Sunday, December 23, 2012

The best brownie recipe -- bar none

The best brownies are made with cocoa powder, not chocolate.

Yes, cocoa powder. Hands down, those brownies are moister and more chocolaty than brownies made with melted chocolate.

As a bonus, they're also easier to make. You melt the butter on the stove or in the microwave, then stir in the other ingredients. Just make sure that everything is measured and lined up on the counter, because once you begin to mix the batter, the brownies will be ready to go into the oven in about a minute. And speaking of measuring, I weigh as many ingredients as possible on my digital kitchen scale for accuracy and ease.

Of course, high quality ingredients make the best brownies. Instead of supermarket cocoa powders, I like Penzey's. It's higher in fat than mass-market brands, and I think you'll agree that it's also much more flavorful.

You can make the basic recipe, try one of my variations or create your own. I've made brownies with matzo meal instead of flour for Passover and with coconut oil instead of butter for someone who avoids dairy products. I've flavored the brownies with coffee, mint and coconut, and I've stirred in chocolate chips, chunks of dark chocolate, white chocolate and nuts. If you love peanut butter, you could use miniature peanut butter cups. If you're a fan of chocolate-covered cherries, you could add chunks of candied cherries. As long as the additional ingredients match well with chocolate, I don't think you can go wrong.

Yield: 16 to 32 brownies

3/4 cup (6 ounces) unsalted butter  
2/3 cup (2 ounces) unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch process)
1 2/3 cup (11 3/4 ounces) granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup (4 1/2 ounces) all-purpose or white whole wheat flour
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped, or semisweet chocolate chips
Chocolate Glaze, optional (see variations)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. To remove the baked brownies easily, line the bottom and two sides of an 8-by-8-inch metal baking pan with a strip of aluminum foil, leaving an overhang to use as a handle. Grease the foil and the remaining two sides of the pan.

Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat or in a large glass bowl in the microwave. Stir occasionally, and remove from the heat or the microwave as soon as the butter melts completely. With a large whisk, mix in the cocoa powder until smooth.

Whisk in sugar and salt. Add eggs and vanilla and whisk until combined. Add flour; mix in with a rubber or silicone spatula just until incorporated. With the spatula, mix in the chocolate. Batter will be thick.

Transfer to the baking pan, spreading the batter to the edges. Bake just until a toothpick comes out with a few clinging crumbs, about 30 minutes. Let cool completely on a wire rack.

If desired, spread Chocolate Glaze over cooled brownies. Let set completely before cutting into squares. (Cut plain brownies into 16 squares; embellished brownies into smaller servings.)


Glazed Brownies: Sift 1 cup powdered sugar and 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder into a small bowl. Stir in 1 teaspoon vanilla and up to 3 tablespoons water to make a spreadable glaze. For best results, spread the glaze with a small offset spatula.
Mint Brownies: Add 1 teaspoon natural mint extract to the batter along with the vanilla and eggs. Make the glaze with mint extract instead of vanilla. Spread glaze over brownies, then sprinkle immediately with crushed candy canes.
Mocha Brownies: Add 2 teaspoons coffee extract along with the vanilla or add 1 tablespoon instant espresso powder along with the flour. Make the glaze with cooled strong coffee instead of water, adding coffee extract as desired for a stronger mocha flavor. Garnish each brownie with a chocolate-covered espresso bean.
Coconut Brownies: Substitute coconut oil for the butter. (Virgin coconut oil, as opposed to refined coconut oil, will contribute a bit of coconut flavor.) Add 1/3 cup loosely packed sweetened flaked coconut to the batter along with the chocolate chips. Glaze, then sprinkle with more coconut.
Nutty Brownies: Add 1/2 cup coarsely chopped toasted pecans or walnuts to the batter along with the chocolate chips. If desired, glaze the cooled brownies, then garnish with more nuts.

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