Year of Baking: Thinking outside the brownie box


Up until a month ago, I’d only made brownies from a box.

When I was a kid, from-scratch brownies were as mythical as homemade fudge or cake. We would make cookies and muffins with proper pantry staples, but we almost always had a box of brownie mix on hand.

With two or three eggs and a third of a cup of vegetable oil, my sister and I — even though we were in elementary or middle school — could make something to share at our church youth group meetings on Sunday nights or the Valentine’s Day party at school.

I didn’t think about making brownies from scratch until I was an adult. It wasn’t until a friend of mine insisted that I try her favorite recipe that I even made the attempt. For a person with a deep love of brownies, this is a sad confession, I know.

Her recipe — well, Good Housekeeping’s, actually — doesn’t require creaming together butter and sugar or melting chocolate in a double boiler. You don’t have to dump cocoa into the bowl of a stand-up mixer and accidentally send half of it in the air when you turn the mixer on.

These fudge-like brownies call for a whopping five eggs and two bars of chocolate, which makes them certainly more expensive than a boxed mix. But you can assemble nearly all the batter in the same saucepan in which you melt the butter, and the recipe makes enough for a 9-inch-by-13-inch baking dish.

These aren’t the kind of brownies you’d put frosting on because they taste like you’ve mixed the frosting in. Not everyone loves such rich brownies, but I do. If I’m craving a lighter crumb, I’d rather have chocolate cake with frosting.

To see if my preference is in line with what others are looking for in a brownie, I brought in three different brownies for the newsroom to taste, and this one was the favorite, by far.

The original recipe calls for 4-ounce bars of unsweetened and semisweet chocolate, but I accidentally used a bar of dark chocolate and one of semisweet and much preferred those brownies to the batch I made with half unsweetened chocolate. I did make one round with chocolate chips, just to see if it would work, and the brownies were definitely serviceable, but the melted chocolate wasn’t as smooth and silky.

While researching various brownie methods, I was delighted to find a fudge-like vegan and gluten-free brownie that few of my colleagues guessed was made without eggs, butter or wheat flour. The recipe, from the blogger behind DeliciousAsItLooks.com, uses both cocoa and chocolate chips, as well as rice flour, coconut oil and what’s called a chia egg. That’s a mixture of one tablespoon ground chia seeds to three tablespoons water that you let sit for five minutes so that the seeds can release a gel with a consistency not unlike eggs.

The third recipe I brought for our little taste test was from a recent story in Family Circle magazine about brownies and blondies. It was more like a cookie recipe, where you creamed the butter and sugar with a hand mixer and then added the cocoa and flour mixture. After I’d made the Good Housekeeping brownie, which comes together with a wooden spoon, that all seemed far too complicated.

What I did love about that article was that the writer included half a dozen inspiring mix-in suggestions, such as freeze-dried strawberries, nuts, dried cherries, crushed mint Oreo cookies or pretzels. For all of those, you can mix some into the batter and then scatter some on top before baking.

This idea even works with pairs of ingredients we associate with other desserts, such as miniature marshmallows and crushed graham crackers, or crumbled cooked bacon and pecans. Another revelation: You could also add one-third of a cup of peanut butter, cookie butter or Nutella to the batter.

Like so many baked goods, plain brownies are a canvas for whatever your imagination can create. But I found that I couldn’t unlock that creativity until I started making brownies outside the — well, you know.

Good Housekeeping’s Fudgy Brownies

Super rich, with lots of deep, dark chocolate flavor, these brownies have a moist and fudge-like texture. The sugar cools down the heated butter and chocolate so that you don’t accidentally cook the eggs. Feel free to use any combination of chocolate you’d like. Eight ounces of chocolate chips will work in a pinch but not quite as well as the bars of chocolate you’ll find in the baking aisle. You could reduce the recipe for an 8-inch-by-8-inch pan by using half of a cup flour, a pinch of salt, a stick butter, 2 ounces of chocolate, a cup of sugar, a teaspoon of vanilla and two eggs.

1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 tsp. granulated salt

3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter

4 oz. unsweetened, semisweet or dark chocolate, broken into chunks

4 oz. semisweet chocolate, broken into chunks

2 cups sugar

1 Tbsp. vanilla extract

5 large eggs, beaten

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Line a 9-inch-by-13-inch baking pan with foil and coat with cooking spray. In a small bowl, whisk together flour and salt.

In a heavy, 4-quart saucepan over low heat, melt butter and add chocolate pieces, stirring with a whisk or wooden spoon until smooth. Stir in sugar and vanilla. Add eggs and stir until well mixed. Stir flour mixture into chocolate mixture until just blended. Spread batter evenly in prepared pan. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool completely in the pan on a wire rack.

When cool, lift out the brownies and peel foil away from the sides. Cut into pieces and serves. Makes about 24 brownies.

— Adapted from a Good Housekeeping recipe

Fudge Brownies

These gluten-free, dairy-free, egg-free brownies are nearly analogous to “traditional” brownies, as long as your pulverize your chia seeds well. (I used a coffee grinder.) If you leave the seeds a little chunky, sensitive palates might be able to detect the slightest seed-like texture in the brownie, but I could have fooled the whole newsroom when I served these last week. Applesauce and pumpkin puree are a neutral-flavored way to cut down on the amount of oil you need to add, but if you use a mashed banana, you’ll probably pick up a hint of banana flavor in the final product.

3/4 cup white or brown rice flour

3/4 cup sugar

1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1/2 tsp. granulated salt

1/2 tsp. baking powder

1/3 cup coconut oil, melted

1/4 cup applesauce, pumpkin puree or mashed banana

1 chia egg (1 Tbsp. powdered chia seeds mixed with 3 Tbsp. water)

1 tsp. vanilla extract

1/4 cup mini chocolate chips, divided

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Line an 8-inch-by-8-inch baking pan with aluminum foil and coat with cooking spray.

In a bowl, combine rice flour, sugar, cocoa powder, salt and baking powder. Stir in coconut oil; pumpkin, applesauce or banana; chia egg and vanilla. The batter will be thick, so keep mixing until all the dry ingredients are fully incorporated. Stir in half of the chocolate chips.

Spread batter in the baking pan. Sprinkle remaining chocolate chips on top. Bake for about 25 minutes, and cool before cutting into bars.

— Adapted from Delicious As It Looks (deliciousasitlooks.com)



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