes: This recipe works reasonably well with gluten-free plain flour of the same quantity (80g). You can also substitute refined spelt flour (with most of the coarse bran removed) or plain wholemeal flour, however be aware that with bran flours the consistency of your mixture will change. Expect a denser, potentially grainier finished product.
- Additions: If you don’t like walnuts, other good nut substitutes include toasted macadamias, peanuts and pecans. Great fruit additions include dried sour cherries, cranberries and raspberries, all of which have enough acidity to ‘cut’ through the richness of the dense brownie mixture. No Oreo cookies. No.
Nutrition and Chocolate:
- Fat: yep, overindulging in chocolate can make you fat, as cocoa beans contain approximately 50% fatty acids (saturated palmitic and stearic acids, plus mono-unsaturated oleic acid). Cocoa butter isn’t high in cholesterol, however when factoring in milk chocolate’s added dairy (milk fat) cholesterol levels may be adversely affected in very high quantities.
- Sugar: Cacao (cocoa) beans themselves contain starch and dietary fibres, with a very low amount of simple sugar. However, the manufacturing process of solid chocolate adds between 13% (bitter, dark chocolate) and 65% (some baking chocolates) sugar to what you eventually consume. Have a look at the ingredients list. If sugar is the first ingredient, don’t buy it.
- Antioxidants: Now, the good news. Cocoa beans contain polyphenols, with beneficial flavonoids (antioxidants) which reduce the blood’s ability to clot. This can therefore, in combination with other factors, reduce the risk of stroke and heart attack. But in saying this, everything needs to be in balance, people.
- Stimulants: Cocoa beans contain low amounts of caffeine (less than that in coffee, tea or caffeinated soft drinks) and theobromine, which is a mild stimulant with a diuretic action. This isn’t anything you’d need to worry about unless you’re a parrot, dog, cat or horse (theobromine is toxic to all of these creatures) or if you’re elderly and are planning to eat a large amount in one sitting (as your body may metabolise the substance more slowly).
- Anti-depressant properties: Cocoa and chocolate can have a positive effect upon the levels of serotonin in the brain, whilst also containing phenylethylamine, a stimulant similar to dopamine and adrenaline. Some therefore argue that chocolate can assist in alleviating the symptoms of depression. However, exposure to light and exercise are more effective, scientifically tested methods that will lead to overall health and well-being. So chocolate might be helpful in moderation, but it’s definitely not an advisable ‘cure’.
- Vitamins and minerals: Cocoa is rich in many essential vitamins and minerals including magnesium, calcium, iron, zinc, copper, potassium, manganese and the vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, C, E and pantothenic acid.
For more history and brownie baking tips, check out this article from Shirley Corriher at The American Chemical Society. Science can definitely be interesting.