By Julia Pantoga
I’ve made brownies over a hundred times in the past thirty years, so you would think that I have mastered them. I have not. Believe it or not, I am still learning things about brownies—I just learned that using a plastic knife is best for cutting.
I’m anti-mix in general, but I’m really anti-mix when it comes to brownies. For some reason though, brownie mixes are ubiquitous. For that reason, as a policy, I won’t eat brownies unless I’ve watched them being made. A mix might save you some unwrapping of butter and the clean-up of the pan you use to melt chocolate and, in a really insidious mix, there may be no eggs to crack, but it doesn’t save you from preparing the baking pan or clean-up, which is the true work of making brownies.
That said, brownies are trickier than they appear to be. The recipe I like best has only six ingredients. It’s a rookie mistake (which I’ve made many, many times) to think that the fewer ingredients a recipe has, the easier it is. In general, the opposite is true in baking—fewer ingredients means that you have to handle each one precisely.
Brownies are almost entirely butter and sugar—and what do butter and sugar make? Caramel! Just like caramel, if you try to cut brownies too soon after baking it makes a big mess, but if you wait too long, the brownies are impossibly hard to cut or remove from the pan. I’ve ruined entire pans of brownies by not cutting them at the right time and having to soak the whole thing in water in order to salvage the pan. A good brownie recipe will tell you, not only exactly how long to cook the brownies but, how long to let them cool before cutting them. Follow this part of the recipe as closely as you follow the cooking time.
Speaking of cooking time, most recipes say this but I’ll repeat it, DON’T OVERBAKE YOUR BROWNIES. If you bake the brownies for the length of time specified in the recipe, they will appear slightly raw when you remove them from the oven. They are supposed to be that way.
Whenever you are baking, bring the eggs to room temperature. Room temperature eggs absorb flavor better than cold eggs. If you know you will be baking later, take the eggs you need out of the fridge and let them come to room temperature naturally. If you are in more of a hurry though, put your cold eggs in a bowl and fill the bowl with hot water from the tap.
I used to look for recipes that did not tell me to “prepare the pan” in the first step, figuring that if the recipe didn’t say it, I didn’t have to do it. For brownies, in fact for most baked goods, this is just not the case. You always need to prepare your pan. No matter what the recipe says in that first step, this is how I prepare my pan for brownies:
First of all, I use a large shallow pan—a jelly roll pan or a cookie sheet. I like the edge and corner pieces of brownies best, so I figured out a long time ago that I could make all my brownies have that texture if I made them extra-thin.
Next, line the pan with parchment paper. I used to just generously butter the pan, but I’ve found parchment paper to be more foolproof. Anchor the parchment paper by buttering the bottom of the pan lightly before you put the paper in. (I keep a Swiss army knife in my utensil drawer for the sole purpose of trimming parchment paper.) Once you have the bottom of the pan lined with parchment paper, butter the paper and the sides of the pan generously. This is not only to keep the brownies from sticking, but to add flavor, so use good butter for this. Put the pan aside, you have now finished the hardest part of brownie making.
The recipe I use and like best is as follows (with the steps in the order that I do them):
1 cup butter (two sticks)
4 ounces of unsweetened chocolate
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon of vanilla
½ cup flour.
Bring the eggs to room temperature.
Melt butter and chocolate in double boiler, then set aside to cool to room temperature.
Prepare the pan.
Preheat oven to 350°.
Beat eggs and sugar together.
Add chocolate mixture.
Fold in flour, mixing only until blended.
Pour mixture into prepared pan.
Bake on the middle shelf of the pre-heated oven for 25 minutes.
Cool brownies in pan for 30 minutes. (Set your timer—this step needs to be precise.)
Cut brownies into bars with a plastic knife and transfer to cooling rack.
A friend asked me this morning if there is a difference between salted and unsalted butter. There is, but it is fairly subtle. As a rule of thumb, as long as the recipe does not have salt as a separate ingredient, I like to use salted butter.
One year for Valentines Day, I made these brownies with pink strawberry frosting. What a hit! (I used a heart cookie cutter instead of a knife for step 12.) There were plenty of brownie scraps left over, which I crumbled up and put on ice cream.
Julia Pantoga is a writer, a cook and a Quaker. She’s also a collector of quirky domestic tricks and loves to share the wisdom she’s gathered over the years