Sometimes simplest is best. We see fancy recipes all over the Internet, chefs trying to outdo each other and come up with the next big craze like the Cronut (cross between a doughnut and croissant), and home cooks changing up classics with new ingredients. It is a lot of fun, but when it comes to comfort foods, I prefer to go back to my tried and true longtime favorites.
One of the benefits of living in the San Francisco Bay Area is that many of the nation’s best cookbook authors and chefs either live here or come through on their book tours. We have the opportunity to meet them, watch as they prepare their favorite recipes and share secrets for baking and cooking success. You can’t believe how much I’ve learned over the years by taking cooking classes from the masters.
I think the first time I met Alice Medrich when she was developing recipes for Scharffen Berger. That day she had made truly amazing chocolate and caramel dipped apples and the taste memory has lasted for many years. That is an impressive recipe!
Alice is so renown for her expertise in anything chocolate that all the pro bakers turn to for her for help when they run into problems. There is no one with more thorough understanding of the intricacies of chocolate. If you need help figuring out what might have gone wrong with your chocolate recipe, all you have to do is pick up one of Alice’s many cookbooks – the answer will certainly be in there!
Today’s recipe is from Alice’s book, “Bittersweet” one of my favorite cookbooks of all time. The recipes are reliable and outstanding, but it is the explanations of why to use which ingredient that fascinates me. I actually own two versions of the book because the first one was so good that when the updated version came out I had to have it too!
Alice helps all of us understand the impact the difference in percentages of cocoa liquor in chocolate has on recipes. In her second version, “Seriously Bittersweet” she guides us through how to adapt a recipe to use the kind of chocolate we have in our pantry, and explains how to temper chocolate in a way that everyone can understand. If you love chocolate, you have to add this book to your library!
For those of you who crave the crispy crust that breaks when you bite into the perfectly baked brownie, Alice’s brownies will give you that and much more. These brownies depend on cocoa powder instead of melted chocolate for two reasons. Because virtually all the fat in these is from butter and not cocoa butter, and all the sugar is granulated and not the superfine milled version they use to make formed chocolate, you not only get the most intense chocolate flavor and a soft center, but the crunchy candy crust on top. The better quality your cocoa powder, the better the brownies!
There are a ton of recipes for brownies floating around the Internet, but this is the one that I go back to time after time. I love the crunchy top layer that covers the chewy, decadent center. And when I had to switch to gluten-free, this recipe is a simple adaptation because there is so little flour in it. It’s almost more like a flourless cake than a brownie, and that is one dessert I crave over and over!
Jane’s Tips and Hints:
Yes you can do this all by hand – I did and you can too! This mixture is very sandy going into the pan and then the sugar melts and pure heaven comes out!
Use your favorite gluten-free flour blend (my favorite is here). If the blend you are using already contains xanthan, another gum or psyllium husk powder, you do not need to add more.
- 10 tbsp (1 stick+2 tbsp) unsalted butter, cut into slices
- 1-1/4 cups granulated sugar
- 3/4 cup + 2 tbsp high quality unsweetened cocoa powder
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
- 2 cold large eggs
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour, gluten-flour blend, or fine rice flour
- 1/4 tsp xanthan gum (only for gluten-free; leave out if your blend already contains xanthan)
- 2/3 cup walnut or pecan pieces (optional)
- Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 325°F. Butter a 9-inch square baking pan and line the bottom and sides with parchment paper or foil, leaving an overhang on two opposite sides. This "sling" will help you lift the brownies out of the pan.
- Combine the butter, sugar, cocoa, and salt in a medium heatproof bowl and set the bowl in a saucepan with 2-inches of barely simmering water. Stir from time to time until the butter is melted and the mixture is smooth.
- Remove the bowl from the heat and set on a wire cooling rack until the mixture is only warm, not hot. You can comfortably hold the bottom of the bowl in the palm of your hand. If the mixture is too hot, you risk scrambling the eggs.
- Stir in the vanilla with a wooden spoon. Add the eggs one at a time, stirring vigorously after each one. When the batter looks thick, shiny, and well blended, add the flour and stir until you cannot see it any longer, then beat vigorously for 40 strokes with the wooden spoon or a rubber spatula. Stir in the nuts, if using. Spread evenly in the lined pan.
- Bake until a toothpick plunged into the center emerges slightly moist with batter, 20 to 25 minutes. Let cool completely on a rack.
- Lift up the ends of the parchment or foil liner, and transfer the brownies to a cutting board. Cut into 16 squares.
- Chocolate Note from Alice: Any unsweetened natural or Dutch-process cocoa powder works well here. Natural cocoa produces brownies with more flavor complexity and lots of tart, fruity notes. I think it's more exciting. Dutch-process cocoa results in a darker brownie with a mellower, old-fashioned chocolate pudding flavor, pleasantly reminiscent of childhood.
- Yield: about 16 brownies - or cut them smaller for perfect single bite treats!
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