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Brownies---An American Original

by Stephanie Zonis

Photo by Scherzi Photography, Inc.

     My dictionary defines the word “brownie” as “a small square or rectangle of rich usually chocolate cake containing nuts”. Could there possibly be a less-inspiring or more clinical definition for a bar cookie most of us grew up on, a cookie full of happy memories and as all-American as Old Glory? Besides, a brownie isn’t always cake-like in texture. It isn’t even necessarily chocolate. But more on all that later.

     Do you know when brownies were invented? According to the Better Homes & Gardens website, brownies were invented in the 1920’s, when a “nameless kitchen genius” decided to serve a fallen chocolate cake by cutting
it into squares and calling them “brownies”, no doubt because of their color. There have been some suggestions that this incident occurred in or near Bangor, Maine, probably because an early, well-known recipe was called “Bangor Brownies”. Brownies are sometimes attributed to a local food authority in Orono in the same state, named Mildred Brown Schrumpf or Mildred “Brownie” Schrumpf, depending upon which source you credit. Others disagree with Better Homes & Gardens and insist that the first known recipe for brownies was printed in a Sears, Roebuck catalog in 1897 (this would imply that brownies were already a popular food in at least one area of the country). Still others cite two recipes printed in a cookbook in 1912. Obviously, there’s little consensus on this topic! No matter whose material you credit, though, brownies have never waned in favor with the American public.

     To which school of brownies do you belong? Are you a fan of thinner, denser brownies, the fudgy type, or do you prefer yours less dense and higher in volume, the cake-style variety? Both have their devotees. You can
achieve different brownie textures according to the amount of flour, use or non-use of leavening, number of eggs, form of butter (melted or creamed), and/or chocolate flavor source you use (cocoa powder, actual chocolate, or both).
     Remember I mentioned that not all brownies are chocolate? If you’ve seen a recipe for the cookies called “blondies”, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Most often, blondies are butterscotch/brown sugar brownies, not chocolate throughout but often containing chocolate chips and nuts. Whereas many chocolate brownies benefit
from a resting period before they’re eaten (if you let them stand from overnight up to 24 hours, the chocolate flavor really has a chance to develop), most blondies are best eaten within 24 hours.
     Brownies have several advantages for the home baker. People adore them; you won’t have to wonder what to do with any surplus because there almost surely won’t be one. Brownies have infinite variations, from the simple (adding nuts or a chocolate glaze) to the more elaborate (brownie tortes and shortcakes) to the wacky (brownie “pizzas”), so you’ll never get bored with them. And if your eight year old suddenly announces after dinner that she needs something to bring to a bake sale tomorrow, or a chocolate craving you just can’t ignore comes on without warning, brownies can provide a quick fix.
     If you say that prepackaged mixes are the way to go where brownies are concerned, bite your tongue!  In October of 2003, I devoted a column on another website to brownie mixes. I bought and baked ten of them, ranging from those you see on supermarket shelves to organic mixes to a few from small-scale manufacturers I found online. Most were too sweet, too salty, or both, with little in the way of good chocolate flavor. Most contained ingredients I didn’t want to be eating, such as propylene glycol, artificial flavors, and/or partially hydrogenated oils (by now, my guess is that most of the trans fat-containing oils have been eliminated from many brownie mixes, but I haven’t checked).  And why on earth would you bother with a mix for which you still need to add ingredients, when just a few ingredients you can easily buy will result in a much better brownie?

     I’ve developed a brownie “mix” of my own, which contains four ingredients and no junk. To make brownies, you add three ingredients to the mix, with the option of “add-ins” such as chocolate chips or nuts. The brownies
end up being deeply fudgy, and just a little chewy, but they’re not cake-like. They have a very deep cocoa flavor and are not too sweet, and they freeze very nicely. Incidentally, I use alkalized (Dutch process) cocoa powder here. Yes, I’ve read the opinions of the “experts” who say that only cocoa powder made from inferior beans is alkalized, but I personally like alkalized cocoa powder better than nonalkalized (also called “natural”). Alkalized cocoa powder has a deep, dark color; it incorporates into batters more easily; and foods made with it taste more chocolatey, I think. The brand I use is Droste, which I can find in a local market; Bensdorp is another producer
with a good reputation, but I haven’t tried their cocoa powder. Whatever brand you use, make sure it has little or no sodium! One brand made by a famous manufacturer in Pennsylvania contains 65 mg of sodium per tablespoon, an absurdly high amount. Can you use nonalkalized cocoa powder here? Yes, you can, but I don’t think the brownies will be quite as good. Depending upon who’s going to be eating them, that might not matter to you, and one point in favor of nonalkalized cocoa powder is that it’s almost always less expensive than alkalized (much of
the good-quality Dutch process cocoa powder in the US is imported).

     A batch of brownies probably won’t change your life, but they can brighten up a day, and they’re sure to be favorites at almost any informal gathering. And with a “no junk” mix on hand, they’re easier than ever. Bake up a batch for your next party or barbecue; whether you serve them by themselves or as a base for a hot fudge brownie sundae, you’ll have a hit on your hands.

---Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary (G. and C. Merriam Co., 1977)





Recipe of the Month:

Brownie Mix

2-1/2 cups granulated sugar
1-1/4 cups unsweetened cocoa powder, alkalized (Dutch process) OR nonalkalized
3/4 cup all-purpose flour, stirred with a fork before measuring
Pinch of salt

Sift or strain all ingredients into a large bowl. With a small whisk or large slotted spoon, blend well until mix is of an even color and no lumps remain. Carefully spoon or pour into airtight storage container. Seal; store in cool, dry conditions (not in the refrigerator!) for up to several months.

To make a batch:

One container of the above brownie mix
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into thin pats
5 eggs, graded “large”, beaten to combine, preferably at room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Optional: 1 cup miniature chocolate chips or chopped nuts---or both!

You’ll need either a 13 by 9 inch pan, lined with heavy-duty aluminum foil (smooth out as many creases in the foil
as possible), OR two foil pans, which specify that they’re “for 13 by 9 by 2 recipes”, even though the pans themselves will be a little smaller than those dimensions. Note that neither type of pan need be two inches tall, as
the brownies won’t be that tall when baked.

Adjust rack to middle of oven. If you’re using foil pans, set one inside the other (you’ll bake the brownies in a doubled foil pan). Neither type of pan needs to be greased.

Pour brownie mix into large bowl; set aside. In small saucepan over low heat, melt butter pats. Remove from heat and set aside to cool slightly. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

When oven is preheated and butter is just slightly warm, add butter, eggs, and vanilla to mix. With wide-tined whisk or slotted spoon, stir about ten strokes to begin combining dry and moist ingredients, then beat about twenty strokes. Scrape bottom and sides of bowl with rubber spatula (this is important, as the mix likes to hide at the bottom of the bowl). Beat batter about twenty more strokes. Batter should stiffen and be a very dark chocolate brown. A few small lumps are OK; if there are many lumps, press them out quickly with the back of a spoon. If you’re going to add chips or nuts, do so now. Stir into batter (do not beat) with as few strokes as possible, just
until evenly distributed.

Turn batter into pan and spread evenly, then push slightly higher in corners and along edges. Bake in preheated oven for 32 to 40 minutes (brownies baked in a 13 by 9 metal pan will require less time), until toothpick or cake tester inserted near center emerges with just a few moist crumbs clinging to it (be careful not to mistake the melted chocolate of a chip for raw batter). Turn pan back-to-front once, about halfway through baking time. Do not overbake! Remove brownies to cooling rack.

Allow to cool completely before serving. Texture and flavor of brownies will benefit from an overnight resting period at cool room temperature if stored airtight. If you used a metal 13 by 9 pan, remove uncut “block” of brownies, still in foil, from pan prior to cutting (brownies baked in doubled foil pan can be cut and stored in the pan, but remove the bottom foil pan to use again before cutting brownies).

Store brownies airtight at cool room temperature for up to 48 hours. Freeze for longer storage.

Yields 24 to 32 brownies


Stephanie (HandOverTheChocolate@comcast.net) has had a strong affinity for chocolate from a very early age. Family members claim that, as a child, she was able to hear chocolate being opened in the kitchen no matter where she was in the house. Stephanie was baking by the time she was 6 and ran a short-lived baking business out of her parents’ kitchen when she was in high school. She has a Master’s Degree in Foods from Virginia Tech but no formal training in cooking or baking. Consequently, she is a home cook, not a chef. Prior to beginning this column, she had written about chocolate for some 8 years.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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